Putting on your Poke face

A look into the still-evolving world of competitive Pokémon

The Pokemon Trading Card Game Nevada State Championship took place Saturday, March 13 at Little Shop of Magic in Las Vegas.
Photo: April Corbin

An abandoned liter-bottle of Fanta, no less than half a dozen different types of energy drinks, the requisite Mountain Dew bottle and a bag of crunchy Cheetos can all be spotted in this crowded room. Punctured tennis balls cap the legs on dozens of chairs to prevent screeching noises and scratch marks on the floors. One young man is wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Can my clefable metronome ditto's transform, and then copy its own minimize, but for only one energy? Huh? Can it? Huh?" — which is probably amusing to the rest of the people in the room but would read like Geek to almost everyone outside it.

This is definitely a room of gamers — Pokémon gamers, to be exact ̵ and, no, this is not a flashback to the year 2000.

Pokémon — the billion-dollar international franchise involving a trading-card game, movies, television shows, video games, fast food toys and almost anything else one can think of — is still going strong, despite having fallen out of the spotlight shortly after its mainstream heyday in the early 2000s. The 117 eager competitors in the Pokémon Nevada State Championship already know all that, though.

Karl Batdorff, the organizer of today's event puts it this way, "Pokémon has a very strict and loyal following," and even that glowing generalization seems like a massive understatement.

The surprisingly complicated trading-card game involves two players "battling," using their hand-selected 60-card deck consisting of Pokémon and support cards that can boost the strength of said pocket monsters. Current boxes of cards set the recommended age of play at 10 years and up, though many fans of the franchise were sucked in at much younger ages.

Pokemon State Championship

Anna Weston is only eight years old, but she swears she has been into Pokémon for five years. Her father, William Weston, who plays the trading-card game along with Anna and her three brothers, does little to suggest his daughter is fibbing. According to William, the eldest Weston child was only three years old when he began wanting those Burger King Pokémon toys. Collecting those was what eventually brought their family into the trading-card game.

As for what kept them there and away from other popular trading-card games: "They are satanic," William Weston says of two competing card games. "Yu-Gi-Oh includes demon cards; Magic (the Gathering) talks about other realms. Pokémon is just about monsters. So, I don't mind the kids being into it."

(Actually, various religious groups have pegged the game's themes as occult. Their criticisms have something to do with the violent nature of cartoon characters that speak in high-pitched voices and that whole "evolution" thing the creatures are so fond of.)

Religious issues aside, what William Weston appreciates most about the game are those crucial strategy and math skills children can learn. He runs Pokémon tournaments and study groups for children in their hometown of Kingman, Arizona.

A judge watches 8-year-old Patrick Martinez during the junior division championship round of the Pokemon Trading Card Game Nevada State Championship.

Though the Weston family resides out of state, that does not disqualify them from participating in the Nevada State Championship. In fact, the eventual winners of all three divisions — 8-year-old Patrick Martinez in juniors (born in 1998 or later), 11-year-old Jason Martinez in seniors (born in 1994-1997) and 21-year-old Giang Vu in masters (born in 1993 or earlier) — wind up being from California. It may not seem quite right, but that's fair game for these tournaments.

Scoring second place in juniors is Ryan Hines, who is from Las Vegas. Actually, he lives five minutes away from the Little Shop of Magic, where the tournament was held. He is here with his father, Kerry Hines, who also plays with the trading-card game.

"It's like chess, but the cards change all the time," the elder Hines says. "My son got into it. I used to just watch, thinking, 'That's a kid's game,' until I realized, 'Wow, this is very strategic.'"

The Pokemon Trading Card Game Nevada State Championship took place Saturday, March 13 at Little Shop of Magic in Las Vegas.

Hines now helps run Saturday Pokémon matches at the game shop, which also hosts Magic matches and other nerdy-but-awesome events. He does not do nearly as well in his master's division as his son in junior's, but that is okay by him. "I play because my son wants to."

Such relationships are a staple of the Pokémon universe, Batdorff says. "It is a lot of families," he says. "The emphasis of Pokémon International is always on the spirit of the game."

The "spirit of the game" also includes no cheating (though judges, including a "Pokémon Professor" head judge wearing a lab coat, do walk around the tables looking for dubious card actions) and no swearing inside the shop, no matter how angry that bastard Garchomp makes you.

It also involves not being a sore loser. Standing at four losses and zero wins, Charles Norlander has every right to be a bit cranky, but he's not. He has that spirit thing down. "It gives me something to do," the 20-year-old from Kingman says. "This is just fun."

The Pokemon Trading Card Game Nevada State Championship took place Saturday, March 13 at Little Shop of Magic in Las Vegas.

Fun enough even to spend an entire Saturday in a crowded game shop. The tournament begins at almost 11 a.m., pushed back from 10 a.m. because organizers had to buy more chairs and tables to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd of 117 competitors. It does not wrap until well past sunset.

That is a full day of Poké-ing. Not bad for a game you thought died in 2002.


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