Fear not, Academy readers… the end is in sight, but not this week. Classes are temporarily suspended, because this week Removed From Game makes a return, and unfortunately the title could not be more apt.
On Friday of last week, a young man that most of you won’t know – Chris Rossiter – died. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a few things about him.
I am not a journalist. I’m a writer, and that means most of the time I’m short on fact and long on opinion. This presents a problem when trying to talk about someone recently deceased, especially when I really didn’t know him very well (and yes, I had to delete ‘don’t know him’). Like many relationships we have during our lives, ours was one of occasional moments, where Magic had thrown us together. You know those moments, since you have thousands of them yourselves — the inconsequential standing around while the pairings go up, the ritualistic question-and-answer about your path towards the Top 8, the have-you-fixed-the-sideboard conversations.
And yet, I’m still taking it upon myself to talk about this friend who was truthfully more of an acquaintance — I wouldn’t cheapen the many deeper friendships he had with others in the community by claiming him for my own — because, in our few interactions, he’s had a massively disproportionate impact on my view of the world, and the world of Magic. If I do my job right, by the end of this you’ll see why.
My first interaction with Chris was entirely without his knowledge, and is the stuff of urban legend. Whilst waiting for a Magic Online draft to start with my friend Neil Rigby, he innocently inquired if I’d heard of Chris Rossiter. I had not. At that time I was a hardcore PTQ player, traipsing up and down the country in search of the fabled blue envelope. Having made it in 1999, I’d finally found a window in my worklife to make another bid at getting there. Still, Chris Rossiter didn’t ring any bells.
‘He’s a young lad, probably about fourteen,’ said Neil, ‘and it turns out he’s very, very smart. He’s only just started playing, but he’s going to be good. Really good.’
Hmm. If you’re like me (a thought that I’m sure brings you infinite comfort), you hear all the time about the Next Big Thing, especially in a relatively small community like the UK. Neil went on to explain that the big strength of Chris was his powers of analysis, specifically when it came to math. A small light went on somewhere inside, and I asked, ‘Poker?’
By way of answer, Neil grabbed the mouse, pointed and clicked his way past screenshots of five-a-side football league tables, High Street Honeys (most of whom had succumbed to his myriad charms), and Magic Online bizarre game situations, before finding what he wanted. It looked something along these lines:
Poker Universe Heads Up Champion Challenge
1st: A. Guy – $175,000
2nd: C. Rossiter – $78,000
I’ve made the numbers up, but memory suggests I’m not far wrong. Remember, at this point Chris was fourteen. Now comes the “urban legend” bit, which I absolutely cannot claim as canonical truth, but I can claim as one of the best stories I ever heard.
In order to accomplish this fabulous coup, Chris had to get a little bit ‘creative,’ since it’s kind of hard to send your entry fee in cash through a dial-up modem. Amazingly, the fourteen year old Chris didn’t have a credit card yet, what with being about to go into 4th Year at senior school, and choose his options for GCSEs.
Inevitably, a clandestine ‘borrowing’ of Mum’s Mastercard ensued. Now, I suppose it was possible that $50 might not be noticed missing from the monthly statement, but trying to hide $78,000 on the ‘in’ column wasn’t ever really a starter. Hence the alleged Family Meeting, which, if recreated for Hollywood, goes something like this:
CHRIS: ‘Mum, Dad, thanks for coming. I’ve got a couple of things to say. Now, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news, so I thought I’d start off with the bad news. See, I’ve been borrowing your credit card to play online poker… (pause)… but the good news is here’s the keys to a brand new BMW, and the new kitchen arrives on Monday.’
I don’t know how apocryphal this story is, but I’ve seen the screenshot, so the gist is certainly correct. In reality, though, the details don’t matter. In our lifetime, we’re mostly not judged by our supposed Major Moments — the jobs we take, the wealth we accumulate, the life-changing decisions that lead to wives, partners, children, homes, and so on. Mostly, we’re judged on tiny moments that might have no resonance for ourselves, but leave someone with a scant impression of us, fleeting and ephemeral, and yet the better for it.
I went home with a smile on my face that day, with a phenomenally cool story to tell anyone who liked a good yarn, and the name Chris Rossiter attached to it.
I finally got to meet him a few months later, and found him a surprisingly thoughtful guy. That’s thoughtful, not in the sense of knowing what cards to play against such and such a deck, but from a much wider perspective. We started talking about margins that could be had through the act of preparation for tournaments. He was thinking about diet, sleep, having the right transport in place for hassle-free early mornings. It wasn’t just about getting enough sleep, either. He was interested in every area of human knowledge, and how it could impact his game for the better. So, changing sleep patterns a few days before a major event, looking to monitor anxiety levels against the optimal staying relaxed approach that suited him, making sure there was no unwanted blood sugar level spike that could cause recklessness in the Top 8 Draft at just the wrong moment.
