Chapter 19-Gordon, Plum, Spence and Eric


Gordon, Plum, Spence and Eric  

I HAVE NEVER played on the Pro Tour. Never won money with Magic. And I have certainly never threatened the status of ‘best player in the world’. But speaking to Jon Finkel one evening over a trans-Atlantic Skype connection as the Magic celebrity decompresses in his far-off New York apartment, I can’t help but feel a wave of empathy well up in me. While Finkel’s story is one of extremes – from. the bullying he suffered to the spectacular manner in which he overcame it — it is impossible not to feel something in common. with him. There is simply, undeniably, a bit of Finkel in all Magic players of a certain generation. He is our champion.  

Magic helped us to feel better about ourselves, more included in a world upon whose periphery we felt caught. And, even if lay down my cards, searching for self-esteem up other roads, Magic was waiting for me, past twists and turns and forks and dead ends. Magic was a reflex. Something learned in a formative emotional context that could not be unlearned when, despite passing years, those emotions and that context would return. Even if the game might have lost some of its sheen in Normandy and I had pushed it aside in an attempt to move on in my life, it would broadside me again. Maybe moving on is itself an illusion. Maybe. Either way, Magic surfaced not long after I had parked up the shuddering, muddy, family hatchback for the last time and left home. My Sorbonne dreams had dissipated like the smoke from a limp Gauloise and, wanting to be closer to old friends, I headed for Blighty again.  

With my Baccalauréat in my back pocket, I had decided to return to England for university. But having lived abroad, I was told I would not be eligible for a student loan – the main way English students fund their courses. As my parents couldn’t afford the tuition fees either, that left me with little choice but to defer my university place and earn the money for school in the only trade I had learned so far: waiting tables in swank restaurants.  

For a year then, I ironed tablecloths, polished cutlery, shuttled plates, piloted the cheese trolley, carved at the guéridon and danced through the aisles in a Bolero jacket and bow tie; crashing, burning and collapsing into bed every night before undertaking the same performance again the next day. It was exhausting, but inspiring, too. I watched as the chefs prepared exquisite food in the kitchen and could rub shoulders with the suited-and-booted in the dining room. Most importantly, though, it was well paid. And, with every tip earned on every frantic night, the distant utopia of university edged a little closer.  

Unfortunately, the intensity of catering jobs means they often have a short shelf life. Money starts to run out. Suppliers’ bills begin to pile up. Payday becomes fraught. The chef starts to pin people to the wall, flashing cold steel dangerously close to warm. flesh. At some point, when the Michelin inspector has passed you by, the sommelier has started drinking the profits and the staff food has, inevitably, gone to shit, the time comes to throw your apron to the ground and get out while you still can. Having quit ajob in Oxford with a spikey-haired loon in the kitchen and his toxic wife front-of-house, I pitched up in Scotland in 2001 witha local friend who had also walked out. We stayed at his parents’ place on the Isle of Arran for two restorative weeks, getting up late, walking up mountains, watering in local pubs and occasionally looking for jobs. Our efforts amounted to nothing. So we went to Glasgow to get wretchedly drunk instead.  

This proved an epiphany to the 20-year-old me. Raised on a diet of grim provincial nightclubs playing hideous pop hits to shiny shoed Neanderthals, I was finally, gratefully, converted to the wonders of the dance floor. It happened at legendary party Optimo (Espacio), one beautiful, raging Sunday night. Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me poured like honey from the throbbing speakers between two crunching techno tunes. I kissed some delicious local lass. And, for a moment, I was transported. to the bliss that smoke and lasers and records spinning in their judgement-free circles can create, far beyond the drudgery of daily life. On the way home, I bought Irn Bru in a big, cold, glass bottle. There was, I figured, no better place to be.  

As chance would have it, Scottish firebrand and chef Gordon Ramsay had just opened up in town, too. His restaurant was looking for competent waiters, so I pitched up at the door the next day, clutching my CV. I parlayed myself into an immediate start, found a friend of a friend to crash with (an alcoholic, amateur pornographer and drummer called Plum) and was suddenly an honorary Glaswegian. The hours were ridiculous. My living conditions were terrible. (A paralytic Plum would bring home strangers to drum with before breaking down in floods of tears, normally a couple of hours before I had to start the breakfast shift. Once, he threw the wok through the kitchen window.) But the city was unlike anywhere I had ever lived; a vibrant, greasy assault on my country-mouse sensibilities.  

