This article first appeared in the Mar/Apr 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.
The Asian Poker Tour (APT) and Resorts World Manila broke the Guinness world record for the longest continuous poker tournament in December when their Iron Man event ran for a staggering 48 hours, 55 minutes and 58 seconds with no breaks and no time for the players to rest. World Gaming caught up with the winner, Damon Shulenberger, to discuss his incredible feat of endurance.
World Gaming magazine: First of all Damon, what made you decide that you wanted to take part in this Iron Man event?
Damon Shulenberger: The name was the first thing that piqued my interest, as it held association with a triumvirate of pop cultural phenomena: an action hero with a snappy metal suit, a catchy Black Sabbath tune, and the Granddaddy of all triathlon events. There was also the fact that I regularly play APT Manila events and was looking for a tournament around mid-December before my flight back to California for the holidays.
WGM: How did you prepare?
DS: I prepared by staying at my favorite hostel in Makati for a week and communicating with people from around the world in a variety of contexts. Sleep was also important, as the tournament started at 20:00. I kept the partying to a minimum the day before and managed to catch some sleep throughout the day. This contrasted with one Australian I talked with who confessed he had played cash the entire night before entering the tournament. He actually misread the cards on one flop about 10 hours into the tournament and shoved with what he thought was the nuts but turned out to be far from a decent hand. These are the kinds of mistakes you can easily make without proper rest.
WGM: What was the thought process once play got underway? Knowing it was potentially going to be a long few days, was it a matter of pacing yourself?
DS: I was flabbergasted when a 100,000 chip stack was put in front of me with 25/25 blinds in the first level. I found out later that chip stacks for the inaugural Iron Man event at the Commerce Casino in 2009 were only 15,000, with total play lasting under 20 hours. It quickly became clear, with levels initially lasting 60 minutes and ultimately progressing to 120 minutes, that this was a tournament designed to last for days. With stacks so large relative to bet sizes, I decided that patience was my best strategy. I was very patient for the first six hours until I hit gold with an A-J two-pair double up against A-K.
WGM: Did you put thought into what you ate and when during the event?
DS: I basically ate too much the first day, because the free food they put out typically consisted of pizza or turkey salad sandwiches. After about a day my stomach began to rebel and I ordered some healthier fare off the menu – a bland Wonton soup as I recall. At some point, when we got to two or three-handed play, the APT Poker Girls started shoving free shots of espresso in my hand. It was the only thing that would keep my head off the table.
WGM: Did you see many players falling asleep at the table and did you consider having a quick snooze yourself?
DS: To compete effectively in this tournament, you really had to be there on some level at all times. Probably 50 percent who lasted past the first night took off for a few hours of shut eye at some point the next day. Even when we got to five-handed play, there was one guy who took off for the better part of an hour on a couple of occasions. Admittedly, the blind structures were so ridiculous that you could do that without risking a huge percentage of your stack. However, I believe that you lose the rhythm of play when you leave for more than a few minutes. I would say I was one of less than five percent of the players who made the money and did not take any breaks at all, except to run to the bathroom.
WGM: When did fatigue really start to kick in?
DS: Tiredness first kicked in around 05:00 the first morn-night, as they call it in the Philippines. I did some push-ups, got a second wind and more importantly amassed some chips and made some sick reads. I was playing better than ever before, probably because in my sleep-deprived state I stopped playing nitty and started following my gut instinct. I realized that all these players who had previously intimidated me were just making moves and, better yet, were intimidated by me. So the realization that I could take down this tournament if I simply made fewer mistakes than the other sleep-deprived players motivated me. I began contesting every hand aggressively and winning a large share. It was one of those “Aha!” moments where you realize that you are not a bad player after all. That said, sleep deprivation did ultimately rear its ugly head.
WGM: So … any hallucinations?
DS: Now that you mention it, when we got to around three to four tables left, closing in on the money, there were times when I looked down at the felt and didn’t see cards. Rather, the patterns of the Resorts World logo on the felt jumped out at me and snapped at my fingers like angry dragons. I am ashamed to say that at one point, I lost track of position, and even the direction in which play was moving. My lowest moment was when I quite earnestly asked the dealer whether play was proceeding clockwise or counter-clockwise! When we reached 19 players, about 30 hours into the tournament, hand-to-hand action proved a godsend. The bubble lasted more than an hour and I was able to snatch a minute or two of head-on-the-table time between each hand, while action was finishing up at other tables. After the bubble burst, we went from 18 players down to nine in record time. I saw a lot of sleep-deprived maniacs shove with hands like K-6 during this time.
WGM: How difficult was it maintaining your discipline by the time the final table began?
DS: It actually became very easy for me, because I realized that, whatever shape I was in, the other players were much worse. Some of them made ridiculous bluffs and calls. I did it myself too and got a major bluff picked off. I was running relatively low on chips with four players left. My big double up came when I shoved K-Q suited and was called by pocket 3s. I realized later that this hand, about 40 hours in, was the first time I had been all-in with my tournament life at risk. With three-handed play, I felt an almost zen-like calm and I also felt in control of play for the first time. It became very mechanical in a way, as I devoted my faculties to siphoning off chips through attrition. The prospect of achieving glory as winner of a world-breaking tournament, rather than the actual money, was the primary thing motivating me by this point.
WGM: What are your main memories of the heads-up battle?
DS: It was pretty much a blur – four hours of stalemate. Me and my worthy Korean opponent played a cat-and-mouse game but at some point he said he had a flight back to Korea to catch and would be pushing all-in every hand. I had maybe 65 percent of chips in play and he wasn’t joking – he shoved all-in next hand. I woke up with K-J and called and he turned over 3-4. Naturally, a 3 and a 4 came on the flop and I was down to a short stack. I still had more than 40 big blinds however, so I was careful in choosing my next three all-in moments and somehow doubled up all three times I got it in. Just like that it was all over and the coveted trophy was thrust into my hands. The Poker Tour Girls actually had to support me up to the podium to accept my congrats and champagne.
WGM: When you finally won, what was the primary emotion?
DS: Relief was the top emotion. I was so beyond tired at that point that trivial things like a tournament victory went on the back burner. Particularly during the heart-lurching last 15 minutes of play, I realized the outcome was all in fate’s hands. Winning was pretty much a dream I never woke up from, because I was more dead than living at that point.
WGM: How does victory feel in hindsight?
DS: It is nice. I have a lot more confidence. I am working on writing, poetry, art – all the important creative things in life – at full steam again. I was even able to publish a book – a poetry-art collaboration with a talented Filipino friend – with a portion of the winnings. That is an amazing project that will be accessible through the website earth-fabric.com in the near future.
WGM: Would you do it again?
DS: I am considering taking part in the US$1,100 LA Poker Classic Iron Man event set for late February. I do believe this style of tournament has the potential to eclipse other tournament types in the future, as it is truly a test of will, endurance and skill. I think it would make really interesting television as well – hundreds of players going out of their minds and babbling in tongues as the day and night progresses; players cursing the poker gods after they wind up with no money after 30-odd hours on the felt. What is not to like about this scenario?