Image: Jason Koebler

I Tried to Play in the Pokémon World Championships and Failed Miserably

I won a high-profile Pokémon tournament in 1999. Surely the game hasn't changed that much since then, right?

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Aug 24 2015, 5:00pm

Image: Jason Koebler

On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1999, I sat in the back of my parents' new minivan, wracked with a terrible bout of indecision. Should I substitute a Poké Ball card for the Pokemon Trader card in my otherwise perfect Pokémon deck? Would luck be on my side that day? Would the coin flips favor me? As we rolled up to the Washington DC Convention Center for one of the first-ever regional Pokémon tournaments, I decided to make the switch. It remains to this day one of the most anxiety-inducing decisions I've ever made. I was 11.

In retrospect, this was an utterly stupid decision. Why leave my ability to find a Blastoise card in my Raindance deck to chance, when I could have easily discarded a Squirtle or something to guarantee I'd get my deck moving more quickly? Even though it worked out on that day—I won all six games I played but missed out on a trip to Hawaii for an international tournament because undefeated players were entered into a drawing—I still think about how dumb I was to make that switch.

What I'm saying is that Pokémon mattered to me, a lot.

And so, 16 years later, I was more than a little curious at what would happen at the Pokémon World Championships in Boston.

Anyway, who goes to a Pokémon tournament in 2015? Is Pokémon still even popular?

Image: Jason Koebler

"My perspective is it was so big back then, in the late 90s, that it's hard to do anything to compare to that," JC Smith, director of consumer marketing for the Pokémon Company, told me. "It was so everpresent—schools had problems with it, it was on every news report, it was taking over America. Now, we've kind of settled into this space of being a good brand."

I recognized barely any of the Pokemon—would the people playing it be unfamiliar, too? Who is still playing Pokémon, and why?

As I walked into Boston's Hynes Convention Center and saw people huddled around Nintendo DSes and deck protectors, however, a more pressing question immediately took over my thoughts: Could I still beat anyone at Pokémon?

Both the video game and the trading card game have changed a lot in the last 15 years: The goal is still pretty much the same—to use your Pokémon to knock out your opponent's Pokémon. But, In the video game, there are now two-on-two battles, different "stances" the Pokemon can take, and more math in general. It's gotten to the point where competitors scribble various arithmetic on spiral notebooks as they navigate a battle.

Fans watch a match. Image: Jason Koebler

The card game has changed even more. There are four sets released each year, and, usually, only cards issued in the newest sets are eligible for tournament play. There are all sorts of new card types, including Pokémon tools and stadium cards and supporter cards that make the whole thing way more complex than the simple game I remember from when I was 11 years old.

Worse yet, I didn't have a deck and haven't looked at a Pokémon card in probably a decade. Competing against the best in the world, even if they were in a children's division, probably would not go very well. So, of course, I tried it immediately.

After watching a pair of 15-year-olds play an impossibly complicated game that I could barely follow, I challenged James Salay of Phoenix to a quick match, using a pre made theme deck I was able to track down at the tournament. Let it be known that theme decks are thoroughly incapable of beating perhaps any custom-made deck. Let it also be known that Salay thrashed me in four turns, spouting such helpful hints as "did you forget to draw a card?" and "You're poisoned now. You're dead" and pity like "it's such a confusing game right now."

Salay wore a backwards fitted cap, was talkative and personable, and had finished in the top 32 at the World Championships last year. He probably sits at the cool lunch table at school. He is much more at ease as a Pokemon master than I ever was.

My return to glory would be difficult, if not impossible.

Various "Professor Oaks" debrief after a round of the tournament. They judge any cheating that may occur. Image: Jason Koebler

Still, I had a plan. I headed downstairs to enter a tournament open to norms like me. I settled on a booster draft tournament, in which you get six packs of cards and have to construct a deck on the spot. At least we'd all be on even footing, I thought.