Though any free Sunday nights were spent thrashing at Optimo, in the rest of my limited free time, I got lonely. I was shy, with what felt like too many imperfections stamped into me at the factory. I worked unsociable shifts. Didn’t know anyone in the city or really how to get to know anyone. I was starting to pine for some kind of soulmate in my life, but hell, I would have settled for anyone’s company other than Plum’s. Drinking pints by myself, propped at the bar of Sauchiehall Street institution Nice N Sleazy just made me miserable. Maybe, I thought, I needed a hobby or something.  

One split shift, I was wondering around Glasgow’s studenty West End in a clapped-out daze, when a bright yellow storefront caught my eye. The shop in question was a comic and games hotspot, well-stocked in all things geeky. For whatever reason, I ducked inside, intending to buy some miniatures, paints and brushes. Perhaps, I thought, fiddling with toy soldiers for the first time in years would entertain me. It would at least be something I could do by myself; meeting people still impossibly daunting. If nothing else, it would be a shot of retail therapy on a day more cloud than silver lining.  

I sidled up to the till with a packet of Space Marines and a few pots of acrylic. A large man named Spence was manning it and we got chatting about gaming. He was, it turned out, a fan of my dad’s and had briefly worked with him at Games Workshop. On the spot, he gave me a 15% discount on everything in the store. My eye wondered over the shelves and spotted Magic cards, the game apparently still going strong after my break. With Gordon Ramsay’s cash burning a hole in my pocket, a juicy reduction on offer and any responsible notions of saving for uni jettisoned, I pounced. Spence told me they had single cards, too. And very quickly, I was back on the bandwagon, buying cards at discounted prices with the first taste of disposable income in my life. It was arush. A nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek one at first. But as cards started to accumulate in a box next to my Ikea sofabed at Plum’s, an old obsession started to fire in me. Each day off now involved a trek to Spence’s shop to make good use of my discount, buying up cards I had never been able to afford in New Zealand. More than playing, I was buying myself happy. But it would do, I told myself, until I made it to the promised land of Bristol University, where everything would surely be better. Where everyone got a fresh start. And where intelligence would trump social class and other tiresome divides in a brainy meritocracy.  

EXACTLY HOW MANY seconds it took for my vision of university as a blank slate to die is hard to say. Ten maybe. Although it could have been nine. It was the ranks of freshly polished VW Golfs barfing out haw-hawing, rugby-shirted Londoners that did it. A cosy coterie that had been to school together and probably hunted lower-class pariahs like me on horseback. Now, they were slumming it in Bristol having failed to get into Oxford or Cambridge. It was a miserable sight to greet my arrival. I lugged my stuff from the car of a family friend, with my stomach tied in knots. I said my goodbyes. Began to unpack and Blu-tacked posters to the wall. This was going to be tough. I left my door ajar, playing a Belle and Sebastian CD at conspicuous volume like a forlorn Glaswegian mating call.  

I had told myself that Magic would be a big part of my life at university. I would use my independence and free time to trek to far-flung tournaments and become a sharper, more competitive player. Finally, I would get to grips with the Magic lifestyle that seemed to be bringing satisfaction to so many people – and, which at times, seemed to make me happy, too. That is, when I indulged it. When I let my guard down. When I held my cards between my fingers, forgot to wonder what anyone else might think and just felt OK with everything. I headed out of halls on that first day and went for a walk around town, trying to get a handle on an intimidating new city. At the same time, I was looking for somewhere to play and stumbled on a shop called the Captain’s Log.  

The Log was a shabby old place, across the road from a multi-story car park, behind a shopping centre that has now been torn down. Peeling red paint flaked from its frontage, metal grills obscured the windows and sun-faded Star Trek cut-outs pressed. themselves against the glass like prisoners trapped in a sordid nerd fantasy. It wasn’t much. But a bloke behind the counter assured. me, that buried somewhere in the detritus was a table that people used to play Magic. Promising to return at the weekend, I started the trek back to halls and steeled myself for meeting-and-greeting.  

