March Madness

04/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

He obtained a degree in Political Science from Columbia University, went on to be elected the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, ultimately graduated magna cum laude - and we all know how the rest of the story goes. Yet, Barack Obama is no more capable of producing a sound NCAA tournament bracket than the rest of us. In fact, having come out of the first weekend somewhere around the 3rd percentile nationally, he's much worse.

Of course, the question is not really who did he pick, nor is it what's with the ACC bias and Pac-10 hateration. The question -- or perhaps rather, point of fascination -- is how the President of the United States found time to waste on the job along with the rest of us, chasing the madness of March.

I watched intently as President Obama walked Andy Katz through his 64 picks on Wednesday night. He explained with a great degree of confidence why Duke is a fine institution, but doesn't have what it takes to win it all -- and why rival UNC will emerge victorious. The President didn't hesitate as he knocked off team after team, almost entirely protecting the higher seeds each time (despite layman's knowledge of that most obvious of pitfalls). And yet, as quickly as he moved through the bracket, it was clear he'd thought about this for more than a minute. In fact, it humors me to imagine that while Obama dissected pages of oh-shit-information his economic advisers had left on his desk, he was distracted for just a moment by the match-up between Butler and LSU.

It is estimated that America loses $1.7 billion in productivity every year to March Madness, as people like the President and me (hey, at least I'm in good company) sort out their brackets for pool entries. Even those who pick their teams solely on the basis of mascot or color have to dedicate some time. I should know -- I've set up a bracket for my dog almost every year, and let me tell you, it's easier said than done to determine who, in a head-to-head match between a Bulldog and a Husky, my dog would favor. Go a step further and seek out team records, tournament history, freshman vs. senior breakdown, coaching staff, and X-factors like streaky shooters and defensive specialists, and you've just lost hours of your life, which you'll never get back.

Now to this point, I've only called out the pool entrants. But what do we make of the pool managers? Clearly, there are varying degrees of dedication here, from those who simply take what CBS Sportsline or ESPN has to offer and add a cost of entry; to those who make things more interesting with bonus points for upset victories and round-by-round awards. Then there's my friend Chang.

I used to work with Chang, who's since gone on to pursue a fine law school education. Chang is a smart guy -- a Stanford grad with a degree in something I avoided with great purpose. He's also creative and quick-witted -- a dangerous recipe for Pool Management Disorder (PMD).

PMD can strike anyone with too much time on their hands who is otherwise unchallenged by or uninterested in their actual job or studies. It starts innocently enough as a clever twist on the tried and true tournament pool, and quickly unravels in the form of lost sleep, excessive and overly detailed email updates, and countdowns to the following year -- beginning in April. Allow me to illustrate:

Chang not only manages a traditional pool with some extra flavor...he seeds his entrants to create the "Bracket of Brackets." The seeding algorithm is unknown to anyone but Chang, if even Chang. But it has something to do with how well you know college basketball, how your prior brackets have performed, and how cool he thinks you are. Mind you, this Bracket of Brackets requires exactly 64 entrants (this year he added the ill-fated Obama to round it out, as a 1-seed, no less). I haven't yet figured out what happens if there are more than 64, but I am certain Chang has a plan for them, too.

Then in addition to the Bracket of Brackets, he runs the "Players' Pool." The goal here is to pick the ten players to achieve the highest number of points in the tournament, with bonus points awarded based on seed. This equation is at least straightforward: (Number of points) + (2 x seed).

You can't make this stuff up.

Right now, I'm on a flight back home to San Francisco from Vegas, where I spent the past three days watching and betting on the games. My showing was poor: 2-5-1. So I actually need the Bracket of Brackets and Players' Pool to reassemble my pride. Last year, I finished in the Final Four and won big in the Players' Pool (thank you, Stephen Curry). This year, I'm still in good shape as a 3-seed with nine of ten players left, but more importantly, Chang made a promise:

I want my 1-seed.