This article originally appeared in the July 21, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It is written by Mark Singer.
When a fellow-passenger asks Norman Beck, a more than frequent flier, what he does for a living, Beck has two standard replies. If he’s not in the mood for conversation, he says, “I’m in the claims business.” If he’s feeling chatty, they hear, poetically hyperbolically, “I have the strangest job in the world.”
Last month, Beck left his home in Dallas, flew to Fargo, North Dakota, drove three hours to Bismarck, and checked into a Comfort Suites. The Professional Bull Riders tour was in town, and a local promoter was offering J. W. Harris, a four-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association champion, a hundred thousand dollars if he could stay atop a California-bred bucking bull named Bushwacker, a two-time P.B.R. World Champion Bull—according to Beck, “the Muhammad Ali of bulls”—for eight seconds. If Harris succeeded, Beck would be writing the promoter a check to cover most of the payout.
Strictly speaking, Beck’s employer, SCA Promotions, Inc., where his title is vice-president of claims and security, is not in the insurance business. “Promotional risk coverage” is the preferred term; when consumers or contestants are offered the chance to win a car or a vacation or a pile of money, SCA, for a negotiated fee, agrees to pay any winners. Before joining SCA, Beck, who is now in his mid-fifties, worked as a State Farm claims adjuster in Oklahoma. Before that, he was a cop. On the side, he’s a magician and a tournament bridge player, which is how he met SCA’s founder, Bob Hamman, who, Texas Monthly once noted, is “widely recognized as the best bridge player on the planet.” SCA’s contract with the North Dakota promoter, Chad Berger, stipulated that, if the bull rider won the hundred thousand, Berger’s risk would be limited to a five-figure amount, based on the actuarial calculation that Bushwacker bucks off nineteen of every twenty riders.
In New York one recent day on other business, Beck decided to visit the American Museum of Natural History. The beastly heat had also come to town, so he picked a cool spot inside the Hall of Asian Mammals, sat on a bench not far from a diorama featuring Bushwacker’s distant cousin, a gaur (a.k.a. Indian bison), one of the world’s largest surviving bovine species, and chatted about the art and science of fat chances. “Any way to win a million dollars you can imagine, we’ve probably covered that,” he said.
Beck’s duties extend beyond globe-trotting with a loaded checkbook. On a trip to New York ten years ago, he brought a bottle of spaghetti sauce bearing a winning-numbered label worth a million dollars. (The promotion was the sauce company’s idea.) Accompanied by a third party, he hid the bottle inside his shirt, took it to a randomly selected grocery store in Bay Ridge, and reverse-shoplifted. Whoever eventually bought it, sadly, never checked the label. Though Beck has no interest in gambling, he spends a lot of time in casinos—e.g., Tunica, Mississippi, seven blackjack players, one hand apiece, a million to anyone dealt the ace and the jack of spades; Las Vegas, Hard Rock Casino, one roll of the dice, a million for snake eyes or boxcars. At an ESPN Zone in Chicago, one of five pool players had a shot at a million if he could sink the eight ball on the break. In Bangkok, in 2007, with five million dollars on the line and one contestant holding a three-digit ticket, an elephant pulled numbers out of a trash can. Each time, only Beck went home truly happy.
In Bismarck, Beck spent several hours with Bushwacker before the big event. “It was interesting to see his demeanor change,” he said. “As soon as they started moving the bulls out of the pens into the bucking chutes, I could see Bushwacker go from docile to this”—he pantomimed a bull pawing the ground—“and I thought, This bull knows.” He watched J. W. Harris successfully ride a bull named Cowtown Slinger and noticed that, afterward, he seemed to have a sore arm. “Even before he got on Bushwacker, I was pretty sure he had no chance,” Beck said.
The ride lasted less than four seconds. Beck returned to his hotel, set the alarm, and went to bed. It had been a profitable day at the office, if less exciting than March 23, 2001, when the de-orbiting Mir space station missed, by thousands of miles, a forty-foot floating target that was part of a Taco Bell promotion—and everyone in the United States did not win a free taco on SCA’s dime. Still, it was far preferable to the occasion, in Davenport, Iowa, when two golfers were each able to drive golf balls at least three hundred and sixty yards into a forty-yard-wide area. “We took the business based upon our knowledge of the outer limits of how far a golf ball could be hit,” Beck said. “But I neglected to check into it thoroughly, so I wasn’t aware that the balls were going to be hit from the top of a six-story casino and would land on asphalt. That was a twenty-thousand-dollar mistake. Exactly what happened there? Let me put it in plain terms: I fucked up.”