Before you hand over $10 to that obsessive-compulsive guy running your March Madness office pool, pause and take a deep breath.
You don't want to just give away tomorrow's lunch money, do you?
If you want to win some major money -- and show up your co-workers in the process -- it's important to disregard your instincts and take an analytical approach to the season's most frenzied office activity. (The tourney will will cost employers $1.2 billion in lost productivity nationwide from workers checking scores, researching teams and reading articles like this one, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.)
Based on our unbiased research compiled by talking to the experts, here's our list of tips to win your office pool:
First of all, be sure that you don't make the most common mistake around, one that will probably end up bouncing at least half of your pool competitors.
Don't pick all the favorites by choosing all No. 1 seeds to make it to the Final Four. You might do well but you probably won't win.
"It's hard to win if you're picking the same teams as everyone else," says David Breiter, the co-author of "How to Play Office Pools If You Must," one of the most well-respected theses on the subject.
In addition to separating yourself from the rest of the betting field, picking all the No. 1-ranked teams is simply bad strategy: The country's top-ranked team going into the tournament (the University of Florida, this year) has won just three of the last 20 NCAA tournaments, and only once in the last 40 years did as many as three No. 1 seeds make the Final Four.
Other than that, the variety of tips and hints on how to beat the system range as far and wide as their sources -- from statistics professors to the guy at the end of the bar.
1) Figure out the rules of your office pool -- some require picking winners in every bracket, some go by the point spread, some award more points for picking dark horses. "If you can get the person running the pool to choose a system that rewards taking chances, then you're better off than the standardized system," says Breiter, who's twice won his office pool, in which the number of points awarded after every round is calculated by multiplying the winner's seed by the round number.
2) Look for depth of NBA-ready talent. From 1994 through 2006, 10 of the 12 national champs claimed at least four future NBA players, says Adam Stanco, a sportswriter for CollegeHoopsNet.com. (This year, teams like Florida, Georgetown and North Carolina fit the bill.)
3) Don't pick a team to reach the Final Four if it lost in the first round of a postseason conference tournament, say the folks at OfficePool64.com.
3) It might seem obvious, but it's good advice for risk-takers: Pick all of the No. 1 seeds to win their first-round games -- since 1985, no top-seeded team has lost a first round game.
4) Go backward by picking the tournament's overall winners first, then the Final Four, and so on. That way it helps you choose winning teams by comparing them to everyone else, rather than just looking at individual games, says Edward Kaplan, a professor at Yale School of Management.
5) On the other hand, some take the opposite approach, and advise choosing the winners bracket by bracket, because you may overlook an early round game that could skew the results.
6) Torn between two equally ranked teams? Pick the one that has a regional home-court advantage, has played in tougher leagues, and isn't favored by others ("Remember that the point is to beat your competition, not to make perfect bracket picks," says Tom Federico, the co-founder of TeamRankings.com. "If two teams are evenly matched, it increases your odds to pick the team that others don't favor.")
7) That team on a hot streak that just survived a grueling conference tournament? Don't pick it. "Teams that come into the tourney on a winning streak under the long term underperform similarly seeded teams," says Federico. "They just emotionally accomplished one of their major goals."
8) By that logic, it makes sense to pick a team that recently lost right before the tournament. They'll be motivated enough to go through the six games on a mission.
9) Look for teams with good low-post defenders. They help teams win games by shutting down guards who penetrate the lane and missed shots make for easy transitions on the other end, says Stanco. (Good news for Stanford, Southern Illinois and Ohio State)
10) Avoid teams that blew out the competition all year long and never had to come from behind.
Lastly, don't forget that it's a game so pick a team that you actually want to root for. "Have fun and pick a team that you like," says Breiter. After all, it is a game.