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AT PLAY | So Socal

Mind Game

August 18, 1996|Chris Rubin

This could be a chess club or computer club meeting. Although there are several women, almost all of the 130 players are male, of high school and college age. Some sport goatees, tattoos and fashion-forward haircuts, but most are of the pocket protector persuasion, favoring wrinkled jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with everything from Tori Amos' photograph to the UC Berkeley logo. Most spend the day subsisting on coffee and soda, though there is one attendee who prefers a lime-spiked Corona.

They have all gathered in the drab, faded- yellow second-floor ballroom of the Wyndham LAX Hotel--and paid $27 a head--to play "Magic: The Gathering," the hottest card-based game in the country. Today's competition is a qualifying tournament for a Pro Tour event in Atlanta this September, where $205,000 in money and scholarships will be at stake. Invented in 1993 by Richard Garfield, a now-retired math professor from Whitman College in Washington state, Magic is an "intellectual sport," according to its promoters. Each fantasy/adventure card has specific powers; a skillful player combines various cards to attack and defend, with the goal of wiping out an opponent's "life points." Even for nonplayers, the elaborately designed cards have an allure. More than 2 billion have been sold, with older, rarer cards valued as high as $400 in the trading market.

Today's tournament begins at 10 and will continue until 3 in the morning. The top two players will go on to Atlanta, receiving a small stipend toward travel expenses. Although entrants have come from as far away as Finland, most are from Southern California. One is Mark Chalice, a technical support specialist at Claremont College with short-cropped hair and an intense gaze. Currently ranked No. 9 in the world, Chalice has invested countless hours over the last 2 1/2 years, going to tournaments (not surprisingly, his previous passion was Dungeons & Dragons) and spending thousands of dollars on cards. His collection now numbers more than 10,000. "It's great to have collectible cards you can do something with," he says. "Also, I'm an intensely competitive person, and Magic offers a continuous mental challenge."

When the tournament organizers hand Chalice a random deck of roughly 90 cards, he puts on his game face: a steady gaze that appears to block out all distractions and to erase any hint of a smile. Out of the initial pack, Chalice assembles a deck of about 40 cards, which he will use throughout the day. He and his opponent sit across from each other at one of eight long tables spread across the room, and for 15 minutes they are wizards, each armed with an arsenal of creatures, spells and counter-spells in a fight to the death. As they place cards on the table, "activating" or "tapping" them, the organizers bark out announcements over a bullhorn. It goes on like this for hours, with Chalice defeating one wizard after another.

By midnight, Chalice has made it to the semifinals. He has lost none of the intensity; stone-faced and methodical, he draws and lays down cards, barely saying a word. His opponent, a lanky 16-year-old from Huntington Beach, is just as grim. The game goes down to the wire before Chalice loses by a single "life point." Sixteen hours into the tournament, he goes home empty-handed. "It was incredibly close," he says, grimacing. "I thought I had him beat. I would have won on the next turn turn. Nine times out of 10 I would have beaten him."

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