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Monday, March 6, 2017

My Two Decades In Organized Play: The Judge Years

My first step in what would become my career track, little did I realize it at the time, took place in the spring of 1997 and kicked off, at least in the immediate result, over six years of my life spent heavily involved in judging Magic: the Gathering tournaments.  My "Judge Years" were basically Act One of the twenty years I have spent in Organized Play.  Act Two sent me to law school and working for state government, and I was a player and backpack dealer.  Act Three opened up Desert Sky Games and saw me evermore as a tournament organizer and host, and (intentionally) not much more, but for a wider variety of games and not just Magic.

It all began here:
The Costa Mesa Women's Club, south of gloriously smoggy Los Angeles, California, as photographed by Matt Murphy of Shuffle & Cut.  The Club served as host venue for every qualifier event, prerelease, and regional championship tournament for the greater SoCal region for many years since Magic's earliest days.

Indeed, so unassuming a facility it wouldn't catch your eye driving past, the Club nonetheless was the Place where the Happen Did.  It of the too-small parking lot, the dealer tables full of sketchy guys with scotch-taped binder slots, the latest tech at every table in an era when most players had no idea there was such a thing as "tech," stifling humidity no matter the time or date, the Takenagas processing any number of registrations in mere minutes, Scott Larabee being asked to sanction events if enough random pedestrians could be brought in to hit minimum attendance, Truc Bui rolling in 15 minutes late and winning a pod after drafting five-color, and The Dan Gray having disqualification criteria thrust into his judging arsenal again and again by players who thought the fifth Hypnotic Specter would be sure to escape the eyes of deck-checkers.

This was where I pulled up in the spring of 1997 to certify myself as a DCI Judge, under the fledgling judge program of the time that has grown worldwide today and encompassed officiating of competition at the very highest levels.  But back then there were few judges anywhere.

