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March 28, 2010

I’ve never participated in a bracket pool during the NCAA men’s college basketball championships. I would like to, but no one’s ever approached me. How do you get involved in this thing? Is there a dark alley somewhere, an unmarked door beneath a flickering bulb, a secret knock? Do I require some password to a shady underworld, where illicit bets are booked?

 “Bracketology” is the art and science of predicting the field in the NCAA basketball tournament, or any situation where a large number of seeded competitors face off in rounds of sudden death competition until only one is standing. Brackets offer a convenient means to sort and rank the world from worst to first, anywhere a “field” exists.

 A few examples of competitive “fields,” non-basketball variety include:

  • Hobo Names
  • Uses for Bacon
  • Victims of Bad Rhinoplasty
  • Jennifer Aniston’s “Greatest” Film Roles (ironic quotes intended)
  • The Relative Merits of Binomial Nomenclature
  • Zombies vs. Cheerleaders

Before you dismiss the bracket as a gambling ploy devised by money-grubbing oddsmakers, consider this: bracketing is in our biology. Bracketing is the origin of the species. Those who picked Neanderthals over Homo sapiens saw their bracket busted pretty early on.  Fans of wooly mammoth were crying in their beer when elephants prevailed. Unicorns versus horses? I think we all know how that turned out. A lot of tween-aged girls lost their milk money. The point being, we are born to bracket. Survival of the fittest. Evolutionary theory is little more than bracketing writ large.*

 *Creationists – don’t feel left out! The authors of the Bible also enjoyed a good bracket smackdown. Cain vs. Abel? Cain for the win! David vs. Goliath? My money’s on the underdog! Noah vs. the Marine and Shipbuilders Local 506? Union busted! If you’re betting in the Old Testament bracket pool, an insider’s tip: pick God to take it all.

 As proof, I offer my seven year old son. Many of his games take the form of one-on-one, sudden death challenges. When the Webkinz come out, they typically face off in arbitrary brackets; pelican against white fox, iguana meets crab, Doberman versus penguin, the competition fierce and unrelenting, the criteria for triumphing vague and capricious, until only one stuffed animal remains. The same is true of Playmobil toys and Matchbox cars. Where did he learn this style of play? Not from NCAA basketball, I assure you. It came to him naturally, an innate understanding and impulse to play out the drama of natural selection hard-wired in his DNA. Either that, or we let him watch too much reality television. Come to think of it, whenever a Webkinz is eliminated, he ceremoniously ushers it off the playing field with the words “the tribe has spoken.”

I don’t know about you, but in my house when we talk “brackets” we’re talking about decorative hardware. Brackets are the things that hold up bookshelves. To get in on that other kind of action, the kind that involves misdemeanor gambling and point spreads and the chance to walk away with a wad of tax-free dollars, you have to run in the right social circles. You might have noticed how, during the month of March, your co-workers spend an inordinate amount of time huddled around the Snapple vending machine or out by the cigarette hut, speaking in hushed whispers, their fingers fumbling with what looks like bad origami. These are no paper cranes or flowers or stars. These are brackets.

The point is, brackets are community-builders. Like those patchy little inner-city garden plots where strangers come together to grow root vegetables, brackets bring people together from different walks of life. Your brother-in-law’s friends may be rowdy alcoholic hooligans or sad, middle-aged divorcees, but you can find some common ground when a bunch of you pick Duke to win it all. Phyllis from accounting and Chuck from maintenance might normally ignore you with a discipline bordering on contempt, but the three of you have one thing in common: West Virginia (or “Virgina,” as Chuck likes to pronounce it). See, we’re really not that different after all.

If you’re bothered that your community has become more Facebook than reality, if you’re concerned that your “friends” have been reduced to a gallery of thumbnail-sized photos, if status updates and quippy comments have taken the place of meaningful conversation, then find yourself a bracket pool. It could save your life, figuratively speaking.

Bracketology – the point is to triumph. The point is to come out on top. And make some new friends while you’re doing it. It’s too late for the NCAA college basketball tournament – better luck next year – but there must be other, less popular brackets you can get a piece of. Hockey, maybe? Dancing With The Stars? I’m sorry I can’t be of much help here. As I said, I’ve never participated in one myself. Never been invited. I guess I’m a bit of an outcast, in that way.  No one tells me anything. Maybe I’ll start my own bracket. Zombies vs. Cheerleaders. $5 to join. You have to play to win.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara permalink
    March 28, 2010 6:10 pm

    One word. {GREAT!}

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