Friday, May 20, 2016


A little fan art of Patrick Chapin, of Magimatical celebrity. I don't ever really play Constructed, but I love how passionate he is about Magic on his Top Level Podcast and in interviews, and I distinctly remember thinking before he had a podcast how great it would be just to be able to hear him talk about Magic at length on a regular basis. In fact, I listen mainly for his energy while I'm drawing, since I can't actually play Magic out here in the middle of Nowheremura, Japan. I guess in the same way I listen to Mark Rosewater's podcast to imagine what it must have been like during the early days of Magic or on the inside of the production side, I listen to Patrick Chapin to imagine what it must be like playing contemporary Magic. I don't know how sad that is, but meh.

In any case, Patrick Chapin is known for having an unconventional background, and I find inspiration in that. And he's not just a great ambassador of the game, but of humanity itself. Almost certainly the coolest example of that was when he made his controversial trip to the USSR earlier this year to represent the United States in "The Greatest Battle of the Cold War" as we approach the seventh decade of this seemingly endless standoff. Granted I currently live in Japan, but my heart still beats red, white, and blue, so it was an honor having him represent us in the face of General Secretary Pyotr Alexandrov.

What was so compelling was that Comrade Chapin was hot off a Worlds win in 2015, which of course the Soviet Union had boycotted after a perceived slight at the last Pro Tour of that year in October. There in Milwaukee Magic Grandmaster Dmitri Aristov cemented his status as undeniably one of the greatest players in the world with his third Pro Tour win--yes, the third PT win in as many years from the former Rookie of the Year who attained Grandmaster just two years into his career (a feat bested only by the now lamentably retired German Juggernaut)! Politics aside, some say he's maybe-possibly the current best player in the world. Politics not aside, General Secretary Alexandrov felt the Soviet player's decisive victory on US soil wasn't aptly celebrated by the "US-centric Magic media machine" and made a huge show of announcing the Soviet Union would boycott Worlds in December.

The boycott stung because, as is no secret, Hall of Fame Grandmaster Patrick Chapin had been dreaming of a Worlds victory for as long as the contest has existed and he has made it extremely clear that there is no greater feat in his mind than to beat the absolute best in the world for the title. This year in particular, he's had something of an implied rivalry with Dmitri Aristov, who is known for his brutally brazen proclamations whenever he does deign to issue statements in "that poor language," meaning English. Of course he chalks up his blustery tone to his "imperfect understanding" of nuanced English, though it's rumored his English is considerably stronger than he lets on, and regardless, the infamously stone-faced player certainly knows how to keep silent when he wants to. And yet Dmitri posted a series of quite dismissive and arguably offensive twoots in anticipation of the impending showdown with Chapin at Worlds 2015, before the Soviet government disappeared the posts mere seconds after Alexandrov's boycott announcement.

All year it had been the expectation that Chapin would be facing down Aristov at Worlds to "settle" the Cold War once and for all. General Secretary Alexandrov even intimated that he would not be opposed to having the set influence his willingness to sit down with President Obama for talks in his final year in office, given their mutual admiration of Magic and the oddly appropriate nature of the two Worlds front-runners being from each nation (both had already perfunctorily qualified pretty early in the year).

Needless to say, despite Wizards' PR "machine" lauding Chapin's long-sought Worlds win, the victory felt hollow to him (and the online Magic community, who definitely spoke more freely on the topic). In his annual year-in-review podcast, the usually quite upbeat Patrick Chapin confirmed his conflicted emotions after the Worlds 2015 win. Always diplomatic, he made it clear he "meant no disrespect to [his] Worlds opponents, who [he] obviously hold[s] in the highest regard." To put that a little more concretely, this "respectable" field included seven Grandmasters and five Hall of Famers, on top of the current PT scene's iron-clad ringers, prodigies, and winners.

But he (and countless commenters) wanted him to face precisely one guy come finals time. "Whatever we think about Aristov's country's politics, nobody can deny he is the guy to beat right now if you want any title to mean anything," he said, "and it's extremely disappointing a government official had to get in the way of something I've wanted personally and professionally for so long." He conceded to his longtime co-host Michael "Michael J." J. Flores that the victory "counts," but in the same way a mana-screwed victory counts. With a clear reluctance in his voice, he concluded, "it's a technical victory."
"The best kind of victory," Michael Flores noted, but Patrick didn't share the laugh.

What made that podcast episode break a million downloads, though, was just at the close of the show, when he announced he had privately petitioned for and successfully received official governmental permission to enter the Soviet Union (in the heart of Soviet January!) to challenge Aristov to a one-on-on, three-day marathon of TSP Solomon Draft, MMA Sealed, Vintage, Legacy, Modern, Black Magic (or "Sam Black's Format" for old-schoolers) and Standard. General Secretary Alexandrov could have easily denied Chapin entry into the USSR, but ever the stoic gamer (and retired Magic pro himself, just shy of Grandmaster), he couldn't deny the value of "educating" the West with "proper" Magic. Obviously there's been only extremely limited cultural exchange with the Soviet Union as tensions have escalated, and it's beyond remarkable that the government would permit the travel at all. Some papers criticized the clearance as inappropriate, especially given how many concessions the Kremlin demanded for the series to fire, while others applauded President Obama's commitment to sportsmanship in the face of any attempts to stack the odds.

