Details chats with the newly crowned gaming star about bladder control, cursing out Kong, and living with an arcade console in a Manhattan-size apartment.
Details: You were inspired by the documentary The King of Kong to begin playing, but did it also make you wary of entering the fray? There's a lot of bad blood between the two previous world contenders, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell.
Hank Chien: When I started playing, I wasn't trying to set the world record. I had pretty much never played before in my entire life, so when I started it was just for fun. I found out I was a natural, and I was seriously addicted for the first three months. I was, like, not eating and not doing laundry. I always said that after I reached a million I was going to retire because this game was taking up way too much of my time. But with my first million-point game, I was only 12,000 points shy of the world record, so I was like, "I can't retire now!"
Details: Have you heard from the other champions since the win?
Hank Chien: Steve Wiebe did post on a forum congratulating me. Billy Mitchell, I know, will usually call someone who beats the score. I am not sure if I missed his phone call or he hasn't called. I would like to meet with him and speak with him. I'm sure that now, since our names are in the same sentence all over the Internet, we will meet each other at some point.
Details: How many hours a day did you need to practice?
Hank Chien: In the beginning it was about three hours a day. It wasn't a regular training program; there are some days I play zero, and then on some weekend days I play six. It was enjoyable, so it didn't seem like a chore.
Details: You have Harvard degrees in math and computer science—did they play any role in your success?
Hank Chien: There is a little bit of math that comes into play. When you are point pressing—which is trying to squeeze as many points out of a board as possible—you've also got to figure in that your bonus timer is ticking down. You have to figure out what's the probability of gaining points versus probability of losing points and figure out what's the better bet. It's not complicated math.
Details: You and your brother are roommates in a Manhattan apartment. How did he take to your new habit?
Hank Chien: We don't have much space. I was joking with him that if I ever got to the kill screen [the furthest a player can advance in a game], that I was going to buy a machine and we would have to give up either the refrigerator, the toilet, or the sofa. So he thought about it for a second and he says, "The sofa." [Laughs]
Details: So did you?
Hank Chien: Well, we didn't really get rid of the sofa, but we put [the game] in front of the balcony. There are all these people on the Internet saying, like, "This guy came out of nowhere and he has been practicing in his basement." I'm like, "I'm from New York City, and I live in a high-rise condo—which doesn't have a basement!"
Details: Would you say that you are addicted to playing?
Hank Chien: [The game] was basically occupying all of my free time, but I don't think it ever really interfered with my work or personal life. I was never late to work because of Donkey Kong or stood someone up because of Donkey Kong.
Details: What's the hardest part of the game for you?
Hank Chien: The big issue is actually the bathroom. Whether I have to go or not, if I am preparing for a big game, I always go to the bathroom right before I start. I don't get hungry easily; I try to keep a cup of water next to me. Concentration-wise, I do start to lose it after about an hour and a half.
Details: Does racking up a high score still give you an adrenaline rush?
Hank Chien: Well, I have played this game so much so it's hard for me to get excited now. I still encounter new situations, but I have seen almost 99 percent of it. But there is still that one percent that sort of catches you off guard. Two weeks ago I was literally five or 10 minutes away from beating the world record. Yeah, I was cursing at the machine for about 10 minutes after the game.
Details: How long do you think you'll keep your reign as champ with the current score?
Hank Chien: My score is very beatable. But I held back. I knew I was on pace to beat the world record even if I played safely. On top of that, two of my deaths were completely stupid. So, my score is very beatable—and if nobody beats it, then I am probably going to beat it myself.