If life experience mattered much in the game of Pokemon, Jim Van Fleet would have wiped out the competition yesterday.
But this is a kid's game, not an adult's. And in his first round at the Pokemon Trading Card Game Tour, 42-year-old Van Fleet was soundly beaten by 15-year-old John Gluth.
"Kids have a genius for this," said Van Fleet of Lewisburg, Pa. "They play game after game, for hour after hour. I think they have an advantage that way - adults don't have that kind of time."
Which isn't to say that adults don't have the interest. Well, some adults, at least.
Because there they were yesterday at the Towson Town Center, the latest stop for the Pokemon card game's East Coast tour. They were easy to spot, standing a few heads taller than the pre-teen pack that made up most of the Pokemon crowd. Their middles were thicker, their hair thinner.
About the only thing that didn't set them apart was their enthusiasm for the card game based on the animated "Pocket Monsters" that first stormed across Japan about three years ago, then caught fire in the United States.
The craze over the little creatures with names like Pikachu and Charizard and Bulbasaur started with video games, then quickly grew into a $5 billion industry, with a television cartoon show, two movies, comic books, lunch boxes and an army of plastic and stuffed toys.
The Pokemon phenomenon was pretty much limited to kids until January 1999. That's when the Washington state-based game company Wizards of the Coast teamed up with Pokemon-creator Nintendo to introduce the low-tech, highly strategic role-playing card game that suddenly stretched Pokemon mania to a new group - the over-15 crowd.
Now, adult players can account for as much as a quarter of the crowd at Pokemon tournaments, like the one this weekend in Towson. Many are parents who got hooked on the game through their kids. But many others are just avid gamers and say the cute cartoon characters on the cards mask the game's complexity and challenge.
"I compare it to a game of chess," said William Boyd, 46, of Bel Air, who brought his 9-year-old son, Trai, to yesterday's tournament but also registered to play himself. "It's one-on-one, and you're trying to figure out what the other person is going to do."
Facing each other for 25-minute matches, players collect, trade, train and battle various monsters, using the cards and colored stones and an elaborate game board.
At the end of each game, the player with the most monsters left wins.
The ultimate goal, according to game promoters, is to become the "world's greatest Pokemon trainer."
For some adult players, the goal is a bit more modest: to spend time with their kids.
"If you spend all this money on the cards, and your kids are so into it, then it's a family thing," said Van Fleet, who brought his 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to yesterday's competition.
Joan Auchter, 49, started playing the game with her son, Robbie, 14, soon after it came out last year. Now Robbie leads a Pokemon league each Sunday near their home in Fairfax, Va.
"This is important to him, and since he spends so much of his life doing it, I needed to understand it," said Auchter, who stood out yesterday as one of the few adult women playing the game.
Most Pokemon players are pre-teen boys, although a fair number of girls also showed up for yesterday's competition. The kids crouched on the mall floor, poring over thick, three-ring binders filled with plastic sleeves displaying their decks. They ripped open new packs (about $3 for 12 cards), flipping through to see which monsters they had acquired with a glee the smaller group of adult players, who acquire the same gear, could appreciate.
"It's easy to get really sucked into it," said Lee Merrill, 47, a salesman from Ellicott City who started playing the game with his son but who can now speak at length about the skill and strategy the game requires, about the endless quest for a better deck.
"It is a really complex game, and to be really good at it requires a lot of thought and a lot of practice," Merrill said.
Fred Cascio, 44, can appreciate that. His 11-year-old son, Lee, tried to get him to play a few times, without success.
"I tried, and it's Greek," said Fred Cascio, of Catonsville, who was relegated to the sidelines with other nonplaying parents who caddy their children's backpacks and try to say encouraging things even though they aren't quite sure what's happening.
Bram Crocker, 33, of Baltimore, said the game isn't hard to learn, it's just hard to master. And, for older players, it also can be hard to endure some of the barbs.
"People give me grief about it, you know, 'Oh, you play the cartoon-show game - that's real cute,'" said Crocker, a technology support worker at Sylvan Learning Systems.
Grown-up Pokemon players know how to shrug all that off.
"I think it's more awkward for the kids really, when they have to play an adult," said Lee Merrill.
"It's OK," said 10-year-old Matt Merrill. "As long as they don't bother us."
If you go: The Pokemon Trading Card Game Tour continues today at Towson Town Center, 825 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.