[Manager’s Note: Jeff Zandi passed away Friday night after suffering a heart attack, the outpouring of love and support for his child and family was quickly spread on social media as we saw people from all over give tribute to this giant in the Magic community. Jeff was a wonderful person who positively impacted so many lives. In honor of him, we are running some of our most favorite pieces from his time at LegitMTG.com. Rest well Jeff, we’ll all miss you. This piece was originally published on December 29, 2017.]
Magic’s Grand Prix circuit represents the highest level of competitive play that a player can take part in without qualifying for the Pro Tour. Should you be so fortunate as to reach day two of a Grand Prix event, you will play under Professional Rules Enforcement Level, the same as at the Pro Tour or the Magic World Cup. Pro Tour qualifications became a little harder to come by in 2014 as we said goodbye to the old Pro Tour Qualifier system and hello to the Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier system. Since that time, Grand Prix events have become even more important to competitive players.
Individuals who are serious about judging seek out Grand Prix events in much the same way that competitive players do. A Grand Prix is the highest level event a judge can work, short of the Pro Tour. Recently, the Pro Tour began using only level three judges. These are the highest level judges in the world and the most experienced. For level one and level two judges, Grand Prix events are the best experience available.
The biggest difference between playing in a Grand Prix and judging in one is access. Anyone with a DCI number and a hundred dollar bill can play in a Grand Prix, but in order to judge at a Grand Prix you have to apply to the judge manager of the event. A Grand Prix will use many, many judges, but never as many as the number that apply.
Around the most recent turn of the century, Grand Prix events were very different than they are today. Today’s Grand Prix events attract thousands of players. When the Grand Prix circuit began in 1997 a lot fewer players showed up. There were two hundred in Austin in October 1998. 458 players participated in the first Kansas City GP in March 1999. That was a record high attendance for a GP at the time. These early Grand Prix events gave players a taste of high level competition, but nothing like today’s GPs. The early GPs had a lot less to offer to players and judges alike.
Today’s Grand Prixs are the largest events in Magic. There were 1100 players in New Jersey on December 16, 1400 the week before in Oklahoma City. Over 8000 players participated in the gigantic triple Grand Prix in Las Vegas back in June. There were fifty-three Grand Prix events in 2017 all over the world. Long story short, Grand Prix events represent competitive Magic’s biggest events, weekend after weekend, year after year.
JudgeApps is the Website for Judges
If you’re a person who desires to judge at one of these mammoth events, your journey begins on JudgeApps. This website was created by the judge community to help judges connect to each other, but it quickly became the primary tool through which tournament organizers find the judge talent that they need for their events. Events are posted on JudgeApps every day and range from Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers looking for one or two judges to Grand Prix events looking for a hundred judges. It’s a little confusing that the site is called JudgeApps yet is not an ‘app’ in the sense of an app on a smart phone, for example. I was once a professional in the field of Information Technology. At this point, my best advice would be to Google JudgeApps and hope for the best.
My Judge Journey
I have a certain perspective on the subject of judging at large Magic events. I’ve been a judge for a long time and I’ve participated in hundreds of competitive events, as a judge, a tournament organizer and as a player, all the way back to the beginning of the Pro Tour. In fact, the first year of the Pro Tour is where my judge story began.
Wizards of the Coast kicked off the Pro Tour in 1996. The first event was in New York City in February, which, by the way, you qualified for by getting through by telephone to Wizards during a very brief window of time. There were four more Pro Tour events in 1996. New York City was followed by Los Angeles (Booster Draft), then Columbus (Ice Age block constructed), Atlanta (Mirage sealed/booster draft) and finally Dallas on the last weekend in November. On the weekend before Pro Tour Dallas, there was a last-chance qualifier that awarded its final four finishers with seats to the Pro Tour. I came close to qualifying that weekend, but while I missed the cut, I caught wind of an opportunity to work at the Pro Tour as a judge.