I’m not sure how many times I played at Captain’s Log before I gave up on Magic again. Not with the same deliberation as at school. But with a passive, almost imperceptible letting go. A shelving of cards, rather than a sell-off. For all my initial fears and despite the insecurity gnawing at me, I found a handful of great friends down the sterile, beige corridors of Wills Hall, thriving in the shadow of the hair-gelled and hand-bagged. They gave my confidence a much-needed boost. Told me to go easy on the twee, miserablist indie. And got me out into the real Bristol – a beautiful, colourful, sweat-pit of a city, writhing under a permanent fug of weed smoke and bobbing along to its own haphazard beat. Despite episodes of heartbreak, financial penury and academic underachievement, I found the sense of community I had been looking for. The next couple of years disappeared in a frenzy of dancing, binge-drinking and sexual-mechanical pursuits. And my Magic cards didn’t get a look in.  

Even after leaving New Zealand far behind, I had imagined Magic would be the key to unlocking friendships as rewarding as Thad discovered there. That it could fill the confines of my life in the way it had done when I was a teenager, despite the horizons of that life growing ever wider and encompassing more interests. Instead, what had bothered me was that Magic became a proxy for really meeting people. I was never again in the position I was in, in school, to play with the people I spent the whole day with anyway. That meant Magic could be a frustratingly one-dimensional way of getting to know people. Of making ‘Magic friends’ instead of genuine friends. That was a feeling that in France (and often later in Berlin) was exacerbated by a language barrier where the banter inherent to sitting down and gaming became too difficult to follow, yet still squeezed out the real-life topics that as an adult you hope to share with friends. Coming into university, an intensely social atmosphere, I became aware of how Magic could at times make me feel more isolated rather than less, by accentuating my otherness and dangling a tantalising, frustrating facsimile of friendship in front of me. Because it was defined by only one thing – Magic – it felt bereft of the richness I was searching for in my adult life. Searching for determinedly at university.  

So what happened? I dallied a bit with Magic as university tumbled to its end. I even found a less awful place to play than the Captain’s Log and had some good times, squeezed between part-time work, essays and cider-and-substance-fuelled raves. More importantly though, I pulled a good degree out of the bag and perhaps for the first time, felt like I had proved myself. Despite my distaste for the microcosmical British class-system that university was, I side-stepped it by belonging to Bristol proper and, at least in my final year, made it the intellectual meritocracy I hoped it would be. I was motivated, more than I had ever been in my life. I was working 20 to 25 hours a week to scrape by financially, yet energised by my course (at long last) and loving every assignment. I was reading great books. Learning a little about writing. And gladly showing up the carefree squarejaws and blank-eyed preeners in every seminar. I put in a huge amount and got a huge amount out. And I remember with great satisfaction the cheer that went up when I went up to collect my first-class degree at graduation. I had shown that you could land the best marks possible whilst also being a drunken reprobate, dancing down the front every weekend, blowing your whistle and burning your brain cells at an incredible clip. In every way, it was my proudest achievement. And I felt a lot better in the skin that had fit me so badly since life hit the skids a decade or so previously.  

Shortly afterwards, I landed my first job in journalism and packed my bags for London. A big, expensive and lonely city, it took some getting used to. At first, I sunk my improved self-worth into a dense period of hedonism. I drank too much beer, ate too much fried chicken and had too many one-night stands. My Magic cards, in a box under my bed, blanched at the goings-on above them. At some point though, with my job affording me an impressive amount of time for dossing around, Magic websites started to creep back into my bookmarks. I read up on what I had missed over the last few years. Got enthused. And searched out somewhere I could play in London. My futile trawl of London’s dating scene was squandering my self-esteem, I realised. Why not do something I liked on a Friday night, instead of someone I didn’t? I hoped I could make room for Magic now, a simple pleasure that must have stuck with me for a reason.  

