The #4 Pokemon Player in the World is...
Posted September 20, 2012
Let us begin by establishing one fact: Pokémon is not just a game for children. Played as a one-on-one card game among international competitors, not only does Pokémon attract older players, it is an intense, strategic card game more akin to Poker than to Go-Fish.
And here is even more startling news: The #4 Pokémon player in the world, that’s right, the WORLD, is none other than Delbarton student Michael Diaz ’14.
Proof that, at Delbarton, when we say ‘Do it all’ we really mean it.
Michael Diaz and his brother Frank ’08 have been playing Pokémon for years. Michael started playing when he was just four years old and two years later followed his older brother’s lead into regional and national Pokémon competitions. Both have played up through the ranks to become U.S. national champions.
This past August Michael and Frank attended the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii as wild card entries. (Frank missed out on qualifying matches because of college academic demands -- he graduated from Villanova in May with a degree in Mechanical Engineering -- and Michael missed matches when he chose to spend two weeks in Ireland with Green Wave Club Rugby over Pokémon matches). In Kona he and Frank landed in ‘The Grinder’, an ordeal that pits one player against another to reduce a field of several hundred non-qualifiers into a handful of contenders.
Frank was 3rd in the world in 2010 (the same year Michael was the U.S. national champion, a big news story in the Pokémon world) but in Hawaii he was eliminated in the first round (more on that below). Michael successfully navigated game after game through the Grinder and he finally made it to the field of 128 international contenders who competed in the World Masters class. (Watch the interview Michael gave after he qualified.) From there he competed through eleven rounds to land in the semi-finals where he ultimately finished in fourth place. He had a real shot at the finals until his opponent drew one strong card that pretty much decided the game.
A Teaching Moment
Want to play Pokémon at the World Masters level? Do your homework.
Each competitor spends months prior to the Worlds building a Pokémon deck of 60 cards selected from over approximately 649 Pokémon cards available today. Each Pokémon character card has special attributes and, together, they add up to a deck with unique and powerful synergy. To design his deck Michael conferred with Pokémon colleagues nationally and internationally. “Consulting with fellow competitors isn’t really risky because the odds of playing someone you know are slim,” says Michael. Occasionally this close proximity backfires, as it did for Frank Diaz in The Grinder when, in round one, he faced a good friend who simply knew too much about his deck. Of course, Frank had the same advantage over his opponent so winning came down to who drew which card when. Bad luck for Frank who still remains one of the top players in the world.
Deck strategy is important. Experts like Michael and Frank track trends and try to predict others’ tactics. Picking cards for the final deck is like arming a fortress, always remaining cognizant of a potential opponent’s weaponry. Luck also factors in: many a Pokémon game has been won or lost on the luck of the draw. And just as in a good game of poker, opponents occasionally have ‘tells’, physical clues that if read accurately have the power to give strategy away. Michael has a friendly expression that, we expect, gives opponents very little to work with. His Pokémon face.
Each Pokémon game has an hour time limit. The final game in Michael’s semi-final match (best of three games) lasted 50 intense minutes and the match attracted much attention because Michael and his opponent happened to be the youngest competitors in the Master class which includes players age 16 and up.
Can you make serious money playing Pokémon? Michael has no plans to retire on his earnings any time soon. International Pokémon competition is “not a reliable investment” he says, though for his efforts in Hawaii he won a $5,000 scholarship and automatically qualified for 2013 World Championship in Vancouver, BC next August. He also won free air fare and hotel for the Worlds and has accumulated $22,000 in scholarship money in his Pokémon career. Bonus: As the 4th place finisher he received two each of every Pokémon card, which can be worth a pretty penny on the resale market.
Meanwhile his brother Frank, while job hunting, is working to qualify for the Worlds in Vancouver too. The brothers sharpen their Pokémon skills by competing against each other and playing online against friends from around the world. In fact, it is those friends who have kept Michael Diaz involved in Pokémon. “I doubt I would have stayed in it if it wasn’t for the amazing friends I’ve made.” Friends from England, Belgium, Portugal and Italy have kept the game interesting. The young Pokémon colleagues keep in touch online and look forward to seeing each other at matches where socializing goes far beyond Pokémon talk.
Pokémon is a family affair for the Diaz family. Michael and Frank’s mother Dolores works as a translator at international contests which pays her way to see her sons compete. Clearly 'smart' runs in the family.
If you hadn’t already guessed it, Michael Diaz has a unique ability to tolerate stress and is a risk taker by nature: Last year he went out for the Green Wave Hockey team hoping to land the position of a back-up goalie. One problem: he had never skated before.
“Coach Shatel just laughed,” says Michael.
One year later his skating has improved and he’s trying out for the team again. We are betting on Michael Diaz, #4 Pokémon player in the world, to do whatever he sets his mind to. Play on, Michael…and skate on too.