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Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans are going to make this year’s March Madness – the NCAA men’s division college basketball tournament – a whole lot madder. The two financial moguls are offering $1 billion dollars (yes, billion) to anyone who can make ‘the perfect bracket’ by predicting all of the winners of the 64-team single-elimination tournament.

Buffet is putting so much money on the line with the ‘Billion-Dollar Bracket Challenge’ (the biggest single cash prize in sport’s betting history, though still just 1.5% of the business magnate’s estimated net worth) that it’s as if he has thrown down the gauntlet before the sports statisticians of the world and, in his best impression of Dirty Harry, asked: ‘do you feel lucky?’

Buffet knows that there is little risk that he is going to have to write a billion-dollar check any time soon. A few mathematicians have already crunched the numbers to show that someone guessing at random has a one in 9.2 quintillion (quintillion=18 zeros) probability of getting the 63 match winners right. Of course, knowing something about the tournament structure and the current field of Division I competitors should help increase one’s chances. But even the best machine learning algorithm informed by all the results of NCAA history would probably only shift the chances from astronomically improbable to hugely improbable.

The movie Moneyball demonstrated the value of statistical thinking in sports and helped to give a number of statisticians a seat at the table of some of the most prestigious professional teams and sports networks. Despite the increasing respect and influence analysts have gained in sports, Buffet’s challenge is a humble reminder that even the most sophisticated statistical magic can still not predict the winner of a competitive match in any sport with near certainty, let alone the winners of 63 such matches. But perhaps by the end of the challenge we will have a better understanding of why prediction in sports is so hard. A challenge this bold is bound to stimulate a lot of mental energy and theories about how to crack the prediction puzzle, which, even if no prize winner is crowned, will be a boon for sports science.

Up for the challenge? The Billion-Dollar Bracket Challenge is open to US citizens of voting age. One entry per competitor will be accepted beginning March 3 and, if the perfect bracket isn’t entered, the top 20 imperfect brackets will earn $100,000. More details can be found here.

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