If one thing becomes clear from the totality of the Arizona Gamer story, it should be that I was not especially good at anything I was doing at that point. I lacked education; I was a college dropout. I lacked self-esteem; rather than acknowledging faults, I evaded. I lacked self-awareness; my own actions often detracted from the business in ways I did not recognize. I lacked money, of course, having just filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy for the Wizard's Tower. My home life was a shambles, with on-again and off-again separation from my now-long-since-ex-wife. I was seriously overweight, I was generally unhealthy, and worst of all, I was causing friction with my family, who had only ever been loving and loyal to me. It took a while for me to mend that particular fence.
In short, my business was inert, because I was inept. Fortunately, my business soon became more ert as I became more ept, because I was on my way up from that rock-bottom place of reflection where an individual finally sees himself or herself as the source of the problem and realizes that only a change of behavior to a disciplined and responsible lifestyle will solve those problems at their roots. It was a little like a twelve-step program, except that I was six years past my brief cringe away from the edge of alcoholism as an undergrad circa 1993. I am lucky to have learned so early in life that addictive substances were an unacceptable risk for me.
I knew how to do one fundamental business thing to enable sales of product, and that was how to run a tournament properly. Nobody thinks about this now because between software and a widespread judge program, any WPN-qualified store can run tournaments. But in 1999, the fact that I was a level 2 judge (and soon level 3) running local sanctioned tournaments was a pretty big deal. A store couldn't even do it without a certified judge present every time. Thus, there was no real market resistance to having me monetize it.
And I made the attraction to play FNM at AZG a simple one. The winner gets $100 cash. The end. Second place earns a feeling of profound and bitter disappointment. In other words, a prize payout precisely the opposite of what any sensible store offers today. And to think there are people in my own Magic player community right now who claim that I don't understand what competitive players want.
Now, you may be asking yourself, wasn't such a cash tournament illegal then as now? The answer was something something mumble mumble. I didn't even check because I didn't care to know. I assumed, wrongly, that I would be able to stop without any meaningful penalty upon the first warning. And the fervor and demand for cash tournaments was so substantial that nobody was tattling -- not even my competitors, among whom both other stores holding regular local sanctioned events were also paying out cash. These were Jester's Court in Phoenix and Arizona Collector's Paradise in Scottsdale.
But yes, it was illegal in Arizona then, and still is today. Nevertheless, that's what I ran. Friday Night Magic Standard for a hunnit-dolla-bill, prize guaranteed, no fuss, no muss, so simple.
Jason wouldn't ever be at the store late into the evening, so it was often his part-timer Anthony Turner running the minis side of the register and me running the card side and the tournament event. I got to know Anthony better and we were fast friends. He taught me that Wood Elves and Eldar were the armies I wanted if my goal was to prevent the other player from having any fun. This was back during that time period's editions of Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, of course. I taught him that Stompy Green or Sligh Red were the decks he wanted to play if he wanted his Magic opponent's first missed land drop to result in a victory practically by default.
Anyway, it worked. For five bucks a throw, I averaged just over thirty players every week. That's an obvious fifty-plus bucks gross margin for six or seven hours of work, definitely multiple nickels higher than minimum wage considering I basically pocketed the remainder after paying Jason's commission. A long run for a short slide? You haven't seen the half of it. Booster drafts were ten bucks, profitable but in the order of small change. Repack booster drafts at five dollars were profitable, again in the order of small change. Sealed deck for $20 with a Tournament Pack and two boosters was an occasional thing, and lucrative, but tough to get players to join due to the higher cost of entry than everything else on the calendar.
Monetization of organized play was a fortunate thing even at that pittance, because it was difficult to profit on product due to absolutely nothing stopping non-retailers from buying Magic boxes at or near wholesale if they knew who to call. I did have non-zero sales of singles, some packs, and even the nascent Ultra Pro Deck Protector sleeves in 100-count packs, available in clear, black, red, or dark green! And that's almost it! I did not sell board games because Catan was six years in the future and there weren't board games yet as we know them today. I did not sell miniatures because Jason had that locked down. I did dabble in other card games; Decipher's Star Trek and Star Wars CCGs saw my shelves, as well as a few also-rans like the original Netrunner, Rage, and Jyhad/Vampire. Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade both sucked in 1999, so neither Jason nor I bothered to stock RPGs or dice yet. Another trading card game soon crashed the party in a big way, but that's for another article.
