As the fourth round of the Pokemon Fall Regional Championship was about to start, I was standing at the edge of the play area. Spectators–especially nervous parents like me–are supposed to keep well back to minimize the urge to interfere, but as I scanned the crowd, I could not see my son anywhere.
There were 90 kids playing in his age division, packed together at long tables, and he was not the largest of them by far. Still, I know my own child, right? But I couldn’t spot him. And why was some kid’s mom sitting at the end seat, waving at the judges?
Then she turned around and I realized she was not a mom at all; she was one of the players, and I couldn’t see my son because he was sitting opposite her. I hurried over and took a picture of them setting up for their match. No, she wasn’t an adult, but she did look more like my son’s Teaching Assistant than a kid in his age division.
Monday night my son and I returned (via 24-hour (plus!) train ride each way) from San Jose, where the Pokemon Fall Regional Championships took place. The event covers both video game (played on the DS) and the TCG (which stands for “Trading Card Game”). In the 21st century you might think the video game would dominate everyone’s time and attention, but in fact there were about 150 VG players and nearly 500 TCG players.
My own son is firmly on the card-game side.
This wasn’t my son’s first regionals. Last spring I took him up to Surrey, BC for the spring regionals there. He placed sixth out of forty-four kids, which is pretty good–at least, the border official who interviewed us on the way back into the country seemed impressed. I was pretty happy with his performance, too.
However, Worlds took place last July (August? I know it was summertime), which means the end of one season and the start of another. With the start of the new season, you get the annual change in age divisions: They sort players into three age divisions, and if my kid had been born only six days later, he would be the oldest of the Juniors this season (and kicking ass) instead of the youngest of the Seniors.
Oh my god, I am not kidding when I say he looks so small next to some of these kids.
But that’s the nature of these things: he’s a ten-year-old boy battling 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls, and sometimes the disparity is jarring.
For instance: in his first round he was matched against a kid he knew (and respected) online; in person, he looked like a high school shooting forward. I suspect this kid shaves more often than I do, and to pass along some info that may not seem terribly surprising, he won the that very important first match against my son.
A quick explanation: TCG tournaments are typically in “Swiss rounds” with the number of rounds determined by the number of kids. Ninety kids = seven rounds. In the second round, they match 1-0 players against other 1-0 players and 0-1 against 0-1. In the fourth round, it’s 4-0 vs 4-0, 1-3 vs 1-3, etc.
Here’s why that’s important: With 90 kids and seven rounds, you might end up with one undefeated, 5 with a 6-1 record, and 15 kids who went 5-2. How can you decide which 5-2 players deserve to round out the 16 kids who make “Top Cut” (the TCG version of playoffs)?
The answer is that in Swiss rounds you compare the winning percentages of their opponents. If one 5-2 player faced stronger players than another, they rank higher. And if two players tie in their record and they have a tie for opponents’ win percentage, the next step is to compare the opponents’ opponents’ win percentage. More on that later.
So the important thing, clearly, is not only to win, but to win early so you’re more likely to face winning players. Losing in the first round means you start off facing 0-1 players less likely to give you that vital opponents’ percentage, assuming you can make a comeback. If you want to do really well, you need to beat kids who never lose to anyone but you.
That’s what my son wanted, and that’s what he’s done in the past–not only as a Junior but as a Senior, too. He had hopes to place very high in this tournament and a first round loss was a tough setback.
In the second round he faced another 0-1 kid who was closer to his age and who had brought a deck that should have been a big challenge for my kid. Still, my son beat him. In the third round he faced a kid with a deck that was once pretty popular. My son beat him, too.
At 2-1 after three rounds, he was doing okay. Better to have gotten that loss on round 3 than round one, (his first round opponent was 1-2 at this point. His second round opponent was 0-3). Still, if he kept racking up wins had a chance at Top Cut.
Then: round four against the girl I thought was an adult. She told him before the match that she had come for the VG tournament but brought along a “joke deck” to play in the TCG event.
