Thursday, February 12, 2009 Updated: February 13, 10:28 AM ET
Behind the Bets
Sid's command center no longer has its commander.
This is how Sid Tanen died: In his favorite chair, holding his remote, a pad of paper and a pencil on the armrest, Sportscenter on TV.
"Until the day he died in 1993, he structured everything around games," says his son, Mitch.
More than anything, Sid was a puckhead. As a Brooklyn kid in the 50s, he paid a quarter for afternoon dog shows at Madison Square Garden, then hid in the arena until the Blue Shirts game that night. Once, while stowed away, he found the Rangers nets. He took a penknife out of his pocket, sliced off a piece of twine, and kept it with him for the rest of his life.
Sid moved to New Mexico for college in the 1960s, became a business professor and a school administrator, but never lost touch with the Rangers. In the early days of cable TV, before his street was wired, he'd leave his house wearing pajamas under a wool coat, with Mitch in tow, to watch hockey games at a local motel. The two of them, a bushy-haired, 220-pound mustached man and his boy, sat in the lobby silently for three hours as the clerk checked in guests. The game would end, they'd say goodbye and repeat the routine a couple nights later. No one asked questions. Does anyone at a motel?
Sid must have been one of the few guys in the Land of Enchantment with a subscription to Hockey Digest. There's no doubt that the Tanens—Sid, his wife Rita, Mitch and his sister, Lisa—were the only family in Santa Fe that spent winter vacations headed North, for tours of Canada's hockey hotbeds.
"It wasn't just NHL towns," says Mitch. "It was crappy minor league towns in Alberta. Anything to see a hockey game. Although we did end up in Edmonton for Gretzky's last game there. We didn't have a ticket, but my dad sweet-talked our way in. We started at the top of the arena roaming around. We ended up sitting in empty seats behind the glass."
If there was one thing Sid loved as much as hockey, it was betting. Nothing heavy, $50 a game. He knew life's biggest gambles paid more than a nickel or dime wager. Leaving your family on the east coast for an uncertain life in the desert, marrying the girl from the Bronx who you'd only known for nine months, raising kids, those risks paid large. The sweat was for fun, a brainteaser.
"For Sid to watch a sport, he had to have a little action," says his old betting buddy, Zora Hambright. "Even if it was just a quarter."
No sport is tougher to gamble on than hockey. It lacks point spreads. There are no pitchers controlling the tempo. It's hard to follow on TV. Plus Sid lived during the dark ages, before Internet machines fit in everyone's pocket. He used what he read in the Hockey Digest and what he saw on visits to NHL outposts to inform his strategy. Only Messier knew more about how the puck caromed out of the Coliseum's corners.
He was working towards a dream: Move to Vegas with $10,000, live for one year on wits and winnings and write a book about it. The older he got, the more time he invested in his system, which, to most people he showed, looked like a puzzling constellation of red, blue and green dots.
"He explained it to me once," says Zora. "I didn't get it. But I figured I didn't need to. As long as I kept doing what he did, I'd be alright."
Only Sid could decipher the code, a complicated formula that Zora vaguely remembers involving home wins, road losses and the quality of the games. But he was convinced that, every season, he came closer to perfecting it. Then, in 1986, he got a crack at proving it. By chance, a hotel in Vegas offered him a gig as a consultant, away from his wife and kids. He had to take a shot. "I wasn't a happy camper," Rita says. "But he went anyway."
Sid spent more time in the books than at his job. And while he was never a wiseguy—his money never moved a line—the more he hung around, the more experts recognized his gift. Pretty soon he was contributing to a gambling rag, under the byline "The Iceman Cometh." He didn't build that $10K bankroll or write that book. But he was a legit hockey handicapper. And when the Vegas stint ended, Sid kept on taking notes, playing the game.
This is how Sid Tanen lived: He wrote letters to every NHL team asking for the best players' autographs. He so hated secrets his kids were as comfortable talking about sex and drugs as most teens are asking for the car keys. He quit a desk job because he feared it would lead to a life of dull predictability. He craved action, even just five cents on the windmill hole in putt-putt golf. And he ended everyday in his favorite chair, holding his remote, a pad of paper and a pencil on the armrest, Sportscenter on TV.
Right up until the minute his heart stopped.
"He wanted to see who had won a big fight that night, so he went down to the command center, as we called it," says Rita. "When I woke up he wasn't in bed. I went down and called his name, but he didn't answer."
After the funeral, Rita went through his notes. There were reams of paper outlining his system. Gibberish to her. She offered them to Zora. He studied, de-coded and understood none of it. Except for this: According to Sid's ledger, he was winning nearly 70% of his hockey bets the winter that he died.
A shame no one knows how he did it. Sid hated secrets.
Got a betting story for Chad? Email him.Read more Behind the Bets.Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.