Insert Column Name Here – The Jake LaMotta Invitational

Read The Ferrett every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!Should someone be admired simply because they’re good at something? To me, the answer’s pretty simple, because I’ve seen “Raging Bull” – a movie widely considered one of the better films ever made. And the question of what Raging Bull is about leads to something that’s a little different than the usual “Joes versus Pros” debate that’s been going about for a while.

Should someone be admired simply because they’re good at something?

To me, the answer’s pretty simple, because I’ve seen “Raging Bull” — a movie widely considered one of the better films ever made. It’s currently #69 on IMDB’s “Top 250 Films Of All Time” list…. Which is a pretty heady ranking considering that Raging Bull is about a total jerkwad.

Seriously. The lead character of Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta, is a dimwitted, amoral, socially-inept thug. He’s dumb as a bag of hammers but thinks he’s witty. He’s unable to see the results of his actions, is stunned when he winds up in jail because of them, and then weeps and shrieks without the slightest understanding that everything that’s happened to him is his own fault.

Whiners are horrible people. So are bullies. Jake is the worst hybrid of both.

As such, Raging Bull is a profoundly unpleasant experience. Watching the movie is like being locked in a room with the biggest boor in the entire world for two hours.

But Jake LaMotta has a single talent that makes him worthwhile: He is awesome at punching people in the face. Because he is great at fighting, he is given tons of money, handed acclaim on a platter, and wins beautiful women (and then proceeds to piss it all away).

So is Jake LaMotta a good man? One of the morbid fascinations of Raging Bull is how soulless and unredeemable he is; contrary to popular belief, God does not hand out “talent” and “nice” in equal amounts, or even roughly equal proportions. If you were to graph Jake LaMotta’s qualities on a chart, it would be a low, grasslike fuzz clinging to the ground with one needle-like spike that reached high to touch the clouds: that would be his boxing talent.

Yet that dances around the topic: Is Jake LaMotta a good man?

I would say “no.” Being a great boxer does not somehow make you someone to be admired. I might admire your boxing skills, and try hard to learn from them if I was trying to fill my bank accounts by breaking people’s noses, but a man is more than the sum of his parts. And Jake LaMotta (at least as presented in the movie Raging Bull) has only one good part.

Then there’s another, trickier question: Is Jake LaMotta worthy of acclaim?

As a boxer? Absolutely. If he wins in the ring and plays by the rules, he deserves all the awards he can get. Boxing is about boxing, and if he’s good at it he should get all the money it brings.

And here we come to the fine point that many people miss: Jake LaMotta can be good at the game without being good for the game.

As a real-life example, let’s compare two other real-life boxers that you’ve probably heard of: Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

Mike was, arguably, good for the game in the short-term. Everyone loves a winner in sports, so any time anyone — no matter how worthless as a person they are — chalks up wins, he’ll pack the seats just because people like to see a winner. So for a while, he was boxing’s headliner, the person who got boxing on the front page of the papers, and made more money for everyone.

But Mike Tyson didn’t give a crap about anyone but Mike Tyson. And sure enough, he wasted his life, started to fail as a boxer, and became a laughingstock. Now, when the average joe thinks of boxing? He thinks of ear-eatin’ Mike, a sport filled with thick-skulled thugs who barely have the brains to think.

In the long run, Mike probably did a lot of harm to the idea of boxing. The sport was arguably lessened by his participation, since now the man on the street assumes every boxer is some low-grade Mike Tyson palooka.

Now take Muhammad Ali. Ali was also a talented boxer, but he was also enamored with the idea of putting on a show. He knew that getting people interested in him also got people interested in boxing, and he did his best to be a good human as well as a good boxer. He changed his “slave name” of Cassius Clay because he felt that he should serve as an inspiration to other black men, and he sat out the Vietnam War (and many fights) because he didn’t believe in it. He tried his best to be someone who others could be proud of.

Regardless of whether you believe in his politics, Muhammad Ali did his best to serve as a role model. And that in turn made him the idol of kids around the world, who didn’t just want to have Muhammad Ali’s skills but wanted to be Muhammad Ali.

Mike Tyson got people to watch, for a little while, before they slunk away again. (Heck, I paid for a Pay-Per-View with Mike just to see what the furor was about, and it was over in thirty seconds.) But Muhammad Ali got people aspiring to be boxers.**

Neither style of being a boxer is wrong. It just depends on how you view boxing.

