Drilling river ice pays off nicely for Nenana Ice Classic winner

Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press
Tom Waters, the sole winner of this year's Nenana Ice Classic, poses in front of an Ice Classic poster Tuesday afternoon, May 1, 2012. Waters will take home over $250,000 of the $350,000 jackpot after taxes are withheld, only the 11th time in 96 years that there has only been one winner. Eric Engman

And the winner is: a man who drills his own holes in the frozen river to study the best conditions for hitting the jackpot in Alaska's biggest annual guessing game.The ice drilling paid off handsomely -- a record jackpot of $350,000 -- 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. Of the $350,000 prize, Waters will keep $252,000 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. He had to split the jackpot in those contests with other people who also guessed correctly. 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.

He also drilled holes in the river to measure the thickness of the ice. Altogether he spent $5,000 on guesses and spent an estimated 1,200 hours working out the math.

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 trips the clock when it shifts on the river bank as the ice melts and starts to move in the current.

The ice classic is hugely popular in a state that doesn't participate in state lotteries or have sanctioned gambling beyond bingo and pull-tabs.

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, and the winner pocketed $800.

The game is operated by a nonprofit organization. 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 about $2,000 on tickets. Last year he bought only 10, and still came within a minute of the winning time.

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 contemplating how to spend some of the money. He might get a new car or a motor home.

One expense is certain for Waters, who said it was cold and snowing in Fairbanks Tuesday. A visit to Hawaii is overdue.

"I'm going to rebook the trip," he said.

Associated Press