Neutral Ground was opened in May of 1995, on 27th and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. My first trip to the Ground was in late October of that year, after I had moved back to Long Island to live with my mom and brother. I believe it was a Wednesday when I first came to Neutral Ground, because I bought a one week pass for entrance.
One week pass? That’s right, Neutral Ground charged a fee for entry – there were daily, weekly, five-day, monthly, and yearly memberships, all of which required money. You could also get free one day admission with the purchase of $20 worth of merchandise. While it might seem strange to most of you that a gaming shop would charge an entry fee to enter the play area, keep in mind that the real estate prices in New York City are absolutely insane when compared to virtually every other market in the United States. In order for Neutral Ground to be financially solvent, this was a necessary evil.
This has also attracted a demographic to Neutral Ground which is unlike any other. A majority of the paying customers (at least, in my days there) were not grade and high school students, but college students, pre-professionals, and self-employed adults. The racial mix was also a lot more diverse than you’d otherwise normally find at a Magic event – it’s no secret that Magic’s main audience are young White males. At Neutral Ground, we had a healthy mix of people from every ethnic background.
I wish I could remember more about my first visit to Neutral Ground. Unfortunately, my memory of that period in my life isn’t as lucid as I’d like it to be – the whole divorce really played a lot of tricks on my mind. A lot of the day to day happenings are lost to me, but there is a ton of stand out incidents that I remember vividly. For instance, I couldn’t tell you who was at Neutral Ground that day – it could have been Poker Ken, who had been banned from every gaming house in the city, and had found a new game in Magic. It might have been Hogan Long, the chain-smoking Neutral Ground webmaster and eventual good friend of mine. It may have even been Cary Newburger, multiple time pro player one of the kindest men ever to play a game of Magic.
I can say with certainty that one person who definitely was there, on that October day, was Hashim Bello.
Many of you may know Hashim Bello, or may have heard of him in the past. Hashim attended several Pro Tours, and while he never had a breakthrough performance, he was always respected for his play. Scratch that – he was almost always respected for his play. Hashim is a tall, lanky Jamaican man with a huge chip on his shoulder. He’s extremely affable when he wants to be, but can shift from friendly to confrontational and brooding without a moment’s notice. This happened all the time, including in the middle of a match – Hashim loved, loved talking trash, but would often let this trash talk distract from his game. Brian David-Marshall, one of the owners of Neutral Ground at the time, described Hashim quite accurately as "the worst best pro player he’d ever seen." This was true: Hashim was definitely able to bring the game, but he was so utterly self-defeating and self-destructive that no amount of play skill could save him from himself.
Hashim was also my first opponent ever at Neutral Ground. I came that day with my Black/Green/White Deathlace deck in hand. It was mid-day, so there weren’t many players yet in the room – but Hashim was sitting there, fiddling with a deck at the table. I approached him, looking for a game.
Me: "Hey, do you want to play a game?"
Hashim (Not looking up): "No."
Me: "Oh, ok."
Hashim (Still not looking up): "I’ll beat you though."
Hashim (Looking up): "Just sit down, let’s play."
Me: "Ok." (Extending hand for handshake). I’m Ben."
Hashim: "I don’t care who you are. You’re going to lose?"
Someone else at the Ground: "Hashim, don’t be a dick."
Hashim: "I’m not. I’m just going to beat his ass to the ground."
Me: "I don’t know. My deck is pretty good."
Hashim: "I’ve never seen you before. "
Me: "I just moved up here from New Orleans."
Hashim: "Oh, so that makes you hot **** now?"
Me: "I did pretty well down there."
Hashim: "You’re in New York City now. Your country **** doesn’t mean **** here."
Other guy: "Hashim, give the kid a break – he’s new here."
Hashim: "Fine, let’s just play." (Shuffles deck)
Me: (finished shuffling) Good luck!
Hashim (angry): "Do you think you’re better than me?"
Hashim (louder, leaning in towards my face): "Are you saying that I’m going to need luck to beat you? That’s I’m not as good as you?"
Me: "Uhhhhh….that’s not what I’m saying at all"
Other guy: "Hashim, knock that **** off. The kid just wants a game."
Me: "Yeah, I didn’t mean anything by it. I just was being polite. You know, wishing you good luck."
Hashim (leaning back): "I don’t need your luck. Are you saying I need luck?"
Me: "Look, just forget about it."
Hashim: "I’m not going to wish you good luck. I want you to lose."
(The game progresses)
Hashim: "What kind of piece of **** deck is this?"
Me: "It’s my Deathlace deck."
Hashim (derisive): "Oooooh! Is that the ‘tech’ down in New Orleans?"
Me: "I’ve done pretty well with this deck down there."
Hashim: "Listen up. This is New York City, and your farm boy deck won’t cut it up here with the big boys."
Me: "We’ll see."
Hashim: "Oh, we won’t see. I’m going to smash you. I’m going to smash and mash you. (Slams fists down on table) Smash and mash and bash! I’m gonna beat you so bad you’re never going to want to play Magic again!"
Hashim beat me that game, and I just got up and went to play someone else. In retrospect, my deck really was that bad, and it didn’t stand a chance against the much more advanced technology cultivated in the New York area. Hashim and I never did play two out of three that day, and my initial impression of him was that he was a prick of the highest order. That impression was pretty accurate, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that Hashim was cultivating a persona and using intimidation tactics to win. Over the coming months, I would play both with and against Hashim many a time, and would come to know him as a friend.
Ben can be reached at [email protected].