Frustratingly, among the many the terms of the event were that "for the integrity of the games," it would be closed to most media (obviously the Soviet coverage was clearly biased and read like five-cent fiction, that's not a terribly radical claim at this point), and it is definitely a shame that basically nothing has emerged but that famous "Ice Grip" photograph of the players shaking hands to begin the "Cold War" series. They also insisted on strictly written coverage--literally Brian David-Marshall for the west with a legal pad and whatever pens he happened to have on hand at the time since security would not allow him out of their watch to pick up any more supplies. Gotta love that dedication to keeping their man safe from hostile Soviet Staples employees, which as we all know, are just covers for the Red Mafia. On the bright side, one cool result of all this was when BDM posted a twoot of his notes from the event, and there's a bunch of intermixed sections of blue and black handwriting, even faded ink towards the end of one pen's lifespan on Day Two, since he forgot his pen case in his hotel room. I think at one point he had to rely on just carving into his paper with penpoint after exhausting all his ink, and then running over that section with pencil like an engraving. Pretty resourceful.

But the most incredible loss was not being able to see recorded footage of the event because according to BDM, it was a grueling five-game nail-biter in each format, all coming down to Standard to settle the whole thing. No surprise in retrospect, but in his podcast before the trip, Chapin actually had predicted Standard would be the deciding factor of the event, and he also correctly suggested Limited might be "interesting." First of all, who knows if it was truly impossible to get even one non-Soviet person on the judging staff--none of whom had to be named since this was technically a casual event--but regardless, the judge-administered Limited pools remain a mar on the event, particularly the Sealed, as it seemed like the packs broke curiously well in the homefield player's favor. I thought it was interesting how the encyclopedic BDM caught that the interpreter they gave him was also Aristov's former PR agent, who had announced his retirement after Aristov's twoots got deleted--sorry, "disappeared"--presumably to be eligible to cover the showdown as an "objective, unaffiliated assistant," only to rescind his retirement and rejoin Aristov's staff literally the day after the Red version of the coverage went up...

Anyway, I was proud beyond words of how well Patrick Chapin represented the US and the competitive spirit and sportsmanship in general. He didn't even have to challenge Aristov at all--he won Worlds--let alone agree to all the surprise conditions they dropped on him after he landed. BDM himself noted that tension was extremely high at the event, "like the world was watching and weighing down on these two Grandmasters," and the staff seemed to be doing whatever they could to try to unsettle the US player. The "welcome dinner was fabulous and overflowing with meticulous, conscientious attention to detail down to the lush, Grixis-colored floral arrangements on Patrick's side of the massive dining table, with the Blue Orchids being the most prominent element," BDM wrote, but "the generosity ended after dessert." I would think this was some mind-gamesy stuff to rattle Patrick Chapin a little by lulling him into a false sense of comfort before slamming him with the cold shoulder soon after.

To be fair to Dmitri Aristov, none of the psych-out shenanigannery came from him, and General Secretary Alexandrov had claimed his own staff would be providing full support during the event. One telling example was when the interpreter said something in Russian after seeing Patrick Chapin rubbing his hands together before the Modern portion, which for some reason the interpreter took to mean Chapin was cold and wanted more heat in the room. That's fine, it was January in the USSR after all, but BDM says they cranked the heat until the players began sweating! Aristov had plenty of water, but it would take some twenty minutes before they would refill Patrick's tiny glass of (lukewarm) water! "Aristov had an insulated thermos of ice-cold water at all times, which itself was sweating as much as the US player, and staff made sure it was in constant full view on the Soviet side of the table." Also frustrating was how the interpreter would insist certain things were "not important" or otherwise fail to convey select information ("Golly, you mean Patrick wanted ice water and more than half of the cup filled? You don't say! No, you literally do not say.").

To his credit, BDM says, Patrick remained cordial but focused on the games throughout. He kept collected in his suit, but obviously the event was taking its toll from as early as Day One, the 0-2 Limited portion. The Soviet press was kind enough to release a photo of Patrick mid-game taken from the "Heat Wave" day, so the poor guy's drenched in sweat and probably masking some amount of frustration at how tough the packs came together for him. It seemed clear they wanted to get him started on the wrong foot.

But what stuck with me is how razor-sharp focused he is on the game in the photo. You can tell he's watching and considering everything; his expression is utter concentration, as if this were his Worlds finals. And I love (more so than usual) that he's still wearing his suit without a stitch loosened! Told there'd be no visual coverage, still wears a suit to show respect to his opponent and the game. You can even see a wide-eyed staffer in the background who's trying everything he can not to look like Patrick Chapin is not some living weapon of Magic artistry at work. The lone Logic Knot in the graveyard even tells you exactly which turn it was, based on BDM's report.

Anyway, regardless of whatever mindmoiling they or someone (*cough* Alexandrov *cough*) attempted, Hall of Fame World Champion Grandmaster Patrick Chapin went to the USSR for a couple games of Magic, crushed, and wore a suit the whole time. I have the Japan Times' story on the game but they always dump a bunch of text all over the images, which is supremely annoying. Fortunately my mom sent me a copy of the New York Times with the Ice Grip on the front page, which really does the image justice. And Colbert's episode on the series was hilarious (ah, the polar bear part!!).

And then on top of all that, despite the general quiet from the Kremlin after the event, aside from a nominal state congratulations to the victor (viktor?), apparently General Secretary Alexandrov is indeed scheduled to meet with President Obama. How about that! Yes, there have been meetings like this in the past, but considering how much they both revere Magic, I would think having such a US victory on Soviet grounds should do well to get talks rolling in a positive direction. One of the reasons I'm reluctant to go back to the US is how intense it has gotten there in recent years between the US and the USSR, but I'm optimistic Patrick Chapin has done something far greater here than merely win some casual games of Magic.


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