ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In this age of multimillion-dollar lottery jackpots and online betting on anything and everything, wagers take on a slower place in Alaska – and the payout is a lot smaller.
It's not exactly betting on when paint will dry, but it's close.
In Alaska's biggest guessing game, people pony up $2.50 a pop to guess when the ice goes out on the Tanana River in the tiny community of Nenana, about 55 miles south of Fairbanks.
That's signaled when a black-and-white painted tripod – which actually has multiple legs – with colored streamers and red pennant on top, shifts enough to trip a clock on the river bank. The ice went out Monday, and people are anxiously awaiting a call from the ice classic headquarters next week to find out – or confirm suspicions – that they won.
In a state that doesn't participate in lottery drawings or have sanctioned gambling beyond bingo and pull-cards, the Nenana Ice Classic is a hugely popular form of wagering, drawing entries from across the vast state and world.
And the fact that the largest payout ever was less than $340,000 doesn't seem to deter interest in the game, which also pays a psychological dividend – helping signal that the long, hard winter in Alaska is nearly over.
Some guessers rely on the luck of the draw, but others pore over ice and temperature charts for hours before committing picks to paper in the effort to outguess Mother Nature.
One of those is Alison Foley of Fairbanks.
"I look over everything, but it really depends on what April's (weather) is like," the 28-year-old case manager for Alaska Works Partnership said.
She may want to consider patenting her method.
She was one of three winners to evenly split the $279,030 jackpot in 2010, and was only 12 hours off this year's winning time.
"I put in 40 guesses so I made sure I was covered," she said of her picks spanning April 20-May 20.
She used her nearly $67,000 prize money, after taxes, two years ago to buy a new car and freely spend on a vacation planned before she won.
"It kind of made my trip to Europe a little more enjoyable," she said.
A large crowd of townspeople gathered at the river's edge, and saw the ice go out on the Tanana River at 7:39 p.m. Monday.
Cherrie Forness, who has been the classic's manager for 16 years, said she checked the ice at lunchtime, and it was mostly solid from bank to bank but started to break up during the day.
"It just started moving out," she said. "It was pretty quick."
"Back behind the tripod, you could see big pieces of ice moving down river," Forness said. "We watched the whole channel open up behind the tripod. Then we saw some big holes in the ice in front of the tripod, and we started seeing ice move in there, as well."
And then, all of a sudden, the tripod tipped on the sheet of ice, and the ice sheet started to move down river.
The river breakup was so early this year – the fourth-earliest in the game's 95-year history – that tickets are still being entered into the system.
A winner won't be known until next week, and the game's board of directors will meet Thursday to determine the jackpot amount, Forness said.
"I know it will be higher than last year," she said.
The 2011 jackpot, a record amount, was won by 22 ticket holders who correctly guessed the ice would go out at 4:24 p.m. May 4. They evenly split $338,062 – or $15,366.45 per ticket.
This year, more than 250,000 entries, some from as far away as Australia, were purchased, most at more than 175 stores throughout Alaska. The entries sold in Alaska are sent to Nenana in sealed cans, opened and sorted by dates into cubby holes before being entered into computers at the city's old school gym.
The game has increased in popularity since it was founded by engineers surveying for the Alaska Railroad in 1917. They charged $1 a guess as to when the ice would go out, and the winner pocketed $800, said Forness.
"It's come a long, long way," Forness said.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, senior center, a Fairbanks rescue mission and Special Olympics Alaska.