I got my first Pokémon card when I was a kid in fifth grade. My neighbor’s dad worked at Toys “R” Us and she gave me a few extra cards he had gotten from corporate. I don’t remember if it was a fire-breathing Charmander or leaf-noshing Bulbasaur; all I remember is the total number of species to collect: 150.
There was no greater high than flipping through a booster pack to see which 5 common (circle), 3 uncommon (diamond), and 1 rare (star) card you’d get. Other boys idolized Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire baseball cards, I coveted the first-edition holographic Charizard and Promo #7 Jigglypuff.
Two tactics helped me capture my prey. I mowed my neighbors’ lawns to buy $3.29 packs, upselling weed whacking where I could, and begged my parents to take me to me to Toys “R’” Us every Saturday morning for the weekly Pokémon league. Parents are the unsung heroes/enablers behind any Poké-obsession: time, energy, and dealing with a son who is crying because you won’t drive him three hours to get a Pre-Release Misty’s Seadra from the new Gym Heroes set. Six hours round-trip.
At the weekly league, I sat alone on the floor in the back of a store that no longer exists. I slowly developed my adolescent social skills by trading. While other kids played the actual card game, I became a refined collector, caging my cards in protective sleeves. In accordance with the copyrighted marketing objectives of The Pokémon Company, my goal was not to play, but to catch ‘em all. It was 1999, and I was 11.
Today, at 30, I’d just buy them all online with a few clicks (about $400 for a near-mint set on eBay).
On Easter weekend of 2019, five of the world’s top Pokémon players squeezed into a tiny hotel room for the Regional Pokémon Trading Card Game Tournament in Daytona Beach, Florida. They’d compete for Pokémon-related cash, swag, travel stipends, and gather the points necessary earn an invitation to Worlds.
Sam Chen, 31, a quantitative consultant in New York, welcomed me warmly. Back in college, we were randomly assigned to live in the same building; a decade later, when I learned of his status in the Pokémon community, I wanted to know more. I had since abandoned the cards. What did the game and universe have to offer adults?
The other players in Sam’s room were Alex Hill, 25, a web developer in Atlanta, and Michael Slutsky, 24, a salesperson, both in attendance as commentators on the Twitch livestream. Rahul Reddy, 23, a college senior from Orlando, who just took 13th in last year’s World Championships. And finally Xander, 18, a high school senior in Illinois, who was staying with parents a few miles away. He was quieter than the rest—a teenager among adults. When I asked everyone to point to the best player, everyone pointed to Xander. Including Xander.
They were a cross-generational group of friends who meet up around the globe at Pokémon tournaments, celebrities in their niche community, intelligent, driven, and kind/foolish enough to welcome me back into the world of Pokémon for a weekend.
They tried to include me in their lively conversation, explaining the game like you’d explain a foreign language in that foreign language. I spent three days trying and failing to keep up with these players.
From what I gathered, Pokémon is a two-player card game where you get to choose your own 60-card deck from a defined universe of cards. Some of those cards are the titular Pokémon who attack your opponent, some are energy cards that power those attacks, and some are items that impede or accelerate your ability to attack. An ordinary card game, in short: Pokémon is poker with Pikachus.
During a pizza dinner I learned that tournament success depends not only on the cards you pick for your deck (the game), but the spread of other decks in play that you might encounter at the tournament (the meta-game). There’s a balancing act in building your deck, waiting to gather as much deck intel as you can—but not too long, in order to leave time to assemble and playtest. Last year at the Australia Internationals, the group arrived three days early. This weekend in Daytona, they trickled in hours before. “I’m super unprepared,” Sam confessed.
As midnight approached, Alex asked that the deck debates move out of the room. He and Slutsky, who asked me to mention his Twitter handle, which is @SSky57, had to be at the livestream at 7am. Sam, Rahul, and Xander moved downstairs to discuss decks, and I headed back to decide which of my two queen beds I should sleep in. They kindly offered to add a cot to their room for me for $12/night, but I opted to experience one of life’s truest joys: being alone in a hotel room.
The next morning, Rahul told us they’d stayed up til 3am. “We were talking decks, then we were talking life.”
The Tournament: Day One
The tournament was held in an actual sports arena. 500 players were seated tightly together, like employees at a call center, at long banquet tables covered with tablecloths whose colors indicated the division: red tables for Juniors, up to 11 years old, green for Seniors 11-14 years old, and blue for Masters, over fifteen. It was surprisingly quiet, just the sound of 30,000 plastic sleeves shuffling against one another. The room was focused, the players’ movements tiny.
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake.
Today, the players would play nine rounds of three-game matches from 8am to 8pm. The best records would advance to Day Two, the final day of the tournament.
