As news spread in January that billionaire Warren Buffett would insure a $1 billion contest payout to anyone who fills out a perfect men’s NCAA tournament bracket this month, emails started piling up for a DePaul math professor.
Jeff Bergen is the math guru news media outlets seek for dizzying odds.
“As an educator, I wish I could get the point across that it’s not hard to compute these things,” says Bergen, director for the master’s in math education program at DePaul.
A high school math student can come up with the numbers, he says.
“Here’s some simple calculations,” he begins in a YouTube video created two years ago that has more than 80,000 hits.
There are two possible winners for each game and there are 63 games outside the preliminary round, he explains. Two to the 63rd power equals more than 9 quintillion, the number of ways the bracket can shake out.
Therefore, you can say the chance of picking a perfect bracket is one in 9 quintillion.
Jot down 9 and follow it with 18 zeroes (don’t forget the commas) and you get 9 quintillion.
In a CNN appearance, an anchor jokingly challenged Bergen on whether a quintillion exists. It comes after quadrillion, which comes after trillion.
The attention Bergen has received in recent years each March as the tournament nears — earlier this year because of the $1 billion challenge — seems to amuse him.
He is the author of a 683-page textbook, “A Concrete Approach to Abstract Algebra: From the Integers to the Insolvability of the Quintic,” and gives lectures around the world.
Yet, if not for the NCAA tournament, he would probably work in relative anonymity. “I wish one out of 10 hits on YouTube was for the book,” he says, deadpan.
Back in January, about the time Buffett made news with his offer, Bergen was in the middle of reviewing applicants for a tenure track assistant professorship at DePaul.
Interview requests from news media began streaming in. CNN sent a car for a remote studio interview. The Wall Street Journal wanted an interview initially through Skype, but he was unfamiliar with it and short on time to set it up. He and other faculty members were, after all, narrowing their candidate search to six from 500 applicants.
Figuring out the chances of something happening, whether it’s for Powerball or a basketball tournament, is basic probability. That’s not Bergen’s specialty, but a hobby stemming from his love of numbers.
This season he may end up with more publicity than the DePaul men’s basketball team, which has almost no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament with a record of 11-18.
“I want to demystify mathematics,” Bergen says. “Anyone who’s interested can learn this. . . . The numbers get large, but it’s simple mathematics.”
Some calculators do not have screens long enough to display a quintillion. That’s why our eyes glaze over.
It’s also why Buffett is smart to insure the bet.
“He must be getting paid for an insurance policy that he’ll never pay out on,” Bergen says.
When office pools are distributed in two weeks, those who know a thing or two about the tournament’s history and, for instance, know that the worst-seeded teams have never defeated No. 1 seeds, have much better odds of filling out a perfect bracket, Bergen notes in his video.
Their chances of pulling it off are one in 128 billion.