The DNA of a Pentago Champion : A Gen Con Survival Story
My name is Tony Mag. I’m the guy that found Pentago in Sweden in 2005, together with a Swedish pal of mine and brought it to America. At the time, I had no idea what a Toy & Game industry was but I had always been into logic and strategy games and when I played Pentago for the first time, I was stunned at how something so simple, so elegant can contain such deep logic, strategy, philosophy and endless game play.
We started Mindtwister USA and brought Pentago to the New York Int’l Toy Fair in 2006, to see if other folks might like it as much as I do. It turned out that they did and we had a little company going.
A couple of years later, I learned about Gen Con and thought that would be a perfect place to hold a Pentago tournament. We were selling games but I wasn’t sure if people were really getting into the game and its deep strategy and philosophy as much as I was.
I’m old enough to know that your own opinion on how great something is can lead you down a traitorous path. Asking your friends what they think is also a total loser; they’ll always tell you “yeah, that’s cool”, “for sure, man, go for it”. You get the point.
The real test was to throw a tournament right smack in the middle of the most extreme gaming convention ever, where we’d compete with some of the most famous games of all times; D&D, Magic The Gathering, UFS and so on. Would these guys, the ultimate gladiators of gaming embrace Pentago and take its play to the next level?
The first year was 2011 and due to unfortunate scheduling, I couldn’t be there myself so my partner and wife went to blaze the trail, with pretty strict instructions on how to run a Pentago tournament.
Pentago caught the attention of a few hardcore gamers; Paul from Indianapolis, who had played Pentago a bunch at work with a buddy and is a huge D&D player, Charles League from Virginia, who is a programming teacher and fierce RPG tournament player, Alex-June Glennie from Madison, WI, who is some kind of logic protégé and could probably run the NSA on his own. But it was Tim Keefe from Connecticut, a programmer and huge UFS player with his own official play card that strolled up and took a look at Pentago and thought it looked interesting. Upon hearing that there was a tournament, he decided to enter and practiced a bit. As the tourney got going, he took down one player after another and soon was in the final with an experienced player and walked away with the win. It was nothing short of stunning. Pentago is fairly known for being the kind of game that you do not beat an experienced player, if you’re a beginner.
Later, Paul said that Tim just sort of placed his marbles in almost random and illogical places and sort of worked it out as he was going along, absent much strategy, per se.
But this was Gen Con and home to some of the most amazing gamers in the world and it looked like anything was possible. Year two, 2012, yielded a similar result, with the exception that Tim was no longer a novice, he was now the defending US champion and we were all stoked that he came back to defend his title. Tim plays several tournaments at Gen Con, so getting him scheduled for play there was a challenge. It turned out that Tim’s semifinal against Alex-June was the most exciting, a knockdown, drag out fight to the end with the final result 3-2 in Tim’s favor. Charles had come through his half and got dealt a pretty decisive blow from Tim at 3-0 in the final and Tim was now the two time national US champion. Again, I had a schedule conflict with Gen Con and missed the whole thing.
So when Gen Con 2013 rolled around and I was free to come, I was excited to meet these guys. We had made arrangements with Paul to help us run the tournament, so I was super stoked to meet him and talk some shop about Pentago and strategy. I quickly asked him to play a game with me, as I was dying to know how good these guys really are. In short order, I got blown out the door with a triple layered threat that I’ve never seen before, nor thought was possible in such few moves, which was a bit humbling. But I was actually more excited to experience such a high level of skill and it really validated what I had thought about Pentago and its infinite strategy and potential.
Day 1, Thursday 1400hrs, Pentago US Nationals | The Con
Paul and I set up shop in one of Gen Con’s main gaming halls, away from our booth and we were just hoping that people would show up. The idea was that we’d let people enter the tournament on day 1 or 2. The top half would run on Thursday and the bottom half on Friday. A few people did show and day 1 went off without a hitch; we ran some matches without the game clock, since we didn’t have a ton of players show up and everything worked out fine. I ended up meeting Alex-June, who had finished third in 2012 and told him that he’d be playing on Saturday. We were letting the top three players from 2012, enter into the tournament at a later stage, due to their past accomplishments and the fact they are all serious gamers at the Con and had other tournaments. So both Tim and Charles entered at the semifinal level, whereas Alex-June got one of the quarterfinal spots.
