115 hours of bliss

At the poker table with the restorative powers of Phil Laak’s all-natural insanity

Jennifer Tilly, Steve Friess and Phil Laak at the Bellagio.
Photo: Anne Laymond

The world is in turmoil. The Gulf Coast faces unceasing ruin, primary elections are reaching a fevered pitch, the economy remains so sluggish that we’re now told not to expect an uptick around these parts until, say, Sasha Obama is in college.

So why, then, was I so utterly fascinated by the goings-on this past weekend in the Bellagio’s prestigious poker room, where a crazy man kept himself largely awake to play 115 hours of Texas hold ’em in a quest to set a meaningless Guinness World Record?

Well, because the world is in turmoil, the Gulf Coast is facing unceasing ruin, the primary elections were reaching a fevered pitch and the economy still bites a big one. And yet, in the cocoon that Phil “The Unabomber” Laak’s big stunt held me in, a world where a man had just one singular focus and aimed to complete an absurd feat, there was a respite from the troubles of the world.

I’m not a big one for insignificant, anti-intellectual, unartistic diversions. I’m much more Lost than Real Housewives, Philip Roth than Jackie Collins, Shark Reef than LAX, Bill Maher than Frank Marino. And on that count, you would probably think I was violating my standards by becoming so enamored of Laak’s endeavor that I spent hours observing and talking to him in the casino and hours more watching the strangely riveting live webcam back at home.

Except that I actually think that what Laak did and what happened in his effort was more than just some—his words—“degenerate gambling vampire” trying to draw attention to himself. Certainly, it was a more significant thing to do than, say, building the world’s largest buffet at the Las Vegas Hilton in 2006 or the world’s biggest birthday cake in honor of the city’s fake centennial year of 2005.

Phil Laak's Poker Record at Bellagio

Both of those efforts were covered intensely by the city’s press while Laak rated almost no local attention whatsoever, and neither had the compelling personal motivation of a goofy kid from Dublin who dreamed of setting some—any!—record. Can’t you relate? It’s that Brady Bunch episode on the teeter-totter, it’s me trying to juggle a balloon 1 million times, it’s Laak tiring himself out trying to stay on a pogo stick for more than an hour. Why did he want to break this record? Because A. he could and B. he was never going to memorize enough digits of Pi.

And here’s the thing: Had Laak loaded up on amphetamines and caffeine to stay awake for this extended bender, it would’ve been a great big nothing. The Guinness folks don’t lay down any rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs in the quest for this particular record, so he certainly could have done all sorts of unnatural things to keep himself awake and at the tables.

Instead, Laak’s feat began in January when he started running and swimming for extended periods to increase stamina, when he got big into yoga and when he radically altered his diet to cut out fried foods, cheeses and sweets. In other words, he prepared to punish his body by taking tremendously good care of it. Then he pushed himself to go as long as he could without caffeine and, in the end, says he made it the whole way without the drug that gets most of us through breakfast.

The other reason I found this thing so compelling was that the momentous nature of it unfolded somewhat organically. Laak wanted attention from the poker universe, sure, but he didn’t court the mainstream press. It was a word-of-mouth stunt in which he first set out just to make it to 80 hours in order to eclipse both the official 72-hour Guinness record as well as a 79-hour unofficial one set last year that is part of poker lore. By the time he started pushing past that mark and into uncharted territory, more than 100,000 people around the world were watching on the webcam and donating to Camp Sunshine, the cause to which Laak vowed to give half his winnings.

The thing just built on itself and, as publicity stunts go, this one felt authentic. How often is it, when someone’s trying to set a record doing something, can any old Joe walk up and shake his hand or, better yet, participate by playing with him? Laak is a goofy, well-liked presence on the poker tour, given to nonsensical ramblings even when he’s rested, and there was really nothing quite like listening to his strung-out theories on the universe when he had been up for four straight days. It was impossible not to be charmed, especially when he ended the streak at exactly Hour 115 by declaring—to nobody’s disagreement—“I should have my head examined.”

On a side note, the experience of covering and following the situation as it unfolded provided some fascinating insight into the ecosystem that exists in the Bellagio poker room. I’d dropped in for short interviews with pros in the past but, being a small-stakes kind of guy myself, never played or hung around the joint. After logging a lot of hours there this week, all I can say is, wow, what a joint. It’s just never really quiet or slow even in the wee hours of the morn, and the place may deliver as many meals on white-clothed trays to players as room service delivers to some of the resort’s floors. It may also be one of the most ethnically diverse places for like-minded hobbyists in America.

But really, Laak’s stunt was only nominally about poker or the poker life. I don’t think I paid attention to any particular hand; since it was a cash game and not an elimination tournament, even interesting hands held far less suspense.

No, Laak’s triumph was one for all of us who know we’ll never do anything so crazy, so extreme. Does it matter in the grand scheme of things? Of course not. But gosh, was it fun while it lasted.


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