Suddenly, my childhood came back to me: I was excitedly peeling back the foil of each pack, looking for some large dragon or overpowered card. I studied each Pokémon's abilities and managed to understand how some of the new types of cards introduced would work in practice. I opted for a water deck, of course, and was rewarded with a Gyrados capable of doling out 100 damage each turn. I selected cards similar to those that let me crush the dreams of children back when I was one myself.

After 20 minutes, I had a deck filled mostly with Pokémon that you've probably heard of—just like in fantasy football, I had a noted bias toward players and/or Pokémon I recognized.

My opponent was a dad from Pennsylvania who had driven to the tournament with two kids who would not shut up about the Very Rare card he had pulled from a pack and which one of them would ultimately get to keep it. Said dad had no choice in who he played, and as such did not sign up to be interviewed by a journalist trying to relive his glory days.

High-profile matches take place on stage. Image: Jason Koebler

In any case, things started off just fine: This guy was simply A Dad™, not a diehard Ash Ketchum-type. Nonetheless, he had been playing the game for years and certainly knew what he was doing. I drew some Porygons and an Eevee and sent them to do battle.

I quickly knocked out two of his Pokémon and thought I would win this match handily. My bloodlust came back. This is the same game I spent years of my youth playing—I would not let some random guy beat me. The dad told me that I was playing just fine and that it was obvious I had once been good and that I was not showing any signs of rust. That much was obvious, I thought, as I was wiping the floor with him.

But then something very bad happened. Some sort of grass vine monster that is not Bulbasaur or anything else I've ever seen was able to pull my weak Pokémon onto the battlefield and confuse them, meaning there is a 50 percent chance that, when they attack, they hurt themselves. This is, obviously, what came to pass. In their haze, my Pokémon began killing themselves off one by one. I had no fancy new cards to stop what was happening. Another failed coin flip sealed my fate. My journey had ended before it really started, in the proverbial Pallet Town that is the first round of a tournament open to everyone. I could not bring myself to spend an additional $30 in a vain attempt to beat anyone at the game.

Image: Jason Koebler

The dad grabbed his cards and started playing someone else, unaware that he had just made me feel very bad about myself. I packed up my cards and put them in my pocket. I walked upstairs and looked at the families, the kids, the older nerds who had been here since the beginning. Everyone was having the time of their lives. I was bummed.

I looked around the room at kids so young that they could probably barely read their cards. They were from more than 35 countries. Translators from all over the world help the kids out with any disputes, but tell competitors that they "all speak Pokemon," and half of these kids have the cards so memorized, the machinations of gameplay so ingrained that language doesn't really matter at all.

My deck. Image: Jason Koebler

Over in the corner, people wearing Pikachu hats and carrying Rayquaza dolls stood in line to play Pokken Tournament, a Japanese Tekken clone that's going to be coming to the United States next year. I overheard people of all ages discussing battle strategy as they watched live matches, using a language that seemed familiar to be but still totally foreign. Members of a Pokémon club from the Rochester Institute of Technology drove down to grab some swag from the Pokémon Center store. I asked dozens of people what their favorite Pokemon is, only to realize I didn't recognize half the names. The Pokémon who battled each other on giant screens didn't look like any I'd seen before. That anyone would threaten violence against the event is truly bizarre and scary.

Finally, I found a fellow late-20-something who had lost touch with Pokémon but who had loved it in his youth. He lives in Boston and decided to swing by to see what it was all about. The last Pokemon he played was Red. His favorite Pokémon is Pikachu. He's a casual. I mentioned that it's hard to believe there's probably like 500 Pokémon, these days. An eight-year-old interrupted us, saying that there are exactly 721 Pokémon, and he could name them for me if I wanted but first he had to beat his friend in a battle, again.

Who are the people who still go to a Pokémon tournament? They are me, and they are you and Pokémon is still pretty cool. And maybe they'll lose interest one day, but for now, there's another game to play.