The Oddsmaker

Bob Hamman can reel off the percentages for returning a kickoff for a touchdown. Or for catching a record bass in a tournament. But this isn’t fun. This is business.

BOB HAMMAN IS THE biggest bookie in Dallas. When Hamman’s phone rings, however, the caller isn’t whispering into a pay phone at a bar. No one asks Hamman to put a dime on the Buckeyes. Instead, his calls come from the marketing departments of Fortune 500 companies. Hamman, through his company. SCA Promotions, underwrites million-dollar Super Bowl sweepstakes and three-point shootouts at the NBA finals. He guarantees prize awards for Indian bingo and radio promotions. If he likes the odds and the customer pays his fee. Hamman will guarantee payment of prizes for almost any contest of skill or luck.

This year. SCA will bring in $40 million in revenues. His folks don’t call what they sell insurance, so I won’t. But h* you need a handy reference, think Lloyds of London.
Two hundred of the company’s promotions are, for them at least, standardized, and another 100 straight out of left field. The company underwrites everything from “olive-in-one” tosses into martini glasses at upscale restaurants to cowchip tossing to guaranteeing the performance bonuses of professional golfers and racecar drivers.

On the day I sit with Hamman in the company’s offices in Preston Center, he’s just returned from the national bridge championships in Anaheim, Calif., where his team was uncharacteristically trumped in the round of 16. Hamman has the complexion of aman who takes his leisure indoors. His hands are small and clean-the hands you’d want for your child’s dentist.”It could have gone either way,” he says about the bridge tournament. “It went the other way.” Whatever frustration he felt over losing is long gone: Anaheim was not Hamman*s first dance.

Bob Hamman is the No. 1 ranked bridge player in the world. He has been for 15 years. Warren Buffett. himself an avid bridge player, has said of Hamman, “When you play with someone like Bob. they can look like they’re having a drink or eating a sandwich, but they know everything that is going on.” Hamman has parlayed his ability to predict when the jack will fall andcalculate the odds of an overtrump into the nation’s largest promotions and conditional prize-guarantee company.

THE IDEA FOR SCA started !5 years ago when John Eberhart, founder of the National Hole-in-One Association, a major guarantor of golf prizes, asked Hamman if he’d be interested in supplying a little “capacity.” Specifically. Eberhart wanted help in a South Carolina fishing tournament in guaranteeing the payout of a $30,000 boat if a fisherman caught a state record martin. Hamman thought the opportunity sounded interesting and did a little research. “I found that the existing record had stood for 10 years,” he grins. When Hamman smiles, it is almost as though it crept up on him. His eyebrows quiver and his eyes light up. “I looked at the sizes of the fish caught in neighboring states, migration patterns, the number of fishermen participating, the length of the tournament, and the time of year it was being held,” he continues. “I proposed a price and the sponsor said yes.” Hamman’s bet paid off. No one caught a record marlin.

All this was well before Hamman brought Max Rhodes on board. Rhodes is SCA’s director of fishing and was formerly a factory-sponsored tournament fisherman. Today. the Hawaiian Internationa! Billfish Tournament and the Ocean City Tuna Tournament and every other SCA-backed contest requiring monofilament line and a long stick goes through Rhodes, who is trim and mustaehed. Rhodes knows the business: Before he hooked up with Hamman, he was already guaranteeing prizes for fishing tournaments on his own account.

Rhodes recently flew to Lake Powell to stage a fishing tournament sponsored by Aramark, a national park concessionaire. “We caught, tagged, and released 22 fish,” Rhodes drawls. “One of those fish was worth a million bucks.” Rhodes weathered a logistical nightmare. Utah’s Lake Powell is roughly the distance from Dallas to Austin, and Aramark had stipulated that the tagged fish weigh at least three pounds apiece and be released five miles from each other.

On opening day of the 24-day siege, 6,000 fishermen took to the water. “After the first tagged fish was caught, another 3.000 fishermen showed up,” Rhodes laughs. The spin-casting flotilla caught three of the 22 tagged stripers. Two of the fishermen won trips to Alaska and Hawaii, while a sunburned third received a weeklong houseboat package on Lake Powell, which by then must have seemed like punishment. No one snagged the million-dollar fish.

I’m giving the impression that SCA doesn’t have winners. They do. Lots of them. Winners are great for sponsors and generate repeat business for Hamman. The company has underwritten more than $10 billion in various promotional jackpots and paid out $70 million in cash and prizes in its short history. It recently paid $77,777 to a New York Rangers hockey fan who shot three pucks through a template placed in front of the goal at Madison Square Garden. This past June, 70-year-old George Ablah of Wichita, Kan., matched 10 Keno numbers in a game at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and left the desert SI million richer. Ablah was the second $1 million 10-spot Keno winner whose prize was guaranteed by SCA.

