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  A FEW POINTERS ON WINNING THE NCAA OFFICE POOL.  
   
   
 

You began with nothing more than a crumpled $10 bill and a dream. You sweated over your brackets, scratching out your selections with a worn pencil nub while downing coffee from a 7-Eleven Super Big Gulp cup.

You labored long into the evening -- the frantic phone calls from your worried spouse going unanswered. Around 2 a.m., you began seeing oddly-colored animals, and various shapes not found in nature. Spiders! Crawling all over me! Spiders everywhere!

They laughed at your picks. Laughed! Bastards. You'll show them all.

Then, Thursday morning, and you crawl from your spot under the dining room table, where you had made a fort out of quilts and Seagrams-7 bottles. It's tournament time! You blink, weary-eyed, at the flickering images on the screen.

You start off well -- Duke wins. But sadly, you've once again picked Purdue. Canisius also falters. Idaho State crumbles before your eyes. By 9 p.m., it's clear: your brackets were a house of cards.

By Friday, your picks resemble San Francisco after the '06 quake. Smoke wafts from the burnt wreckage of Valparaiso. Firefighters labor to extinguish Georgia Tech. All that's left standing of Arizona is the crumbling southern facade. Marist? Just a pile of bricks.

You've been ranting for 12 hours now, and your family has fled during the night. You've destroyed much of your furniture. The police are outside, making various demands by bullhorn. They lob in tear gas. You gasp for breath, crawling toward the VCR ... "Must ... tape ... Seton Hall game ..."

Then, blackness.

Yes, March Madness is upon us once again, and hope is eternal. To non-believers, what is about to occur is known as the NCAA Basketball Tournament. But to the faceless millions involved in office pools, it is much more than that. It is your reason for living -- for dragging yourself through the final, cold, muddy days of winter toward the warm sunshine of blessed spring. So many shall fill out brackets. So many shall die. And invariably, your pool will be won by Damian, the vaguely effeminate guy from the mail room who didn't even know it was basketball season until he saw thew pool flyer. It's sad, really.

Where did the rest of us go so horribly wrong?

But there's good news. There is a way to beat the system. Following is a complete set of instructions on how you, finally, can win the office basketball pool. Yes, you (put down the bag of Funyuns, fatso, and pay attention). There will be no complex mathematical equations to memorize. Tools are not required. You will need a clean set of bib overalls, a 100-watt light bulb and a pair of comfortable shoes. Okay (deep breath). Let's begin.

First, let's debunk a few myths about the typical NCAA basketball office pool.

Myth No. 1: "To win, I have to make a couple of really exotic, off-beat picks."

Wrong. Take a look at any winning bracket since the tournament began, and I'll guarantee that it will be pretty standard. (Also there may be beer stains). The guy who picks Bradley to upset Duke in the first round is just throwing away those first-round points. Even if Bradley should somehow prevail (and a 16th seed has never beaten a 1 since the tournament began, in the year 271 BC in ancient Greece), you know that some other weird choice is going to sink the guy somewhere down the line. Poor, pathetic dope. How we loathe him.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you have to distinguish yourself from everyone else. Make your picks as though you were the only one in the pool. In fact, to practice, run a pool that includes only yourself and the family dog. String together four or five consecutive pool titles to build your confidence, and then join in at the office. (Note: Will not work with Lassie).

Myth No. 2: "My sheet must be nearly perfect, or I can't win."

No, that's also wrong, and frankly I resent your attitude. I've seen winning entries with more dents than the Monitor and the Merrimack. It all depends on the disposition of the tournament at hand; if you've lost a lot of points, rest assured that others in the pool are in the same boat. Be loose and flexible when making your picks -- you're not exactly taking the SAT's here. (The same goes for most of the athletes).

Myth No. 3: "The winner is decided in the first two rounds."

No! (Sigh). Please place your brackets on the table and exit the room quietly -- you should be filled with shame. The guy who won our office pool last year -- a Panamanian immigrant who thought he was filling out a visa extension application -- had an average first two rounds. He didn't claw his way to the top until the Final Four. And, he didn't even choose the correct national champion. Complete, utter, freaking dumb luck. It will never happen again in a million years (mainly because we turned him in and had him deported).

Well, that's it. Follow these simple guidelines and you, too could win the office NCAA basketball pool.*

Poor sap. Um, I mean, good luck!

* = Results may vary in Florida.