The good drpainosaurus won this year's Closest to the Pin contest in impressive fashion. He shared or held the lead outright in nine of the contest's twelve rounds. Had he placed wagers based on his predicted scores, he would have won 91% of the time betting the spread and 64% of the time betting the over / under. You could make a living on numbers like those!
Drpainosaurus is currently is a doctoral student at Yale, with an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Skidmore. We thought it would be interesting to learn a bit more about the secret behind his success predicting Villanova scores, and more importantly, getting his prediction on Villanova's first round game on Thursday against Lafayette. He was gracious enough to accommodate us. Please read on to see what we learned.
Q. You never attended Villanova. How then did you became such a devoted Villanova basketball fan?
A. My Dad is a professor at Villanova, so I grew up following the team and going to games when he could get tickets. I've cared about Nova basketball in some capacity since the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson era, which, in saying it, makes me feel really old.
Q. What part has mathematical theory played in your success at Closest to the Pin?
A. Probably only a little with regards to success. There's a lot of luck involved, and I ran really well. I would say that I have very good sense of how games work from thinking about them studying math and also philosophy. And it's always beneficial to understand the problem and construct some basic strategy. Closest to the pin works like this:
We have all of the possible outcomes of the scores, which are Positive Integers x Positive integers. There is a relatively small section of these outcomes where the scores might land something like (40, 40) to (100,100), or maybe more if we're pounding St John's. So there's roughly 3,600 outcomes, which happen with varying frequencies. To get points you need to be: closer than everyone for 3pts, all but one score for two points, and all but two scores for one point. You win by having the most points total on the season. What this means is: properly playing the game has less to do with guessing what you think the score will be and more to do with guessing what you think closest to the score will be (and in practice these things are quite different). The name really says it all.
Q. How do you go about making your picks? Do you consider the predictions of the other players in arriving at your own prediction?
A. Other people's predictions are the basis for almost any guess. I more or less pick according to a balance of (1) getting as many [likely] locations as possible (I did take Nova every game after all) and (2) blocking off sections of the game space. The way points are distributed (very evenly) makes it less necessary to avoid other guesses, This makes my picks closer to "normal" than they might be if there were some sort of more top heavy distribution.
Q. Had you placed $100 bets in the 11 games for which you entered a serious prediction based on your predicted score vs. the Vegas line, you would have won $1,200. Specifically, you would have won 10 of 11 times betting the spread and 7 of 11 times betting the over / under. That's pretty impressive and certainly more than just luck. Have you ever applied your skill to reap financial gain by placing bets?
A. I am a gambling man (I used to play poker on the internet pretty seriously before the government stopped letting us), but I actually have never bet on Nova games because I don't like betting when I have a personal interest.
Q. You picked a ‘baseball score' in the final round (picking Nova 4, St. John's 0). Both NovaKG and NovaDave could have caught you with a hole-in-one (6 points). Why did you not make a serious prediction in that final game?
A. Hubris. I figured the fun of taking a victory lap was worth more than the chance that I would get ‘hole-in-one'd.' (I actually considered making an identical selection to whichever of their guesses was most likely, to prevent that person from having any chance of passing me, but that felt, um, evil.)
Q. Past champions have never won the contest in subsequent seasons. Will you be back next season to defend your crown and, if so, what do you think your chances are of repeating as champion?
A. I will probably play again next year. I watch nearly every game and this gives me something to procrastinate with. I don't like my chances of winning again next year.
Q. Now the question everyone wants to know: What will be the final score in Villanova's NCAA opening round game against Lafayette on Thursday night?
A. We win easy but probably don't cover. I'll go 79-60 Nova.