The Impossible Allure of the Perfect Bracket

Care to see the full number written out? It’s 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. And if you need help with the commas, a quintillion equals a billion billion.

But basketball games tend not to be true tossups. Accounting, then, for the fact that some matchups are easier to predict, the probability drops to one in the tens or hundreds of billions, depending on who is calculating them — still far, far less likely than hitting the Powerball jackpot, for instance.

“Perfection’s basically impossible,” said Richard Cleary, a mathematician at Babson College. “It’s out of the question.”

In 2019, Gregg Nigl, a neuropsychologist from Columbus, Ohio, went on what is accepted to be the longest verifiably perfect run in N.C.A.A. men’s tournament history. Submitting a bracket he had filled out in a few minutes — and under the influence of cold medicine — Nigl predicted the first 49 games correctly before seeing his streak snapped.

By then, he was a celebrity in the sports world. While his streak was intact, Buick paid for him and his son to fly to California to watch late-round games. He found the whole experience surreal. While strolling through the Newark airport to catch a connecting flight, he saw his face beaming out from a row of televisions in a sports bar.

Nigl considers himself a lucky person. In 2001 on a beach in Hawaii, he spotted Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, his favorite band. He shook Vedder’s hand and even got a picture with him. His head, back then, was spinning: What could be luckier than this?

Eighteen years later came his tournament run. People pester Nigl today for his yearly picks, believing he might have some special insight. They ask him what cold medicine he took when he mapped out his magical bracket. (It was Tylenol, “Cool Burst” flavored, for the record.)

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