ATLANTIC CITY — Aven Hodge was sitting at the end of a long table Saturday morning in the Atlantic City Convention Center in the midst of a battle.
“Right now, he’s wining, because he’s got a prize card,” said the 9-year-old from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, before laying down a card on the mat in front of him. “But I think that’s going to change.”
Hodge and his opponent were one pair out of hundreds competing in the Pokémon Regional Championships, a two-day tournament where players qualify for the national competition, and then, if they’re successful, for the world championship. In addition to points toward qualifications for higher-level events, the regional tournament offered cash and prizes to winners.
Started in Japan in the mid-1990s, Pokémon has retained its popularity through a cartoon, trading cards and video games, as well as “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” a movie that came out this year. In the world of Pokémon, creatures are captured by trainers, who then battle them against other trainers’ creatures.
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To win the card game, trainers either must have six prize cards or leave an opponent with no Pokémon or cards in their deck. In addition to the card games at the tournament, players also competed in video games.
The competition is fierce, but it’s fun, too, and the community surrounding the franchise is what draws people in, players said.
Aaron Zheng, 21, of New York City, competed in the video game championship against Maura Hazen, 32, of Glassboro. Hazen beat Zheng, who has won the regional competition five times, nationals twice and placed third in the world in 2013.
The rounds are played best out of three games, said Hazen, who said she’s been playing the game casually since 1998 but found she has a knack for competitive play.
“I’m a really competitive person,” said Zheng, who took the last year off to be a commentator for the world championship. “But now I go to tournaments more to see friends than to compete.”
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Walking between long rows of tables, judges watched players during the 50-minute rounds, keeping an eye out for game-player errors, like throwing down an extra card, and looking out for cheating, which would automatically disqualify a player.
Ives Rountree, 38, of Mexico City, was one of those judges, watching players in the Masters Division, for ages 15 and older, as the head judge.
He started running and judging tournaments in 2000 in Mexico, he said.
“A lot of people avoid Pokémon events because of the stigma that it’s for children,” Rountree said, adding he remembers young kids entering tournaments when he started judging that he sees competing now as adults. “We are very open as a community. The game itself is great, but the community around it is fantastic.”
The tournament continues Sunday, whittling down to eight players who compete to decide the champion.