You will find them everywhere, huddled over tally sheets, weekly memos, newspapers, computers with on-line updates: Grown men and women arguing the prospects of Pepperdine, Campbell, Robert Morris, and other geographically obscure institutions.
This is the time of year when the nation's office workers come together in a spasm of NCAA college basketball unity.
Never mind that the Maryland criminal code clearly states that any sports bet is out of legal bounds. Those who know say NCAA betting pools are rampant in law firms, financial establishments, restaurants, media companies, (The Baltimore Sun included), and some of the state's chief law enforcement agencies. Why, even the State House has had an NCAA basketball tournament pool, according to a former insider.
"Everybody on the whole floor, from the director to the janitor literally is in the [office] pool," says a University of Maryland at Baltimore scientist and Duke University graduate. Wagers are $2 -- affordable for the approximately 28 scientists, graduate students, technicians and other participating staff.
But don't expect government types and other professionals to go on the record about their modestly illicit passion. Asked about the penny-ante heat mounting in their workplace, they dribble the ball, hesitate, get defensive, consider fouling out.
These anonymous gamblers stress the small stakes of their bracket pools, unlike high rollers, such as the New York professionals who reportedly met recently to bid big money for ++ participating NCAA teams. Within that well-heeled group, the guys who "own" the championship team stand to win $500,000. On the minds of local bracket pool participants as well, are the big losers, including the three Wall Street hot shots fired last year for trading teams as they would stocks and bonds for large sums of money.
And in Rhode Island this week, two state employees were arrested for running a $5-a-bet office pool on the NCAA basketball tournament after police received an anonymous tip.
NCAA tournament pool participants in Maryland shouldn't worry -- too much. "Basically we don't have the time to fool with stuff like that, says Lt. Fred Davis, operations officer for the criminal investigation division of the Maryland State Police.
If a complaint is made, "Yes, we would have a legal obligation to check with the local jurisdiction and see if they're are looking into the matter," Lieutenant Davis says.
Most basketball pool participants are "occasional social gamblers," enjoying the camaraderie of the office place, says Dr. Valerie Lorenz, director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling in Baltimore. However, office pools can make "involvement in gambling more of an on-going thing," she says.
In inter-office pools, all employees begin as equals, scouring stats and holding to well-honed formulas as they scribble in brackets the teams they pick to win each game of the men's tournament. Pool rules may be simple or very intricate. It's a game of chance and skill -- and upsets, such as UTEP's victory over Kansas, throw everyone for a loop.
From an initial 64 college basketball teams, competitors are whittled down to 32, to "Sweet Sixteen," to the final four, and ultimately, to the two teams who will duke it out (no pun intended) in the April 6 championship game in Minneapolis.
With each round, a new, and fragile, office hierarchy emerges. Anyone can be a winner. At stake, usually, is $100, maybe $500, made of up $2 or $5 wagers and, of course, bragging rights.
Paul Baker confesses to an "unending 45-year love affair with basketball," and explains the annual call of college ball. "The Super Bowl, the World Series, they're professional events. This is an amateur event that spreads itself out over a three-week period. It also involves 64 schools, so that you have literally a national constituency," says Mr. Baker, a frequent guest on Stan the Fan Charles' evening sports program on WCBM.
For the past four years, Mr. Baker, an insurance agent with the Morgan Financial group in Lutherville, has tossed an elaborate breakfast to inaugurate the NCAA tournament. This year, 70 businessmen, athletic-department types and sportscasters gathered to make their bracket picks and pal around with basketball buddies.
Did the hefty price of admission to the breakfast include bracket pool participation?
"Our breakfast just celebrates the tournament . . . it's not for
gambling purposes at all," Mr. Baker says. Pressed further, he says, "Gambling is a big American industry. Everybody gambles, just ask Michael Jordan," in reference to the basketball great's alleged betting habit.
"There are pools in every law office," says one Baltimore attorney who savors the spring ritual and its attendant etiquette. It's "totally for the fun of it," she says.
"It's $5 for a month's entertainment," says another attorney at a ,, large Baltimore law firm with a long-running pool. Many of the firm's attorneys "attended basketball powerhouses such as Duke, and follow the tournament anyway," he says.
Women as well as men are avid pool participants, the same attorney observes. Among attorneys and staff, there are "women who are very basketball knowledgeable. Unlike football and perhaps, maybe even baseball, basketball doesn't seem to have the pure macho image," he says.
"This is a tradition here," says another NCAA tournament buff who serves as a co-commissioner for a pool at the radio and television station where she works. It stirs up the office molecules, she says. "It's like the first thing in the morning, 'How'd you do? How'd you do? How'd you do?' "
Pool participants rely on different formulas to pick game outcomes. Not all of them are as elegantly simple-minded as the method once devised by a Chicago woman who picked all Catholic school teams to win and clinched her pool at work.
The attorney with the large Baltimore law firm has a more involved strategy. "First, you bet ACC teams. Second thing, get USA Today and its 64-team analysis and you read it thoroughly and you handicap just like a horse race. And then after you've done that, the deciding factor is the coach. Never underestimate the coach. The fifth factor is the league. Know which conference they played in. Some are very tournament-oriented."
Now that the NCAA women's tournament is broadcast nationally, female players are also gaining a frenzied following and have inspired at least one betting pool in Virginia run by Doug Doughty, a sports reporter for the Roanoke Times and World News.
The University of Virginia's women's team is faring so well that Mr. Doughty's women's pool has more than doubled in size this year. Last year, his 8-year-old daughter Allison won the pool. Her formula? "She looks at the capsules in USA Today," Mr. Doughty says.