For more than 100 years, trading cards have captured the imagination of boys and girls throughout the United States. Children would look forward to getting the cards of the their favorite baseball heroes, whether it was through bargaining with their friends or buying a pack of chewing gum from the local convenience store.
These days, children continue to trade and collect cards, but of a different variety.
The profiles of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra have given way to the likes of Pikachu and Jigglypuff, whose cards are no longer intended just for trading and collecting, but also for playing.
On Feb. 22, in a side room at the Richmond County YMCA, children and parents were busy at play, placing cards on the table and planning out their every move. At the front table, William Washington was teaching a father how to play the game that held everyone else’s attention:
the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG).
It is a pastime that has brought joy to William, his wife Sonivette and their daughter Angelica, whose love of the game has evolved into the newest local craze, the Northern Neck Pokemon League.
Since its official debut in 2008, the Warsaw-based league has ignited interest within the community and given children and families time to spend together outside of home and school.
William first discovered the game when he and Angelica saw a pack of Pokemon cards at Wal-Mart.
“My daughter wanted them because she liked the Pokemon [television] show,” William said.
“Then I realized it had numbers and words,” he added with a chuckle. “So it must be a game.”
The music teacher of 18 years started looking online to learn how to play the game, and after he and Angelica enjoyed playing it casually at home, they started looking for organized play.
After visiting various card shops in Richmond, one individual mentioned a Pokemon league in the city that featured players who had competed in National and Worlds tournaments.
“We were new, but I’m a dad, so I’m like, ‘Let’s go to that one!’” William laughed. “We go to this beastly league up in Richmond Commons and we thought our little themed decks were just the bee’s knees.”
“We…got outright destroyed,” William said of their first trip, adding that he and Angelica learned how to play competitively through trial and error at the Richmond leagues.
Soon, students began asking William if they could learn how to play the game, and he happily obliged them.
“We had kids coming over to the house every Thursday with us teaching them how to play Pokemon and letting them play together,” William said.
But the house grew full on Thursday evenings, so William and Sonivette passed an annual test and filled out paperwork to create an official Pokemon league in Warsaw, designing it to be a casual and friendly place for students to learn the rules and etiquette of the Pokemon TCG.
“We’ve established a place that’s open to the public where they come and play,” said William. “We don’t have any aspirations as far as membership numbers…we’re just here every Friday for whoever wants to come, and kids show up when they want.”
According to information on the Northern Neck Pokemon league website, the mission of the league is to give participants as much playing experience as possible as well as teach good sportsmanship.
“The tenets of Pokemon are wonderful for character, fairness, fun, fellowship and helping others,” said William. “You start the game by saying ‘good luck’ and shaking hands and you end the game by saying ‘good game’ and shaking hands.”
“We can’t get [one of our attendees] Carter to play a lot because he’s over at the table trying to help kids build their decks.” William added. “I have to force him to play because he’d rather trade cards with people so they have the cards they need.”
William added that his goal was to have at least one player participate in the Nationals “other than the Washington family,” as well as organize a league or Pokemon-themed event in Warsaw to attract players from “far and wide.”
Activities of the Northern Neck Pokemon League include sanctioned tournaments at the YMCA to give league players “the tournament experience” and “prize” items they cannot buy from stores in the area, such as card sleeves and specially numbered die.
The league also hosts “Release Parties” where William and Sonivette order a brand new case of recently released cards for the players.
“We try to give our kids the experiences similar to premier Pokemon events without them having to travel two hours out,” said William, adding that the children and adults in the league are official Pokemon players.
“They have membership cards, which means they can play this game anywhere in the world at premier events,” he said.
Students in the league have traveled to city, regional and state tournaments, with one player, seventh grader Matthew Delano, winning a city championship in Richmond.
Matthew is not the only one in his family to compete in the Northern Neck league, however. His father Hunter, mother Gwen and younger brother Mark all play the game together as well as at the league and throughout statewide tournaments.
Hunter said Matthew’s love for the Pokemon TCG pulled him into the competition.
“There was no point in standing around, so I decided, ‘I’ll play too,’ and I got hooked on it,” said Hunter, whose family resides in Warsaw.
Hunter called the card game “fun and educational” and said it strengthened children’s math and strategic skills. He added that Mark learned how to add up numbers through Pokemon before he entered Kindergarten.
“We’ve had a good time playing together,” Hunter said. “And the competition gets so strong, so I’m just happy to make .500 in the tournaments.”
The proud father described one instance which Matthew declared was the best day of his life.
“He placed eighteenth in a State tournament to win 18 packs of Pokemon cards,” said Hunter. “That’s 180 cards.”
While Hunter stacked his deck against his son’s, and other children who challenged him at the table, another parent, Betsy Thrift, sat back and watched as her son Tripp joyously competed against his friends.
“Tripp always enjoys the time he has had here [in the league], and when your child’s happy, you’re happy” said Betsy.
She smiled when mentioning that her son tried to get her to play.
“But it’s over my head,” she laughed.
However, Betsy valued the league for providing children with an outlet where they can get together and socialize after school.
“It’s good to have something here [in Warsaw] other than sports,” she said.
Third grader Wyatt Bunch looked over his cards, and explained how he was first introduced to the league.
“My brother kind of started, but I got tired of waiting while he kind of did stuff, so I started to play,” he said.
Wyatt called the league “fun.” Before he became a part of the league, Wyatt said he didn’t have as many friends as he does now, and when he is given money he now has something that he can go buy: Pokemon cards.
“You see that big binder over there?” he said before pointing to a large, green binder on a shelf at the back of the room. “Those are mine.”
Wyatt expressed pride over the very first deck that he built.
“I never destroyed it and I never will,” said Wyatt. “I call it the ‘Destroyer of Grass’ because it uses a lot of fire-type Pokemon [which are good against grass-types].”
As to what kind of Pokemon he preferred to have in his decks, Wyatt replied: “Pokemon that make me win.”
Fifth grader Haley Ambrose remembered asking William in music class if there was a Pokemon league.
“I was just curious,” Haley said smiling.
Through the league, Ambrose most enjoyed getting to meet new people to battle in Pokemon and winning different prizes. She pulled out an ‘Ice Badge’ that the Washingtons awarded her for winning multiple matches against opponents.
Haley said that some of the Pokemon that helped her win matches included Torterra, a turtle-like Pokemon she described as taking both luck and strategy to use.
“If you keep getting heads and heads and heads, then you do a massive amount of damage,” she said excitedly.
Tenth grader Jay Branem first got involved when a friend told him about the league at the YMCA.
“I was interested in the Pokemon show…I came with a lame-ish old deck,” said Jay, who added that he has acquired two new decks since joining.
As a part of the league, Jay enjoys the opportunity to play “a lot of different people from different countries” as well as the ability to talk freely to people about Pokemon.
“I opened myself up…I say whatever comes to my mind,” said Jay, adding that the best games to him were the ones where he and his opponent played each other evenly until the very end.
“If I’m just getting destroyed or my opponent is not getting the cards [he or she needs], then it’s no fun,” said Jay, who emphasized that he was always looking for a challenge.
William said the most validating aspect of starting the league has been the loyal competitors who come back to play in the league each Friday.
“[People] go on and play sports and do whatever they want to do, and they come back, so that means it couldn’t have been all that bad,” William said smiling.
For further information about the league, visit their website at http://www.warsawpokemon.com/. The Northern Neck Pokemon League meets every Friday during the school year at 5 p.m.