Sam, Rahul, and Xander were scattered among the tables, but were all playing the same 60-card deck. It’s not uncommon for members of a top playtest group to compete with the same tested deck. A win for one would be a win for the group. They settled on a Vespiquen Flareon deck, which they told me like I had any idea what that meant. Google explained that Vespiquen is a 4” tall angry bee Pokémon who has an attack called “Bee Revenge.” Rahul convinced them to play this deck, which he’s very familiar with. “I have college finals this week, I don’t want to have to think.”
As Round One ended, the din began to rise, and the online pairings for Round Two went live, I spotted Xander. “What happens now?” I asked.
“Head to table 83. Crush the opponent.”
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake. Play
Sam introduced me to a friend, who updated me on his matches as if I were a fellow pro. My blank expression betrayed me.
“Do you play Pokemon?”
I’d been outed.
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake. Deck intercepted.
“I’ll be taking these for a deck check.” Anita, whose son plays the game but isn’t at this tournament, was a deck check judge at the tournament. In the next eight minutes, she’d sort the cards, check them against the decklist the player provided at the beginning of the tournament, and make sure there were no marked cards. She straightened up one of the decks with yellow sleeves into a brick of gold, looking for imperfections: bent or rough corners. She swapped a Special Energy card with a possibly bent corner for a Basic Energy, and the players returned to their play.
At lunch at Johnny Rockets the table shared details of their games as we waited for hot dogs and milkshakes.
Our server asked about the jerseys everyone was wearing.
“We’re competing in the Pokémon tournament nearby,” Rahul explained.
“Oh, I love Pokémon! I’m team yellow,” she exclaimed.
“Nice,” they said.
“She’s talking about Pokémon Go,” Rahul explained after she left. “Everyone thinks that’s what we play. It’s easier not to correct people.”
“My friends need to stop cheating,” one top player moaned at lunch. It emerged that some of his closest friends had recently been banned. Some could have been honest mistakes, like misdrawing too many cards, but one was blatant: A player needed a particular card for his deck to work, and he hid it on his particular lap. When a judge saw it, he was permanently banned from competitive play.
The server returned with our split checks. “It’s great to be among my fellow nerds!” she said.
Satoshi Tajiri was a creative little boy who caught bugs outside his suburban Tokyo home. When he saw a new cable that connected two Game Boy systems for two-player play, he imagined an insect crawling across it like a tightrope. Many pitches and prototypes later, he created Capsule Monsters which evolved into Pocket Monsters which evolved into Pokémon, the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. At an estimated $90 billion in revenue, Pokémon knocks out Hello Kitty and Winnie the Pooh by $10 billion and $15 billion respectively.
Pokémon hydropumps Star Wars ($65 billion), fire spins Mario ($36 billion), and solarbeams Harry Potter ($31 billion).
All of these high-grossing media franchises are cartoonish and magical, but top honors seem to go to those which are also cute. Jigglypuff is an adorable pink puffball, and renders you unconscious with their high-pitched song: cute and powerful.
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake. Play.
The arena began to thin. Winners in the video game tournament and younger age brackets had been selected, leaving only the Masters. At the top of the final round, Xander dropped from the tournament, his record too weak to advance. Rahul was guaranteed to advance to Day Two, but Sam’s fate depended on his last match.
“I’m up against Trevenant,” he said gloomily. “Watch me get destroyed.”
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake. Play.
Sam won the first game.
Shuffle. Cut. Play.
He lost the second in only two turns.
Shuffle. Cut. Play.
The final game was long, taking up the remaining 50 minutes. Prof Mikey came on the microphone calling the match, permitting players three additional moves. Long turns, but not long enough for Sam.
“If you had 10 more minutes,” the winner tells him, “you would have beat me.”
Sam accepted his defeat graciously: “I get to work tomorrow. That’s the silver lining.”
A little after 9pm, the defeated consoled themselves with sugary booze and fried food at an oceanfront Bubba Gump Shrimp. The boys ordered Blue Razz ICEE with Tito’s shots, Lava Flows, and Long Island Iced Teas. In the spirit of the south and budding camaraderie, I got two Tennessee Iced Teas. Bubba Gump corporate has a rule they can’t put shots in the plastic ICEE, so it’s served on the side. “I could quit Pokémon tomorrow and I wouldn’t miss it,” Sam says, like an alcoholic claiming they could stop drinking tomorrow. We got tipsy and walked together on the ocean.
Xander got a text from a girl, and the table all chimed in to help him navigate it. Masters players often welcome Juniors and Seniors as they mature into the adult bracket in the game. Welcoming them into other rites of passage is no different.
As with most collections and addictions, the finish line was never the finish. Once I collected one of each species of Pokémon, my goal switched to collecting one of each printed card in circulation across sets. Each card set had a number in the bottom, like 3 / 102. It looked like a test score, and I wanted an A. To do that, I needed money, and the spare change in couch cushions and hot water heaters wasn’t cutting it. I needed to think bigger. I heard on our family computer rumors of a new card coming out that could be worth something.
