Bracket of the gods


OMAHA, Neb. -- Warren Buffett, 83, practically runs down the hallway of his simple little 14th-floor office to greet me. Not his secretary. Not his receptionist. Warren Buffett himself.

Buffett has a young heart and young ideas, but today he is practically bouncing off the Notre Dame-style "Invest Like A Champion Today" sign over the door to his office. He offers you a Coke, possibly because his Berkshire Hathaway holdings is its largest stockholder at 9.1 percent.

(Odds of you dying in a vending machine accident: 112 million to 1.)

Take, for instance, his latest $1 billion bet that you can't pick a perfect NCAA basketball bracket this year.

(Odds of you picking a perfect bracket with zero basketball knowledge: 9.2 quintillion to 1.)

"It could happen," Buffett says. "If I bet you won't roll snake eyes, it will happen, but over the long haul, I'll come out ahead."

(Odds of you rolling snake eyes: 36 to 1.)

Buffett's National Indemnity Company is taking the risk on the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge. If you win, you can take $25 million a year for 40 years or a $500 million check right away. But Buffett is betting you won't. He wrote the policy himself.

"I just sat right in that chair," he says, pointing to his packed little office, "and I did the calculations. Took me about 10 or 15 minutes. I hope I did it right."

If he didn't, he's out a billion. But considering he's worth an estimated $53.5 billion, nobody's going to hold any telethons for him.

(Odds of an American becoming a billionaire: 790,000 to 1.)

"I don't really care if somebody wins or not," Buffett says. "All I'm concerned with is charging the right price. This has been my life. I knew as a young man that if I kept writing one deal after another deal, and charged the right price, in the end, I was going to make money."

And, oh Lord, did he make money, partly by charging the right price against catastrophes: hurricanes, earthquakes, mud slides. He paid out $3 billion in Hurricane Katrina, $2 billion on 9/11, but overall, he's been billions ahead.

(Odds of your car being insured by Buffett's Geico: 10 to 1.)

Besides, as he says, "If somebody wins, we'll play again next year. Believe me, we'll play again next year."

His partner in all this is Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.

(Odds of you making it to the NBA: 6,864,000 to 1.)

Gilbert stands to gain as many as 15 million new sales leads with the registration process alone on this thing. "You can't buy that kind of PR," Gilbert says. "We love this."

Buffett stands to have a whole lot of fun watching it unfold. More than anything -- even more than playing his precious ukulele -- Buffett loves making bets that tilt toward his wallet. When his three kids were growing up, he paid them their allowance in dimes. That's because he had a 10-cent slot machine in the house. "By the end of the night," he says, "I'd have most of my money back."

(Odds of you hitting a slot-machine jackpot: 262,144 to 1.)

Buffett won't reveal what he charged Quicken for the premium, but I took a shot.

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