Embracing Imperfection

Published date01 May 2016
Date01 May 2016
© 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com).
DOI 10.1002/jcaf.22162
Embracing Imperfection
Tim Chartier
Every March, a large
amount of national atten-
tion in the United States
turns to NCAA Division I
men’s basketball. It hits its
frenzy on a Sunday, in fact,
Selection Sunday when the
initial pairings of teams are
announced for the March
Madness tournament. This
single elimination tournament
takes 68 teams from approxi-
mately 350 schools that play
men’s basketball at the high-
est level. After three weeks
of play, a national champion
is crowned. By the Thursday
after Selection Sunday, fans
have made their predictions
for who will win every game in
the tournament, from the first
round to the game that decides
the national champion. These
predictions create a bracket
and must be complete by the
tipoff of the first game on that
Friends, colleagues, and
even strangers complete brack-
ets and in doing so compete for
pride, office pool winnings, or
even thousands of dollars. In
2014, Warren Buffett insured
a billion-dollar prize for any-
one who could create a perfect
bracket for the tournament. By
the end of the second round (or
48 games), none of the over
8 million brackets had perfectly
predicted the 2014 tournament.
Using analytics to create
successful brackets is an active
area of my research. If we con-
sider only one year of data, my
work sifts through about 5,000
games involving 350 teams.
Analytics enables us to find
patterns and trends that might
otherwise be overlooked or
seem insignificant.
With the billion- dollar
prize looming in 2014, I
received considerable media
attention. In the ESPN online
bracket pool, my methods out-
performed over 97% of over 4
million brackets in 2009 and
over 99.9% of over 5 million in
2010. When the press and pub-
lic learned of our success, they
wanted to know more. Among
the various media interviews,
I appeared in the New York
Times and USA Today and on
the CBS Evening News.
There is an irony in this
attention. The phone kept ring-
ing in the hopes of creating
that perfect bracket. Yet on my
end, I’d quickly note that even
with my work a perfect bracket
is unlikely—very unlikely.
If a fair coin toss chooses
the winner of every game,
then your chances of a perfect
bracket are 1 in 9 quintillion.
That’s 9 with 18 zeros after it.
To get a sense of that number,
if you could complete 3 billion
brackets per second and never
repeat what you have already
created, it would take almost
100 years to create 9 quintillion
With such horrible odds,
why use analytics? First, my
methods do not flip a coin.
Historically, people have been
about 70% correct in predicting
outcomes in the tournament.
So, on average, you have a 70%
chance of predicting the out-
come of a game. In this case,
the odds reduce to about 1 in
5.7 billion as opposed to 1 in
9 quintillion.
Now comes a key part
of using analytics. Suppose
my methods give you a 1%
improvement in accuracy. Your
odds just reduced to 1 in about
2.3 billon. If the accuracy
increases to 72%, your odds
drop to under 1 in 1 billion. It’s
still unlikely that my methods
will yield a perfect bracket,
but the odds alone show the
notable improvement.
Data analysis will rarely
perfectly describe a phe-
nomenon. Customers will
make an uncharacteristic
purchase, a stock will fluctu-
ate for an apparently random

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