Drilling his own river ice pays off for Alaska man

May 2, 2012, 3:26 AM

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – And the winner is … a man who drills his own holes in a frozen river to study the best conditions for hitting the jackpot in Alaska’s biggest annual guessing game.

The hands-on research paid off handsomely for Tommy Lee Waters in the Nenana Ice Classic.

The Fairbanks man bested more than 250,000 other entrants in a contest to see who could guess when the ice would give way on the Tanana River in the tiny community of Nenana, about 55 miles south of Fairbanks.

Organizers announced the winner Tuesday, but Waters won’t receive his winnings until June 1. This year’s jackpot was a record $350,000. Of that, $252,000 will go to Waters after federal taxes, Ice Classic manager Cherrie Forness said.

Waters was the only person to correctly guess that a tripod set up on the river would tip over and stop the official clock at 7:39 p.m. April 23 _ which happened to be his 55th birthday.

Waters, a mental health technician, has won in two other classics. But he had to split the jackpot in those contests with multiple people making correct guesses. Not this time.

For the latest classic, he went so far as to buy a guess for each minute of each hour for the winning afternoon.

“That’s the way to do it,” Waters said Tuesday.

Waters also spent time drilling holes in the area to measure the thickness of the ice. Altogether he spent $5,000 on tickets to submit his guesses and spent an estimated 1,200 hours working out the math by hand.

Try as he might to not be influenced by his birthday, the numbers kept landing on that date.

“I’m just glad it’s over, so I can get started on next year’s classic,” Waters said.

Forness couldn’t recall any other three-time winner of the classic.

For $2.50 a guess, ticket buyers try to predict when the ice will go out. The jackpot usually is about $300,000.

The game has been a tradition since 1917, and records show the ice goes out anywhere between April 20 and May 20.

The black-and-white tripod, which actually stands on more than three legs, trips the clock when it shifts on the river banks as the ice melts.

Waiting for the ice to move is hugely popular in a state that doesn’t participate in lottery drawings or have any sanctioned gambling beyond bingo and pull-cards.

The classic has come a long way since it was founded by engineers surveying for the Alaska Railroad 95 years ago. They charged $1 a guess as to when the ice would go out, and the winner pocketed $800.

The game is operated by a nonprofit organization, and after splitting out the winners’ take, expenses and staff salaries, proceeds help charitable organizations like the city’s library and senior center, a Fairbanks rescue mission and Special Olympics Alaska.

Waters said he has long played the game seriously. He said he usually spends around $2,000 on tickets, but last year bought only 10, coming within a minute of a correct guess.

That prompted this year’s hardest push ever.

“I take this very seriously,” he said. “It wasn’t just a guess.”

Such was his zeal in the latest classic that he skipped a visit to Hawaii waiting for the ice to move.

With his winnings, he is now mulling ways to spend some money. He might get a new car or a motorhome.

One spending target is certain for Waters, who said it was cold and snowing in Fairbanks on Tuesday. That visit to Hawaii is in order.

“I’m going to rebook the trip,” he said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Drilling his own river ice pays off for Alaska man