Players began arriving in pairs and small groups. There was a group of local younger players whose names I only barely recall, but I think they were Justin, Paul, and Ben. Then of course Jon Rapisarda, Tony "T-Pup" Pagliocco, Brock Burr, and Brandon Helding. Drew Durbin, Eric Judd, and I know there was another guy but his name escapes me. Mitch Ledford and Greg Smith. Steve Rice, Ed Kenney, Wayne Paden, and Gary Armes. Justin Poulter and Brandon Beach. Josh Martin, Sean Fitzgerald, and Ben Robinson. One day, Harry Shipley, along with Alex and Mitchell Tamblyn -- and those three have probably the most active continuity of any of the Arizona Gamer Magic players from the earliest days. Dan Voigt, Tim Daldrup, Steve Ward, and Scott Dove arrived around this time. Scott died about ten years later. Carol Heady, who also passed on about ten years later. Matt Mortensen dropped in once in a while when he wasn't playing poker. Holdovers from the Wizard's Tower days like Matt Stenger, Ray Powers, Jay Webb, and Jim Spiker occasionally joined in, plus Scott Dalton whenever he was on shore leave from the Navy. Singleton regulars like John Lind, Chris Sadler, David Ong and Chris Piekarski. As well, there was a Decipher contingent made up of Mike Girard, Brian Garrison, Mike Sinclair, Andrew and Aaron McCormack, Steve Marshall, and Brandon Allen, some of whom played Magic as well. I'm sure I am forgetting people. As an anecdote comes to mind during this article series involving specific peeps, I'll try to remember to update this paragraph. (I'll reach the Warhammer players in a future article, at this point in AZG I didn't really know those guys yet.)
So every Friday night, in practice, the top four always chopped to $25 each and quintupled up their buy-in, unless Jon Rapisarda was involved, because he didn't split with nobody; he expected to win the entire hundred. If we finished by 11:40 or so somehow, Anthony and a couple of whomever was interested would pile into my parents' borrowed Saturn and we'd head to the Arizona Mills Harkins Theater for a midnight movie. This was great fun in an era when I had no children and slept late every day. We all saw The Matrix on opening weekend "blind," with no idea what it was about, and it blew our f**king minds. It was all we could talk about for a week. If we didn't finish on time to catch a movie, we'd head over to Mike Sinclair's apartment and play poker, smoke cigars, and drink beer. I would stagger home around three in the morning and my ex would already be asleep. Repeat for many months.
Important things I didn't do during the first few months I spent subletting at Arizona Gamer:
- Consider finishing my education, including learning that being over 23 years of age made me a "financially independent student," and with the low tuition of the time, I could have attended ASU purely on Pell grants and finished my degree for free.
- Seek out better sourcing for my products, including discovering Talkin' Sports (now GTS Distribution) a mere six miles away from my store, until they discovered me.
- Model my business financial structure beyond "every Monday I pay my personal bills and spend however much I have left on product, COD cashier's check due in Wednesday or Thursday."
- Advertise beyond some basic Usenet posts and coat-tailing off Jason's yellow pages advert.
- Develop my in-store merchandising deployment (though this is partially excusable; if Jason had tired of my presence and decided to make a go of it without me, I would have to disembark quickly).
- Explore other revenue lines and categories I could bring in.
- Iterate the infrastructure to add reliability and business continuity.
- Take seriously and learn the Warhammer side of the business that was moving respectable volume for Jason as the spring progressed.
- Learn the skill sets underlying commerce in secondhand goods.
- Understand the supreme importance of Net Income.
- Much of anything else aside from slow-building capital.
Important things I did do during that time:
- Remained debt-free, which of course following the bankruptcy was to be expected. Still, this was an important part of my rebuilding from scratch.
- Kept up with the Magic rules and rulings at a sufficiently expert level that I passed my second attempt at testing for Level 3 a few months later.
- Devoted myself to being "reliable" for Jason Barnes, as a part of my personal rebuilding process and something that was within my power to do every day to earn genuine trust. I had spent years shedding away trust freely offered to me through my own irresponsibility. It was time for that way of life to be over.
- Got in roughly hours #2,000 through #3,000 of the ten thousand hours I would need to master the comic and hobby game industry retail trade from a Gladwellian point of view. Repetitions. Buying, selling, working my audience, building rapport with my regulars, scratching out my most rudimentary understanding of cash flow economics, and so on. A lot of things I'm seeing my employees do today. Some of them have better chops at this point than I had at any time during the Arizona Gamer era.
It is often said that youth is wasted on the young. Writing this article series, I see that clear as day. If I had known then what I know now... ah, but that is a parallel history that will never be.