I traveled by car and had essentially no money at the time, so I slept in my car overnight just outside the Center, and this was both uncomfortable and doubtless did little to enhance my appearance and the impression I delivered the next day.  Level 2 judge Andrea Kunstt administered the written and verbal test to me, and Dan and Scott checked it with her afterward.  I whiffed on one question, having missed the news about the David Mills disqualification for announcing his spell before tapping land -- the horror -- but my X-1 score was good enough to convince them to certify me straight to Level 2, which is no longer done.  Pictured below were Dan (left) and myself with James Lee in 2001, judging Grand Prix Denver.
I opened Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in summer 1998, as you can read about right here on this blog, and served as the Tower's only judge about 99% of the time for its life cycle.  I then partnered into Arizona Gamer in 1999, a story I will have to tell at some point, and again served as judge pretty much throughout.  Magic wasn't played every single day at stores all over the place back then... but it was played on most days at the stores I ran, because... okay, I was in a rut and didn't know what else to do with myself.  The truth can be uncomfortable sometimes.
I was not the greatest judge.  Let me be perfectly clear about this.  By 1999 I forged my way to Level 3, mainly on the strength of being willing to work repeatedly and often at any event that would have me.  I failed my first Level 3 attempt before passing my second.  But even then, today's Level 2 judges are better at the craft of officiating Magic: the Gathering events than I was as a Level 3.  They are better taught, better practiced, they have better communication and better resources, and the player base knows much more finely what to expect and how to interact with judges during difficult ruling scenarios.  I once tried to back-to-back a PTQ and some other premier event in Tucson for Ray Powers's Monastery Productions and had such a horrible night's sleep that the second day was a blur of coffee, irritability, and poor rulings.  I personally deck-checked a player at Pro Tour San Diego 2002 and missed a card inclusion cheat that was discovered a round later on a floor call.  I botched the end of a PTQ in New Mexico when two semifinalists agreed to the random outcome of a match and I missed the conversation unfolding right beside me because of an ear infection and my attention being on the other semifinal match.  Above all I was not nearly as professional as I wish I would have been.
I did a few things right in that time.  Bands like King's X and Phish gained respect for their willingness to tour to every nook and cranny of the world to perform, night in and night out, and that was me in my judging heyday.  From fall 2001 to spring 2003 I was occupied on over 50% of weekends with a prerelease, PTQ, or higher event either in Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Vegas, and in some cases elsewhere that WOTC flew me.
My peak was probably testing up new Level 1 judges as a Level 3 trainer at Pro Tour New Orleans 2001.  Held in a facility that was destroyed four years later by Hurricane Katrina, PTNO'01 also took place during the legendary Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series.  I got to sit in a pub on Bourbon Street near Tolouse and watch a room full of mostly Yankees fans whoop it up for three straight nights while I suffered my D'Backs giving up late walk-off wins.  Then, the Saturday of the Pro Tour itself, Scott Larabee smugly slowrolled me, "Okay Bahr, time to put you out of your misery.  I'm not sure the D'Backs are going to have any lead changes at this point.  Oh, the score?  They're ahead fifteen to two."  I flew home the next day just in time to watch Game Seven.
It wasn't all Pro Tours and Nationals, though the Nationals 2002 in Orlando was delightful and stands still to date as my only visit to Disney World.  The event took place at the Wide World of Sports arena and we even got to experience a tropical storm.  During downtime, I got to draft Invasion block with Mark Rosewater hosting my pod, which was cooler than I realized at the time.  But a more typical judging day had me at Ray and Kelly Powers's Gamers Edge store in Chandler, holding the line against savage cheaters and delinquents.
Ray and Dan even hosted the first Grand Prix Phoenix in 2000, on a freezing weekend in Glendale when fewer players showed up than we typically saw at area prereleases.  Matt Stenger was still a Level 3 judge at the time as well, and he and I were regular fixtures at local events on the circuit.
For some reason, Ray's organizer territory was expanded at one point to include San Diego in addition to Arizona, which meant he could run prereleases in two cities on the same day.  This was many years before the in-store prereleases; back then one organizer would host a huge event for the entire metro area.  I logged quite a few miles in my Chevy S-10 pickup back and forth to the Gaslamp Quarter, getting all familiar with F and G streets and how to park anywhere near Harbor Boulevard.  To say nothing of knowing by sight when I was approaching Winterhaven, Jacumba, Alpine, La Mesa, and El Cajon.  In fact, at one point Ray was sending me back and forth along the I-8 so frequently and I was getting so comfortable with the San Diego area that I put in a request to transfer my day job at University of Phoenix to their SoCal ground campus.  I was divorced, single, my friends were all beginning that mid-twenties scatter as we all sought our fortunes and careers, and the timing seemed just right.  If I was ever going to leave Arizona, this would be it.  I had work to back up my judging and judging to back up my work.
Obviously I never moved to San Diego.  I can't tell you exactly how it worked out that way except that I missed the timing on about four things in a row and that's just how the bough broke.  The finance advisor position at UoP SoCal didn't open up as scheduled or else I just didn't get it, memory fails me.  I think some other organizer took over for Ray in San Diego and it wasn't someone I had worked with, so with the region no longer under Ray's purview, I was not assured of getting any judging work.  I was dating someone briefly and I think I turned down some element that would have gotten the ball rolling on the relocation, because she had a rock-anchored job in Phoenix and I didn't want to break up.  Of course we broke up soon after that anyway.  But the big one was after those things each whiffed, I made a career move that ended the discussion.
The flip side of my willingness to work and then work some more is that I got burned out on judging, and began to appreciate somewhat more the tournament organizer/administrator side of the coin.  My autism-spectrum brain loved the complex rules system and the mechanics of winnowing players from a room full of dreamers to a Top 8 playoff of contenders.  But that same autism-spectrum brain hated the taskwork of responding to judge calls and struggled deeply to "read" players and make determinations on whether a player was being honest or deceptive.  Kind of an important thing for a judge to be able to intuit, wouldn't you say?
I had finished my associate's program at UoP while gainfully employed there, and I decided that law was the career for me, since it consisted of getting paid to understand complex rules systems, comma, I thought.  I guess I was not fully wrong.  But I retired from my DCI Level 3 certification and did not renew it, and aside from working events with Ray every now and then, I focused my efforts on finishing college and then law school at ASU.  By the time I came back to the tournament world for good, it would be in a store logo shirt, not in judge stripes.

And thus ended The Judge Years of my two-decade-long (and counting) involvement in Organized Play.  Hope you found the photos of me from 15 to 20 years ago as amusing as I did!

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