Magic Man 

Hugh Moore wants to turn a kids' fantasy game into a career -- he and about 50,000 rivals.

Hugh Moore is moments away from slaughtering the guy sitting across from him -- a spry old fellow named Arthur with a Santa Claus beard, white braided ponytail, and crooked bicuspids peeking through weathered and fuzzy lips. The men have been locked in a mortal duel for the past fifteen minutes.

In a desperate ploy for survival, Arthur sacrifices what's left of his goblin army by strapping explosives to their backs and sending them into the fray. These suicide bombers meet a tangle of heavily armed dwarves who throw themselves atop the explosions. Hugh shrugs and looks down at his cards. His turn.

But both players know it's over. Arthur's goblin bodyguards are dead and Hugh's remaining dwarves are poised to deliver the final blow. Arthur reaches out and sweeps his colorful cards into a jumbled mess. The men shake, and Hugh smiles. "Good game," he tells Santa.

Their game -- Magic: The Gathering -- has been called "children's heroin," and for good reason. It is wildly addictive, and its collectible cards are known to suck up allowances faster than smack. But it can suck up adult paychecks with equal efficiency, and although the fantasy game is often passed off as a kids' activity because of the childlike imagination required of its players, it manages to lure in scores of thirtysomething dungeon crawlers and lone nerds.

This is their clubhouse. Every so often, people peer through the window of EndGame, the Oakland card-and-collectibles store where Hugh comes to play in a friendly mini-tournament every Thursday. Inside, more than a dozen duelists face one another, slapping cards onto one of the store's three long tables with little "thips" that echo off colorful science fiction and fantasy posters covering the walls. Thip. A Clockwork Dragon is born. Thip. A bolt of lightning sears across the table and strikes a many-toothed Atog. Thip. A Serra Angel is devoured by a Sengir Vampire. The onlookers tilt their heads for a better view, their breath fogging the store windows on this cold November evening. Some chuckle and point, recognizing the cards and mocking these adults for their immature pastime. The players, all but one of them men, don't even look up. This is their passion, and what are a few feeble taunts to an armed and powerful wizard?

Hugh looks boyish, but actually he's 35, and takes this shit very seriously. From nine to five he works at LucasArts in San Rafael testing video games, and every Thursday night he braves the Richmond Bridge and snarled I-80 traffic to come to EndGame, where he can find the most seasoned and well-mannered duels in the Bay Area. Unlike other East Bay card-and-game shops, this isn't a children's hangout. "I used to go to the Collectors Corner on Piedmont," he says, "but it's filled with little kids and they get to be annoying."

His quiet demeanor and subtle mannerisms belie a competitive spirit that may come in handy in his future career: Hugh Moore wants to go pro, to play this game for a living. If he does manage to beat out the hordes of hopefuls vying to compete on the pro circuit, he'll have a shot at touring the globe and pulling down $70,000 or more per year doing what he loves most. That's if he dominates. If he flails, he could find himself paying for plane tickets and hotel rooms without any prize money to compensate, and spending night after night of frustration and disappointment in the world's finest cities.

Hugh is no dilettante. Apart from work, and the occasional bike ride or trip up Route 1, Magic is all he does. But to make the jump to pro, he'll have to beat out a virtual army of other gamers who share his obsessive nature, as well as his career goal.

To maintain pro status, he'll have to consistently kick ass at Pro Tour events -- and to qualify in the first place, he has to win a regional Grand Prix. He'll get a shot at that just two days hence at a Mountain View card shop, once again in January, and finally, at a big-time Grand Prix slated for February 7 and 8 at the downtown Oakland Marriott and Convention Center. This one will be a bigger tournament than usual, with $25,000 in prizes and qualifiers for a May Pro Tour stop in San Diego. With that kind of money and glory at stake, all the local geeks will be coming out of their holes.

Until he qualifies, Hugh can be found here at EndGame, shuffling and dealing his decks of doom, leisurely beating his casual gaming pals into submission. To the uninitiated, all of these players would seem to have vast knowledge. But any hard-core devotee of the world's most profitable and popular collectible card game would quickly recognize that only one guy here is pro caliber.

The Thursday night duelists often seek, and heed, his advice. "You don't think I should use the Tel-Jilad Ranger?" one asks. "No way," Hugh responds. "He's a four casting cost; he's too expensive and not tough enough. I like the Spinecrusher."

Hugh certainly doesn't look like a badass contender; more like a timid private-school boy. His brown hair is evenly cut around his head, just shy of a bowl shape. His top lip never moves, and you have to struggle to get a glimpse of his shiny white uppers even when he smiles. The tangled dark hair covering his arms is the only physical feature that betrays his otherwise youthful exterior. On weeknights he's Mr. Corporate, wearing his work uniform of dress shirt and khakis as he deals his cards. But on weekends, you'll more likely find him in baggy, black, pocket-covered JNCOs and T-shirts with liberal slogans, looking like a teenager but dueling like a veteran.


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