Removed From Game – From Birth to Booth

SCG Open Richmond!

Wednesday, February 17th – I started commentating on card games in 1979. Yes, really. Find out how the ginger Brit got from birth to booth, as we stand less than a week away from Pro Tour: San Diego.

Is there a God?
What is the perfect topping for pizza?
Who invented Bacon Salt?
What deck most needs new Jace?
How can world peace be achieved?

These are all legitimately important questions within the grand scheme of things, and comfortably dwarves this one:

How did the fat ginger Brit who’s crap at Magic get the best gig in the world by getting to commentate in the live webcast at the Pro Tour in San Diego next week?

Frankly, I find it bizarre that, when the Bacon Salt issue in particular remains unsolved, people would actually care about that last one. However, since it’s the one question of the group that I’m peculiarly suited to answering, that’s what I’m going with, as the hours tick down to many hours of deliciously personal internet abuse aimed directly at me in assorted internet chat rooms.

But, more seriously, I understand completely that there are many people for whom I’ve stepped into their dream job, the chance to be a small part of the game’s history, to be there when the great moments happen, and to share it with the many thousands of you who, like me, love this game. Here’s how it happened:

I began commentating on card games in 1979.

Yes, really.

The game in question was ‘Bryplay Cup Football’, a game I’d been given as a 7th birthday present by my Mum and Dad. An incredibly simple game, it featured oversized cartoon cards of soccer matches, and according to how strong your team was (A, B, C, or D), you’d get to either score or not. A typical card would say something like, “It may be wet and windy, but nobody could doubt the team’s toughness. A darting run through the middle, round the ‘keeper, AND IT’S THEEEEEERRREEE!” (Goals for A, B, and C teams.)

I loved this game so much, and spent hours making recordings on a tiny 70’s tape machine, recreating famous FA Cup tournaments from the past. Like many an only child, I suppose having big projects to keep myself occupied were important. As I grew older, and my tastes in games widened, I discovered a love of all things Sports. In a typical weekend, I’d run mini-Olympics, with all kinds of gaming events scheduled using all my various board games.

Parallel to this gaming life was the fact that I’ve pretty much always been a performer. Locked in a vault where you’ll never find it is a video of me, aged two, standing in front of 2,000 or so people singing ‘Oh I do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ (an 1890’s classic, by the way) in a yellow bathing suit. Showbiz, baby. Throughout childhood, I’d be on stage in any production that moved, and eventually I ended up doing a bunch of work professionally as a child actor. Probably the most famous of these was being the child lead in the original ABBA musical, ‘Abbacadabra’ which featured lots of then-famous British folk that most of you won’t now know. On the plus side, I got to hang out with ABBA a bunch, and yes, that is indeed as cool as it sounds.

On to teenage years, and my developing love of statistics started to come to the fore. As each soccer World Cup approached, I’d get every fixture Wall Chart I could lay my hands on, spread maybe a dozen of them round the house, and religiously fill them all in as Bulgaria beat Zaire 1-0. You may be wondering quite who would need twelve World Cup Wall Charts in their home, but you never know when someone will be looking inside the dartboard, under the piano, or behind the lounge TV, and simply Need To Know the leading goalscorer from 1930.

Meanwhile, at my ridiculously posh school for super-smart people, and people who were good at music (guess which one was me?), I became official scorer for the cricket team. I’ve always loved history, and a blank sporting scorecard is something that genuinely moves me, because it’s a canvas of possibilities. Over the next hours or, in the case of cricket, days, so many stories can be told filling in those blanks, and each sheet represents the continuing storylines of weeks, seasons, even decades. By the time I was scoring for the first eleven, I had scorebooks dating back 50 years and more, made by people just like me, who, underneath it all, loved the stories that the numbers told.

Thanks to Mum and Dad, I continued to love all UK sports, but I didn’t really get to know US Sports until a very unfortunate accident. I’d got in to American Football with the Dolphins/49ers Superbowl, and loved it, but that was it. No hockey, no baseball, no basketball. Then Mum almost died, and changed all that. We were on a coach trip round the east coast, taking in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and then up into Canada for Toronto, Niagara Falls, and so on. And, like I said, Mum nearly died, and had to be flown home.

