7 min read

Pokemon Travelogue: Utrecht

Only in his own hometown is a prophet without honor

This is (gulp) the 7th installment of The Pokemon Travelogue, an ongoing series in which I document the experience of escorting 2 kids to compete in Pokemon card game tournaments all around Europe. If you’re a glutton for pain and have missed the previous installments, they’re here:

If you’re new and wondering where to begin, I’d recommend starting with reexamining your life choices. Onto Utrecht…

Intro to a third tier city

How dare you call the city where I live a third tier city? Yes, that’s right - this one is happening in our actual place of residence. Really, though, Utrecht is kind of the perfect example of a wonderful third tier city, ie if you visited for a weekend, you’d probably see all of the touristic attractions… but it’s a wonderful place to live. 

If you come visit during the summer, we will absolutely take you on a boat ride around the canals. We will bike through a forest to the pancake house. We’ll get coffee & breakfast at Koffie Leute and play old school video games while we eat. We might catch a film at the former fire station turned art deco cinema.

Utrecht is a top 3 Dutch city every day, and depending on the day it’s often #11. Before I had ever visited, a Dutch friend explained it to me thusly, “It has all the great things about Amsterdam, but none of the douchebag tourists.” This is a pretty good sales pitch.

The Saturday night before this tournament, Sarah & I went out for dinner in the northern part of the city with a friend who was visiting. After dinner, we decided to walk along the old canal and ended up walking almost the entire way home before we decided to catch a bus for the last kilometer or so. This isn’t actually a unique feature of Utrecht - if you’ve been in any Dutch village or small city of 100,000 to 400,000 people, you’ve probably noticed how it is dense, walkable, and utterly charming. How somehow, despite this density, it still abounds with green & open space. As the prophet Jane Jacobs predicted, you’ve probably noticed a diversity of niche businesses occupying small to medium size storefronts. In Utrecht, for example, there’s one intersection along the canal where you can find a board game store on every corner.

But, also, I fear I have said too much. The thing about Utrecht is we’re more than happy to have all of the tourists just go to Amsterdam. Nothing to see here. Forget everything I said above.

On the topic of 3rd tier cities that host Pokemon tournaments, allow me a bit of an aside:

Between Liverpool and Dortmund, I happened to spend a few days in Turin, Italy. As it happens, Turin hosted a Pokemon tournament last year (though we didn’t go to that one). Turin was absolutely lovely & beautiful. I wandered around with a couple friends, explored some museums, popped into old churches to marvel at the architecture, had aperitifs with heavy appetizers every night in the city that claims to be the inventor of the aperitif, and wandered along the river as the sun set every evening. It kind of made me wonder what I’m missing spending all of my time in convention centers.

Not bad, Turin. Not bad.

How we’re rolling

This is what I wrote before the tournament:

One of the best things about playing a home tournament? We’re rolling in the grandest style imaginable: on our bicycles. It’s 15 minutes from our house to the event along a lovely, houseboat lined canal.

…except the kids did not want to ride bikes, so we took public transport. Hopefully this does not get our Dutch visas revoked.

Where we’re eating

For the most part, we just ate at home?

Oh - except for Friday night. On Friday night we did something special.

In the introduction to this series, I wrote:

My time on these weekends will be spent:making sure both competitors eat, drink, and use the toilet when neededdebriefing matches with themplaying Pokemon with the kids in between matchesshepherding them between the hotel and the venuemaking small talk with the other parentswatching the finals of the competition (actually surprisingly dramatic most of the time)maybe reading a little bit on the side?

For the most part, this was correct, but I was just egregiously wrong about the “small talk” aspect, because - as it turns out - when you see the same people every month and you all have the same level of devotion to the same random hobby, you get beyond small talk pretty quickly. And while I know and am familiar with probably a dozen families, we now have a small pod of 4 families who we hang out with at every tournament. I refer to us, with great fondness, as “The Pokedads.”

