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.

I knew the lowest odds quoted for a perfect bracket were from Duke professor Ezra Miller, who estimates a skilled handicapper has about a billion-to-1 chance. Buffett, naturally, would quote the lowest possible odds so as to keep everything in his favor. So, if Buffett were insuring against one person doing it, at a billion-to-1 odds, he would charge about $1. But, because 15 million people are expected to try, it should be about $15 million, tops.

He and his twinkle and his lopsided haircut paused. And then he said, "You're good, but I'm not saying."

Let's say one fan got all the way to the final game unblemished. Would Buffett offer that fan a buyout?

"Well, I'm not sure Quicken would let me do that," he says. "But if it were me, I'd definitely offer a deal. ... Mathematically, it should be half of the $500 million -- $250 million. But it's all relative. If I offered you $100 million to call off the bet, I bet you'd take it. Because $100 million to you is about the same as $250 million. But $100 million versus zero? That sounds a lot worse."

Come to think of it, he's right. Everybody this side of Mark Zuckerberg takes the buyout.

(Odds of you winning a $100 million lottery: 125,526,770 to 1.)

And if the fan refuses the buyout? Then Buffett wants to be sitting right next to him or her during the championship game in Arlington, Texas, on April 7.

"I think they should put us on a split-screen TV. And on every shot, every free throw, they'd show us, and one of us won't be happy."

This man has pulled off some crazy sports stunts before. He played LeBron James in H-O-R-S-E and 1-on-1. He faced Bob Gibson. He caddied for Tiger Woods.

(Odds of a wife cheating on a husband: even.)

He had a huge golf-ball-selling business in college. His Berkshire owns the Spalding sports equipment company and Brooks running shoes, to say nothing of 10 percent of Budweiser. His office is packed with balls signed by history's greatest athletes. And he owns NetJets, which celebrity jocks eat up like Dairy Queen, which he also owns. He appears at Creighton basketball games in face paint. And he's a nutso Nebraska football fan.

But this one is his masterpiece. Here's how it works:

• One entry per person.

How will Quicken keep people from sending in thousands under fake names? "Because you also have to give a cellphone number," Gilbert says. "I can't imagine someone is going to have a thousand cellphones."

• Employees of Quicken and Berkshire are ineligible.

"But I'd love to get [President Barack Obama] to fill one out," Buffett says. "And if he wins, he can pay off some of the national debt."

(Odds of you becoming president: 10,000,000 to 1.)

• No cheating.

"There are two big risks in this," Buffett says. "One, somebody does it. Two, somebody tries to screw us." He worries about somebody hacking into the system and changing a bracket after the final game. Or having somebody on the inside do it.

(Odds of your identity being stolen: 33 to 1.)

Or somebody fixing games, as the NCAA has hinted it's worried about? "Nobody on earth can fix 63 games," he says.

To guard against all that, Buffett has hired IBM, possibly because Berkshire is its largest stockholder at 6.3 percent. "If some guy from IBM wins, I'll be a little suspicious."

And with that, my hour was up, and America's most massive-scale gambler showed me to the door.

"Safe flight home," he said, happily.

(Odds of Buffett offering me a free NetJets ride home: 0.)