Michael Anthony (far left), Lucas Nunez (middle left), Leah Wheatley (middle right), and Ted Powers (far right) all managed to survive the first night of Hands-on-a-thon.
  • Ryan Smith
  • Michael Anthony (far left), Lucas Nunez (middle left), Leah Wheatley (middle right), and Ted Powers (far right) all managed to survive the first night of Hands-on-a-thon.

Steve Dau can’t remember how old he is.

The burly, bearded Elgin man reaches into his wallet and pulls out his driver’s license to check after I ask him. “Oh, I’m 33,” he slurs. “For some reason I thought I was 35. But 33, it says here.”

Dau does, however, manage the delicate task of sliding his license back in his wallet and then into the recesses of his pocket with one trembling hand, while keeping the other firmly pressed on the glass of a Metallica pinball machine—the same spot he’s kept it for most of the past 71 and a half hours.

“I’m kind of delirious right now,” he admits.

It’s Saturday night and—at last—we’ve reached the final hours of Headquarters Beercade’s Hands-on-a-thon, a pinball tournament for extreme masochists. The part where you win the grand prize by outscoring your opponent? That only starts after you’ve kept one hand affixed to the machine while standing on your feet for 72 sleepless hours. Never mind cognition. Physical endurance and sheer force of will trump everything else. To quote the heavy metal smiths whose cartoonish visages adorn the game Dau is touching, “. . . and nothing else matters.”

If that all sounds crazy, well, it kind of is, but there are plenty of precedents. So-called “hands-on” competitions date back to 1992, when a Nissan dealership in a tiny East Texas town invited 24 contestants to compete to win a pickup truck by keeping a hand on it while remaining standing for as long as humanly possible. The stunt went viral when the 1995 edition of the annual contest was immortalized in the acclaimed documentary Hands on a Hard Body (which was later turned into an unlikely Broadway musical). Similar gimmicks soon popped up all over the world—usually in the pursuit of a vehicle of some sort.

The idea for Headquarters’ contest was hatched earlier this year by members of management, who wanted a unique promotion to go hand in hand with the beercade’s brand of 80s- and 90s-themed bro-friendly nostalgia. Because Headquarters deals in video games rather than vehicles, they determined the Hands-on-a-thon victor would earn a “premium” Metallica-themed pinball machine worth $6,500, plus thousands more dollars toward a charity of the winner’s choice—$50 for each hour spent standing. “We thought it would be fun to bring back those old contests where you put your hand on a car as long as you could,” said Headquarters co-owner Brian Galati.

Fun is a relative term. Perhaps it’s an obvious observation, but watching people touch a large object for days does not make for a compelling spectator sport. After the black-and-white-striped referees signaled the 8 PM Wednesday start, the 12 Hands-on-a-thon contestants almost immediately started staring into their phones or engaging in small talk with each other. Toss the Metallica pinball machine onto a Red Line car and it would look suspiciously close to normal rush hour on the el.

Here and there patrons who were unaware that the contest was happening would stop and gawk at the group of competitors.

“I feel like I’m in a petting zoo or something,” noted Megan Robertson.

Robertson, one of the three female Hands-on-a-thoners, initially entered as a joke (“Maybe I’ll use this to up my dating game, I’m on the wrong side of 25,” she said with a chuckle), but got serious about her preparation once she was chosen to participate. The 26-year-old Cicero resident visited her doctor beforehand for a checkup and scoured the Internet for tips and information. She brought a large “survival kit” with her that included a change of clothes, compression socks, healthy snacks, energy drinks—even smelling salts.

With his long, frizzy red locks and a goofy demeanor that prompted a fellow competitor to deem him “a non-douchey Carrot Top,” Ted Powers served as the group’s court jester (his application was famously written in rearranged Metallica lyrics), but he was no less prepared.

“I’ve been strategizing for a week,” said Powers, 28, who drums for the Milwaukee band Paper Holland. “I’ve brought a back brace, I’ll be using Icy Hot during breaks, and I have a caffeine stash that I will save until the second day.”

He’s also convinced bandmate Joe Tomcheck to leave Milwaukee and act as his gopher and moral support. While Powers stands at the pinball machine all day, Tomcheck wanders around Headquarters. From 2 AM to 7 AM, while the bar remains closed, he sleeps in Powers’s Subaru parked on Sheffield Avenue.

“I see this as a postsemester adventure,” Tomcheck said. “I kind of feel like I’m in the contest too.”

But even restless sleep in a compact car is much better than none, and after the first night, the lack of shut-eye began to take a toll on the contestants—mentally and physically. Most of the eliminations occurred because of agonizing technicalities. One person was whistled out after he instinctively pulled his hand off the pinball glass to eat a piece of pizza. Another broke a rule by touching his knee to the ground while bending for a water bottle. Powers’s ever-present smile vanished after he was eliminated on Friday because his forearm grazed the top of the machine. Afterward, he got testy with the referee for what he deemed a ticky-tack foul—especially since the rules had been altered after the first day so that players could no longer lean against the pinball game’s bulky exterior.

Two contestants succumbed to physical problems. The judges ruled that 24-year-old amputee Lucas Nunez couldn’t keep his prosthetic left hand on the machine—only his right. Nunez, who joined Hands-on-a-thon to sell the pinball machine for art supplies to support his career as an urban painter, was forced to keep his movement to a minimum. As a result, his ankles swelled up as time passed. He iced them down during the short breaks, but eventually they looked like balloons, grudgingly forcing him to retire after more than 60 hours.