Bravely/stupidly, depending on your viewpoint, they allowed me to continue the trip alone, in the care of the many sane adults on the coach. This was fine during the day when we were busy on excursions, but come five o’clock each evening I found myself in a family room in a nice hotel in a strange city, and with nothing to do for approximately seventeen hours. What I did was play the phenomenal American Football game ‘Paydirt’ for many hours, and watch TV. Lots of TV.

And what TV it was. This was April time. There were basketball playoffs, there were hockey playoffs, there was the start of the baseball season, and, the holy of holies, the NFL Draft! I was in love. Suddenly, these amazing worlds of over-the-top stories were laid out before me, and I’ve loved all of them in the more than 20 years since that very strange trip.

And all the time, stories.

I’ll skate over university other than to say that I spent three fabulous years playing the second best game in the world, ‘Armchair Cricket’ (stats and strategy to a monumental degree), met my wife Helen, and spent about ten minutes a week securing my degree. Then Magic enters the picture. And leaves it again.

I’m in a London game store. It’s the mid-90’s. I can still clearly see myself standing at this revolving rack that includes any amount of playing cards, a few things like Snap, and some ‘Trading Card Games.’ I am recommended a game called Magic the Gathering. I look. I consider. I hate the card backs. They’re BROWN. Eurrgh. And they’re Revised. What was wrong with the old ones?

I buy many, many packs of Star Trek TCG instead.


I play Star Trek for a few years, and love it. Then my wife and I move to a new town, and my real Magic story begins. I visit a local comic shop, topically called ‘Avatar,’ and simply say ‘Hi, I’m new in town. Show me a game I can play with my wife.’ They, of course, show me Magic, in the form of a Sixth Edition two player Starter deck. I have almost no sense of smell, and yet that’s the overwhelming memory I have of cracking that first pack, the smell of the cards. Intoxicating.

What I couldn’t have known was that the particular store was a haven for maybe half of the good UK players. In their tiny back room, of the dozen or so regulars, every single one would play on the Pro Tour. When Gordon Benson put my first copy of Scrye into my hands, I was lost. Page after page of card values, with the most incredible names. I had no clue what any of them did, but boy did I ever want to find out.

My thirst for Magic was insatiable. Once I realized that I’d fallen in with some seriously good people, I knew that I wanted to follow people like John Ormerod and Tony Dobson onto the Pro Tour. My first tournament was the Tempest Prerelease in 1997. I went 2-5, and it was one of the most thrilling gaming experiences of my life. Those cards were so precious, and sitting here in an empty convention center in Oakland, California, my hands have a slight tremble thinking about that day. Magic was, and is, just so complicated that every victory felt like a triumph, and every setback just a reason to try all the harder.

I did what I’m sure many of you have done when you have The Hunger. Everywhere I went, there were notebooks for decklists. I’d spend hours on the phone talking to friends about cards for the weekend. At that time, there was a well-defined UK circuit, and I racked up thousands of miles ferrying people to PTQs. This, perhaps more than anything, has led me to here.

At hundreds, literally hundreds of these events, I would find myself waiting for the last seat in the car to be filled by whoever was still going in the tournament. I may have gone 2-5, or 4-3, or even (gasp) within touching distance of the Top 8 at 5-2, but you could be sure that at least one of my travelling companions would be going the distance. In draughty town halls, and scout huts, and shopping centers up and down the country, I watched Magic. I learned a lot about the game, but much more importantly, I learned a lot about people.

I saw how much winning meant to them, how special getting to the Pro Tour was. For the people who’d already been to the big show, the hunger was almost primeval. You could taste the desire in those ramshackle rooms. And I got to sit there, week after week, watching people strain every mental sinew and synapse in pursuit of their goal. To a lifelong performer, the drama literally brings me out in goosebumps. Right this moment, just thinking about it.

I’ve seen so many players leap in the air at the moment of qualification. Sometimes they sit there, fighting tears, slumped over their deck, their new best friend that so much of themselves is invested in. Across the table, the weary resignation of the defeated finalist, knowing that the next PTQ is seven days and three hundred miles away. And all this over a game of cards. Remarkable.

In 1999, my own turn came. In Urza’s Sealed, I qualified for my first Pro Tour in London 1999. While I’ve performed live on TV for millions on many occasions, and worked with many of the biggest names in the UK entertainment world, few things have brought me more pleasure than qualifying for London 1999. When I sat down for my first draft, I thought I might actually burst with pride, and the reason may surprise you.

