As Mark Twain once said, "To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence." Those words might part countless young gamblers with their money, but they should be heeded during March Madness. Because it takes the perfect blend of ignorance and confidence to win an NCAA tournament pool.
Personally, I find that the more I know about college hoops, the worse I do in my family's March Madness pool, a tradition as old and storied as old stories themselves. In years past, I would sit there for hours with my bracket, mulling the significance of Alonzo Mourning's shot-blocking skills or Rick Fox's outside shooting, mulling the impact of a player such as Chris Webber, who could turn the tide of a whole tournament on a good night but could trudge off the floor, shoulders slumped, on a bad one.
Did any of that knowledge help? Nope. Even as I tortured myself over the relative merits of UNLV and Arizona State, pondered the inside game of North Carolina against the outside game of Kansas, embraced the upset potential of Michigan State while disputing the continued dominance of Indiana, each year my brackets were full of frustrated X's and scribbles and scratch marks.
Meanwhile, my brother's dog, Tool, who picks teams based on whether he likes their mascot, usually places higher than me each year. You may think my family would balk at my brother's tendency to fill out a bracket for his dog. Not so. In fact, thanks to my brother, we all fill out brackets for our pets now, and the competition between us has taken a backseat to the running debate over which of our pets is the wisest in the ways of college hoops.
For years, my mother's Jack Russell, Chloe, was top of the pet heap. To put it delicately, Chloe had an anger management problem. She disliked almost everyone she met and signaled her distaste with a high, shrill bark, usually paired with a nasty snarl. My mother must've used Chloe's aggression as inspiration to pick aggressive teams for her bracket because Chloe's odd mix of ignorance and confidence put her close to the top of the rankings for several years running.
Tool, on the other hand, only seems to do well when teams with dog mascots (Georgetown Bulldogs, Boston U. Terriers) go far. Last year's UConn Huskies win was a serious boon to Tool's overall record. But Tool really hates cats, so he tends not to do well when Kentucky or Arizona (both Wildcats) dominate. Tool does feel passionately about birds and furry varmints, however, which bodes well for when the Kansas Jayhawks, Ball State Cardinals or Wisconsin Badgers look poised to take the title. And if UNLV ever decides to revamp its image by renaming its Runnin' Rebels to the Runnin' Squirrels, watch out.
Interestingly, after years of filling out brackets for our pets, it's become more obvious just how arbitrary the science of bracketology really is. After years of beating myself up for failing and failing and failing to accurately predict the outcome of any given tournament, I now find solace in the fact that my dog Bean, who is afraid of the vacuum cleaner and believes men with beards are the devil's hand servants, has a better record of predicting upsets than I do.
If you think I'm wrong, ask people who carefully study all the teams before filling out their bracket how many times they've won their pool. Those people who pay close attention to who is gaining steam at the end of the season, who has suffered a few hard losses going into the tourney, who is poised and ready to pull off a big upset? They don't win. You know who wins? Crazy people who throw darts at the wall or flip a coin or let their imaginary friend decide.
So, in honor of those crazy people, here are my Top Six Crazy Methods for Filling Out Your Tournament Bracket:
1. Pick the team with the best mascot: If it can work for my brother's dog, it can work for you. Look deep in your heart and ask yourself, do you prefer Buckeyes or Jayhawks? Do you like Wildcats or Spartans? Sometimes when you ignore wins and losses and just imagine a person in a giant cat suit and another person in a giant bird suit, it's easier to make a choice. Even if that choice is usually wrong.
2. Get a kid to help you with your bracket: What, you really think those basketball experts are going to give you the wisdom you need to win that pool? You're wrong. Look at their past brackets and you'll see that those guys are just as unlikely to pick the Final Four teams as you are. Instead, why not just ask a kid, "So, what do you think, Wake Forest or Texas Tech?" Kids always have strong preferences. If a kid doesn't immediately spit out an answer, try asking about team colors. "Yellow or red?" The kid will answer "Yellow!" with a look that says only a complete imbecile would dream of picking red. No one demonstrates the unparalleled power of ignorance and confidence quite like a young child.
3. Pick your own private Idaho State: Maybe you're a big fan of powerhouse teams such as UNC and Kansas, but that shouldn't make you ignore a little team with heart. Just think how much swagger you'd have right now if you had picked Butler or Virginia Commonwealth to get to the Final Four last year. Nothing will give you more of a kick in your step than accidentally favoring a team with no chance in hell of making it to the championship game. Big teams with great season records are just boring. And who even wants to win by predicting the predictable? Far better to take a flier on a team of scrappers: Creighton? Harvard? Who knows? (With only one loss in the regular season, Murray State no longer qualifies as a Cinderella team. Too bad!)
4. Pick only teams from the Big Ten to win: The Big Ten is top of the heap this year with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State all looking strong going into the tournament. But don't tell your competitors that because that will sound completely rational. Instead, say that Tom Izzo appeared to you in a dream and told you a team from the Big Ten is going all the way this year. That's the sort of maddeningly stupid but high-percentage prediction that will set you up for some heavy-duty gloating on championship night. And let's be honest, isn't gloating what bracketology is all about?
5. Get a copy of your spouse or significant other's bracket and do the opposite: Speaking of gloating, this method won't help you win, but it will make that tournament pool much more delightful. Every time your spouse or S.O. fails, you succeed! You haven't had this many opportunities to rub his nose in it since that time he missed your Aunt Ruth's wedding anniversary party because he fell asleep watching "Law & Order" reruns. (Keep in mind, this also means that every time he succeeds, you fail. If you're paired up with a big gloater, this method might be ill-advised.)
6. Every time your gut tells you who will win, pick the other team: If you've been paying any attention at all, you know your gut is the enemy. Each time you fill out a tourney bracket, you regret half of your choices, don't you? And how did you make those choices, nine times out of 10? By going with your gut. Simple math indicates that if you didn't go with your gut and did the very opposite of what your gut would like you to do, nine out of 10 of those errors would become correct predictions. So stop following your gut and start using your gut to predict what won't happen.
Now that you have an arsenal of stupid bracket-filling tricks at your disposal, you might not win immediately, but you will enjoy yourself a lot more. As seasoned veterans who have been filling out tournament brackets for decades recognize, bracketology isn't really about winning the pool; it's not even about basketball, really. It's about showboating, mind games and emotional torture.
Once you finally win a pool -- not through an informed, honest effort, but through some utterly stupid or demented method -- this will become clear. Because nothing quite compares to the sweetness of tormenting everyone at the watercooler by telling them you won by picking your favorite mascots.
That's your one shining moment right there.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness."