IN classrooms and school yards across Bendigo, Pokémon cards are traded, battled and won every day.
It’s a game of strategy and skill, but also requires commitment to collecting and winning the best deck of cards possible.
Each card has its own special power in battles, something 10-year-old Sam Williams understands well.
The Grade 5 student in Bendigo has amassed a strong collection – strong enough to compete with the very best in the world.
And it only took him one year to go from zero knowledge of the game, to battling in competitions in Bendigo, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart.
He’s risen to be the number two junior player in Australia, and fourth in Oceania.
Next on the list: the World Championships in Anaheim, California.
“Kids were playing it at school, so after school I went to a shop and bought a couple of packs of cards, and ever since then I have been playing,” Sam said.
“It didn’t take that long. It took me maybe a couple of months to get all the cards I needed to go to Melbourne for the Nationals.”
He honed his skill at Guf in Bendigo – a gamers’ shop on Hargreaves Street where dozens of Pokémon card fans gather for weekly competitions.
At midday on Saturday, the tables will be full of people of all ages putting their best cards to the test. They battle for competition points, that get tallied at the end of the year to determine who can compete at the top tournaments.
Sam’s dad Mark Williams said it was a wholesome way for his children to spend their weekend, meeting like-minded people to learn more about the strategies of the game.
“He learnt how to play here against some really good players. They were always happy to lend advice,” Mr Williams said.
“We went from the juniors on the weekends, to playing against older people locally. He got a lot of support from everyone.
“It’s a very social environment. It’s good for the kids to spend time with good people – it gets them out of the house as well and lets them develop their strategic thinking.”
After winning a series of local competitions, Sam decided to try his luck at the Nationals held at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne, having earned enough points for entry.
Tournaments in other capital cities helped him move up the rankings, including his win in the regional championships in Sydney.
In fact, his accumulation of points attracted the attention of the Pokémon company itself, which offered his family cash to keep him competing.
They used the money to travel to tournaments across the country in four different states.
Having finished the last season in second
place in Australia, the family was given more cash to travel to the United States to compete against the world’s best – one of just two Australian children given the opportunity.
He will take on 130 other children who have been able to win enough points in their own countries.
It has been a whirlwind ride for Sam and his family, who had no idea of how much opportunity existed in the world of Pokémon. Not only will he compete in the US, he will also be given funding to travel to Europe in December.
“It’s just amazing,” Mr Williams said.
“We didn’t know what to say when we found out they’d pay Sam to compete.
“They contacted us and said here’s $2500 for the events.”
But what’s the secret to Sam’s success? And can any child pick up the cards, make a few trades, win some battles, and start raking in the cash and overseas holidays?
It all comes down to making the most your very best Pokémon cards.
For Sam, it can be quite simple. He likes to play his Shaymin EX card – one of the most powerful cards for letting players draw even more from their deck.
His Gabrador card does plenty of damage to the opponent.
And his Espeon stops the opponent from attaching energy.
He’s also got plenty of others up his sleeve. You just need to have the right strategy in place, Sam says.
“I have all the cards I need to make the top card decks. I can kind of think and take my time a bit, more than other kids,” Sam said.
If it all sounds confusing, then you’re not alone. There are 646 individual “species” of Pokémon – small monsters that originated in the Japanese cartoon.
There are also almost 10,000 different individual Pokémon cards, found at random in packs.
And yes, it’s completely different to Pokémon Go.
Sam’s success is testament to the resurgence of tabletop gaming in Bendigo in the last two years. There will be people competing in a variety of games every day at Guf – and Pokémon isn’t even the most popular one.
The store holds three sessions per week in Magic: The Gathering, culminating in a Friday night tournament.
It attracts more people than any other game and the tables are usually full.
Jarrod Topplowe plays a variety of games, and said there was a friendly – but competitive – atmosphere in Bendigo.
“It’s great way for people to build social skills as well, and for kids who aren’t as used to hanging out with older kids,” he said.
“Some days half of the upstairs area will be full as well with people playing games.
“You’ll have all ages here.”
Anyone can bring along their own tabletop game, find a spare table and set it up.