Good Beats: Mind Sports

As an American citizen, I had to endure quite a media circus over the past few weeks. The outcome of a very important event was in doubt. I would read the newspaper each morning with bated breath, looking for more information, always wondering how and when this huge spectacle would play out. After much waiting,…

As an American citizen, I had to endure quite a media circus over the past few weeks. The outcome of a very important event was in doubt. I would read the newspaper each morning with bated breath, looking for more information, always wondering how and when this huge spectacle would play out. After much waiting, some judicious nail biting, and a few silent prayers, the verdict came down. Man, was I ever disappointed when I heard…

…That Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers – 10 years, $252 million. Personally, I was hoping he’d stay with Seattle, my favorite American League team.

I love sports. They’re in my blood. My dad pitched in the minor leagues as part of the Dodgers organization during the ’50’s, his path to the Majors blocked by future Hall-of-Famers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. My brother, Neil, was a top-notch baseball prospect at Oklahoma State until several unfortunate injuries ended his career. Me? I never could do much on the field, but I play a mean game of Strat-O-Matic.

Sports permeate my thoughts. As a writer, I’m always looking for a good way to get my point across, often using analogies or comparisons to do so. Sports, being a competitive endeavor, are ubiquitous enough in our society to offer several good reference points that more or less correspond to events or situations that arise in Magic. I’m not the only writer to use such comparisons; Chad Ellis over at the Dojo used football and basketball examples when trying to debunk the Intentional Draw myth, and Mike Mason just did a fine piece here last week comparing new deck types to football’s vaunted West Coast Offense.

But just because we can draw a few parallels between Magic and pro sports, does that mean they can be considered peers? People toss the word”sport” around a little too freely when talking about Magic – especially pro-level Magic – but you have to wonder if that label is fair. Or is it just being used in an attempt to lend credibility to this hobby?

Airtime on ESPN2 aside, pro sports and pro Magic are definitely not peers. Just look at the money, and I’m not talking about A-Rod’s quarter-billion-dollar bonanza, either. I’m talking about the individual (non-team) sports where each guy earns his own paycheck. I checked a couple of months ago, and Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten had already earned $1.6 million this year on the tennis circuit. Golf is another good example – and I’ll even throw out the anomaly that is Tiger Woods – David Duval has made well over $3 million in the year 2000, and Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, and at least seven others are over the $2 million mark. That kind of green makes Jon Finkel $200,000 lifetime earnings look pretty meager, as far as sports are concerned.

“If Magic is a game, which I believe it is, why does it seem that no one plays it like a game? If it is a sport, why aren’t people breathing hard after a round (and emphysema does NOT count)?” – Shawn Jackson, CCGPrime

At their base incarnations, all recreational contests can be called games: A”game” of Magic or a basketball”game.” But the popular, physical contests become”sports” at their higher levels, taking on a new identity as something big and important. Magic will never be as big and important as organized team sports or even tennis and golf, so calling Magic a”sport” is mislabeling it at best, and sarcastically exaggerating it at worst. But Magic can be considered more than just a game, in my opinion.

I was browsing the pictures from Grand Prix Singapore when I stumbled upon this image – check out the hat closely: www.wizards.com/sideboard/images/GPSING00/967.jpg.

Mind Sport. I think I like that classification – slightly mysterious with just a touch of pretentiousness. But in today’s American culture, where male adult/adolescent leisure time is usually equated to Miller High Life, the Man Show, or the WWF,”Mind Sport” might as well mean”Nerd Festival.” That’s probably why you don’t hear it used very enthusiastically in the United States, if at all. In Asian countries, I’m sure the”nerd” stigma is much less profound (although I’m not sure about how intellectual pursuits are perceived in Europe).

