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By Jeffrey Felshman

I grew up down the street from a chess club, a dark place inhabited by old men in ratty cardigans who always welcomed the neighborhood kids. Whenever more than one of us wandered in, the club would host an impromptu tournament. First prize was usually a package of Coconut Jumble cookies.

My two sons do their gaming in the storeroom of the Toys ‘R’ Us on Western. That’s where the Pokemon league meets on Saturday mornings. It’s as dim as the chess club, but a lot more crowded. I don’t bitch and moan about Pokemon–not too much. I’d probably like the game if I understood it, but some things are better learned in childhood.

A couple weeks ago my older son asked if I’d take him, his brother, and two of their friends to the Woodfield Mall on the morning of April 1. They wanted to go to an event called Pokemon 2000 Stadium Tour. I said OK, but a few days later I thought: Pokemon 2000 Stadium Tour at Woodfield Mall? On April 1? This must be some kind of terrible joke.

We reached Woodfield just after the starting time of 10 AM, entered near the J.C. Penny, and tromped down the corridor in the direction of Marshall Field’s. None of us knew where the tourney was being held, but instinct led us in the right direction. One of the kids said Penny’s would never hold this event. Neither would Field’s, another countered. We were directly outside a store that would: Wizards of the Coast.

Wizards of the Coast is the company that manufactures Pokemon cards, but the store sells all kinds of games. A sign inside read: “A GOOD GAME can challenge, delight, and INSPIRE. Add the right people and the RIGHT PLACE, and you have something MAGICAL.” True enough, but the place was practically empty.

The gaming room in the back was clean, carpeted, and occupied by several video terminals, a half dozen tables, and one man. He told us the regular Saturday morning Pokemon league had been called off by order of the fire department. Wizards was overrun during the last big event, but today’s contest belonged to the mall. “The kids can play here, but we can’t award official trainer points or anything like that,” he said. “We’ll get a $500 fine.”

We went back out and saw a guy dressed in a Pikachu costume. There was a banner and beyond the banner a bunch of tables with a bunch of people sitting at them playing Game Boy. We were in the right place. We could see the start of a line.

The line looked about 15 feet wide and seemed to stretch back to the end of a corridor. We saw kids in Pokemon regalia tugging at their captive parents. We also saw childless adults with Game Boys. We started to get in line. This wouldn’t be too bad, I thought, maybe a wait of 45 minutes to an hour. The people waiting there laughed and pointed. The line continued around the corner, toward an exit, and out to the parking lot.

Outside, people were lined up four and five abreast. We walked east along the edge of the line with a growing sense of disbelief: we still couldn’t see the end. “It’s like army ants,” said one of the kids. Another one corrected him: “Army ants move.”

“Let’s vote,” I suggested. “How many want to go back to Wizards of the Coast?”

By then the store was jammed. A teenager we recognized from our Pokemon league bragged that he’d already finished the tournament. He’d arrived at 7:20 and taken the 70th place in line. A kid playing the card game said he’d come at nine but had given up about halfway to the end. “I couldn’t take it anymore!” he cried, shaking his head. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

A chess board sat on a table outside the gaming room. One of the kids I’d brought was playing a 15-year-old named Juan, whose parents were on the Poke-line with his younger brother. The pace of the game proved too slow for my kid, and he left to play a video game. I took his place at the board. Juan walloped me, calling checkmate after ten moves. Graciously, he said, “You play good chess. Where’d you learn to play?”

I headed back to the gaming room, and a minute later Juan showed up. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it wasn’t mate. You had one move.” I told him I was about to resign anyway. Juan had recently played in a high school chess tournament in Normal. “It was a lot like this,” he said, “a lot of people there.” How many? “There were probably 800.”

“You haven’t seen the line, right?” He hadn’t. “You’re going to be here a while,” I said. “Have fun.”

As we left Wizards of the Coast, we saw thousands were still waiting to play in the Pokemon 2000 Stadium Tour.

Near the exit, there was a Fannie May. One of the kids bought a round of chocolate Rabbit Pops. Not as good as Coconut Jumble cookies, but they’d do. I haven’t seen Coconut Jumbles in a long time.