Alex-June is rather quiet but has an interesting look about him. Given that we were at the most hardcore gaming show in the world, you got the feeling that Alex-June is one of those dudes that actually knows how to use the force. If not that, he’d at least kick your butt at any game, whether he knew it or not. And the nicest guy you’d ever meet.
Day 2, Friday 1400hrs, Pentago US Nationals | The Con
Now, scheduling a tournament at the Con is super hard, you never know who can/will show up, so day 2 was a bit disorganized at first. A guy that had never heard of Gen Con before showed up, Barry from San Francisco, who flew out to Gen Con only for the Pentago tournament. He wasn’t there for the Con or any other games, just to be in the Pentago Tournament. He told me he was an experienced player, a huge fan and that his dad is an even bigger fan and probably better than him. He also told me that he’s an experienced programmer and that he’s written code for a Pentago AI so good, that he can’t beat it. I wondered if that made him really good.
I had to make sure that no two players that had the skill to make a deep run in the tournament met each other too early, since this is a single elimination bracketed tournament and you don’t want a top player thrown out early by playing another top player. Mathias said he’d only played a few times so I matched him with Barry. It turns out that Mathias is a great chess player and we didn’t use the game clocks on day 2 either, big mistake. Both Barry and Mathias took minutes for each move and Mathias used his chess skills on Barry, giving him a serious run for his money. All the other matches had finished and we all stood around to watch the slow motion drama that could only be appreciated by an experienced Pentago player or serious strategy game aficionado.
Barry had told me that he had spent tons of hours writing that code for a Pentago AI, so he had a lot of brute calculation experience and insight into Pentago, from a programming perspective. Mathias hadn’t played much but was a master chess player, arguably the king of all logic and strategy games, a skill to be seriously reckoned with in Pentago. So it was the program master against the chess master. In the end, Barry edged out Mathias in a 2-1 result that was seriously close. Barry was so drained from that match that he asked to play his second round match with Michael on Day 3, which we all agreed to.
Another experienced player, Zac, told me he had made a deep run in the 2012 tournament and he won his first two rounds quite handedly. Then John showed up, said he’s never played before and I had no opponent for him, so I asked Zac if he’d mind playing John for the third round. I explained to Zac that John was new to the game and he was agreeable to play the newcomer. Turns out John had played tons of logic games and took Zac by surprise and won. I quickly realized I had made a huge mistake in arranging that match-up and I made a note to myself to never ever underestimate a gamer at Gen Con. Zac was pretty bummed that he was out and told me so. I had let John in at third round, as a favor, just to make the tourney work, essentially at the expense of Zac’s tournament plans.
I got on the horn with Jesse Den Herder, MTUSA Marketing Director and my good buddy, who couldn’t attend the Con, on account of his wife having a C-section, to see what we could do to fix the situation. We both agreed that in order for John to earn that spot in the third round, he had to beat Zac again, at a time when Zac was a bit more prepared to face a good player. Both parties were good with this resolution, much to my relief and that match got scheduled for Day 3.
So Day 2 finished with all sorts of unexpected drama but thought we were in good shape, except for the fact that I hadn’t heard from Tim, the defending champ, who I was really excited to meet and see play, maybe even get an opportunity to play him myself.
Day 3, Saturday 1400hrs, Pentago US Nationals | The Con
The first thing we did was line up the Barry vs. Michael match, which was quite close, with Barry coming through again with a 2-1 win. After the match, I ended up talking with Barry about his programming and strategy approach, at which point he told me that he thought that the person that starts in Pentago has a fairly distinct advantage. Given his programming experience, that was an opinion to be reckon with, but one that I disagree with. But I was a bit worried, because starting advantage is a huge flaw in any logic game, if in fact that’s the case. I decided I would ask the other guys, once I had gotten to know them better. I also discussed the “X factor” with Barry and if he thought that Pentago can be broken down to just math and programming. What is the X factor, you ask? Well, I can’t quite explain it well but I see it as that part of the human brain will cause someone to not do what is most obvious or even the logical choice in a given situation and prevail as a result. It’s out of the box thinking, maybe it’s the genius gene. Chess strategy relies a bit on deception, something awfully hard to teach a computer to do and it’s not always all that logical. It’s that abstract thinking, possibly deeply rooted in primal, instinctual behavior and rationale. It’s anti-reasoning, counter logic and usually what produces the most amazing results, whether it’s art, music, engineering, buildings, products or other remarkable human achievement, which can sometimes also be a few words, spoken softly and without meaning to billions of people but with a universe of consequence for one person, in one moment of time, which would mean more than all other human achievement, even more than the creation of D&D.