So assuming Mind Sport is a good definition of what Magic really is, what are its peers? If you check out the MindZine (www.msoworld.com/mindzine/news/front.html), an online gaming publication dedicated to other Mind Sports, you’ll see that the big ones are Chess, Go, and Bridge – three venerable pastimes that set the standard for thinking competition. Others are slightly more modern, like Backgammon, Scrabble, and Poker. (Mention is made of other Eastern games – Xiangqi, Mah Jong, Renju, and Shogi – but my lack of exposure to any of these games prevents me from expounding.) It should be obvious that Magic is the new kid on the block here, as many of these games have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – Scrabble being the youngest at merely 52 years old. Magic will have to be around for at least twenty years, I think, before it will be given the respect that the others in this club have; but for now, we’ll still consider these games Magic’s peers.

Obviously, there’s no reason for me to drag on about the merits of each of the above games; instead, I’d like to show just how much alike (or different) they are in regard to Magic at the highest organized level.


“Think of all the things you’re doing in your life where you’re just a leaf in the wind. You drive to work, you’re on autopilot; you eat your food, you’re on autopilot. How many times a day are you going to be challenged mentally? Guess what? Chess is going to do that for you.” -Chess Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan

It seems pretty easy to replace”Chess” in that quote with”Magic.” The mental challenge is a big reason for someone like me, who spends most of his workday feeling like said leaf. Sure, my job requires me to think here and there, but nothing as exhilarating as poring over a fresh pack in a booster draft or sideboarding during a Type 2 showdown. The need of a competitive release is also why we”game.” Generally, people need an outlet to show that they are good at something. Some people play the stock market, some have weekend softball leagues, and we have games. Most of these games have parallel apexes – besting a slew of opponents on the way to winning a Magic Pro Tour has to be on par with becoming a Life Master at Bridge, a Grand Master at Chess, or a World Champion at Scrabble. There is probably no greater satisfaction than to be recognized by a circle of competitors as one of the best at what you do. The fun and mental challenge part is why we game; the competitive release is why we game hard.

I will concede that winning isn’t everything, though, and definitely not the only motivation for getting involved in Mind Sports. For Joan Rosenthal of New South Wales, Australia, Scrabble has meant making friends around the world, who understand and share her weird fascination with the potential of seven tiles on a rack. Sound familiar? Competitors in all the grand games travel great distances, usually using their own money, just to be surrounded by those with common interests. I have always said that being surrounded by intelligent, driven (and often quirky) people is one of the main reasons why I enjoy going to Magic events. Scrabble players, just like Magic players, create new friendships and nurture existing bonds via the Internet – there are several mailing lists for tournament players, most well subscribed and quite active. Scrabble players, I’m told, tend to be gregarious and sociable, at least with each other. I’m not sure there’s a #scrabblewacky channel out there on mIRC, but no one’s perfect.

The human need to succeed may only be eclipsed by the need to fit in. These gaming groups give us healthy opportunities to satisfy both cravings.


I’m sure that when Skaff Elias and his boys were setting up the Pro Tour, and with it, all of competitive Magic, they borrowed heavily from the systems used by the other Mind Sports.

Sticking with Scrabble… Almost all Scrabble tournaments are non-elimination; that is, every player plays in every round. The few exceptions include the World Championship, which features – for the sake of heightened media excitement – a best-of-five playoff between the top two finalists from a preliminary round. They arrange the tournaments that way mainly out of tradition and a sense of entitlement on the part of participating players (they pay their entry fee, they expect to play lots of games). Another consideration is that, unlike chess, there’s an element of chance that can be partly remedied by not eliminating players just because they have a few unlucky games at the start of a tournament. That might sound like a strange set up, but it’s exactly how Magic tournaments are run. You have the right to play every round no matter what happens to you (even though few of us actually invoke that right). Scrabble, however generally lacks the elimination rounds at the end, equivalent to Magic’s Top 8. This reduces the temptation for intentional draws, since the winner is decided strictly by the number of wins. There is occasionally an incentive for players not in contention for first to play to a draw, however, in order to improve their chances of being higher in the standings. If the players refuse to play a game, though, they will both suffer forfeits; and if it comes to a director’s attention that they have colluded to achieve a tie, they can be expelled from the tournament – a good director will always be alert to unusual game outcomes late in tournaments. Sounds nasty. I have to wonder how well such ideas would translate into Magic’s floor rules, although I’ll remain skeptical due to the amount of personal judgment involved when deciding if the players intentionally”played to a tie” in situations where time runs out.