For Chris, all this wasn’t thinking ‘Outside the Box.’ For Chris, this WAS the Box, and a huge part of what made Magic such an awesome thing. And for me, someone who has always been interested in finding the edges that the cards themselves don’t give you, I’d found someone as turned on by the application of wider knowledge to a narrow contest as I was.
From there, we continued to gravitate for chats at events, tending to discuss our latest reading material on psychology, mental toughness, positive visualisation, and so on. I can’t remember when, but at one event, he didn’t look so hot. Concerned, I did the usual ‘you okay, you look a bit out of sorts’ routine, the one where you get ‘yeah, just a bit tired, tough week at school’ reply, so wasn’t ready for the truth… that he had been diagnosed with some viciously unexciting form of death-inducing cancer, and that plans for 40th birthday parties, or 30th, or even 25th, weren’t likely to ever arrive on his To Do list.
He explained this with studied calm, but what else can you do? This is the bit in the article where the writer gets to variously wax philosophical about the nature of existence, or put forth his religious views, or rage against the injustice of it all, but I’m going to pass up that opportunity, except to say that it was clear that all that mental toughness and resolve and self-awareness and positive visualisation were going to be needed in abundance, and he was well equipped to deal with a road that I knew from close family experience could be very long, very undignified, and singularly unfunny.
Positive Visualisation Scenario (A) — You’re sitting at a table, tapping your final lands to cast the spell that wins you the PTQ.
Positive Visualisation Scenario (B) — You’re alive two years from now.
Since words that end in ‘therapy’ and feature ‘radio’ and ‘chemo’ aren’t terribly conducive to high-level Magic, I heard nothing about Chris for long stretches at a time, with Neil occasionally providing news that all pretty much sat in the hideous-to-moderately grim range. By now, Chris had worked his way through the education system, and was playing cards full-time, and was proving to be as monumentally good as that second place result had indicated. As the stakes got higher and higher, his calmness remained one of his greatest strengths.
Since I sweat my way through a $10 tournament, I can only begin to imagine the steel that it takes to back your judgment when there are many thousands on the line. We’re almost at our next urban legend story, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
About six months ago, I was holding a Draft weekend at my house, bringing together some of the best players in the UK, and mixing in a group of my local players. Included in the latter column — and soon perhaps to be in the first — one James Escritt, who was incredibly excited, since he had just won his first ever PTQ the previous week. His final opponent? Chris Rossiter. As we played, one of the poker fans at the table remarked that Chris had just finished 9th in some utterly ginormous European Poker Tour event.
‘He’s such a great player — I bet he’s got a fantastic career ahead of him.’
The assorted horror shows that had been assailing his body were finally spiralling Chris towards the end game. It seemed as if he had only a few months to live. Just think for a moment. If you knew, right now, that you wouldn’t see Easter 2010, what would you want to do? How would you want to spend your time? What goals would you set yourself?
For Chris, his goal was to qualify for Pro Tour: Honolulu. He went EVERYWHERE in his bid to make it in. There are something like eight or nine PTQs in the UK. Chris made the Top 8 at four of them, but couldn’t get over the hump. As his friends watched from week to week, the near misses mounted. When news came through that he’d missed out again at the final PTQ of the season, it looked as if it wasn’t meant to be.
With as much money as many of us could spend in a long and productive life, Chris decided on one last throw of the dice. He came to Honolulu anyway, unqualified. Rarely has the Last Chance Qualifier been more real. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 5-0… but it didn’t happen, and Chris watched from the sidelines.
On that Pro Tour Sunday, with Kazuya Mitamura just one win away from his title, I saw Chris sitting alone, getting ready to watch the Final on the giant screen. I went, if I’m honest, just to say hi, but found myself listening as he explained the options that lay ahead. Anyone who has come near to the ravages of cancer knows that, as the song says, ‘it’s the treatment that kills you,’ and Chris faced what to me seemed like an impossible dilemma for anyone to solve, let alone someone barely out of their teens.
It had looked as if Honolulu would absolutely be his last opportunity to fulfil his ambition to play in the PT. Now, it seemed as if there was the possibility of months of grinding, miserable treatment, the sort that leaves you praying not for life, but for death. Against that background, he could choose to give up, have a few more weeks of pleasure, and then settle down to the gritty business of dying on his own terms.
Or he could carry on, and hope that he could still be around for PT: Austin. It was hard to see how he’d qualify with the treatment going on. I had no answers for him, of course, for what answers are there? Do you tell someone you barely know that they owe it to themselves, or to you, or to the world, to fight and fight again? Do you advise them to let it go, and spare themselves the suffering?