The judge program was brand new in 1996. As a matter of fact, Wizards was making it up as they went along. There had been a document sent out to stores that contained a basic sort of judge test. Of course, the answers were on the bottom of the page and applicants were asked to grade themselves honestly. I don’t believe I ever filled out one of those. There was a member of the Wizards team at that last chance qualifier, a chap named Andrew Finch. We hit it off a bit and I invited him to join me and the guys for a booster draft on the Wednesday night before the Pro Tour. I learned that Wizards was getting together local volunteers on Thursday night at the tournament venue to discuss judging at the Pro Tour. At the Thursday night meetup we learned about the jobs for which Wizards needed volunteers. Just like that, I was signed up for a weekend of judging and doing whatever other odd jobs might be needed for the good of the event. My wife signed up to work in one of the Wizards booths all weekend. We learned we would receive some gift compensation at the end of the weekend and that I would have the opportunity to take an official judge exam on Sunday.
The first call I made as a judge was a wrong one. On Friday, during day one competition, a player called me over. They were playing third game, each player having won a game already. An Earthquake resolved that killed both players at the same time. They wanted to know what to do next. I told them that their match was over and that the score would be one win each and a draw for their third game. Reasonable, but completely wrong. While the rules are better defined today, the correct ruling in 2017 is the same as in 1996. A match with a 1-1-1 score does not represent a finished match if there is still time available in the round. Players continue to a fourth game, or even more games if necessary, as long as the time in the match permits. Getting my very first judge call completely incorrect was not a good feeling. Guess what? I’m not going to get them all right, and neither are you. Nor will any judge. You should take a mistake seriously enough to not let it happen again and then move on. It was an inauspicious start to my judge career but I can’t tell you how happy I am that I didn’t let it get to me.
I don’t remember much of what happened during my second day working at the PT, but I’ll never forget what happened on Sunday. For one thing, I took my first judge test. In a pre-Judge Center, mostly pre-internet world, the test was on paper. I believe it had fifty questions, but it may have had less. I was given my test by Tara McDermott, the head of all judges at the time. They didn’t tell me my exact score, as far as I remember, but I was notified that I had passed the exam. Later I would learn that I scored well enough to earn a level two judge ranking. Unlike most level two judges, I have never been a level one judge.
I had another thrill that day. Andrew Finch, the Wizards of the Coast official that I met the previous weekend, needed some judges for the top eight matches on Sunday and selected me. There were two top eights, one for the juniors division and one for the “masters division.” The only difference was age, you had to be eighteen or older to compete in the masters division. Finch put me on Paul McCabe’s quarterfinals match. McCabe went on to win Pro Tour Dallas. The top eight matches were being played in a private chamber one floor above the main tournament area. One wall of this room was all glass and looked down over the main event floor. This was the first time I had ever seen the serious audio/visual team that Wizards assembled to photograph and videotape the top eight matches. It was an awesome thing to be a part of.
Late in the day on Sunday, it was time for volunteers to receive their compensation. We were given a number of “WOTC bucks” for each hour we worked throughout the weekend. The compensation was the same for judges as it was for other volunteers. Fun fact, a picture of my wife working at the WOTC information booth made it into the weekend print coverage that appeared in a magazine later. You spent your WOTC bucks at the WOTC prize booth. I don’t remember how many WOTC bucks Willa and I had, altogether, but I can tell you what we went home with: two nylon and faux leather messenger bags emblazoned with the Pro Tour emblem, a set of five lead and enamel abacus score keeping devices made by Reaper Miniatures, a collection of Magic-related lapel pins and a couple of boxes of booster packs including Ice Age and Alliances. Each worker also received two pairs of the Pro Tour New York 1996 decks, the special reprint edition of the top eight decks from the first Pro Tour. Judges were trading these pairs of decks with each other in order to complete sets. I helped a friend finish his set because I had already gotten a set of these decks when they first arrived in stores by trading in my first Black Lotus. Me and my friends have played with those Pro Tour New York decks regularly every single year since.
The day after the Pro Tour ended, I was back at my day job as a software engineer for an aircraft parts company. All I could think about was what a great experience working at Pro Tour Dallas had been. When I took my lunch break, instead of eating, I drove to the tournament venue, the Hilton in Grapevine, and I walked around the main floor of the tournament area and the other rooms that we used, looking for whatever or whoever I might find. There were some players still hanging around the lobby waiting for cabs to the airport. I also found an empty box that went with the Pro Tour New York decks. I was very sad that the circus had pulled up its tent stakes and was moving on to the next town.
I feel the same way twenty-one years later.
