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Little bit of madness goes a long way; Basketball fans come up with strategies for going after the big win.

Byline: Andrew M. Cagen

Kristin Ridick had developed an immunity to March Madness. Then the bartender at the Banner Bar & Grill, 112 Green St. in Worcester, found out about Quicken Loan's Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge and she got bitten by the bracket bug again.

"I can win a billion dollars? Why not?'' Ridick mused, and then explained the scientific system for completing her NCAA basketball brackets she has used in the past.

"I always pick the places with the best weather,'' she said.

Ridick decided once again to join a national March pastime, which in past years has dominated office conversations and is acquiring a huge presence on the Internet.

Mark Erlich, a part owner of the Perfect Game Sports Grill and Lounge, 64 Water St. in Worcester, provided a guesstimate that 60 percent of Worcester's offices and 80 percent of bars are running NCAA pools, although Erlich is quick to mention that the Perfect Game is not among them.

Nationally, the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimates that 50 million Americans will participate in March Madness office pools, and companies stand to lose at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament.

Because of her fiance and her brother, Ridick is prepared for the obsession of March Madness, especially during this week's opening rounds, when everyone can nurture hopes of having a winning bracket.

Her fiance, Tom Sullivan, is assistant basketball coach at Burncoat High and played at Auburn High, Salem State and Worcester State. He said he makes sure not to let the games divert him from the duties of his full-time job, which he declined to identify but said it was difficult.

"It's really tough,'' Sullivan said in a telephone interview. "When the games are on, you want to pay attention to them.''

Sullivan participates in a bracket pool with his friends, who formed the Champions Group on the CBS Sports website so they can keep score easily.

For those wanting to take advantage of his expertise, he picked Michigan State to beat Louisville in the final, with Florida and Arizona joining them in the Final Four. There was no hometown discount and he did not pick the University of Massachusetts to survive the first round, although he thought the Minutemen were a good team.

Sullivan offered this tip: Pay attention to the teams' defensive strengths when making selections.

Whether his approach will be more successful than Ridick's warm weather strategy remains to be seen.

Her brother, Tim Ridick of Worcester, is a lieutenant in the Worcester Fire Department, and for the first time in a number of years is not organizing a pool.

Tim Ridick was promoted this past year and has been deluged with calls from firefighters wondering if he somehow forgot to give them brackets to fill out.

He said the pools at the Grove Street fire station gave the firefighters a diversion during downtime, although it never interfered with their duties -- fighting fires or otherwise.

"It gave us something to root for, to shoot for,'' Ridick said.

This year, Ridick is shooting for the billion dollars in the Quicken contest and he's picking Florida to beat Wichita State in the final, with Michigan State and Creighton losing in the semifinals. He recalled giving UMass one victory, maybe two.

Ridick had his own set of tips: Never pick a No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1 -- it has never happened. And "you have to take a chance on a No. 13 or 12.'' It sees like that always happens.

Some office pools operate by pure chance and others are games of skill, although it seems like they might as well be chance.

Jake McAdoo of Worcester, who declined to say where he worked, recalled that he "threw $10 in the pool'' and filled out a bracket that had Syracuse defeating Duke in the final.

So will he do better than a patron at the Banner who is randomly assigned four teams -- in his case, Creighton, UMass, Providence and Western Michigan? The patron, who didn't want to be identified, put $25 in the pool along with 15 other contestants. That comes out to $400, with $275 going to the winner, $100 to the runner-up, and $25 to the pool's organizer.

There is a segment of the population almost, but not quite, oblivious to March Madness.

Consider Jim Pepin of Worcester, who works for the United Way.

"I don't follow sports, whether it be football, basketball, lacrosse, anything,'' Pepin said at Woosta Pizza, 407 Main St.

Then he mused, "You know what I want to find is a randomly generated bracket on the Internet -- just to see how I would do.''

Is March Madness good for the bar business, even though it's bad for productivity? There are mixed opinons.

Angel Rodriguez, whose wife owns The Center Bar and Grill, 102 Green St., said, "Worcester is a great sports town, but not a good college sports town.'' He did not expect a surge of business from people wanting to watch the games in a bar atmosphere.

On the other hand, the Center will be open at noon today, rather than 4 p.m., to catch any March Madness business that may walk through the door. There are 16 games today and another 16 on Friday, all of them televised. The Center normally is open at noon on Fridays anyway.

Similarly, Erlich sees Worcesterites as much bigger followers of pro sports, especially the Bruins.

But the Perfect Game has scheduled an NCAA pool group of 25 this week. The Perfect Game has been trying to create more varied events, such as a paint-and-drink Tuesdays, in which patrons can see if their artistic skills improve with the assistance of an instructor and alcohol.

Meanwhile, Kristin Ridick had no doubt that the bar would be packed today and Friday at the Banner, which is usually open at noon anyway.

Are all these pools legal? In Massachusetts and most other states, not if you have to pay money to enter them.

Tim Connolly, spokesman for the Worcester District Attorney's Office, said local police departments have discretion whether to pursue illegal gambling.

"In the seven years since I've been here, no police department has prosecuted'' a case for running a March Madness pool, he said.

And neither has there been a March Madness pool at the DA's office, he said.

Contact Andrew Cagen

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Author:Cagen, Andrew M.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 20, 2014
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