This year marks the first time that the National Scrabble Association has sanctioned a tournament with an elimination round. There is some mild controversy about it, and it is one expert’s opinion that attendance will suffer if that structure is used extensively: Food for thought.

Chess and poker, among others, run their tournaments strictly elimination style, meaning you’d better be good or you aren’t going to get your entry fee’s worth.

Most Mind Sports’ tournaments play out over a weekend, similar to Magic’s Pro Tours. A weekend bridge tournament will generally have six play sessions, with several hands per session. Scrabble matches last and hour each, with enough matches being played to determine a clear winner (using a modified Swiss pairing system). Poker tournaments are of varying lengths – some are completed in one evening, while the Tournament of Champions takes three full days to complete. The World Series of Poker is a completely different animal, however, taking a full month to finish, with the Championship portion being three days by itself. The other big exceptions to the”weekend rule” are Chess and Go championships. Due to the lack of randomness and the closeness of the games, many, many matches are needed to determine a winner. Chess championship tournaments are often four weeks long, with the finals being six games over eight days. Talk about exhausting. Like chess, the major Go championships are decided by series of games between the finalists over a period of days or weeks. Some games are long enough – upwards of sixteen hours – that they wind up being split over two days. And I thought five days of Magic (easily achievable at Worlds or Origins) was way too much!

Oh, yeah. While I’m on the subject, the game of Go also has a built-in anti-tie measure called komi, which results in the player who went second getting a 4-1/2 point handicap, with the half-point preventing identical scores at the end of the game. Of course, such a measure cannot be implemented in Magic, but it does go to show a level of concern about ties and draws in the other Mind Sports.


Prestige may be nice, but nothing will keep a competitor coming back for more like a nice prize pool. As Magic players, we are some of the luckiest in that regard. Magic is a cash cow – make no mistake about that – and the large sales allow Pro Tour prize money to be $200,000 total per event, with $30K to the winner, all with a $0 entry fee. Here are a few other numbers for comparison:

  • In chess, the total payout for the US Open is $63,300, with a first prize of $35,000.

  • The total payout for the Scrabble World Championship, a biannual event, is $35,000. First prize is, obviously, significantly less.
  • Many major bridge tournaments do not have cash prizes at all.

Remember that all of these events have travel costs and substantial entry fees involved, so profitability seems pretty rare with these three. But it can be done.

We’ve all heard of the chess greats. Bobby Fischer earned several hundred thousand dollars per year in the 1970s just from chess. Garry Kasparov pocketed $8 million by 1997, and he’s still at it. That money is obviously not from winning $35,000 tournaments. Chess is a very popular game in Europe and Russia, and sponsors – both corporate and private – will put up huge sums of money for chess matches. Plus, once you get THAT good, you can command exorbitant appearance fees.

The big money in bridge comes from being a”mercenary.” The good players will sell their talents out as partners for whoever wants to pay for them. Bill Gates recently hired the best player in the world to be his partner at a club game. I find that a little bizarre – people paying good money to have a Master on their team for tournaments with no cash prize. It seems like there’d be no satisfaction in winning that way. I suppose bragging rights are a big deal in the bridge world, and it works out pretty well for the Life Masters, though, which is fair since they’re the ones who are actually good at the game.

With Scrabble, it can be possible to turn a profit by playing – or running – tournaments, although it would hardly be a lucrative lifestyle.