One thing’s for certain — I never expected to be mentioning assisted suicide at a Pro Tour! Walking back to the final, I had a lot to think about, though not as much as Chris.
Now we fast forward to Brighton just a few weeks ago, and the Great Britain National Championships. Steroids had affected his appearance, but it seemed that since Honolulu things had taken a significant upturn. New experimental treatment was showing signs of promising results. As he put it…
‘It’s starting to look as if I can spend the rest of this year grinding away at poker in between treatments, and then have a good shot of going across to the States, and having a great six months before the door closes.’
We were sitting in the Feature Match area, and Chris had just told me his favorite poker story. Between you and me, I reckon these things are pretty dull, so I won’t bore you with the details, but the key point is this:
Chris sat at a table in Monte Carlo with $1,000,000 in equity sitting in the pot, went in ahead, and came out behind, at odds that were highly unlikely. As he explained this to me, he said that what he was most proud of was that he retained his equanimity, something that even the best poker players find hard to do when their 98% win turns into their 2% loss. Chris didn’t turn a hair, and even told me where to find it on YouTube.
And why were we in the Feature Match area? Because Chris had just won his Quarter Final, and had booked a spot for the World Championships in Rome. A million dollars on a table didn’t phase him.
It was Magic that made his heart beat faster.
On Friday, this appeared on his Facebook page:
Chris passed away Friday 11th September 2009 at noon. The end of a long, rough four years, struggling against his cancer. He is greatly missed by all who knew and loved him.
This is not a tale with a moral. I’m not about to exhort you to seize the day, although Chris certainly did. There are obvious things to say about not finding the fourth land you need, or seeing your sideboard cards on Magic Online tonight, and suggesting that these aren’t as important as you think they are, but you know all this. Chris was a Gamer just like you, and while he may have had almost superhuman reserves of calm — and he may have found himself forced to have almost superhuman reserves of calm, in the interests of his ongoing sanity in the face of a killer adversary — it’s in our nature to strive in the moment, and for Magic to be the single most important thing in our lives as each turn plays itself out.
So, if you decide to bemoan your next manascrew or flood to me when we next meet, I won’t be reminding you about Chris Rossiter. But I will share this with you…
At every Pro Tour, first time players come to me, and ask if I have any advice. They know me well enough not to ask what deck they should play, but are looking for a familiar face, some reassurance that it’s still Magic at the end of the day, that they won’t embarrass themselves by not knowing ‘the way things are done.’ Although my actual words vary, the gist is always the same:
The single greatest moment of your Magic career is the moment pairings go up for Round 1 of your first Pro Tour. At that moment, you are in a position so thrilling that words can hardly do it justice. You get to walk beyond the ropes, with the rest of the Chosen Few. This is the culmination of years of hard work, of 24 hour road trips to go 0-2 at a PTQ, of bad decks and bad choices, of working your way up the chain, of taking all those Top 8s on the chin when you couldn’t make it over the line.
And now you have. This is your moment. Only you, in all the world, only you have the right to sit at that chair at that table on that day in that city to play that opponent. Only you can test yourself at this highest level of competition, because you made it happen. Your skill, your resolve, your will to win, your love of the game, these are what earned you this moment.
It will never get better.
Even if you win multiple Pro Tours, this is the moment to savor, the moment that you have Made It, and nobody did it for you. Just you, standing tall, with that chair waiting for you, a chair that literally millions of people would trade for. It’s yours, and there’s no screw or flood or poor play or losing to an incredible topdeck or the deck that inexplicably is set up to beat yours or any of the hundreds of things that happen at every single Magic tournament ever held.
At that moment, the future is the white stretch of pristine sand, and it’s time for you to start making your mark. Nobody can take that moment away from you.
At Worlds this year, Chris Rossiter’s chair will remain empty. There will be no more footprints in the sand. He saw a million dollars gone on the turn of a card, and it didn’t phase him. He took news of the twists and turns of his cancer, and it didn’t phase him. He went about the business of living, and dying, with dignity, and humanity, and that’s all any of us can hope for ourselves. He lived more in less than twenty-one years than many of us ever will.
Magic made his heart beat faster.
Chris Rossiter. September 19, 1988 — September 11, 2009. Rest In Peace.
The Magic Academy will be back next week.
Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.
(The chances are that I’ve got some facts wrong somewhere along the line. I hope you agree with me that this hasn’t been a story of which month what treatment did what to what body parts, or which card led to how many dollars changing hands in what tournament. The numbers, the wins and the losses, and the tedious process of getting on and dying young, are just the framework for the truths that I believe he illuminated, at least for me.)