The New Pool Halls: Gambling and Magic
- Brian Hacker
The Hustler by Walter Tevis was the book that broke the floodgates open. Middle class America knew nothing of the atmosphere which lurked within the American institution known as the Pool Hall before Tevis' book openly addressed its subculture of deviants, hustlers, players, and otherwise shady individuals. It mythologized the smoky rooms filled with miscreants, men some described as losers, dreamers, men whose lives others from the outside accused of being wasted largely due to the incredible number of hours spent playing on green velvet. These men viewed their lives differently, but to the outside world, the pool hall was a den of evil. Pool halls were also notorious for a reason that doesn't hold true today: They were nearly completely absent women. Time at the Pool Hall was time away from the house, away from the wife, away from a thousand responsibilities. This was part of its lure. The pool hall was a self-contained universe, operating on its own laws, where the value system of the white middle class was ignored. By the time the seventies and eighties rolled around, the situation had drastically changed. Pool halls were devoid of their "seedy" reputation. Pool halls appealed to all ages and all incomes. Posh billiard rooms opened in the nicest parts of towns, and the mythological status of the pool room had all but vanished. Until recently there was no comparable place in American life.
Magic the Gathering is played by people all over the world who only dimly know that there is such a thing as the pro tour. Even people who qualify regularly for events may not know about what pro players do when the tournament has long been over, or when the field is reduced to eight. The casual observer may never notice where most of the pro tour players are come sundown. You may need to look in cafeterias, in bars, in hotel lobbies. You may need to stay awake well into the midnight hours. You may have to search high and low to find that mecca of modern magic, the modern pool hall that is the pro tour money game circuit.
The main players are people who have reputations on the pro tour. No one is surprised to see the names Nate Clarke, David Bachman, Gabe Tsang, John Yoo, Hammer Regnier, John Finkel, Pete Leiher, Jason Opalka, Worth Wolpert. These are regular pro tour people who command respect between the ropes. These are also a sampling of those who regularly turn up to shell out their fifty to play in one of the most enjoyable formats ever created in Magic. Team money draft. The preferred format is 3 on 3, but 4 on 4 and 2 on 2 are almost as common. The stakes are usually 50 dollars a head, but an occasional 40 dollar money game isn't unheard of. Even 100 dollar money games turn up on occasion, when the competitors are well known and confident in themselves and their team.
People play team money draft for as many different reasons as there are people who play them. Some play for the money, looking to hustle scrubs, ducking famous pro tour players. Some play for prestige, showing off their skills to other Magic players in a closed forum. Others play for camaraderie, cheering their teams on, rarely getting the opportunity to play in team games. Some even play for practice knowing that opportunities like this don't come often. The atmosphere is intense with dream "feature matches" the norm. David Bachman vs. Truc Bui. Gabe Tsang vs. Tom Guevin. Pete Leiher vs. Jason Opalka. Igor Frayman vs. Chris Pikula. Don Galitz vs Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz. Matches like these probably account for the popularity of the money game circuit. Decent sized crowds often turn up to watch these matches. Some bystanders itch to enter the action after seeing only but a few, getting their team ready as they watch some playoff between Worth Wolpert and Aziz Al-Doory. Any history of the pro tour would be hollow without an account of some of the more famous of these matches, and some like Chris Pikula vs. Igor Frayman or Jersey vs. Hitmen have become regular parts of a pro tour, as much a part of the draw as the finals.
I would encourage any serious magic player to extend their trip to the pro tour that extra day. Stay till Monday. Play through the night on Sunday. Follow the caravan down to the empty rooms at 4 in the morning. Follow everyone to the cafeteria where another 4 on 4 is just starting. Follow the crowd down to where all that's needed is some empty tables, a few fat wallets, land and some product. For me, that's where you'l find the purest magic is being played. Draft for its own sake. The incentive, perhaps the 50 dollars, but just as much the glory and fame in winning it. Cheating rare, because this is Magic for us, highly competitive Magic where players still play for "fun". Any sampling of the trash talking, permanent-slaming, boasting and overall bravado would lead one to think that this is Wrestling or Basketball, where showmanship is as much a part of the game as mastery. When people write about the search for "fun" Magic and that search turns up empty at their local store, I would only suggest that they head down to the new pool hall, the corner of the room where the money plays are made, where Gary Wise and Gabe Tsang are settling in for another 50 dollar 2 on 2, where Team Jersey attempts to beat us one more time, where Deadguys, Tongo, and David Bachman coexist in peace; yes brother, come on down to the greatest show on Magic earth, the pro tour money game.
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