To me, that wonderful and inexplicably unexplainable X-factor is what makes chess awesome. A game with no X-factor is just entertainment and nothing wrong with that, per se. To me, X-factor thinking is what it takes to be a true Pentago champion and I was hoping to be right on that point, as much as I appreciated Barry’s programming perspective and experience. The day that a computer, on it’s own (deep blue does not play on it’s own), can beat the best grandmaster chess player 100% of the time is a scary day, I hope I never live to see that day. Now Pentago is much less complex than Chess and the idea that a human, on its own, can beat a computer that’s been programmed properly might not be hard to imagine, we’ll just have to see if Barry has the code to make it happen. He does say that he can’t beat his program but then how good of a player is he? Time would tell.
Tim shows up; I recognize him from all the pictures I’ve seen and I walk right up to say hi. Tim’s super cool, soft spoken and he has that look of being rather unassuming and non-threatening in any way, other than a certain aura that would make anyone that knows anything about him realize that he carries the power of an assassin, that could be unleashed at any moment in time. Tim needs no “Con outfit” or any other embellishments or accessories to stand out or make his mark. That assassins look and gaze is all that is needed.
After some small talk and shop talk on how the tournament is being run and schedules, I ask him what he thinks of first player advantage in Pentago. To my relief, Tim explains that his view is you might be able to force your opponents hand for 6-8 moves but that no experienced Pentago player would lose in such few moves and by that time, any advantage of starting would be gone. That was essentially my sense as well, so I was glad that I had independently come to the same conclusion as the two time US champion. Kind of made me feel a little smarter for a hot little minute there. Then Tim told one way that he came to that conclusion is that he’s only been able to tie himself a handful of times per 100 games while playing against himself. That gave me some pause; I’ve never played against myself nor do I see how that would help my game. Turns out that all top three players, Tim, Charles and Alex-June do that, except that later I learned that Alex-June doesn’t use an actual game, he plays them in his head and makes these little pencil notes on paper that pretty much look like Chinese to me. Feeling a little smarter lasted all but that little hot minute, literally.
Paul and I decided that Tim would enter the semifinal level on Barry’s half and Charles and Alex-June on the other half. But Barry still had to face Alex-June’s buddy, also named Alex and a very good player. This game was also a death match , with Barry barely edging out Alex in another 2-1 win, that also included two drawn matches. I was kind of stunned, as I think I’ve only played a tie match once and here we had two ties in five matches. This also raised an issue; we’re playing the best of three matches, essentially whoever gets to two wins first. But given that this was Gen Con and an all-out battle for logical and X-factor supremacy, this raised an issue; best of three and first to two wins is not the same thing. The first match was a tie, the second went to Alex and the third match was also a tie. If the rule was best of three, Alex would now stand as the winner at 1-0; three matches had been played and Alex was ahead. If the contest was first to two wins, the ties are irrelevant and the match goes on. We all had to decide this on the fly and we went with first to two wins. Barry ended up pulling out two wins and came ahead in another squeaker. Again, Barry was quite drained and asked for a few minutes reprieve before having to face down the two-time champ, Tim. I saw this as my opportunity to ask Tim if he wanted to play a little warm-up game. He quietly agreed and now I’m nervous. I decided to hit him with an open four variation of Monica’s five that I had famously used against the inventor once in Sweden and won in four moves, a total shocker at that time. That didn’t work at all on Tim and we were 7-8 moves deep when I chunked it so bad that I lost in a way that I would never lose in any normal game. But I got a sample of what Barry would soon be experiencing, facing down the best known player in the world, deep in the tournament.
Watching Tim take on Barry was a bit nerve wracking for me; it was X-factor genius vs. master programmer. I felt like it was Tim against a well programmed computer. Does brute calculation beat the human X-factor? On this day, it did not. Tim took Barry down in two fairly quick games that weren’t that eventful with the expectation of the last move of the last game, where Barry had given Tim a fairly easy wining move in a way that he probably wouldn’t do in most cases; it seemed that it was a mistake on account of being nervous and pressured. Tim just sat and looked at the board for a few moments slowly moving his hands around as if he didn’t understand the move, then after some time passed, played the winning move and right away showed Barry what he should have done but it was like he was just talking to himself, I couldn’t hear what he said or even understand what he was showing. I kind of thought that he was showing Barry that he could have won on the previous move, which I didn’t not see at all and when I asked Barry later about it, he hadn’t seen such an opportunity either nor had he understood what Tim had said. I didn’t get an opportunity to ask Tim about it later but I was kind of relieved that genius X-factor beats the computer, at least so far. Much credit to Barry though, who played seriously tough matches through the whole tournament and he still had an opportunity to play a run-off match for third place, which would certainly not be easy either. In game one, I did see Tim set up a winning threat that I had never seen before, that was pretty exciting too.