Grand Prix Oklahoma City
The plain truth is, even as an active level two judge, I don’t apply for very many Grand Prix events. Part of the reason is that I like to play in Grand Prix events. Part of it is that I know how much of a commitment it is to work at a Grand Prix. Also, it’s not easy to be selected for the staff. I have tended to apply much more frequently to Star City Games Opens where I often will be accepted to work just a Saturday. I still get my feet wet with a major Magic event and I still get to work on a very large judge staff in order to learn what’s new in the operation of large tournaments. I can do all that in a single day and, while earning less compensation, save my feet and back from a long weekend’s wear and tear. A few months ago, there was just such an SCG Open in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and I applied to work a single day and, for the first time, was not selected. I was bummed and decided that I wanted another big event before the end of the year. Therefore, I logged onto JudgeApps and applied for Grand Prix Oklahoma City.
The application process is very easy. You click on an event that you’re interested in and you read what is going to be required of the judge and administrative staff and what compensation is being offered. If you want to work at the event, you click on the button at the top of the screen marked ‘Apply Now!’ Doing so will pull up a form where you can type in your cover letter. What you should put in the cover letter are things about you that are different from normal judges, special skills you may have, jobs that you have done in the past or would like to do at the event outside of normal judge functions. Do include physical issues that you have that would require special adaptations by the leadership of the event. This is where I sometimes ask for sit down jobs if I’m afraid I can’t hack one or more full days of work on my feet all day. This is where I mention that I only want to work one day if that’s the case. What you shouldn’t put on the cover letter are completely obvious things like the fact that you are a sanctioned judge or that you know the rules really well, or that you really like to judge. Judge managers and head judges have seen a million cover letters by now and they hate it when the most obvious things are on cover letters over and over again. Personally, I would never leave the cover letter blank. I’m going to think of something brief to include in my attempt to separate myself from all the other judges applying for the event. At the bottom of the cover letter is a button marked ‘Apply.’ You hit this button when you’re done with your cover letter and then you hope for the best.
You can check back on JudgeApps from time to time to see if the event has accepted all of its judges yet, although you can expect an email from a head judge or possibly the judge manager well before the date of the event. If you aren’t accepted for an event, try hard to not let this news upset you. There are many more qualified judges applying for any particular event than can be used. You can contact the judge manager or head judge on your own through JudgeApps to ask a question regarding the event you were denied for, but I wouldn’t do this very often.
GP Oklahoma was scheduled for the weekend of December 9. I started receiving emails regarding the event one month before that. You’ll get messages from the tournament organizer or the head judge, possibly from your team leader. You get messages from judges looking to pair up for hotel accommodations. The team leader went so far as to create a Facebook message group just for the Saturday paper team. The team leader used this tool to get to know each judge on his team a little bit before the event. Soon after this first wave of messages I received instructions from the tournament organizer, Cascade Games in this case, with online forms for me to fill out for tax purposes. This is a fairly new thing since Grand Prix compensation is now primarily in money. Years ago, your GP compensation was in the form of judge foils and sometimes booster boxes.
I was accepted to work all three days at the Grand Prix and soon received access to a spreadsheet showing all of my assignments for the weekend. I learned that I would be helping with On Demand events on Friday starting at ten in the morning. On Saturday I would be working, starting at eight in the morning, on the paper team for the main event. On Sunday I would start working at ten in the side events area, head judging a pair of Legacy side events. They don’t want to see you walking through the door at your call time. You are meant to be in uniform and ready to work at your required time. You want to be there a minimum of fifteen to thirty minutes ahead of time to be sure you are in the right place ready to go when your shift starts.
How long are the shifts? In the olden days, you judged all day long until the event closed for the day. It didn’t matter how many rounds there were or how late in the day the event ran. Over the years, tournament organizers and judge managers have gotten much better at crafting their events, and their work force, to provide better results without destroying their judges’ mental and physical health. GP OKC was an incredibly well-run machine and that’s good news for judges of all fitness levels. Each of my shifts lasted right at eight hours with an hour break roughly in the middle of my shift each day. Younger and fitter judges used their hour-long break to leave the venue and seek out tasty treats from who-knows-where. I knew that I would need to use my break time to get off of my feet, so I kept some snacks in my bag in the judge break room where there was always a supply of what you actually needed the most, cool water. This break room was only accessible by staff and represented a reasonably safe place to leave your belongings while you worked. Cascade Games officially warned us that security was not guaranteed for our belongings in the break room, but there were no negative incidents at GP OKC as far as I know.
