This should be one of my busiest days of the year.
I run the Star Tribune newsroom NCAA pool and Monday should have been the day when the envelope on my desk starts being filled with $5 bills and IOUs from my work colleagues … and their kids … and people who used to work at the Star Tribune … and an assortment of other folks who someone in the pool knows in one way or another.
The guy who used to run the Star Tribune cafeteria, when there was a cafeteria, still plays. He lives in Hawaii. There’s a guy who hasn’t worked here in more than 20 years and always picks Syracuse to win it all. My former tax guy and his son play. Sometimes, I have to send an e-mail after the first week’s asking one of the pool leaders, “I hate to ask, but who are you?”
Understand this: Participating in the Star Tribune Sports Department Investment Club isn’t as intimidating as it might sound. Here’s a secret: People you have relied on over the years for their insights on college basketball are just as likely to finish in the bottom 10 as among the top 10.
Speaking of 10, the co-champion last year was a 10-year-old girl. She turned a 2,140% profit on her $5 investment.
I’m a geek for this. I like games of calculated chance, but more than that, I like putting them together and keeping an eye on the outcomes. The pool forms used to be 11x17 photocopies that I tallied by hand and triple-checked, with each round worth more than the last. A few years ago, I found a small website that customized a pool so I could award bonus points for games won by 12th through 16th seeds. They get a small cut and the rest goes to the top four finishers. No tiebreakers. You’re not going to lose money in my pool over the combined final score.
When we reach the Sweet 16, players can fill in different combinations of winners on the website and see what the final results would be, making their rooting-interest choices easier. For me, that’s high-end geek stuff.
If you’re wondering whether I need to do this on the down-low, the answer is that the 10-year-old winner from last year is the sports editor’s daughter.
But running pools underground is an issue in some places.
A guy I know teaches in a suburban school district and inherited a pool a couple of years ago from a guy who retired after more than 30 years of running it. The pool is pretty much an open secret, but the teacher didn’t want to be named because he said the district’s superintendent wouldn’t be cool with that kind of publicity.
Some years, more than 100 people joined, and the teacher explained one of its values: “After school on the first Friday of the tourney, a group of us would meet at Joe Senser’s and watch the games together. As a young teacher that was how I got to know some of the high school teachers. … It wasn’t just teachers, sometimes it was their spouses, or other family members.
“We [also] have a Masters pool that’s now in danger of being canceled too. We have a green jacket [that goes to the winner and] some have gone so far to wear the green jacket for our yearbook photos. We even do a Masters champions lunch, where past winners eat a meal chosen by last year’s winner.”
March Madness pools are about the camaraderie as much as the winning. Most of us are in it for a seat at the table more than the chance at profit.
I’m apparently well past my March Madness prime. In fact, it’s been downhill since 1999, when I was in two pools, with identical picks until the title game. If Duke won, there would have been a healthy triple-digit payoff from one. If Connecticut won, I had first place in the other, with a significantly smaller payday. Led by the former North High star Khalid El-Amin, UConn won in an upset. Winning felt like losing.
I won another NCAA pool back in the 20th century but it took until the third try to get paid because the pool runner’s first two checks bounced. Running my own pool solved that issue, and also saved me from entering pools where people are allowed more than one entry, one of my recreational investing annoyances.
The e-mails would have started coming in a few days ago, making sure I was still running the Star Tribune pool. Sunday night, the brackets and pool password would have been e-mailed to all of last year’s investors. A few days before the tournament was canceled, a new employee from another department introduced herself after finding out I was the office pool guy. (This is clearly a good hire, because she also asked whether we have a golf pool.)
So here we are. The state of the college basketball nation is that we don’t have a pool and, for many of us, we don’t have an office in which to be distracted because we’re working from our basements and dining room tables and just-assembled office desks.
We all know this is a small thing amid all that’s going on.
But it’s also one more sign that stuff is pretty rough right now.