John Oliver Shares the Frozen Alaskan River Bet That Can Pay Big Bucks

For more than 100 years the good people of Nenana, Alaska have been gambling on nature. Each season the city takes bets on the exact moment its river will melt. But the Nenana Ice Classic is no small contest. Last year the prize pool exceeded $230,000. And we’re willing to wager the pot will be even bigger this year. John Oliver and the team at HBO’s Last Week Tonight have turned this local competition into a national story.

Marshmallow the Last Week Tonight mascot waves at the giant tripod placed on the frozen Nenana, Alaska river

During the most recent episode of his HBO talk show, John Oliver explained how a small city with a population of less than 400 people has long been turning mother nature into a spectator event. Nenana lets anyone, anywhere in the world, predict the exact minute and second its frozen river breaks apart. It’s one of the oldest continuously running gambling events in the US. It all began in 1917 with some bored railroad engineers. They needed ways to pass the time during a long Alaskan winter. What they decided on was betting on when winter would give way to spring in the cold town.

They also launched a tradition that continues to this day. To determine the exact moment of the big break, the town places a enormous tripod on the river. It then attaches the tripod to a system of pulleys, ropes, and a clock. The clock stops at the exact moment the tripod moves 100 feet down river. (That history of specific measurements also doubles as a boon to climate scientists.)

To enter the contest all you have to do is pay an entry fee of $2.50. If you’re in town you can drop your guess in a special little red canister. If you’re not nearby, though, you can mail your money and your prediction to Nenana stating which moment in April the river will go. Someone in town with then fill a ticket out for you and pop it in a can. (That is unless you’re a TV show and can send your polar bear mascot to do it in person.)

There’s no limit on how many entries you can have. That’s how last year had 12 winners splitting up a prize pool of $233,591. However, Last Week Tonight and John Oliver is putting all of its eggs in a single basket. It’s going with April 26 at 2:17 p.m. If the show wins it will give all proceeds to the Food Bank of Alaska. But even if it doesn’t win Oliver says they’re still donating $10,000.

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That $10k might end up being more than each winner will get. With a national show shining a bright light on this wintry contest we expect a record-setting prize pool.

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