If you think of boxing exclusively as “a way of sorting out who is the best fighter,” then “the best boxer” is “whoever wins the most fair fights,” regardless of his other qualities. The only important thing is skill, since the whole idea of boxing for this sort of mentality is “proving who has the most talent.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, if boxing is about being a nice guy, well we might as well just crown Fred Rogers the All-Time Boxing Champion and be done with it.

But if you think of boxing in the more global scale — as in, “everything that combines to make that contest possible” — then you start to realize that boxing isn’t just the two boxers, but the combination of factors that are involved in putting those two boxers up there to fight. To get that to work, you have to have a ring. And a space to fight in. And referees. And judges.

Viewed from that perspective, the most important thing is not the fighters, but the fans.

Sure, you can fight in your back yard, with a referee who works for free and your Aunt Gladys judging. But fans who will pay money to attend allow you to buy referees who are paid to do this professionally. They let you afford a ring fit to a standardized size, and a training center that the boxers can go to because they can get paid enough to do it full time. Paying fans bring in all sorts of bennies that make it easier and better for the fighters.

Yet there’s more! Fans spread the word. They get people excited about the game. They bring in new people, saying, “You haven’t been to a boxing match? It’s awesome. You gotta go!” And it’s an expanding circle; the more fans, the more people know about your sport.

The more people who know about your sport, the more participants you have. Which is good from the first perspective as well. After all, if you’re fighting your neighbor Phil in your back yard with your Aunt Gladys watching, you don’t really know that you’re the best; all you can really say is that you’re the best in that available pool of people.

If there are only five guys who’ll fight you in your neighborhood, then being the best of five guys isn’t necessarily impressive. But if you can have enough fans to carry their love of boxing to the next neighborhood, chances are good some of those fans will want to box! And now you have more people to compete against.

Fans make the sport bigger. And the bigger the sport is, the tougher the competition is. It’s hard to argue that American football or soccer don’t have access to the most talented football players in America, since almost everyone’s heard of football and most kids have had the opportunity to play it and find out whether they like it.

The sport of curling, however? Are the guys we have now really the best curlers in the world? We can certainly say they’re the best of that limited curling pool, but for all we know there’s a kid in Watts who would be the best curler that time had ever seen, if only he took up the brush… But he’s never going to stumble across a curling match in his neighborhood.

In other words, in a bizarre way, the thing that both sides want is fans. Fans widen the pool to more competitors, and “more competitors” give us a better idea of who’s truly the best.

But the “skill is paramount” people inevitably degrade the losing punters who bring what they view as unwarranted publicity. “Anna Kournikova shouldn’t be making headlines,” the tennis skill lovers sniff. “She’s just a pretty face. Her win record is actually pretty pathetic. She doesn’t matter.”

The truth is, if Anna’s skirt is bringing in people who’ve never watched tennis before, and giving them a positive impression of the sport, then Anna is actually a net gain for everyone regardless of her talent with a racquet. If someone’s enthusiasm for the game is making more people tune in and go, “Wow, that’s pretty awesome,” then that’s the rising tide that’s lifting all boats.

How, you might ask, does this apply to Magic?

Simple: It’s about the value of one Mister Evan Erwin.

The “Pros versus Joes” argument is an old one, and Evan is the Joeiest Joe of ‘em all. He’s about a good a player as I am (which is not a compliment). He’s made some bad calls, in public.

But me? I don’t think of things in terms of “Pros versus Joes.” That’s a pretty crappy paradigm, since it automatically sets up the “Pro” faction as a bunch of cutthroat idiots who’d sell their grandmother for a PTQ win, and the “Joe” faction are drooling morons who can barely remember which side of the card faces up. Nobody wins.

Personally, I think of it in terms of “Who’s good for the game as a whole, and who’s bad for it?

(And man, I wish I had a cool nickname for that, like “Givers versus slivers,” but I’ve looked at a bunch of rhyming couplets for a long while and nothing seems to come to mind.***)

Viewed from the perspective of “Who’s good for the game as a whole?”, a world-class player like a Kai Budde or a Jon Finkel is actually only a mild positive. They’re obviously top-tier players, and they’re certainly happy to talk to you if you see them at a tournament…. But that’s a small surface area. In terms of actually bringing more players to the game, they don’t do much (aside from inspiring a few mostly-sold people into committing themselves deeper to the tournament scene).

Someone like Zvi Mowshowitz, however, who went out and wrote solid articles every week in an attempt to share the knowledge he has? From the wider perspective, he’s worth much more than a Budde or a Finkel, even if his play isn’t as tight.****

This is a weird thing to say — but from this perspective, Mike Flores is better than Jon Finkel. Adrian Sullivan is better than Kai Budde. Heck, one John F. Rizzo may be better than any number of Pro Tour Level 3s. It’s counterintuitive, but in terms of improving the health of the overall game, they’ve probably done more for it.

