Use Game Theory To Win Your 2019 March Madness Bracket Pool
This is a guest post from TeamRankings, a site that provides data-driven NCAA bracket picks and tools.
In NCAA bracket pools, there is no prize for getting a certain number of picks right. You win your pool if and only if you score more points than everyone else.
Put another way, you don’t automatically win a bracket contest if you pick at least 75% of games correctly, or get three of your four Final Four picks right, or have a perfect 32-for-32 First Round.
However, in order to win, you do need to pick at least one (and most likely several) games right that your opponents get wrong. This is such a foundational element of bracket pool strategy that it’s amazing how many bracket pickers just don’t get it.
When It Takes More Or Less To Win A Bracket Pool
As purveyors of bracket advice, we constantly field questions like “How many Final Four teams did you get right over the last five years?” In a vacuum, success rates like that are relatively meaningless statistics, because winning a bracket pool is all relative.
Imagine you’re in a standard-rules bracket pool this year (1-2-4-8-16-32 points awarded per correct pick, by round), with 500 entries. The Elite Eight round just finished, and the Final Four consists of three No. 1 seeds plus a No. 3 seed.
With an outcome like that, you’ll probably have to get three Final Four picks correct to have a shot at winning the pool. 499 opponents is a lot, and a bunch of them will have picked mostly favorites in the Final Four.
Consequently, it’s a pretty safe bet that a couple of your opponents will have caught some luck and gotten three Final Four teams right, and/or have the most likely winners as their finalist and NCAA champion picks.
Of course, that’s not always how the tournament plays out. Unexpected outcomes happen fairly often, a fact that many bracket pickers seem to forget on an annual basis.
As recently as 2011, for instance, the Final Four consisted of teams seeded No. 3, No. 4, No. 8, and No. 11. In a year like that, just getting one or two Final Four picks right might be more than enough to take first place in your bracket pool, especially if it’s a smaller pool.
Winning Occasionally Beats Almost-Winning Frequently
At the end of the day, what matters most is how often you win pools, not how many correct picks you average. (Here’s our track record, btw.)
If you got zero Final Four picks correct in four out of every five years, but won a 500-person pool every fifth year, you’d sure be doing terribly picking Final Four teams overall. But your long-term profits from playing in bracket pools would be amazing.
This dynamic has big implications for bracket picking strategy, because the picks your opponents make impact the odds your bracket has to win your pool.
Imagine you live in Chapel Hill, NC, and pick No. 1 UNC as your champion this year. As it turns out, 75% of your opponents make the same pick. That really sucks for you, because your odds to win a prize will be lower than they could have been, had you picked another champion.
So just like in DFS, you need to consider the picks your opponents are likely to make — aka, the percentage ownership of every team in the tournament, round by round — in order to maximize your edge in your 2019 NCAA bracket pool.
Every NCAA Bracket Is Different
Exactly how you apply game theory to your bracket pool picks, though, depends on the specific characteristics of each year’s bracket.
If the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in a bracket aren’t particularly strong, then there will likely be a great opportunity to pick an undervalued lower seed to make a deep run. By doing so, especially in larger pools, you’ll likely increase your odds to win.
If that’s not the case, things get more nuanced.
Especially in the standard 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system, the later round picks carry very high point values and leverage. In a tournament field in which the top seeded teams are all clearly the best teams, picking a sleeper team to win it all — even in bigger pools — may actually be a bad decision from a risk/reward perspective.
Sizing Up The 2019 Bracket
In 2019, as fate would have it, the top seeds look really, really strong. As far as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds go, the NCAA Selection Committee did a great job.
Here’s the best proof of that. As of Monday afternoon, here are the eight teams with the best futures odds to win this year’s NCAA tournament, according to one of the most respected offshore sports books:
No. 1 Duke
No. 1 Gonzaga
No. 1 Virginia
No. 1 UNC
No. 2 Michigan State
No. 2 Michigan
No. 2 Tennessee
No. 2 Kentucky
The verdict? If you deviate too far from picking the top seeded teams this year, you’ll be taking some huge risks. The chance that a worse-than-2 seed wins the 2019 NCAA tournament is much lower this year than in many past years.
The 2019 Bracket: By The Numbers
Let’s put some numbers on that claim for good measure. According to our tournament simulations as of Monday morning, out of all the No. 3 seeds or worse in the 2019 bracket, No. 3 Texas Tech has the best chance to win it all this year. But their title odds are just 2.4%.
For comparison, going into last year’s tournament, No. 3 Michigan State had a 5.9% title odds, more than twice as good. In 2016, No. 4 Kentucky had 6.4% title odds, almost three times as good. In 2014, No. 4 Louisville had a 10.9% title odds, over four times as good.
In fact, based on our pre-tourney projections since 2011, this is only the third season in which no team seeded No. 3 or worse has had at least a 3% chance to win the title.
Perhaps even more telling is this stat. According to our simulations, there’s a whopping 68% chance that a No. 1 seed wins the NCAA tournament this year. That’s the single highest percentage chance of that outcome occurring in the last 9 years.
Last year, in comparison, the odds of a No. 1 seed winning the tournament were only 42%. (No. 1 Villanova ending up doing it.)
You get the point. So what are the implications for winning bracket strategy?
In short, the successful application of game theory to this year’s bracket will likely center more on figuring out which of the top seeded teams are the right ones to “bet on” in your bracket, and less on identifying the sleeper teams that still have a great chance to win it all.
(Side note: Figuring out the best picks for your pool involves more than just game theory. For example, understanding the implications of your scoring system is another big input. If your pool awards upset bonus points if you pick a No. 2 seed to beat a No. 1 in the final, that could make the math favor you picking a No. 2 seed champion this year.)
Game theory based decision making can be very difficult in practice, but it’s how the most skilled bracket pool players get their biggest edge.
The simple fact is, it’s not always in your best interest to pick the team that you think is most likely to win, if that team is also a very popular pick. At the same time, you need to be keenly aware of the risk/reward tradeoffs of picking less popular teams, because those tradeoffs change based on the specific characteristics of each year’s bracket.
Our NCAA Bracket Picks product crunches all the numbers necessary to make the optimal pick decisions. If you’re interested in seeing the bracket picks that will give you the best chance to win your pool this year, please check it out:
Since 2017, TeamRankings subscribers have reported winnings over $1.1 million in bracket pool prizes.