All ages bring Pokemon card decks to Lakewood tournament

One misconception evaporates upon walking into a room full of 71 Pokemon players: This game is not just for the elementary school set.

Sure, the kids play. Pokemon trading cards are contraband at Central Avenue Elementary School because of all the card swapping done there, one mom says.

Her son Tommaso Oliver, 7, played in his first tournament Saturday. The game is a battle among a vast menagerie of Pokemon monsters, and Tommaso’s two best cards were a pair of Kangaskhan.

Another rookie from Central Avenue, Zephan Mecklenburg, 8, brought all his cards to the tournament put on by The Pokemon Company International at the Lakewood Library but still needed a friendly player to loan him a few to fill out his deck and make him eligible to compete.

But the uppermost age range, the Masters division, is for teenagers and adults. Kenny Wisdom plays at that level. Wisdom lives in University Place. He works at a nonprofit that connects people with developmental disabilities to employment. He is 24.

Wisdom remembers being 8 when the craze first hit, the card game being just one venue for the diminutive anime monsters that also invaded televisions and video games.

He played a bit, then didn’t pick it up again until years later. Now he figures he spends a big chunk of 28 weekends of the year in tournaments. That doesn’t count informal games or all the time he spends making hundreds of videos he posts for his 1,600 YouTube subscribers.

Players, most but not all boys and men, sat facing each other across long tables. The tournament had paired them up randomly for the first round.

Each player drew cards from a stack turn by turn and tried to knock out an opponent’s Pokemon, usually by inflicting damage on whichever monster was up.

In the game between Alan Nguyen, 17, and Eric Wallig, 25, cards piled up in complicated patterns. A dish with more than a dozen dice sat next to the cards. Nguyen had a type of card that let him draw other cards faster than Wallig.

Then their first game was over. They shook hands. Nguyen, a Kentwood High School student, had won.

“There was nothing I could do. I was too far behind,” said Wallig, a Virginia Mason Medical Center employee.

Winning the tournament, a “city championship,” would earn players in each age range a trophy and points that could propel them toward contests at the state, national and world levels.

A world champion was among the players: Western Washington University student David Cohen, 20, who has traveled as far as Florida and Hawaii for tournaments.

Cohen, who won the 2011 world championship, and Ian Whiton of Seattle said they both received the rare honor of having their decks printed and sold in stores.

“Washington is really strong compared to other states,” Cohen said.

Much of the game’s strategy comes long before a game ever starts: buying and trading to construct a powerful deck of cards.

“It’s almost entirely how your deck is built,” University Place’s Wisdom said.

But mastering the complicated play is its own challenge.

“It’s a lot like chess, but it’s harder in some respects because there’s not a typical move that you have to do” in each situation, said Sandi Whiton, who as Ian’s mother is one of the game’s dedicated “Pokemoms.”

At press time — and likely at its youngest players’ bedtimes — the tournament continued.