Like other hands-on contests, this one straddles the line between extreme sport and self-torture. Extended lack of sleep can inflict a laundry list of problems on the body: impaired memory and speech, hallucination, psychosis, headaches, high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression. A grueling hands-on competition in China in 2012 received bad press after the public saw heartbreaking pictures from the 87-hour contest—including a man who quit in tears after his legs had swollen so much that he couldn’t walk. The original Hands on a Hard Body competition ended in 2005 after a disqualified participant walked across the street, broke into a Kmart, stole a gun, and shot himself. Consider that the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued this year revealed that the CIA regularly used three days of sleep deprivation against suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay as a tactic to break down the will of detainees.

To be clear, there’s a world of difference between what happens in an off-shore prison and this arcade bar in booze-soaked Wrigleyville. The rules called for 15-minute breaks every two hours so that the contestants could use the bathroom, go lay down, stretch, or eat. Management made sure to have medical staff on hand in case any of the 12 contestants needed attention. (“We researched the rules and it took us a long time to decide on them,” said Galati. “We want to be responsible and make sure no one gets hurt.”)

And unlike at, say, Guantanamo all the torture here is of the self-inflicted variety. Three hundred people applied to join the contest on Facebook by posting pleas and self-advertisements. The 12 entries chosen by Headquarters’ staff ranged from serious do-gooders excited about directing thousands of dollars to charity to pinball wizards hoping to start a collection of these nostalgic but expensive toys.

Twenty-two-year-old Leah Wheatley has traveled to Chicago from Champaign to win the machine for her pinball-league teammate/husband while he finished taking finals at the University of Illinois.

“The Metallica [machine] is my husband’s favorite and this would be the perfect gift for his graduation and for this new section of our lives,” Wheatley said. “This could be the first of our pinball collection.”

But on Friday night, I found Wheatley crumpled on the floor half awake. An hour before I arrived, she’d begun hallucinating and disqualified herself. Medical staff treated her and she called her husband to come pick her up and take her back to Champaign. She told me she was OK.

The others and I wondered, Could anyone stop Conor Hall? As the Hands-on-a-thon crawled along, Hall looked the freshest and most capable of the group—and possibly the most earnest. “The charity aspect keeps me going,” said Hall. “I think about all the money going to a good cause, and it keeps me pumped. I’m not doing it for myself.” It helps that the 27-year-old Chicagoan has a lean runner’s body and a resumé that includes a 46-hour dance marathon he participated in when he was a student at Penn State. While the others resort to standing and shifting in place, Hall’s strategy is to shuffle his feet back and forth like a boxer—never keeping his weight on one foot for very long.

  • Ryan Smith
  • The final three Hands-on-a-thoners rest up or stretch during a 15-minute break in the “action.”

On Saturday night at 7 PM, with just an hour left in the three-day event, only three players remained: Robertson, Dau, and—of course—Hall. Michael Anthony lost earlier in the day by leaning too much of his exhausted body on the frame of the pinball machine. Dau, a bartender who works at a brewpub in Saint Charles, chalks it up to a round of shots he convinced everyone but Robertson to consume.

Hall was blank faced and steady while continuing to weave and bop to the music playing overhead, but Dau and Robertson acted as if they’d taken a dozen shots of alcohol. They paused and searched for words during conversation, giggled a lot, and moved in a slow-motion way. Every inch of their skin appeared coated with sweat. And then there was the odor . . .

“We stink, man,” Dau admits. “I still try to use deodorant, but it doesn’t do anything anymore. Three days without a shower will do that.”

Even worse, Dau’s feet have grown numb with pain and his right thumb lost feeling eight hours prior. He’s also suffered some blurry vision (“I couldn’t even read the Hanes label on my underwear earlier”), hallucinations, and a near blackout where he forgot where he was for a few seconds. “I really feel like my health is at risk,” said Dau, who attributed his stamina to his past career as a boxer and mixed martial arts fighter.

With one hand on the fingerprint-smudged glass, Robertson used the other to sip on her fifth energy drink of the day. She shook her head in disbelief.

“This morning, I broke down and cried in the bathroom. I didn’t think I could make it,” she said. “But on my Facebook people told me not to give up and I got over it. I can’t believe I’m still here.”

As the final seconds were counted down, relief flooded the faces of all three contestants. Finally able to make use of both hands, they exchanged a sweaty group hug. But this isn’t over quite yet—the $6,500 pinball machine is awarded to the person who can score the most points in a single game of Metallica. It seems like a cruel fate to pin everything to a single game of chance (some skill, yes, but a lot of chance) after 72 hours of standing, so Headquarters’ staff decided they’d give those who’d survive until the final day a $500 private party and additional money to each of their charities.

While curious spectators swelled around the machine, Robertson scored a paltry 1.6 million, while Hall followed by more than doubling her score. But as if on cue—a tinny version of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” sounded as Dau keept thumping the silver ball into flashing targets and careening up ramps. During his second ball, he broke Hall’s score and was deemed the winner.

Dau feebly pumped his fist in the air. The crowd clapped and whooped and then quickly dissipated, its members moving on to buy drinks or play video games themselves.

I couldn’t blame them. It’s hard enough to fully appreciate a slow-burning sport like a marathon by coming just to see the final 100 yards—imagine coming to the end of a race where everyone is just standing around. As the sands of the hourglass piled up ever so slowly, the human drama of the Hands-on-a-thon deepened like no contest I’d seen before, but you could only notice if you got close enough to see the sweat.

In February 2018, this article was updated to use the phrase ‘arcade bar’ in place of the word originally used.