At London’s weekly Games Club, in a seedy hotel on the Euston Road, I began reconnecting with the game. Yes, it remained a conversation topic I eschewed on first dates. Yes, it was still something I couldn’t play with closer, non-gaming friends. But increasingly, I felt justified in enjoying it. This, after all, was a game substantial enough to be seducing me afresh after more than a decade in my life. It was something I could perceive as valuable, thought-provoking and plain fun. I could rationalise my involvement with it as a part of a well-rounded adult life, despite my various hang-ups. It was something that wanted me, even if I didn’t always realise I wanted it. And as much as I was piecing together an adult identity, in which Magic was a puzzling part, the game showed me it still had plenty to teach me about myself.  

 “.., ISN’T THAT RIGHT Eric?”  

Achortle broke out among the assembled players. And for whatever reason, the name attached to some pre-tournament quip snapped me out of my reverie. “Who?” I thought, brow furrowed, suddenly recalled to a games store in Reading one Sunday morning in 2009. It was a small affair: 14 players had turned out to play Vintage (formerly Type 1), the game’s oldest format and one largely forgotten by today’s Magic crowd. I had made the painless 40-minute train ride from London, arrived in the unremarkable commuter town in good time, popped across the road from the main station and ducked into the games shop where the tournament was being held. If I had had a coffee, it had been slow to kick in.  

Eric. The skinny, angular Chinese chap in glasses. I recognised him almost instantly, but checked the pairings pinned to the wall to be sure, found his surname and confirmed what I thought could only be impossible. A sudden detour down memory lane. The upturning of a stone left undisturbed for many years. An item I had gladly overlooked in my construction of the past, because beneath it lay guilt.  

For roughly half an academic year, prior to immigrating to New Zealand, I had shared a class with Eric. I choose those words carefully, as there is plenty to unpack under that stone. But I am being disingenuous. I was not especially friends with Eric. Still; that is not clear enough. Here: I joined in my friends picking on the young, awkward Eric.  

I don’t remember much about it, but I suspect it must have been horrendous. Because on that Sunday in Reading, the guilt hit me like an icy blast, a spirit-sapping and inescapable chill wind, whipped up by events that played out in a six-month period of the past at most. I hung my head. I would remember nothing about the games of Magic I played that day.  

At school, Eric had been different to us and we never let him forget it. He was the butt of every joke. The immature (we decided), scrawny, shy, uncool kid with shaggy hair, thick glasses and an ill-fitting uniform. Eric was also from a very traditional Chinese background at odds with our upbringings. Whereas we were eager to start rebelling, he was preoccupied with his parents’ academic demands. He was not interested in whether Alice in Chains were better than Nirvana. Or whether Jules would be getting a Super Nintendo for Christmas. Or whether Tom would snog Becky on the bus tomorrow. At least, we assumed he wasn’t. I cannot remember us taking much trouble to find out.  

Instead, we pounced on him at every occasion, mocking him and his little brother Victor. It was too easy. Too dizzyingly empowering. And, like every kid who wants to fit in- and who is too cowardly to do otherwise – I joined in with Eric’s persecutors without much thought. For a cheap laugh, for a rush, and for some degree of perverse kudos among my peers. Never did I stop to think that at a year younger than most of my classmates, half-Chinese, and with my family on the brink of losing everything, I could just have easily been on the receiving end. Or perhaps rather, I knew it even then, on some subconscious level that I never verbalised to myself. I chose to cling to my place among the hunting pack for fear of being taunted myself.  

Outwardly, Eric hadn’t changed much: he was taller, but still skinny and bespectacled. He seemed a little more at ease though, surrounded by friends from the Magic community. I avoided making eye contact, drifted towards different groups of players to talk, and then sat down for my first round, grateful not to have been paired against him. I believed myself to be fairly outgoing, confident and indeed a good person. But cowardice dies hard and I could not bring myself to speak to Eric immediately.  

Another round passed, another 50 minutes during which I could lower my gaze and feign absorption in the game. And then an opportunity arose to speak to Eric alone. I said hello. We shook hands. And we acknowledged that we had been at school together. I paused and wondered if I might leave things there. But by offering Eric nothing but small talk, all I would be doing is putting him through the wringer again, leaving an elephant stalking the room and daring him to point it out. By forcing someone I had slighted in the past to be nothing but civil, I would be mocking him anew. No-one deserves that kind of humiliation and thus, I bit the bullet.  