And she won. Worse, not only did she win, but she beat him with an incredibly frustrating strategy that left his active Pokemon paralyzed. His deck was completely set up to do all his attacks, but he couldn’t. She won the match because he ran out of cards to draw before she did, and not a single Pokemon had been knocked out.
He came over to me with tears in his eyes.
Now, I’ve seen many, many kids cry after they lose a match, and I don’t just mean the littlest kids, either. They’re competitive players with high expectations who work really freaking hard at this game, studying deck lists and strategies endlessly.
But all that work goes up in a puff when you lose.
At this point in the tournament, I had a secret plan. After the first round loss, I worried that he was not going to do well and decided I should have a nice surprise for him. You know, just in case.
So while he was playing a match, I went to the vendor at the side of the room (because if there’s Pokemon going on there’s an opportunity to swipe your credit card down to a plastic wafer three molecules thick) and looked for a plushie Ampharos. (That’s an electrical sheep sort of thing, and for some reason it’s the boy’s favorite.)
My next question: “Do you have a Lanturn Prime?”
Vendor: “Er, Lanturn Prime is a card; the Pokemon is just ‘Lanturn.’ And no, we don’t have it.”
At this point I was tapped out, because those were the only two I was sure he liked. Then the vendor said: “This is a very popular Pokemon with the kids, though, and it’s the only one we have. It’s a Hydreigon.”
It wasn’t very big, just about the size of my hand, and it looks like a mix of a dragon and purplish daisy. I thought He’s playing a Hydreigon deck… why not? “What’s it cost?”
He looked at the label: “Twenty dollars.” At least he had the decency to sound embarrassed.
I bought it anyway and stuffed it into the bottom of my bag for later than night.
But what’s the first thing my teary-eyed son said when he came over after his loss? “I knew I shouldn’t have brought my Hydreigon deck! I knew it!”
My stomach turned sour. I’d just spend twenty bucks on a memento to frustration and loss.
He talked a bit about why he lost and how the game played out, wiping his eyes as he talked. Then he talked about how badly he wanted to make Top Cut, and I tried to tell him all the platitudes parents tell kids when they compete: You did your best. It’s a tough competition. You gotta keep pushing and playing your hardest.
And then he broke my heart by apologizing to me. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, “for making you come all this way.”
As though I was disappointed in him. As though he owed me something.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything better for a kid than a safe space where they can strive and fail, then strive again. Personal development, right? It’s necessary to make him into a happy adult.
But when I’m sitting beside him and he’s wiping tears away, I want to say fuck all that development bullshit. This kid is still too small and fragile for this. I want to step in and fix things for him, somehow. Not that I really could, and not that he’d let me.
Anyway, what I said next is sort of a blur, but I’m pretty sure I insisted that he never apologize to me for this sort of thing again. I told him how proud I was and reminded him that for the first time he was facing much older players in a heavily competitive environment. He also needed to be reminded, apparently, that he was here to make friends with many of these other kids–some of whom had been nothing more than usernames on a message board until then–and he was doing that.
Finally, I’m sure I told him I knew he was going to stick it out for the rest of the tournament and play his best in every round.
Anyway, he went right out and won his fifth round, then his sixth. He knew he might still make Top Cut if he won his last match of the day–some of the kids who make 5-2 would get in. However, the final match was against another kid from Seattle who is at least two years older and a really good player. But my son beat him.
In the end, at 5-2, he “bubbled” which means he was close to making the final 16 but fell short. He took 18th place out of 90 players, and the difference between that and the kid who took 16th came down to a 2.5% difference in their opponents’ win percentage. In fact, he tied opponents’ win percentage with the kid in 17th place, falling behind him because of the opponents’ opponents’ percentage.
But he was happy. He had turned things around and came out with a decent score. It wasn’t what he was hoping for, but he met a lot of great kids, played a shitload of Pokemon, and dragged me to McDonalds three times. He also loved the stuffed Hydreigon, laughed when I told him the story of buying it, and hugged me when I gave it to him. He says Hydreigon is his third favorite Pokemon.
Me, I got no damn writing done at all. I was just too stressed out.