Friday – On Demand Side Events
Friday’s shift working on On Demand side events was a snore-fest. Our team’s job was to run eight-man events which would range from Ixalan booster draft to Standard to Modern. I think we ran five events all day during my eight hour shift. When one of these eight-man tournaments was ready to start, one of us would lead the eight players to a group of tables designated for our use. We would seat our players and make sure we had all the right people, then we would pair them for their first matches. These were single-elimination events. The players were instructed to return to the On Demand event table to report their results and to get their next opponent. When their final matches were over they reported to our table to report their final results and pick up their prize tickets. Our booth also paid out prize tickets for Swiss side events that went on during the day. For those events, we would receive a paper copy of Pairings by Table for the last round (these were four round Swiss side events) and we would award these players with their prize tickets at the end of their fourth round of Swiss play. Judging is always interesting work, and there’s something to be learned in every assignment, but the simple fact was that we had more judges than we needed on Friday. One reason that drafts weren’t firing very quickly is that the only thing we had to offer was Ixalan drafts. Players wanted badly to draft Unstable but it wasn’t made available for eight-man drafts on Friday for whatever reason.
Saturday – Main Event Paper Team
Saturday’s assignment was more familiar, and more grueling. The eight a.m. paper team consisted of a team leader, a very experienced judge that I would call second-in-command of the team and then four of us who didn’t work Grand Prix events nearly as often. The first thing that we did was have a team meeting near the stage for the main event. We learned what our team would be doing. At the beginning of each round, the paper team would quickly and efficiently post the pairings for the round on pairings boards placed all around the event area floor. The pairings for this 1400 player event were split up, alphabetically, across about eight different boards. As the pairings came off of the printer, one of the leaders would hand the correct pairings to two of the boards to one of us. Our job was to quickly move to the appropriate board and put up the pairings being careful to post the pairings in a neat way so as to keep them attractive and easy to read for the players. Electronic pairings were also available for the event online, but the paper pairings were still very important and there were great crowds of players around each board when the pairings went up each round. Once you had the pairings up for the two boards that were your responsibility, the next job was to get match reporting slips distributed. In any given year, I’m used to working Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifiers with thirty to sixty players. I put up one or sometimes two copies of the pairings and then distribute the match slips all by myself. Today we have 1400 players. That’s 700 slips of paper that need to go out as quickly as possible every round. While one person collected the uncut sheets of slips from the printer (you better believe they bring some large and powerful printers to these events) another member of the team operated the very large cutting machine to separate the match slips. Then, each other member of the team took a big chunk of the slips out to the tournament floor to start handing them out. Getting the slips out as quickly as possible is very important for all kinds of reasons. You don’t want players to finish a match and not have their slip right there for them. In addition, floor judges need these slips to be available when they answer judge calls in case they need to give a time extension to a match or record a penalty. Optimally, the deck check team would always prefer to have the match reporting slip available when they perform a deck check.
I’m old. I was a little tired each round simply from getting the pairings and then the match slips out. At this point, you’re close to ten minutes into the round. For the rest of the time in the match, your job is to stay out on the floor to answer judge calls. From my perspective, I believe there were a lot of judge calls on Saturday. There generally are more judge calls needed at a Modern event than at a Standard or Limited event because the board states are more complicated and the available card pool is a lot larger.
Judge calls are the most basic job for any judge at a Magic tournament. A good judge is confident and ready at attention whenever a player calls out for help. On the inside, though, you may not feel as confident. That’s completely normal. It’s easy to have the feeling that every judge call is an opportunity to get a call wrong, to not be ready with the right fix when players get into a situation where a penalty is required. This feeling is normal, don’t let it scare you. All it usually takes to get you feeling better is to take a couple of calls. Chances are, you will know what the answer is when you hear the players explain their situation. What if you don’t know the answer? You might need nothing more than a look at the cards in question. You might need to look a card up on your smart phone. That’s fine if you can do so quickly. At GP OKC there were dozens of judges on the floor during the main event. You can always ask another judge for help. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good judge, it means you want to get the call right. Getting to the right solution is the most important thing. Your resources include a roomful of other judges, use them when you need to. You better believe the other judges will ask you for help when they need it.