 “Eric,” I said. “I don’t think I was very nice to you at school. If I ever was an arsehole to you, I’m sorry.” He paused now, caught, I think, by surprise. “Things were bad for a while, but they got better,” he replied graciously.  

Eric discovered Magic as a student at Loughborough University, he told me later. Having stumbled upon fantasy gaming when a Games Workshop store opened near him, he tentatively sought out the university’s wargames club in his first year. It was a chance for him to put behind him any travails he had encountered at school and meet a new community, who shared his interests. It was, he says, “a fresh start. At university, you get to wash off the old you and figure out your identity more fully.”  

That identity soon included Magic. Eric had his curiosity piqued when he saw two fellow club members duelling in 1998. Scraping together spare cash from his tight student budget, he began buying a few packs of the current set, Urza’s Saga, widely regarded as one of the game’s most powerful, and began to figure Magic out. Hooked by the easy and quick set up of the game compared to table-top wargaming, Eric delved ever deeper into the game. He was helped by the fact that the short-lived UK version of gaming convention Gencon (whose US edition had been so pivotal in Magic’s rise) was held for a time at his very university. In 1999, Eric attended and discovered the game’s competitive scene. “I didn’t do well that year,” he says. “But it got me going and eventually I started to venture out on my own, outside of Loughborough to Nottingham, for example, to play in Pre-Release Tournaments and stuff like that.” Aided by his first car, Eric started to discover something he was good at. He clocked up the miles to play in nearby Nottingham’s bigger, more competitive tournaments and started refining his skills. But with funds still tight, a lack of cards kept him from keeping up with the crowd competing to qualify for the Pro Tour, so one day in his third year at university, he tried his hand at judging. On a personal level, it was a breakthrough for Eric.  

JUDGES, LIKE TOURNAMENT organisers, are part of the glue that holds Magic together. The role is unglamorous, requires an extensive knowledge of the game’s minutiae and, of course, means sitting out tournaments you might rather play in, to enforce the game’s rules as well as the official floor rules, which govern players’ behaviour (what constitutes cheating, for example). At every Magic tournament, every few minutes, a hand is thrust in the air and the call “Judge!” rings out. The demanding role is compensated in cards, including exclusive foiled versions of popular cards which can be kept or sold for a premium on the secondary market – but that is all. Judges receive no cash for the weekends they give up to help others enjoy their hobby. But the role can have its rewards.  

 “I’m still basically a shy guy,” admits Eric. “But judging was good for me. At the start of each tournament, I had to do a little public speaking; I had to be diplomatic, concise, informative. And I had a chance to develop my inter-personal skills.” Some of us may take that skill set for granted. But we weren’t all picked on at school. For Eric, it was a gateway to a new role – of being an important and respected member of a community. And he made the very most of it. “Judging gave me a real focus,” he says. “And even today it still plays that role for me and keeps me going.”  

Life has by no means been easy for Eric since school. Nor has Magic been a solace at all times for him. But judging gave the once maligned kid in the skinny grey flannels and thick glasses a chance to change. It is the bully’s modus operandi to deny the possibility of change in his victim. To ruthlessly point out a person’s inadequacies and ignore his or her potential to outgrow them or to be defined by anything else. No doubt, it comes from the bully’s own deep-seated realisation that he is himself incapable of change, of growth, of anything other than the impoverished outlook of a boor. Eric has changed. I am satisfied that I have changed, too.  

And while different players are grateful to Magic for different things, I am grateful that, on one Sunday in a game shop in Reading, it gave me an unexpected opportunity to revisit my past and realise it was not as blot-free as I had told myself. Although Facebook friendship is no scientific measure or promise of an ongoing relationship, I can’t help noticing when I click on Eric’s profile that none of my old school friends, with whom I am also linked, are mutual friends. None play Magic. And presumably none have sought to upturn the stone in their past marked ‘guilt’ either. For that I apologise too, Eric.  

 (Names have been changed in this chapter. But not Spence’s. He died from cancer in 2012. Rest well big man.)