Jeff Zandi is a five time pro tour veteran who has been playing Magic since 1994. Jeff is a level two DCI judge and has been judging everything from small local tournaments to pro tour events.

Jeff is from Coppell, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where his upstairs game room has been the "Guildhall", the home of the Texas Guildmages, since the team formed in 1996. One of the original founders of the team, Jeff Zandi is the team's administrator, and is proud to continue the team's tradition of having players in every pro tour from the first event in 1996 to the present.


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Magic Versus Poker
What Happens When Competitive Card Players Have to Choose?

by Jeff Zandi - Sept. 3, 2004

Magicís Pro Tour came into being eight years ago to promote the game and give top players an opportunity to compete for large cash prizes. After experiencing the satisfaction of playing Magic for so-called ďserious moneyĒ, a lot of Pro Tour players have moved on to greener pastures, as in the mega-greenbacks of professional poker. For the past several months, ESPN has spent two hours each Tuesday night showing action from the biggest poker event in the world, the 2004 World Series of Poker, held earlier this year in Las Vegas. In just a few more weeks, the Tuesday night ESPN coverage will center on the final table of professional pokerís richest championship ever.

At this table, a young man will finish in second place, pocketing an unheard-of $3.5 million. This young man is David Williams, the same David Williams that was possibly the hottest young player in Magicís Pro Tour just a few years ago. Before playing in the World Series of Poker, Dave was a professional Magic player trying to save up enough money to buy a used car.
Today, Diamond Dave is shopping for Bentleys and Mercedes.

For a long time, competitive Magic players have gone through a familiar progression. Players start out as casual players, loving the elegant game mechanics and the rich playability of Magic: the Gathering. As time goes by, these players become more competitive and start trying to qualify for Magicís professional tour. After competing a few times on the higher plane of competitive Magic, players find themselves inescapably drawn to THAT OTHER card game that has had even more money attached to its tournaments for at least a hundred years. One by one, Magic players become poker players.

The purpose of the article is not to say that Magic is a better game than poker, or vice versa. The purpose of this article is to compare high stakes Magic with high stakes poker, to think about the future of high stakes gaming as well as the rise of the Professional Gamer.

Magic Versus Poker

Plenty of people play either or both of these games at a very casual level.
There are actually a fairly small number of people who have played both of these games at the highest competitive levels. When these players compare their tournament Magic experiences with their experiences playing poker, poker seems to outshine Magic.

The arguments are compelling. In Magic, the cards and formats are ever-changing. The skills you hone today preparing for Mirrodin block constructed tournaments have very little to do with the your preparation next Spring for the U.S. Regionals, for example. In poker, the skills you learn this year will be just as valuable to you next year. Aces are aces. Of course, this argument can work both ways, some players might prefer Magic to poker BECAUSE of the fact that poker presents a static game in comparison to Magicís ever-evolving world of strategic exploration. The higher you probe, however, into the competitive levels of Magic players, the more you learn that these players find their investment of time in poker pays greater dividends, both in cash and satisfaction, than does their investment of time in the game of Magic.

Both games feature tremendous opportunities to compete from the comfort of your own home, thanks to the ability to play either Magic or poker on the internet. When you DO leave the comfort of your home to play in a big Magic tournament, you are likely to be sitting in a poorly ventilated space amid every manner of antagonistic youths, many of whom will not smell particularly appealing. Poker games are held in attractive surroundings and often include complimentary beverages.

Even at the highest levels of Magic competition on the Pro Tour, much of the competitive day is spent milling around, waiting for all three or four hundred players in the event to finish a round of play so that the next round of play can begin. In poker tournaments, the action is continuous. At a big poker tournament, most of your day is spent playing the game, not waiting around for your next opponent.

At a big Magic tournament, luck may have an even bigger role in your success or failure than in poker. This argument is primarily based on the relatively small number of chances you have in a Magic tournament versus a poker tournament. A full day of Magic is often seven or eight rounds, of which you must win at least five or six matches. Both Magic and poker involve a tremendous amount of random chance. Poker smooths out this problem by allowing you to look at and assess a much larger number of hands during a given period of time. If you play in a Magic tournament for eight hours, you will probably play seven rounds and about eighteen total games of Magic. In eight hours of poker competition, you could easily play in, or not play in, hundreds and hundreds of hands/games.

Finally, there is the issue of prestige, or, if not prestige, simple social acceptance. Every competitive Magic player has faced the problem of how to describe what they are doing to ďciviliansĒ not familiar with the finer points of collectible card games. Frankly, a lot of Magic players have been telling people that they were spending the weekend at a poker tournament when they were REALLY trying to qualify for Magicís Pro Tour. A long time ago, poker playing was a lot less popular and a lot less socially accepted.
Today, however, itís VERY COOL to be a poker player.

The Future of Big Money Gaming

The future of big money poker will include a lot more Magic players. Pro Tour Magic players are good with numbers, good at reading their opponentís non-verbal communication, and most importantly, are good at playing a pressure-packed game where skill and luck are often equally balanced. A year or more ago, the average poker club featured a lot of middle aged and older men and only a few men under thirty. Today, the person sitting next to you at the poker table is very likely a very young adult. Whatís more, the person sitting next to you is increasingly a female, something almost unheard of in the poker world in the past.

The time may be right for Magic to raise the stakes in its eight year old Pro Tour. Originally, the Pro Tour paid out a million dollars in total prize money during the year. Since then, the prize money has gone up significantly. Very few Magic players, however, can actually claim enough Pro Tour prize money in a year to call themselves truly professional players. That may need to change. Professional poker tournaments like the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour, as well as the big money tournament tour put on by Upper Deck Entertainment in support of their superhero based card game Vs., are putting pressure on Wizards of the Coast to improve their professional gaming project. If Wizards wants to keep the best Magic players in the world in their game, the Pro Tour money needs to be raised. Doubling or tripling the amount of prize money laid out for Magicís Pro Tour, to numbers perhaps approaching five or six million dollars a year, would go a long way to cementing Magicís Pro Tour as a premiere gaming event and would further secure Magic: the Gathering as the ďintellectual sportĒ that the gameís creators envisioned more than ten years ago. Itís always easy to spend SOMEONE ELSEíS money, but I believe Wizards of the Coast would get a lot more from the outlay of a few more million dollars a year in Pro Tour prize money than they would get from a lot of other similarly funded marketing efforts.

Just as Pokemon players evolved into Magic players, Magic players evolve into poker players. Within the next year or so, Magic players, or possibly ex-Magic players, may be filling up the final tables of the top poker tournaments in the world. If you havenít seen this change occurring, donít take my word for it, turn on your television Tuesday night and look for the black kid in the cheap black wraparound shades and the blue zip-up running jacket. If you do, you will be looking at more than another new millionaire, you will be looking at the future of big money gaming.

As usual, Iím always interested to know what YOU think.

Jeff Zandi
Texas Guildmages
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online


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