Where did brackets come from? How is the NCW tournament bracket evolved and when did the tradition of filling them out start? To answer those questions, we’ll have to go back to 1851 in London. In the wake of the industrial revolution, the United Kingdom wanted to show off its latest innovations in technology, design, and culture. So they formed a royal society and organized the first-ever World’s Fair. Calling it the great exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations or the Great Exhibition for short. The Great Exhibition was a huge success. There were 13000 total exhibits, including a large scale printing machine, the first-ever voting machine, and the largest diamond ever found. And people came from all over the world to see it with an average of 43000 visitors every day for over five months. Howard Stanton, a 41-year-old Englishman, saw the Great Exhibition as the perfect opportunity for some much-needed change to his favorite sport, Chess. Some kind of liked chess. At one point, calling it the most perfect intellectual pastime ever invented. And he was also extremely influential in the community. Renowned as one of the world’s best chess players at the time and responsible for promoting the stunting pattern of chess pieces, that is still the required style for competition.
Chess itself was becoming much more popular in the 19th century. And with that popularity came a need for the standardization of rules and the desire as thought and put it, to test by actual conflict. The just value of rival styles of chess strategy. In other words, who was the best chess player in the world? So Staunton established a committee and extended invitations to some of Europe’s best players for the first-ever international chess tournament. The tournament ended up with a field of 16 men to whittle that group down to one winner. Staunton paired up against each player for an opening-round match.
The losers of those eight matches would be eliminated from contention and the winners would be paired again because there was no official ranking of skill and because this entire concept was fairly new. The pairs were not created by seeding, but rather by chance. Stanton chronicled this process in a book on the tournament. Eight white tickets and eight yellow ones numbered respectively. One through eight were put into the ballot box, he wrote. Whoever drew number one of the white tickets had to play with the party. Who does number one of the yellow and so on? Throughout. After the first round, the surviving players drew tickets again for fresh adversaries to the semifinals. The mode adopted for pairing the combatants will, it is hoped, bring the two best players in the tournament into collision for the chief prize. While the tournament was successful, the single-elimination format with preset matchups proved a poor fit for chess competitions and was largely abandoned for round-robin play. But the format quickly spread to other sports, accompanied by a new nickname based on the visual similarities between the single-elimination tournament’s layout and a certain punctuation mark
A bracket: Now let’s jump forward a few years to 1939. After seeing the inaugural National Invitational Tournament Crown, the college basketball champion in 1938, Ohio State coach Harold Olsen urged the National Association of Basketball Coaches to follow suit and establish a postseason tournament of its own. Eight teams accepted invitations from the NBC that year. And what better way to take those eight teams and get one champion than a single-elimination tournament? The field was split into two halves, the East and the West, with the winner of each region meeting at Northwestern’s Payton Gymnasium for the first-ever national championship, which Oregon won 46 to 33. The NCW would take over the tournament in 1940, but they would keep the format virtually the same with an 18 field until 1951 when it expanded for the first of many times in 1985. After many iterations, the tournament expanded to 64 teams and the most recent change came in 2011 when the first four was added. But while the bracket itself was firmly established as part of the NCW tournament, bracket picking had yet to go popular for a few reasons.
The tournament’s bracket was pretty volatile there, much of its first half-century, with the format number of teams changing multiple times throughout, leading to some brackets that were far from user friendly. For instance, in 1959, the tournament consisted of twenty-three teams with nine receiving first-round byes.
That certainly limits the appeal for the casual fan. What’s more, in the 1960s and 70s, UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years. There wasn’t much thrill in picking a bracket when everyone knew who was going to win it. But in 1975, what would be UCLA is the last championship of that run.
The tournament expanded from a field of twenty-five to a much cleaner 32 teams. And in 1977, 88 people gathered at a Staten Island bar called Jody’s Club Forest with a novel idea after the field for the 1977 tournament was announced. Each person would fill out a blank bracket, predicting who would win every single game of the tournament. Points would be awarded for correct picks, with the value increasing in later rounds, and whoever had the most points at the end of the tournament would win the pool. They were onto something.
By 2006, more than a hundred and fifty thousand people were filling out brackets at Jody’s with entries coming from as far as Hawaii and Iraq. In the 90s, the adoption of the Internet paved the way for massive online bracket games. Now, every year, tens of millions of fans fill out brackets online and millions more keep it traditional with print brackets. And as those millions of fans fill out their brackets every march, though, they may not know it. They have one man to think, a 19th century Englishman who liked chess.