If you’re wondering, “do the Pokedads have a group chat?” I am here to tell you that we do, and if you’re further wondering, “does that group chat remain active even in between tournaments?” I am here to tell you that it does. And if you’re an especially inquisitive type, and you’re thinking, “do the Pokedads maybe take things a little bit too far at tournaments and scout the other players, and share intel on the group chat?” Well, that might be poking your nose into other people’s business.

When I was a child, a lot of my friends were the children of my parents’ friends. As an adult, I am not geographically proximate to my closest friends, so that dynamic doesn’t play out. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite: many of my adult friends are the parents of my children’s friends. The Pokedads are a prime example of this…but despite it being largely an accident of fate, I feel really grateful for it, because I genuinely like these guys and find it hard to imagine how our lives would otherwise have intersected.

I go back and forth a bit about whether this is a happy accident or a consequence of being an immigrant family, where we have just learned to find any point of commonality with others and try to build meaningful bonds around it. Undoubtedly, it’s a bit of both - but I do consider myself lucky that my children have consistently made friends with kids who have parents that I really enjoy and appreciate.

Oh, right, this is supposed to be about where we’re eating…well, on Friday night we managed to get all of the families together for dinner. Adults conversed, children played Pokemon. Kebabs and chips were consumed. It was a lovely time overall2.

What we’re playing

Friends, romans, countrymen - I come not to praise Rapid Strike but to bury it. Here’s the deal: this is the last tournament for Tommy’s beloved deck that has carried them through this whole season. By the time the next tournament arrives, the world of Pokemon TCG will have been shaken up by the arrival of a new set of cards, and with that arrival comes the departure of some of the older cards. Sadly, that includes the entire Rapid Strike lineup. We’ll be trotting out something new in London, but what that will be is still up in the air.

Tommy has plans for Rapid Strike, though. After the big win at the last tournament, Tommy has found the rarest version of every card in the deck, aka the elusive Max Rarity deck. When the rotation comes, we’re going to lay out all 60 cards on an Empoleon playmat, mount it, and frame it. It’s only fitting.

And Nate is still digging his Giratina Lost Box, so that one is also getting trotted out again. And while it won’t rotate, Nate definitely won’t be playing it at EUIC (some foreshadowing for the next installment) and almost certainly won’t play it at the world championships either.

How we did

In the spirit of full, completely candid disclosure: there was a moment at the end of the day Saturday when I thought to myself, “I #*&$ing hate Pokemon.” That moment occurred just after Nate lost his final match of the day - a match that if he had won or drawn would have put him in the top 8 - and burst into tears. 

We had been on a ride that day; in Nate’s second to last match, he got the cards he needed for a win on his very last turn before the match would have ended in a tie, and as a result we thought he would be matched up against another player who only needed a tie to advance to top 8. But when the pairings were announced, Nate had been matched against the one player with a slightly worse record who actually needed a win to advance.

I was already on edge…in part because the lighting inside of the event hall was just all aggravating fluorescents, and in part because Tommy had been having a really rough tournament - losing the first round when they really shouldn’t have, and just generally having rotten luck in the rest of the draw. Tommy maintained their composure throughout the day but also lost their lost match, and consequently dropped out of the top 32.

But let’s be real: Nate’s goal for the day was to finish in the top 16, and even with that final round loss, Nate came in 14th. When those final standings were posted, I started the process of forgiving Pokemon.

I forgave them a little bit more as we were walking into the event hall the following day when Nate said to me, “My most important match yesterday was my last match, and even though I lost it was actually my most fun match.”

And then as we watched our friend Ethan - the same Ethan who Tommy defeated in the finals in Dortmund - advance to the finals to square off against the #1 juniors player in the world and defeat him in a hard fought 3 games, well not only did I forgive Pokemon completely, I had started searching for flights to Stockholm, Sweden - a decidedly non third tier city that is hosting a tournament in May. A tournament that 2 days before I had been resolutely opposed to playing. Life comes at you fast sometimes.

But first, there’s an international championship in London in a month, and international championships are a higher standard of play than a regional championship… We’ll get into that next time.

When the dust settles, it looks like Tommy will remain firmly in the top 22 at #12, and Nate will be sitting just outside at #25. The plan is on track, but there are some obstacles on the road ahead