When it’s getting close to the end of the round, the paper team once again has some special responsibilities. If you aren’t needed by the team looking for the unfinished matches at the end of the round, you can help your team leader sort the completed match slips after the scorekeeper has entered them into the computer. The paper team leader doesn’t usually need a lot of help with this task, but he’s happy for the help when he does.
My paper team was a very tightly-knit group all day long. When there was a problem, the team leader even used the Facebook group he created weeks before in order to send the entire paper team an alert message. The team leader will find you throughout the day to make sure that you get a long break sometime in the middle of your shift and to make sure you’re doing okay and that you’re not having any kind of problems throughout the day. I was on the early team, starting at eight in the morning. A second shift reported at ten a.m. and a third team reported at noon. Like clockwork, at the end of the seventh round, the team leader assembled the eight a.m. shift and thanked us for our work before releasing us for the day. My feet were never happier than when the day’s work was finished.
Though tired, being finished with work before seven p.m. allowed me to rest up before joining my roommates for a cool dinner at an old steakhouse in the Oklahoma City stockyards after they finished playing round nine. Luckily for me, our entire room was full of over-thirty gentlemen who weren’t looking for excuses to stay up all night. Our one dude under thirty finished day one 8-1. He was also ready for some sleep so that he could be sharp the next day.
Sunday – Head Judge Legacy Side Events
For a change, I was the last one out of the room on Sunday. My roommates were playing day two and had to be back at the venue at nine. I didn’t have to be there until ten. I failed to follow my own good instructions and ended up running late. I hurried into the judge break room to get rid of my bag and to make sure my uniform was all in order. As soon as I stepped onto the tournament floor, my team leader for the day was waiting for me. His name is Jeff Higgins. His middle initial is ‘S’ so he goes by Shiggins. He would be easy to remember even without the nickname. When I first met him earlier in the year I learned that even though he lives in the Great Northwest, near Portland, he’s from the Boston area originally. That came as no surprise to me. It’s not that Shiggins has a thick Boston accent, either the high-toned Kennedy accent or the hard-nosed Southie accent like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. Shiggins has a gravelly voice but speaks clearly and in a grammatically correct fashion. There’s just something about him. He’s a bundle of energy but kind of looks like a bit of a rough-and-tough character until you get to know him better. He’s my team leader today. Completely of his own free will, Shiggins has been the team leader for side events all weekend. This isn’t a gig that many judges seek out. Most judges want to work the main event. Well, don’t worry, Shiggins has worked plenty of main events in a lot of Grand Prixs since he got serious about judging. Shiggins, I’m thinking about starting to just call him ‘Shigs,’ is such a staple in the American tournament scene, so well-known by judges, that internet memes are created in the judge community featuring Shiggins. That’s when you know you’ve made it! Shiggins is a fun-loving, freewheeling dude when it’s time to have fun. When it’s time to work, like here on Sunday at GP OKC, he’s all-freaking-business! And when it comes to keeping the long list of side events at the GP rolling along, you WANT him on that wall. You NEED him on that wall.
The first thing Shigs does is let me know that he noticed I was a minute or two behind schedule. That means he was looking for my not-so-narrow form at ten o’clock and was a little disappointed not to see me bright eyed and bushy-tailed. Of course, no one was as bright-eyed or anywhere near as bushy-tailed all weekend than all-time judge legend and staff member John Carter. But that’s another story altogether. Shiggins informs me of when I will need to be ready for the first Legacy event that I’ll be running at eleven thirty. In the meantime, he sends me over to help a new judge who is heavily weighed down with the task of getting nearly a hundred eager players started in an Unstable booster draft. I didn’t do any homework on Unstable ahead of time, mostly because I wasn’t excited about the product as something more than pure fun. Now players are asking me questions about how to do things in Unstable and I just don’t have the answers. Still, I’m friends with the young lady who is managing this large-scale chaos and I want to help her the best I can. When she falters slightly, and only occasionally, she’s getting a LOT of advice from a LOT of more experienced judges and I’m a little afraid she’s going to drown in all the help she’s getting. By the time her second, and then third large-scale Unstable drafts began over the next several hours, I watched an inexperienced judge (only inexperienced at giant events) become a true veteran.