Poker, as I’m sure you can imagine, pays out pretty well. This is, of course, due to enormous buy-ins, and, consequently, a huge potential for loss. The winner of this year’s World Series of Poker,”Jesus” Ferguson, took home $1.5 million. It’s worth noting that the buy-in for the championship portion was a mere ten grand a head. Poker is not for the weak of heart, as losing too much can wipe you out financially. Generally, all the prize money is concentrated at the top of the standings, to keep the play intense and the desire to win each hand very, very high. I’ve found that many of the top poker players (and backgammon players, surprisingly) are either independently wealthy retirees or drifters – vagabonds, hustlers, and scoundrels willing to risk it all for the big pot. That lifestyle is definitely not for me – go rent”Rounders” if you want a good look at the underbelly of poker.

Go, the most popular game in the world, seems to be the shining star of good-paying Mind Sports. Nowadays, Go is popular enough that it gets regular TV coverage; there are professional leagues all over the Orient, and a large tournament often pays over $250,000 US to the winner. There is a top tier of professionals who get their income solely from playing tournaments, and many of the weaker pros make a decent living by teaching private lessons or writing strategy articles about Go for books, magazines, and the Internet. Sigh. It’ll be a long time before anyone can make a living writing about Magic, that’s for sure.

Magic is an anomaly in that it isn’t hugely popular, but yet it gives away good prize money relative to the other games. This trend will obviously continue only until card sales drop off, as Magic is the only real sales-driven game of the bunch, a fact which I’m sure will prevent it from ever being considered a truly”great” game.


Magic has Force of Will. Magic has”back-shuffling.” Magic has a slew of other problems, which, although bad for the game, sure do make public forums like the Internet a hotbed of activity. It should be no surprise, then, that other Mind Sports have similar issues that get a bit of public attention. Here’s a snippet about the current sad state of organized chess:

“Now, let’s imagine for a second that chess becomes lucky and Bill Gates turns out to be its fan. Imagine that a group of billionaires decides to develop chess. And all of a sudden chess players in the New World become as much respected as the masters of golf (this is a good example, as golf is not a very good sport for show business, but is still very prestigious and popular). And grandmasters (not few of them, but a whole league) begin to earn hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars a year. What is going to happen then? I am sure that in ten years there are going to be more than ten Kasparovs, Kramniks, Anands and Shirovs, hundreds or maybe even thousands of ‘simple’ GMs of extra-class…. In other words, everything depends on money. And money should be spent not on two players, but on an elite group of players, ‘elite’ in the broad sense of this word. We need rich leagues, well-paid tournaments with numerous players (like the world championship). The more money there is going to be – the more strong players are going to emerge.” — Grandmaster Valery Segal, gmchess.com

As a pro Magic player, I have had similar dreams. Chess appears to be an oligarchy, where a very select few prosper – similar to the Masters Series in Magic. Would Magic’s tournament scene benefit more from lower payouts to more competitors, or is the current buckets-of-cash-to-the-upper-crust system better for competition? If our chess counterparts are any indication, WotC might be moving the payout system in the wrong direction.

Go, at first glance, also appears to be very oligarchic, with the same bunch of players always winning the big prizes. Apparently the lack of a random element in chess and Go manifests itself in such a way – once you become the best, you aren’t going to”randomly” lose your title on a bad roll or a lucky topdeck. Someone has to actually become better than you. The absence of randomness would seem to make the games fairer and more skill-based, but at the expense of cutting the lower tiers of competitors completely out of the loop, giving them essentially a 0% chance of ever beating superior opponents.

“He enjoys the fact that no two games are alike, but would change the ‘luck of the draw’ element to Scrabble if he could.” — from the player bio of Arvind Abraham of the UAE

It seems that Arvind may have gotten bitten by bad pulls one too many times. Too many JXQVKBG opening draws. (Can I mulligan?) Personally, I feel that the randomness in games like Magic and Scrabble add to their allure by being a great equalizer. You know what I mean if you’ve ever played chess against someone who is way better than you – you’ll literally never win. In Magic, you always have a chance.