Frankly, I’ve met some of the most talented players in the world who were absolute bonuses for the game as a whole. But just to be clear, it’s not about talent, or even lack thereof; I’ve met some terrible players who were terrible people, no-good whiners who bullied lesser players, ripped off young kids in bad trades, and went out of their way to humiliate anyone who didn’t understand why their Traumatize/Haunting Echoes deck wasn’t the most unbeatable deck in the world.

You can be a net negative if you’re a lousy player. In fact, it’s easier to be a net negative for the game if you’re a lousy player, since at least if you’re good people can learn from your plays. If you su-huck, they can’t even glean that much from sitting across from you at the PTQ.

For me, it’s not about what you’ve won at Magic, but what you’ve given to Magic beyond “This Top 8 performance.” Have you handed new players a stack of old commons and tried to help them make a deck out of those cards? Do you talk to people and try to assist them with their game? Do you make them smile when you play against ‘em?

That giving encourages new people to play the game. It makes old players feel like they’re a part of a community.

And in terms of community, you can’t beat Evan Erwin. Evan’s the only one who’s really doing videos well…***** And he uses them to really show you what it’s like to be at a Pro Tour event, the excitement of being a part of the game, the crazy people who show up (KENJI!), being in the rush of the competition.

He makes you want to be a part of it all. And, in a weird way, he makes you feel as though you are a part of it all… Which, of course, you are.

This is what good players do, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have to be the best person at laying the cards in the correct order — you have to be the sort of person who makes other people play. And, ideally, they play better after playing against you.

Magic is, and always has been, about groups of people — it’s no coincidence that the game is called Magic: the Gathering. Which is why the only question I ever ask of someone is, “What have you done to make Magic a better place?”

The easiest way is to participate, of course. Writing for Magic sites (even if you can’t always do it for SCG these days) helps, as does positive feedback and interaction in Magic forums. Giving hands at the PTQs, helping newbies, supporting people when they’re down, sportsmanship — that’s all a part of bringing more folks in, and ultimately making Magic a better place.

As far as I’m concerned, the Invitational shouldn’t be about raw Magic skill — heck, you have Worlds and the Player of the Year race to settle that hash. (And come on, while skill matters somewhat at the Invitational, the goofy formats aren’t exactly designed to break the brain cells.) The Invitational should be about the joy of Magic.

From that perspective, Evan’s the finest choice. In terms of skill-to-giving, he may be the biggest giver of ‘em all. So why not send him to the place where the most excitement is happening?

The fact that Evan’s not a good player doesn’t matter. What matters is that from that wider perspective — the one that involves getting people so excited and happy about Magic that they try to rope their friends in — he will accomplish more than 99.9% of all pros. And that is worthwhile.

I agree that Magic needs its Jake LaMottas. There should be players who are noteworthy only because they’re damn good at slinging the cards. Because, well, the game just wouldn’t be particularly good unless it was challenging, and unless there were people who were at the edges pushing the limits of skill. We need people to remind us that really, there is a lot of finesse involved in playing the game properly, and that despite the randomness of Sealed deck pools and matchups and tiebreakers and manascrew, talent counts.

But Magic needs both sides to function — the skilled and the enthusiastic. And I’d simply ask both sides to remember that the other one exists.

Signing off,
The Ferrett
[email protected]StarCityGames.com
The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy

* – Speaking as a non-sports person myself, I like winners because otherwise, I have no idea what’s going on. It’s automatically exciting; if he wins, I can feel confident that I saw someone who was at the top of their game [whether they were or not], and if they lose, I just saw an upset. But I digress.

** – The case could be made that a lot of kids wanted to be Mike Tyson because it was a way out of poverty…. But again, any rich and famous boxer could serve that purpose.

*** – Of course, I am writing this after having a four-year-old hanging about the house for an entire weekend. I am now starved of sleep, and am in fact writing this in between rearranging dollies on the couch at her bidding. No, I’m completely serious.

**** – Which is not to dismiss Zvi’s skills. I’m merely using him because he’s not currently writing.

***** – The folks at Mana Nation are trying hard with bigger production values, but (in my opinion) less entertainment value… Though they’re working on that. And there are a couple of live videos on other sites, though none of them are really what I’d call good yet. I keep waiting for someone else to jump on the YouTube wagon — come on, folks!