Stick or Twisted?
Updated: Jan 5
Rich Alati, a pro poker player took on a $100,000 bet to spend thirty days in a soundproofed, darkened room. How hard could it possibly be?
Do you think you could survive thirty days in a pitch-black room with no contact with the outside world? Rich Alati thought he could. During a poker game in Las Vegas, September 2018 fellow player Rory Young challenged the American to do just that. The terms were agreed, a bathroom with blacked-out windows would house Alati for the duration of the challenge. He would eat food provided by local restaurants, but delivered at different times to prevent Alati from keeping track of time. He would have a yoga mat and bath salts with essential oils and his father would have the power to call a halt to proceedings while observing through a camera installed by a production company recording the challenge.
Young was confident Alati would not manage the experience. Solitary confinement is used as a psychologically destructive punishment throughout the world, with the UN considering 15 days of such isolation torture. Experts predicted Alati could suffer both short term and long term physical and mental health effects.
Upon commencement, Alati showed impressive self-control and strategy. He had taken his time to visualise and memorise the room layout before starting and found a rhythm to manage his time. It turned out, Young was not aware that Alati was not just an outgoing scalable, happy go lucky Poker player, but, a long-time practitioner of yoga and meditation. It seemed he had the tools to withstand the strain of the challenge.
Alati could not be sure, but, it was either three or four days into the challenge that he started to hallucinate. Alati felt the only way to handle this development was to embrace it. To fight it would lead to a frightening decline. Alati spoke of potential negative thought spirals and he felt yoga was the best solution. Focusing his body on the stretching rather than allowing the thoughts to dominate him.
His opponent, Young, watching the live stream, began to get concerned that Alati had the skills to go the distance at around day ten. In a curious move Young activated the intercom on day 15 to tell Alati he had been in for around 15 days and offered the chance to leave if he paid out $50,000. Alati scoffed at the offer and prepared himself for the second half of his stay. Young returned in a few days to offer Alati $25,000 to finish, after only an hour, the American refused. Within a few days, Young returned to ask Alati if he had a counter offer. He told him he would not leave for less than $75,000. Young responded with $40,000 until they settled on $62,400. Alati had made $3,120 a day in a brief 20 days sat in the dark.
Roy Young was relieved. He had underestimated Alati's strength and mental capacity. He also considered that a key factor that was different to the normal impact of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation was that on this occasion, the participant went in willingly and could also leave at any time of his choosing.
When Alati left his darkened room he had to wear special sunglasses and was confronted by sound and noise which he found difficult to adjust to. He was handed a mobile phone to speak to his sister and it took him some time to remember what a phone was. He talked of coming back to remember the requirements of social interaction and the number of choices everyday interaction provides us.
The pair are both pleased with the experience and think it was a useful exercise. They felt they have demonstrated people could test each other in good spirit and respect. Alati says he has a renewed sense of appreciation over the small inconsequential things in life, including tables and chairs. He feels his experience can help people rediscover the benefit of patience and dedication. The challenge and the outcome have led psychologists to revisit some of their understanding of the impact of isolation. It would seem an obvious thing to say that being incarcerated against your will has a substantially more detrimental effect than willingly putting yourself in such circumstances. We still have much to learn about the power of the human mind.