More interesting quotes:

“PLEASE NOTE: There are no prizes in the [English] Backgammon tournaments as it is against the law in England. (Backgammon is considered by the English courts to be a game of chance and not a game of skill!)” — MindZine

I find that quote pretty amusing; I mean, what is Magic? I’m no statistician, but shuffling a deck seems to induce the same amount of, if not a lot more, randomness into a game that rolling dice. Poor backgammon.

“Again, TV is the key. If the event catches on, it will attract huge publicity for poker. Why do we need publicity? Because the more people who play, the more action there will be and the more value for everyone.” –David Spanier, poker columnist

Back to the popularity and money issues. Everyone wants his or her game to gain credibility, and apparently TV is the way to go. I must give props to WotC for getting Magic’s foot in the door on the television tip. Poker’s World Series was on the Discovery Channel… we get ESPN2. Edge to Magic.


Hopefully you can see now that we as Magic players are not alone. The similarities between our culture and other games’ cultures are astounding. And they don’t end with what I’ve listed above… Tournament reports? Check out www.tocpoker.com/articles/TOC2K_glazer3.htm, a report by Andy Glazer from poker’s 2000 Tournament of Champions. It’s a great read, and puts to shame a lot of what Magic players write. (VERY true – The Ferrett) How about money drafts? Those have to be unique to Magic, right? Well, my bridge contact wrote to me about it, saying,”In the back room of [bridge] >tournaments, unsanctioned by the leagues, people will play ‘money bridge,’ >which is like a poker game. You decide on so much per scoring unit and >evidently big bucks change hands.” Pretty neat. We have a lot of comrades-in-arms that we don’t know about.

Alas, Magic will never be a major”sport.” There will never be enough corporate sponsorship to have Pro Tour: IBM and Grand Prix: Pepsi. Marv Albert will not be sent to cover Worlds for NBC. Jon Finkel will not get a $25 million dollar signing bonus. Kai Budde will not be carrying the Olympic torch into Athens. But we do have a simpler goal – to be accepted by the players and organizers of these other intellectual games, because in order to get public respect, we have to get respect from our peers. Magic might lack the history of Go, the elegance of chess, the appeal of poker, the civility of bridge, and the headiness of Scrabble, but it is currently one of the greatest games in the world. The pieces are all there for Magic to become a”classic.” Let people know that. Who knows… hopefully one day the MindZine will be reporting from a Pro Tour.

So if you pull out Scrabble over the holidays, or your folks get a bridge game going, or a nickel poker game breaks out next Saturday night – remember that there are nuts out there killing themselves to be the best in the world at these games, just like you and I do for Magic. Sure, most people play for fun at home, but to many they’re more than just games… they’re Mind Sports.

Game hard,
Aaron Forsythe

I had a ton of helpful input on this article, and there are several people I need to thank.

* First, Gary Wise (whose father was a world-class Scrabble player) for answering my first batch of questions and for putting me in touch with Mr. Chew, who was easily the most informative contact I had.

* Thanks to John J. Chew III, a graduate student in math at the University of Toronto, and Director of this year’s Canadian Scrabble Championship. John really showed me that we’re all very much alike.

* To Mary Fisher, a professor at Miami University of Ohio and a Life Master at bridge, for gracefully answering some of the dumber questions I had.

* To my teammate Andrew Cuneo, an avid player and student of Go, for letting me in on the secret that this fascinating game even existed.

* Finally, to Deadguy Dave Bartholow, for pointing me in the right direction for poker, and also for the heads-up regarding backgammon.

Doing this little bit of research was great fun, and if anyone wants any information on these games, I have a fat list of URLs for my trouble. Also, if anyone out there plays these games competitively and notices that I got a detail wrong, let me know. Take care.