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The Adult World of Competitive Pokémon Players

While it might not seem that way, Pokémon continues to be massively popular. Colleen O'Neil spoke to a friend who's still an active competitor.


Remember those glossy cards you’d gladly trade away your entire lunch for? Or the rainbow of plastic Game Boy cartridges littered across your bedroom floor? The stuffed Pikachu you slept with every night? (Parents, do you remember dropping exorbitant amounts of cash on all that crap? I bet you do.)

For those who’ve been living in a cave for the past two decades, Pokémon is a Nintendo media franchise that includes anime, manga, trading cards, books, toys, movies, T-shirts, and other media. In 1996, it was first released as a Game Boy video game—a role-playing game in which your character roams about the fictional world collecting cute, Japanimation creatures and training them for battle. Since then, Pokémon has become the world’s second-most lucrative video game-based media franchise, with 245 million games sold worldwide as of March 2013.

And the game is far from over. The franchise keeps revamping itself, creating new ways to get kids hooked on the game and keep the money flowing out of parents’ pockets. Pokémon is in its sixth generation, with the recent release of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y for the Nintendo 3DS in October 2013, which sold more than four million units worldwide in the first two days of its release.

But while most of the kids who grew up with Pokémon have moved on to other device-driven addictions (collecting Facebook friends instead of Pokémon), some of them have taken advantage of the franchise’s long history to hone their skills and become true Poké-masters.

There’s even a well-established, invite-only Pokémon World Championships. That’s right, every year a whole convention center fills with men and women in Pikachu costumes, hunched over their Game Boys, tapping away at their screens for a chance at glory (and cash prizes). I caught up with my friend Charles "Chalkey" Hornstein, who’s been gaming for 15 years with no end in sight.

When and why did you start playing Pokémon?
I started when I was 10. Some of my close friends started playing, and naturally we just kept getting better because we were young and competitive.

What’s your favorite creature?
For competition? Cresselia. But for recreational purposes, I think I’ll always be a die-hard Blastoise fan.

Charles "Chalkey" Hornstein.


How many hours a week do you play on average?
Being an adult, I don't play anywhere near as much as I used to. When I was younger, I cared a lot more about winning and making money—and considering back in college I competed to pay for school books, I took it a lot more seriously. These days, I sort of play just enough to know the trends and keep up with friends, since I'm mostly going to tournaments these days to catch up with friends anyway.

How did you start playing competitively?
Ironically enough, the first year I got into competitive Pokémon was around age 16, the year I decided I was too old for this game. I decided to give myself one last hurrah by entering an official competition, but then I found myself qualifying for the National Championships. I went because Nintendo paid for my hotel, airfare, and food the whole weekend. They also gave me a ton of swag and about $400, but the people I met there amazed me. Nothing like stereotypes, there were college kids and older that were playing by my side, and they all seemed to have pretty normal lives.

I was amazed, having grown up thinking this was just a game for kids and nerds who couldn't let go—and was suddenly ashamed that I let high school preconceptions sway my opinion of people I’d never met. I was fascinated by the people and wanted to come back for them. Well, that and I was having absurd financial trouble and knew that qualifying for Nationals again would pay for some school stuff.

How many competitions have you been in since?
I've been to more competitions than I can count—in Washington, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Rhode Island, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Hawaii, Oregon, and Arizona. I've also gone to Canada, and I've got a group of friends that regularly talk about saving a little and going to Spain as well. Outside of Pokémon, my career is going well enough that I usually feel comfortable taking a few extra days to hang out in the area and see what other cultures are like. The game's really just becoming a convenient excuse to see the world.

At the World Championships they pull out all the stops—matches on huge screens with people on stage, last-chance qualifiers and side tournaments that let you play people from any country, tons of swag and tons of people. In more touristy locations, they'll have something from the culture be a part of the ceremonies. For example, I attended Worlds in Hawaii once and tribal dances were incorporated into the tournament's entertainment for that year. But I should mention that I've never played in Worlds—only spectated. I personally am typically a "slightly above average at Nationals" kind of guy, though many of my close friends will play in Worlds, which gives me a reason to cheer people on.

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met in your Poké-career?
Without going into names, I think one of my favorite rivals is a car salesman from Texas. The guy is darn good as his job because he knows how to read people, and it translates directly into the game. He's well into his 40’s, and the people new to the adult-age division take him for granted, assuming he's just some kid's dad. Then mind games happen, and they have no idea what hit them.

If you actually talk to the people in the adult division, you'd be amazed at how different everyone is outside of the game. I've met lawyers, consultants, hospital workers, bioinformatics specialists, personal trainers. But for obvious reasons, some of these people do a great job at keeping outside life private until you get to know them. Hearing their stories and what their lives are like fascinates me, so I try to get to know as many as I can.

"I spent the better part of my life wishing I had the nerve to indulge my nerdier hobbies, and when I finally took the leap I never looked back."

Have you ever been criticized for gaming so much?
I think criticism, at least publicly to my face, sort of went away after high school. Colleges really respected it because I spun it in my college essays as something that shows I can accomplish big things when I set my mind to them and also use games I love as a way to enrich my cultural experiences and help others in the process. In the professional world, most coworkers know but don't really mind—getting to know me in real life makes it very clear that this is only one part of my identity, and I don't let it take up so much time that it hinders the work I do. I chose a career I strongly believe in and have plenty of other goals.

But on some level, part of why I play is to counteract criticism. The mere fact that you asked that question without questioning how I'd react implies that's something I still need to do. I mentioned earlier how amazed I was at how normal people at these tournaments could be, and it was both enlightening and humbling to realize a crowd I once judged was not that different from me. Now I feel like it's my turn to be that experience for someone else. I want the world to know—and accept—that stereotypes are not what they seem. The community is full of people my age and older, perfectly normal functioning members of society, that love this game—and can tear it up, too.

So how has Pokémon influenced your life?
Far more than anyone would ever believe. In terms of personal growth, it taught me that I can do amazing things if I set my mind to something and really focus, but I'm also constantly grounded in the fact that it's a children's video game at heart—meaning, I've learned to put life in perspective and never take struggles too seriously. It's also taken me all over this country and shown me so many other cultures, giving me a common factor that allows me to talk to people I've never met and get to know them outside of the game.

And of course, I met my significant other through a tournament. We had our first date because I bet her I could get to the finals of a tournament, saying if I did she had to have dinner with me. I technically got third, but she was willing to settle because there were almost 800 people there that day.

What else do you do?
Outside of the game, I've made my career as a case manager for homeless shelters—in short, I do advocacy work, plus paperwork and a lot of assistance in job search and housing. I also am a casual runner/body builder, and enjoy writing as well. Oh, and did I mention cooking? Because I can make a mean toast.

Any last words?
When it comes down to it, we're the new generation. We're adults now, and we get to decide what that means. I spent the better part of my life wishing I had the nerve to indulge my nerdier hobbies, and when I finally took the leap I never looked back. People look down on Pokémon players because they think it's a bunch of nerds sweating and farting in a giant dome all weekend—but if they could know how much of the world I've seen, how many amazing people I've met, and just how happy it can make a part of the world, then who knows? And even if that never happens, we may as well just do what makes us happy. As long as it's not hurting anyone, who cares what others think?