I’m 37 years old. I go to bed most nights before 10 and wake up most mornings around 6. I live in a quiet brownstone in family-friendly Park Slope, Brooklyn. And, on a recent Thursday night, I had my pregnant wife duct-tape one bottle of Olde English 800 to each of my palms.
Subtract a decade and a half in age—and the pregnant wife—and you’ve got a solid portrait of a new millennium’s college drinking culture. The game is Edward Fortyhands, and UrbanDictionary.com’s top definition—composed by user “Dj Skeet” in 2006—is all you really need to know about playing it:
“When you tape a 40 [-ounce malt liquor] to each hand and can’t take them off until you are finishied [sic] drinking them.”
The first internet mention of Fortyhands actually came three years earlier, from fledgling blogger DrunkCyclist, and detailed the inherent problems with having 40-ounce bottles restricting the use of one’s hands for a good hour.
“You can’t piss, you can’t answer the phone. You can’t run game with the ladies. Or, maybe you can, I don’t know. Just as long as you’re drinking like a mother fucker. ’Cause a forty will get warm as a mother fucker if left unattended for to long. And you can imagine the pain when you got two of these big ass bastards stuck on ya like flypaper.” [sic]
CollegeHumor showed that the potential pitfalls could go even further than that. The site addressed Fortyhands a couple months after DrunkCyclist did by posting the mere image of a ralphing man, bottles still sadly taped to his paws, as he hugs his porcelain throne. CollegeHumor was the early-aughts Congressional Record of higher-education hijinks—and college is so obviously where this game must have started.
But which college, and when, exactly?
I reached out to Colin Joliat, perhaps America’s foremost expert on elbow-bending tomfoolery as the brains behind the website Boozist. His first exposure to Fortyhands was in late 2001 in the basement of the Theta Chi house at the University of Michigan. “I was initially nervous, given my possession of a petite bladder,” he tells me, “but that just encouraged me to drink faster, which is the goal after all.” Still, he’s pretty sure the game hadn’t originated at his college.
About a week later, I stumbled upon a 2004 Harvard Crimson article telling of a student who was, at the time, hosting seniors-only Fortyhands games in his four-room suite. There’s a history of drinking games created by Ivy Leaguers (see: beer pong and Dartmouth); perhaps he was the inventor? I connected with him over LinkedIn—he’s now a successful doctor—and, though he was more than happy to talk, he insisted on keeping his anonymity.
“I don’t remember if it was specifically a hazing-type thing, but my first memory of playing it was around the beginning of sophomore year,” he told me. A member of Harvard’s rugby team, he believes they might very well have invented this great game right around the turn of the millennium. Though, in emailing with his former teammates and classmates this week, none of them think any one individual deserves full credit for Fortyhands’ invention.
“I’m guessing it was more like the group going, ‘Hey, we got all these 40s—and this is what we gotta do with them,’” he recalls.
Clearly, pinpointing the exact origins of Fortyhands is tricky. The true pioneers of drinking games are typically too busy toasting their own drunken genius to be bothered with historical documentation. We can, however, presume the game is not any older than Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s 1990 gothic romance about a Frankenstein-esque weirdo (Johnny Depp) who has scissors for hands. My own absurdist belief, though, is that Fortyhands actually sprung from Edward Penishands, the follow-up satire porn about a down-on-her-luck dildo sales rep and the titular character, who, the rep is certain, will help jump-start her flagging career. I like to imagine some bro watching a VHS copy of Penishands—and then having his greatest epiphany:
Hmmm… Scissors for hands… Penises for hands… Forties for hands!
If that was the line of thinking, then it’s not surprising that the game starts off lowbrow and silly—“Here, tape these Colt 45s to my hands!”—then moves to daredevilish and hysterical—“Uh-oh, I need to go to the bathroom, like, soon”—eventually becoming torturous, then maybe even disastrous.
“One night of Edward Fortyhands may seem like a fun way to spend a few hours, but it can quickly spiral out of control and land your teen in the hospital—or the morgue,” writes Joseph A. Califano Jr. in his 2009 book, How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents. Despite the claims by the former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, it’s hard to find any proof there’s ever been a Fortyhands fatality.
One thing’s for sure, though: By the mid-aughts, the game had become a countrywide phenomenon. In 2007, The New York Times reported that Judd Apatow’s repertory crew of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, et al., enjoyed playing it in their spare time. Funny Or Die lampooned Fortyhands in 2010. A year later, in September 2011, How I Met Your Mother tackled the game when an adult attempt at Fortyhands causes Marshall (Segel, again) to potentially ruin some job prospects. (That’s also when Google search traffic for the term peaked.)
It would be easy to say the game had jumped the shark once a CBS sitcom addressed it, and yet, miraculously, it only gained momentum. There were soon spinoff versions, such as Edward Ciderhands—usually played with liter bottles of English scrumpy—and the less-elegantly named Amy Winehands. Spencer’s even started selling “MugCuffs” in 2011, allowing drinkers to masochistically handcuff plastic steins to their wrists.
Speaking of masochism, I only got through half a right hand’s-worth of O.E. before I realized that I’m too old for this shit, and had my wife un-tape me. Nevertheless, it confirmed my belief that as long as the world continues to produce cheap 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, sturdy rolls of duct tape and young adults with an insatiable urge to find the craziest way possible to get blitzed, Edward Fortyhands will remain eternal.