Simply put, I had Chosen this path. I wasn’t on stage because I’d been on stage all my life. I wasn’t being good at playing the piano and singing because I’d be doing it since I was four. I wasn’t making people laugh because I’d been part of an act that did that 350 days a year. I was there because I had Chosen to devote myself heart and soul to this wonderful game. Day one of Pro Tour London 1999, a day in which I won one round of Magic, and briefly co-led the Pro Tour at 1-0, remains one of the happiest days of my life, and certainly one of the days I’ve felt truly, wonderfully, viscerally alive, adrenaline coursing through me, and an awareness of being hugely blessed.

As work needs took precedence, I became semi-detached from the game. I still played, but no longer had the hours to devote that were becoming so necessary to succeed. My wife and I moved North, and became acquainted with a new set of players. As early as that Pro Tour in 1999, I had plans to start an audio show about the game, but the limits of technology defeated me. Who wanted to spend six hours downloading a 20 minute show?

One of the players in The North was Craig Jones, he of Lightning Helix fame. Coalescing around Craig, Neil Rigby, and Dave Sutcliffe, the fire returned, and I qualified again for the skins Pro Tour in Philadelphia 2005. But I wasn’t sure I’d be going. My Dad was dying.

He’d been dying for a long time. At least three times in the previous five years, it seemed he’d be gone. But Dad seemed to be, to all intents and purposes, Immortal. He wasn’t, of course. In the end, he held on until soon after I got back from a fabulous Philadelphia experience, and it was while I watched him fade to nothing that I made my next Choice. Within five years, I wanted to get the chance to commentate at the Pro Tour.

Talking with Craig Jones on the flight back, I told him about what would become Mox Radio. Incredibly hard work, those were fun monthly shows, and the forerunner of many terrific shows you’ll know so well — people around the world getting together to talk about the game they love, and put their stuff out there. Thanks to Craig, I was able to approach the organiser for European Grand Prix, Danny Brosens, about providing audio coverage. Together with Dave Sutcliffe, we began our casting career at Grand Prix Torino 2006.

We had no idea how many people would be listening, and I still think with a grin at the idea that I initially offered Wizards half an hour of content per day. At the time, I thought that was a stretch. As we gained in confidence and experience, it became clear that Important people were listening in. I still treasure the emails we received from inside R&D, saying how much they enjoyed coming into the office on Monday and listening to our coverage.

The big break came at the end of 2006, when the UK head honcho, Lee Singleton, managed to get me to Worlds in Paris. Coverage boss Greg Collins got in touch, and suggested we meet. Then I had a very, very lucky break. I sat with Greg, and told him about my love of sports, and stats, and drama, and how I saw coverage developing, and opportunities to create some great content. What I didn’t know at the time was that Greg had arrived at Wizards from a job as a producer with ESPN, the North American Sports Network. It was like preaching the virtues of spinach to a vegetarian.

You probably know the rest. I began work at the Pro Tour in Geneva 2007. I’ve seen Mike Hron take down Takuya Oosawa, Lachmann and van Lunen in the fastest Sunday ever, Nassif dodging Chapin bullets, Malin in Memphis, the Called Shot Cruel Ultimatum, Kibler in Austin, the Chinese in Rome. And, of course, I fulfilled my ambition by hosting the webcast in Kuala Lumpur.

So what does the future hold? We’ve got a lot of exciting things planned for 2010 and beyond. For the first time ever, we have at our collective fingertips a host of fantastic data about the players that make up the Pro Tour. I told you I like stats, and we’ve got plenty to share. You’re going to get more of what you all love — the player interviews, the deck techs, the live Sunday webcast — and hopefully we’ll be bringing you some new stuff that you’ll come to love every bit as much.

I feel supremely blessed to be part of this great community with all of you. Magic combines everything I love about gaming — the strategy, the passion, the drama, the sport, the striving, the history. When the moment comes, I’ll try to find the words to convey all that wonder as someone takes home the $40,000 first prize. Looking back, I see the dots that have joined up in my life to bring me here, and linking it all is a desire to share the wonder, a desire to share the experience, a desire to share the story. The wonderful, wonderful story.

Come join me on the thrill ride.

As ever, thanks for reading…