Mew, a cute flying cat that could also learn every attack, was the most expensive rare Japanese card at the time. Rumor had it an English version would be released through the Toys “R” Us league. I immediately put an “AMERICAN HOLOGRAPHIC MEW!!!” for pre-mature sale on eBay. I watched the auction price soar like Mew. $5 to $10 to $25. The final selling price was $50, which is like $10,000 in kids’ money.
When I arrived on Saturday at Toys “R” Us to receive my Mew, there was a roadblock. I had to earn the Mew by doing a certain number of tasks to earn points: trade a card, finish a coloring sheet, and play a game. Fuck. This was gonna take weeks. (Sidenote: I didn’t think “fuck” at the time, but now as an adult I have the language faculties and freedom to give voice to the feeling I was feeling then with a word I now know well and love). Fuck. I scrambled to do three weeks of work in one. Trading a card: check. A coloring sheet: done. Playing a game…this was the hardest part. I had to ask another kid to play and wait for them to make their moves. I got the points no matter if I won or lost, so I threw the game to speed up the outcome. Eventually, and barely, I got the points I needed and returned to the organizer. She had heard that I had sold the card, and begrudgingly gave me my Mew. I held it for a few hours, put it in a protective sleeve, double wrapped it, and shipped it off to a man who had more money than time. I immediately re-invested my $50 in the booster pack market, and asked my parents to drive me two hours to another league.
The Tournament: Day Two
Behind a black curtain at the front of the arena was a makeshift mini-TV studio, where Alex and Slutsky were live-commentating all morning on Twitch: analyzing the matches and moves, interviewing the winners, and doing it all over again. “I’ve been to four finals this year,” Slutsky set up. “I haven’t lost one” was his punchline. His Twitter handle is @SSky57.
I went back into the arena to find Rahul and check in on his progress.
“How’s it going?”
He exhaled slowly.
“That’s the Top 8,” he said, pointing to a table in the middle of the arena. He wasn’t at it.
Shuffle. Cut. Handshake. Play.
Games that will decide who gets $5000, $2500, travel stipends, and Championship Points that lead to Worlds, where glory and gold, fame and fortune, friendly competition and fellowship await were being played. Arena staff started to break down the tables and tablecloths around them.
In seventh grade, I brought a page from my Pokémon collection binder to school to trade with another player. I’d collected all of the Base, Jungle, and Fossil sets, so I didn’t need his card, I was just showing off.
A lockermate noticed the shine of one of my holographic cards.
“Do you play Pokémon?”
I’d been outed.
“Pokémon is for kids, faggot. What are you, six?” is what I heard him say. (He didn’t say any of that. I was my own worst bully.)
I stopped collecting Pokémon that day. As a victim of the adolescent middle school minefield, I wasn’t looking to add any additional targets to my back. So I gave up a thing I loved to try to avoid standing out. I sacrificed my collection to gain admission to the mature mainstream, not realizing that no one actually wants to be there.
Now, here I was: an adult at a well-attended Pokémon tournament. A community had flourished without me.
Top 8 became Top 4 became Top 2.
556 players, just shy of the 807 species of Pokémon, entered the tournament yesterday and battled down to two, with about 20 people watching live and 1,000 people watching on the Twitch livestream. Alex and Slutsky (@SSky57) were commentating; Rahul and Xander were watching; Sam was in the hotel, working.
The tournament winner took his win, stood and let out a loud scream. He ran to his playtest group, who must be as close as the group I’ve followed, and hugged them. The boys I did follow walked out of the arena together and back to the hotel to say their goodbyes.
“See you in three days.” They were all competing in Berlin at an International Championship the following weekend.
These top competitive players are an elite group of intelligent, devoted, hard-working, connected, savvy, sociable people with a passion for Pokémon, glory, and victory that makes it worth the investment of time and funds to compete at a top level at tournaments all over the globe. They are also best friends. Friendships forged not on neighborly proximity, but through tournaments and technology, over texts, Titos, and war stories within a corner of the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. They’re into Pokémon, yes, but they’re into each other.
“It is a kids’ game, designed for 20 and 30-somethings,” Slutsky, whose Twitter handle is @SSky57, had told me earlier in the day. Playing Pokémon is a kids’ game because we’re all kids when we play games, and kids playing games become friends. Maybe that’s what Satoshi saw when he looked at the cord that connected two consoles, and created another cord of his own: the meta-meta-game of playing Pokémon, a cute thing that evolves into something powerful.
A row of vendors was still selling cards and merch, including a first-edition holographic Charizard, the white whale of my youth. His nametag: $2,300. I opted to buy a single booster pack. “We sold out the first day.”
Determined to catch a moment of nostalgia, I headed to the Walgreens’ kids section. On the top shelf was a single booster pack, too high for a child to reach. I thumbed through the Pokémon cards alone: 5 common (circle), 3 uncommon (diamond), 1 rare (star). I didn’t recognize any of them.