Don’t ignore the geeky kid next time he’s at your poker table or
you may not know what’s hit you. Matthew Weiner investigates
the unlikely poker training ground that’s churning out ‘bionic men’
|Being a top Magic player can be lucrative – starting as young as 14 they travel the world competing in tournaments for m in cash prizes|
Simon Jones is from Bridgend but he sounds like he’s from another planet. ‘I just won by playing Darksteel Colossus. It looked jank but then I ripped a Curse of the Fire Penguin.’ Then again, in a way he is. The 22-year-old student is a rising star in the strange world of Magic: The Gathering – the cult card game that outsells Monopoly and Scrabble combined. Oh, and did we not say, it’s also the breeding ground for the next generation of poker superstars.
You may never have heard of the game, but since its invention in 1993 it has captured the attention of six million players in 75 countries. Despite looking like the bastard child of Dungeons & Dragons and Top Trumps, Magic plays more like a cross between poker and chess. Boasting an instruction manual over 60 pages long and with more than 6,000 different cards in circulation, it’s easy to see why Magic veterans regard a simpler game like Texas hold’em as a cinch.
The point was resoundingly made when Magic alumni Jon Finkel and David Williams claimed two of the ten spots at the final table of the 2004 World Series of Poker. One of these players, Williams, went on to take second place, and a new life of poker fame. ‘That was when Magic players stormed the beaches,’ says New Jersey writer David Kushner, whose new book Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids tells the story of ‘the geeks who beat the odds and stormed Las Vegas’.
Kushner witnessed his first Magic tournament in Seattle in 2004, just after Williams’ success in the WSOP. ‘It was exciting to walk into such a new and unexplored world,’ he says. ‘Here was this sport that was having such a profound impact on young people from all over the world, and yet it had been completely overlooked.’
Bought for $0.5bn in 1999 by German toy giant Hasbro, Magic: The Gathering was first designed by Richard Garfield, a Washington maths professor with a passion for cerebral puzzles. The game made its debut at a games fair in 1993 and became a runaway success. Within its first year of production 300 million Magic cards were sold, and by 1995, the game was pulling in $127 million a year. People magazine declared it the dawn of ‘Generation Hex’ but gamers had their own term for the hugely addictive Magic: ‘cardboard crack’.
‘It’s not rocket science,’ insists Jones, as he attempts to explain the rules of Magic to me during a break in play at the Cardiff Grand Prix. Judging by the first cards he turns over (Screeching Griffin, Siege Wurm and Scorched Rusalka) it’s clearly not poker either. Magic is a two-player game in which each person starts with a hand of seven cards. ‘Spell’ cards are used to attack your opponent which can be done only if you have sufficient ‘manna’ cards. Each player has 20 points and when you’ve lost yours, your opponent wins. I think it’s safe to say, Magic: The Gathering will not be replacing poker on our TV screens any day soon.
In fact, the Cardiff event has all the atmosphere of a physics A-level exam room, with players sitting quietly in rows while referees in black-and-white striped shirts patrol up and down like mean-spirited invigilators. It’s an almost entirely female-free zone and style doesn’t appear to be anybody’s number one concern.
However, being a top Magic player can provide a lucrative lifestyle. Starting as young as 14, the elite travel around the world competing in tournaments for $3 million in cash prizes.
Easy-going Parisian slacker Antoine Ruel is considered to be the Joe Hachem of Magic. Formerly a student of sports science, the 26-year-old gave up his degree when he realised he could earn $40,000 a year just from playing Magic. ‘Being a Magic pro is an easy life,’ he grins. ‘I only have to work about 65 days a year and I get to travel all over the world.’
Raphael Levy, a 25-year-old professional Magic player from Toulouse agrees. ‘I think if you’re a casual Magic player you’re a nerd,’ he says, ‘but if you’re a pro you’re making money and getting to travel the world’.
But increasingly, Magic players are turning to poker for the bigger pots. ‘I live in a house with four pro Magic players and two of them have decided to quit for poker,’ says Ruel. Jose Ignacio Barbero, a 24-year-old from Argentina, says he used to make $30,000 a year playing Magic but is now hauling in $200,000 thanks to poker. ‘Right now, I make so much money – like too much,’ he says. ‘This year I will win the World Series of Poker.’
MAGIC HOLDS THE ACES
That’s debatable, but something that’s not is that those with a flair for Magic tend to be big hitters on the poker table. ‘Magic is a more difficult game to master because the game itself changes rather than merely how people play it,’ says the game’s designer Garfield, referring to how each year new cards are released by Hasbro, causing the game to constantly evolve. ‘I believe that a Magic player has a distinct advantage over other poker players.’
Dubbed ‘the future of poker’ by Playboy magazine, Williams is living proof of the power of Magic – the 2004 WSOP runner-up showing millions of Magic players that switching their talents to poker could win them riches and social acceptance. ‘It seems most of the people who are successful at Magic have the right type of mind to be successful at poker,’ 25-year-old Williams tells me when I catch up with him in Vegas (see our Q&A box, right). ‘Having played in Magic tournaments, I already knew how to stay focused for days on end.’
In the next 20 years, Kushner firmly believes we’ll see more and more top poker players with a Magic background. ‘Magic allows kids to refine the skills of poker long before they can get into a casino,’ he says. ‘They may look like geeks but they come to the poker table like bionic men.’