Gylene Hoyle of Chandler. Ariz., won a million-dollar payout last season when she selected Jay Bell of the Arizona Diamondbacks to hit a sixth-inning grand slam in a promotion for the Diamondbacks and a Phoenix country-and-western radio station. With the bases loaded. Bell delivered the long ball to the crowd’s astonishment and Hoy le ’s good fortune. Hoyle said that she likes the Diamondbacks. It was her first game.

WINNERS CATCH THE ATTENTION OF Norman Beck, SCAs director of security. Beck”s led three lives so far: policeman, claims adjuster, and semi-professional magician. For Hamman. he’s all three. On behalf of the company, for example. Beck makes sure that paper airplane contests aren’t rigged. He looks for ball bearings in the nose and heavy bond paper in the tail, anything approaching autopilot. Beck travels 100.000 miles a year to satisfy himself that scratch-and-win cards aren’t altered and that roulette wheels spin true. He studies videotape, digital film, and talks to eyewitnesses. Cheaters are advised to move on. Beck takes this personally. “In high school, I went to the Tulsa Stale Fair and got conned in a game of Razzle,” Beck tells me as he lays out a magician’s “close-up” pad on his desktop. He’s performed magic since he was 8. “Razzle is sort of like roulette. Marbles are rolled onto numbered squares. There’s no way to win.”

The day before we met. Beck flew to Hershey, Penn.. where he planted a $500,000 prize in a Hershey’s bar for a nationwide promotion. He also recently marshaled “The Richest Day in Golf,” in Troy. Mich., sponsored by a local charity and underwritten by Hamman. One hundred golfers put up S5.000 apiece to play a par-three course where every hole-in-one was worth $ I million-a theoretical, albeit exponentially unlikely, payout of $ 18 million per player. Beck arranged for a PGA professional and a law enforcement officer to monitor every hole. ’The atmosphere at the start was absolutely electric,” he told me. By the day’s end, however, the first-tee buzz had browned into a collection of meaningless tap-in birdies and cries of next year. Oui of 1,800 attempts. nobody made a hole-in-one.

IRA CORN IS PESPONSIBLE FOR BRINGING Bob Hamman to Dallas. In the late 1960s, Com headed Michigan General Corporation, a manufacturing and insurance conglomerate. Com was a relatively recent convert to bridge when he fixated on building a professional bridge team thai could capture the world title from the Italian Blue Team. His quixotic dream was mostly patriotic, but if he had found a way to make a buck off the enterprise, that would have been okay, too. The notion may seem fantastic today-bridge players hawking web sites and ibuprofen-but in the late 1960s and early ’70s, bridge was in ascendance. Anything seemed possible.

“I ’d been playing well in national tournaments when Com asked me to play with the Aces.” Hamman remembers. At first he declined. Then, in 1969. a year after they were formed, Hamman saw the Aces play in a tournament. “They were on salary and practiced like a basketball team-five days a week,” he continues. “They also had a coach. Joe Musumeci. The coaching and training showed. 1 decided that if I wanted to win a world championship, I’d better join up.” Like most of Bob Hamman’s hunches, the decision to join the team was actuarially impregnable. With the Aces and with others, Hamman has gone on to win the world bridge championship 10 times. In September, Hamman served as the non-playing captain of the U.S. women’s bridge team, composed entirely of Texans, which won the women’s world championship in Holland. Hamman is close to the team. His wife. Petra, plays on it.

All of which benefits SCA. “Bridge has enabled me to get two serious backers of the business who would have been otherwise inaccessible to me.” Hamman explains. One of those backers was James Cayne, president and chief executive officer of Bear Stearns and an accomplished amateur bridge player. “Cayne approached me about playing on a team with him. I said it sounded interesting. I also said that I had a situation that I needed help with.” Cayne helped. Hamman played. Both won.

Hamman will sign somewhere around 4,000 contracts this year for individual promotions, ranging from $5.000 fishing prizes to S3 million Internet lotteries. Whether or not they result in winners, the company’s promotions get our attention. We play even when we know we won’t win. Hamman has it all figured out.

“If I offered you $1 to crawl under your car to pick up a scrap of paper you’d probably laugh at me,” he grins. “But let’s say it was a lotto ticket. You’d crawl on your hands and knees to get the ticket even though the odds of winning in Texas are 26 million to one because the winning ticket might be worth $4 million.”

Hamman’s eyebrows start dancing, evidence of excited calculation going on inside. “The point is that the expected value of a prize is seldom the governing factor in a decision to participate in a contest, because the expect-ed value is always low,” he reasons. “But the thought of passing up a winning ticket, well. that would drive you crazy.”


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