I was only too happy to leave the “fun” of the Unstable draft tables an hour later to get my Legacy side event up and running. Again, like clockwork, Shiggins is there to guide me. He tells me the range of table numbers that we plan to use for the first Legacy tournament. We’re pretty sure sixteen tables will be enough for an expected thirty-two players. As the event is almost ready to begin we have to find a different range of tables, a larger range of tables. We begin the morning Legacy event with over sixty players. I am the only person solely assigned to this event. That suits me just fine. Back in the old days, when PTQs that I ran were almost always understaffed, we used to use the historic motto of the Texas Rangers (the law enforcement organization, not the baseball team) of “one riot, one ranger.” I’m used to doing all the jobs. To this day, my personal definition of a level two judge is someone who can do all of the jobs involved in running a tournament.
At the beginning of the round I get my pairings and my match slips handed to me by the side events scorekeeper I am assigned to. I make my own announcement over the public address system, I post my own pairings, I cut up and distribute my own match slips. Then I worry over my Legacy players throughout the entire round like a mother hen. Now the good news, Legacy players hardly need any help from a judge. These guys are playing “Magic: the Gathering’s Greatest Hits.” They know what they are doing for the most part. Occasionally, in the rare event that more than one judge was needed for judge calls in my event, a judge from the next tables over would help me. That judge was running an Ixalan box sealed Two-Headed Giant tournament. Each two-person team used an entire box of boosters to create their decks. I don’t play or judge much Two-Headed Giant but I helped with this event whenever I was needed. Nearing the end of the third of four rounds, my man Shiggins is right there to ask me if I’m ready for my hour-long break. I tell him that if it’s okay, I’d like to go ahead and complete the fourth and last round before taking a long break. It works out perfectly so that my long break (two chili dogs and a Coke on ice) puts me back on the floor exactly in time for the afternoon Legacy tournament.
The second Legacy event has less than half as many players as the first. No wonder, it starts at four-thirty in the afternoon. As a player, have I ever started playing in anything other than a single elimination event after four in the afternoon at a GP? I have not. Still, these Legacy players are hot on the trail of more prize tickets and who can blame them? The second tournament runs even more smoothly and quickly than the first one. Even though my shift would technically end at around six p.m. I imagine myself sticking around to finish this small tournament’s four rounds. Nope. Ward Warren, an outstanding level two judge from Roanoke, comes to relieve me at six o’clock sharp. What a guy! Ward was the highly experienced GP judge assisting my team leader yesterday on the paper team. Yesterday and today, Ward looks like he never gets tired, never gets flustered. He’s every bit the level three judge that I expect him to become soon.
At the end of a long weekend, you know the judge leadership is as tired as you are, but they go out of their way to make sure and talk to each judge about their experiences from the weekend. This kind of feedback makes you happy to have worked hard and makes you want to do it again. Shiggins talks to me, makes sure we’re good. Then I have a nice talk with the legendary John Carter. We sort of have a unique connection because we’ve both been judging for twenty-plus years. Yeah, but Mr. Carter has been involved much more deeply and at the very highest levels of the game the whole way. He was a level four judge when there was such a thing. He’s level three today. He was an employee of Wizards of the Coast at a pivotal time in the growth of the competitive game. He’s seen it all. His love for red shirts may be the reason that the first head judge shirts for Pro Tours and Grand Prixs were made red.
I thanked Mr. Carter for making me a part of the staff this weekend and then he says some things that were so wonderful, that made me feel so good about my many years in tournaments that I almost cried. Also, my feet hurt. But I think it was the wonderful things that John Carter said to me. And now for the bonus, there’s going to be an after-party in the bar at the hotel where the staff and many of the judges are staying. Cool. I’m in. The rest of the guys in my room were in a car together. They didn’t need to be here on Friday morning like I did.
The After Party
It would be fun to tell you about a crazy after-party with dudes swinging from chandeliers. Maybe some of that stuff happened after I left. The hotel was more or less across the street from the event. I should have walked there. Instead, I moved my car from the convention center parking lot to the hotel parking garage and cost myself twenty bucks. Now I have eat twenty bucks worth of hors d’oeuvres just to come out even. Like a newb, I’m the first one there. I learned later that other people who finished up with their day when I did went ahead and ate dinner before coming over to the party. Not me. I drank a bunch of Pepsis at the bar and watched Sportscenter on TV while sitting in a very comfortable chair.
