There’s always something bigger behind the Central Alberta Pokemon League, the dozen or so hobbyists who still play the Trading Card Game (TCG) together on Sundays at Nerd City, 20 years after the media franchise’s initial craze hit screens and tabletops.
Sylvan Lake resident Brad Hughes is the founder of the group. He and his two sons, Blake, 8 and Isaak, 6, started playing in Pokemon leagues about three years ago while living in Calgary.
But when they moved to Central Alberta, they couldn’t find one to keep up with their new hobby. So Brad started his own.
He needed to pass an exam to become a professor, an official who organizes and adjudicates Pokemon league events and tournaments.
It turns out there’s an extensive governing structure for the game and Pokemon cares about how you play it.
Every participant has a unique ID they use to register in tournaments with. That ensures accountability.
“If you cheat, you go onto a list and you’re not allowed to play,” said Brad, who works shifts as a power engineer in Fort McMurray.
He adds that before game-play, officials check every card in players’ decks, making sure they’re legal. They also check the sleeves for scuffs, marks or anything that could be used for an unfair advantage.
Professors must pass a background check and adhere to Pokemon’s Core Values – integrity, honesty, responsibility and professionalism. They ensure participants do the same.
“At the beginning of every game, what you’re supposed to do is called, ‘shake, shake shuffle.’ You shake hands, you shake a dice to see who goes first, then you shuffle your deck and begin playing. You say good luck to your opponent. At the end of every match, you shake hands and say, ‘good game,’” Brad said.
While there are a few teen-aged players, the kids who frequent Brad’s league tend to be about 10-years-old.
“It’s tough for them to control their emotions. They lose a game and they cry because they want to win,” he said.
Brad makes the case the card game teaches kids more than interpersonal skills.
There’s a learning curve to playing Pokemon the ‘official’ way. You place different cards in different places in front of you, for different reasons. But the most basic premise is that of the television show — Pokemon battle each other like prizefighters.
They attack, dealing damage to opponents’ hit points or rendering some kind of impairment like sleep, confusion or paralysis. But to do so, players must attach energy cards to their Pokemon.
But then there are ‘Support’ and ‘Trainer’ cards that come with even more instructions, allowing players to draw from their decks, swap cards, quash opponents’ energy and more.
Ultimately, you’re at the mercy of luck and the cards you’re dealt. But to make the most of them, reading comprehension is key.
Brad started the league at the Sylvan Lake library. But he later moved it to Red Deer’s Nerd City, with game-play happening on tables and chairs set up in the back of the store. The chatter between Pokemon trainers gets noisy.
Mike Dempsey owns the downtown shop. He started playing board games in his 20s. He has owned businesses before, including a security company in Fort McMurray.
“My heart was not in (the security company). It was purely business. I always wanted to do something that I was more passionate about, that didn’t really revolve around money, money, money,” Dempsey said.
Each week, his store hosts players of tabletop games like Magic the Gathering, Warhammer, Warmachine and Dungeons and Dragons. He saw demand in the City for a place where people could play together.
In Brad, he saw a shared vision of community building.
“I stress that it’s a clubhouse. It’s a place you can come, it’s a safe environment, hang out, see your friends and spend quality time,” Dempsey said. “There are a lot of hobby genres that haven’t been supported in Red Deer for a long time.”
He sees the remnant of those who play Pokemon as returning to tactile play with human contact, as an escape from the digital world.
“As much as kids have all the electronics in their faces, the trading cards are tangible. They’re holding it, they’re playing it. They’re forced to interact with each other,” Dempsey said.
“It’s really refreshing for me. You see a young boy come in with his father, they learn to play together and start competing together. The sister gets involved because she sees it’s exciting. All of this is very exciting for me.”
That’s the kind of family affair Pokemon is for the Hugheses. Blake is a wide-eyed, emerging Pokemaster. He’s played in championship tournaments at the City, provincial and regional level, where qualification points are earned toward a trip to the World Pokemon Championships.
That’s where they went last summer, to San Francisco.
The stakes were high. Cash and scholarships were awarded as prizes. They range from $25,000 for a first place finish, to $1,500 for 32nd place.
Blake finished with a winning record on his first day of competition but did not advance.
Back home, Blake recently finished first in his age class at the Alberta Open, a provincial-level tournament. Brad said his son has a strong understanding of his cards and how best to use them.
It’s not easy. Pokemon can be a complex game and that’s why Brad is there to teach the rules and ensure that people are having fun. It’s what a professor does. Shake on it.