15-year-old excels at Pokemon trading card game

Author: Associated Press

NORTH PORT, Fla. (AP) – Justin Kulas is homeschooled but he’s taking recess across the United States thanks to his prowess at battling Pokemon.

The 15-year-old North Port resident was recently crowned the state champion of the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) in Georgia. This July he’s headed to Columbus, Ohio, for the game’s U.S. national championships and then on to San Francisco in August for the invite only Pokemon World Championships.

For Justin, the Pokemon TCG has provided opportunities to see the country and meet people from all its corners.

“Sometimes you’ll have people who go to your local league and you’ll all end up going to tournament,” he said. “A few of my friends and I, we drove all the way to Texas for regionals.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Pokemon’s original release in Japan. The international mega-franchise that began as a video game has led to spin-offs including a long-running television show, feature-length movies and an ever expanding trading card game.

The game invites players, known as “trainers,” to collect and battle hundreds of cartoon monsters, called Pokemon. Meeting other players to trade Pokemon species, like the ubiquitous yellow mouse Pikachu, is a core gameplay mechanic.

Pokemon took the United States by storm in 1998 when it was released on the handheld Nintendo Game Boy video game system. More than 20 games have since been released in the main series.

Somehow, Pokemon went unnoticed by Kulas until five years ago when a friend gave him a handful of colorfully illustrated trading cards at Punta Gorda’s Harbour Heights Park.

An obsession was born.

Today, Pokemon figurines and plush toys crowd Kulas’s shelves. He owns a vintage 23-karat gold-plated Mewtwo trading card, which was released in 1999 and is housed inside a life-size pokeball. He even owns a special edition Nintendo 3DS videogame system with legendary Pokemon etched into the cover.

The prize jewel of the teenager’s collection is still his trading cards. The handful he started with has swelled to more than 5,000 lining binders, packed into boxes and scattered about his room’s floor.

The individual cards can be combined into decks for battle. Justin’s favorite deck revolves around Raikou, a legendary dog-like Pokemon that can be used in tandem with another Pokemon to deal a devastating electrical attack called Thunder Lance.

This card game is where Justin has made a name for himself.

At Sarasota’s Dark Side comic book and gaming store, he is known as one of the players to beat.

“Local players will say ‘I want to play him’ just to see how they’re doing in comparison,” said Elbert Platt, who organizes the store’s weekly Pokemon TCG events.

Platt said the Pokemon TCG, 20 years old itself, has maintained its popularity. According to the website Bulbapedia, “nearly 15 billion Pokemon Trading Card Game cards have been produced worldwide.”

Platt’s local events usually draw 20 to 40 people, ranging from children as young as six to adults in their 30s. Older trainers, including Platt, have shared their card collections with their sons and daughters.

“The kids that were playing 15 or 20 years ago are now bringing their kids in to play,” he said.

Platt said the Pokemon TCG is easy for both children and parents to pick up, making it a good way for families to bond. If you can read and do basic math, you can play.

“They’ve made the game simple but still very competitive,” he said. “They don’t try to bog the game with fine details and rules.”

Justin’s journey as a Pokemon trainer has led him to win city, regional and state tournaments across the southeastern U.S. He has played kids from Austin and as far as Boston.

Every night he spends at least an hour on Skype playing cards against friends he’s met on the competition circuit, the farthest being from Washington. To prepare for a tournament he’s logged 40 hours of gameplay in a week.

“He really enjoys the social aspect of it, especially being homeschooled,” father John Kulas said. “It’s a giant activity that he can go and hang out with everybody.”

Justin secured his invitation to this year’s world championships months ago. He hopes to make it past the second day of competition, where his bid ended last year.

At the national championships in July, Justin said he expects there to be 400 or more people competing in his age bracket.

He’s got a good shot at advancing to the tournaments playoffs if his deck shuffles well, he gets good matchups and he can keep a level head.

“To play at a competitive level you need to know all the competitive cards,” he said. “If you know what all of them do, you know what to do against them.”

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