One of the first judges who joins me in the hotel lounge is Jeff S. Higgins. He orders a burger at the bar before coming over and sitting in the overstuffed chair across from me. The all-work Shiggins has checked out for the day, this is the fun Shiggins. I met Shigs for the first time back in March when he travelled all the way to Dallas to judge for me at the Hunter Burton Memorial Open. This is an annual event I run each spring to promote suicide awareness and prevention. It’s named after a good friend and teammate who took his own life four and a half years ago. Shiggins is good friends with a good judge friend and teammate of mine, Joe Klopchic. Joe moved to Seattle from Dallas two years ago but thankfully, comes back to visit regularly. It was Joe’s idea to have Shiggins on our staff back in March and Shiggins was everything that Joe told me he would be. We immediately hit it off. While we wait for more people to show up for the party, we just talk about everything in the world from fantasy football to movies to judging. He tells me about the way he loves the challenge of running sides at Grand Prix events. He says that while he loves judging, he also loves putting forth the best show possible. He’s thinking way beyond individual tournaments at this point.
More people show up. John Carter is in the house, large and in charge and back in the squirrel costume that he’s been wearing at different times throughout the weekend. This is an intensely serious professional that doesn’t mind being goofy in front of strangers at times. As it happens, this Grand Prix was the thirty-first and last such event for Cascade Games. Gifts are presented to John Carter and the other leaders of Cascade Games. Joe Klopchic jumps up and shares some statistics about the large number of judges, over a thousand, who have worked at the thirty-one Cascade Games Grand Prix events. Klopchic and Shiggins have been involved in more than half of them. This is my first one to work at although I’ve played in at least half a dozen others.
Cascade Games pays for a large amount of hot snacks throughout the party. Then they start handing out Unstable booster packs to whoever is willing to start a draft. Later, they’re just handing more and more packs, just being nice to everyone. As it starts to get close to midnight, I follow Corbin Hosler to his home nearby. I met Corbin at one of many PTQs I used to run in the OKC area years ago. Hosler is a print journalist and part-owner of a game shop. Corbin works on the coverage team for Wizards of the Coast and also works as an editor and content creator for TCGPlayer.com. For the last few years, Corbin and I have been trying to get together so that I could buy a collection of fat-pack boxes, those attractive card boxes you get when you buy what used to be called a ‘fat pack,’ what is now known as a ‘bundle.’ Well, he has over a hundred of the little cardboard thingies and he’s eager to get rid of them. It’s well after midnight by the time we sort through them in his garage and haggle over the price for a while. You’d be surprised how much space you need for one hundred of these boxes. When I get home from OKC in the morning, it’ll be my wife’s turn to be surprised.
Is It Worth It?
The bottom line for any undertaking is whether or not you feel like it was worth the time and hard work afterward. You can probably sense from my account that I very much enjoyed working at Grand Prix Oklahoma City. I certainly did. However, it’s easy to bask in the good feelings after a long weekend of effort is complete. While I definitely recommend the experience, I would never take the work lightly.
The people who work these gigantic events, week in and week out, are a special group of professionals. They may look the same in their black Magic judge shirts as “normal” judges from the local area, but they are not the same when it comes to operating these very large events. Yes, all of the skills you learn from judging at smaller tournaments will be useful to you when working at the Grand Prix. But you have to be prepared to work harder and longer than you ever have before. Maybe you have a good reputation as a judge in your local area. That reputation is unlikely to mean much on the floor of a Grand Prix. Sure, the players you are familiar with will want to come by and talk to you throughout the day. The people you really need to impress are your judge leaders. They don’t know you as well. They are going to work with you this weekend and then with an entirely different group of local judges when the circus sets up their tents in another city next week. The Grand Prix leadership is going to ask exactly of you what is needed to make the show a success. Nothing more and nothing less.
You should expect, and can hope, that your judge leaders at the Grand Prix will treat you fairly and be reasonably kind. An important part of your job will be to check your ego at the door and be ready to do what your leaders ask you to do. After twenty-one years of putting on the judge shirt, this is as challenging for me today as it was at Pro Tour Dallas in 1996.
Good luck and thanks for reading.
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