A Kind Of Magic: The Card Game Turning Geeks Into WSOP Gods

As the World Series Of Poker gets down to the business end of the tournament, we take a look at the boardgame that is a breeding ground for the next generation of poker superstars...
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“I just won by playing Darksteel Colossus. It looked jank but then I ripped a Curse of the Fire Penguin.” Simon Jones is from London but he sounds like he’s from another planet… and in a way, he is. The 22-year-old student is a rising star in the strange world of Magic: The Gathering (MTG). You may never have heard of the cult game, but since its invention in 1993 it has captured the attention of six million players in over 75 countries and currently outsells Monopoly and Scrabble combined. Oh, and did I mention it’s also the breeding ground for the next generation of poker superstars.

Despite looking like the bastard child of Dungeons and Dragons and Top Trumps, MTG plays more like a cross between poker and chess. Boasting an instruction manual over 60 pages and with more than 6000 different cards in circulation it’s widely accepted that if you can master MTG then a simple game like Texas Hold ‘Em is a cinch. The point was resoundingly made when MTG alumni, Jon Finkel and David Williams claimed two of the 10 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 prize of $35million

“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. “I couldn’t believe that 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.”

Much of the reason Magic continues to remain underground is that it’s not the most glamorous of pursuits. The Cardiff Grand Prix has all the atmosphere of a physics A-level exam room.

Bought for half a billion dollars by German toy giants Hasbro in 1999, Magic: The Gathering was first designed by Richard Garfield, a Washington maths professor with a hard on for cerebral puzzles. The game made its debut at a game fair in 1993 and became an express train 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 this hugely addictive phenomenon. They call it ‘cardboard crack’.

“It’s not rocket science,” insists Jones as he attempts to explain the rules of Magic to me. Judging by the first cards he turns over: Screeching Griffin, Siege Wurm and Scorched Rusalka, it’s clearly not poker either. Essentially, MTG 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 only be done 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 Late Night Poker on our TV screens any day soon.

Much of the reason Magic continues to remain underground is that it’s not the most glamorous of pursuits. In fact, the Cardiff Grand Prix 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. The nearest thing to sartorial elegance is a yellowing t-shirt adorning one podgy belly which proudly declares: “I have nothing to compare apart from my genius.” The owner might as well be carrying a 10 foot flashing neon sign saying ‘Welcome to Nerd Country’.

Are all Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts geeks, I wonder? “There are quite a lot of people here with no social skills,” admits Neil Rigby. 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 and you’re making money and getting to travel the world then it’s a good hobby.”

The man has a point. 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 $3million in cash prizes. Easy going Parisian slacker, Antoine Ruel, is considered to be the Joe Hatchem of MTG. 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 MTG. “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.”

Magic allows kids to refine the skills of poker long before they can get into a casino, they may look like geeks but they come to the poker table like bionic men.

Increasingly though, players aren’t content with the relatively small prizes MTG offers and 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 confident 24-year-old from Argentina, claims that 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.

Those with a flair for MTG do 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 Richard Garfield, referring to the fact that each year new cards are released by Hasbro causing the game to constantly evolve. “I believe, all else being equal, a Magic player has a distinct advantage over other poker players.”

Dubbed ‘the future of poker’ by Playboy Magazine, David Williams, is hard evidence of the power of Magic. “It seems that most of the people who are successful at MTG have the right type of mind to be successful at poker,” says the 25-year-old WSOP runner up when I caught up with him in Vegas. “Magic trains you to use your brain plus it teaches you stamina. Having played in Magic tournaments I already knew how to stay focused for days on end.”

In 2004, David Williams showed millions of MTG players exactly what they could achieve if they switched their talents to poker: unlimited riches and social acceptance to boot. In the next 20 years, David Kushner 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.” So next time you go heads up with someone and they start muttering about “playing Darksteel Colossus” or “ripping a Curse of the Fire Penguin,” be afraid. Be very afraid.

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