On the other side of the draw, Alex-June advanced quickly to meet Charles in the Semi’s. This was a tough match-up, which I didn’t get to see that much of, since I was watching the Tim-Barry match-up. But Alex-June came through that match and was now facing Tim for the championship, to be played the next day. Charles would play Barry for the third place run-off, both matches to be played on Sunday and be best of five, first to three wins to be specific.
After having gotten to know Charles a bit, I realized that this match-up would be a bit of a clash, personality wise. Charles is funny, kind of crazy, very fun and could perhaps be mistaken for a hobo, if you looked too quickly on a street corner. Of course, if you asked him if needed some money, he would tell you how to build a rocket to help you out instead. Charles also has that X-factor gene and outlook; he sings while he plays, makes funny small talk and is generally a distraction for someone who doesn’t appreciate his take on life or at least his take on how to play Pentago in a tournament. Barry is the polar opposite, likes quiet and order and as few distraction as possible during play. I could see this match-up having issues. A little drama and fun is just good fun to me, but we also want to make sure that all players feel like they’re respected properly. I also knew I wanted to watch Tim play Alex-June and I would stick Paul with Charles and Barry and hope for the best. In fact, I couldn’t wait to see Tim play Alex-June for the finals. I kind of felt like I was going to have a front row seat to the super bowl.
Day 4, Sunday 1100hrs, Pentago US Nationals | The Con
On Sunday, we moved the tourney to our booth, since only two match-ups were being played. We set up the tables and I chatted with Tim and Alex-June about basic rules and what not. Both guys could not have been nicer or cooler, not only to me but to each other. This made the final a bit easier and took some pressure off, as I really didn’t want to blow anything in the presence of these two champion players. Paul and I had decided that we’d set the timers to 12 minutes per player per game as opposed to 10 minutes for the previous matches. I really didn’t want either of these guys to lose a match by the clock. I was thinking that it might be better to not use the timer for the final but it was a little too late to make a major change now, so we added some time to make sure this didn’t happen. The only games that I think would have ended with the timer was all three matches that Barry played against Mathias in round one, it seemed they all went past 20 minutes.
Game one got under way and in a matter of a minute or two, both Tim and Alex-June had set up matching triple power plays and blocked each other promptly. Then Alex-June set up a double threat, using an open four, that I had never seen before that was simply insurmountable and Tim ceded the game and it was 1-0.
Game two started exactly the way game one started, pretty much the same triple power play set up with matching blocks. I’m not sure how this game ended but Alex-June took it from Tim and now it was 2-0.
Now if it was me playing Alex-June, I’d probably change up my opening moves this time but not Tim, again both players with the triple power play and matching blocks set up. Not that I can argue with the technique, I rate this the most powerful of all set ups in Pentago, perhaps with the exception of the open four in any direction, which I kind of think is an underused strategy. Alex-June again prevailed and with a 3-0 win, he was now the 2013 US Pentago Champion.
This was exciting but what happened right after the match was quite remarkable as well and it bears mentioning, even though I didn’t understand 95% of what was said and done; Tim and Alex-June starting discussing their various strategies by throwing markers on the board at a blinding speed, speaking a language that I just didn’t understand, even though I know it was English and then Alex-June breaks out his pencil notes and explains how he practices by playing the game in his head and making cryptic notes.
Tough I didn’t understand crapola of what they said, I did understand that these guys weren’t only true Pentago Champions, they were also the very evidence of human X-factor brilliance and genius and in a tiny way, validated Pentago as a game that could be a great game for the ages. If guys this smart were going to not only come and play our tournament but spend serious brain processing on the finer and deeper aspects of Pentago play, then maybe, just maybe, we have a worthy game on our hands. Pentago has tons of awards, game of the year in several European countries and we won the US Mensa award. But I know how those thing work, a panel of judges spends a little time with a product and determines that it’s worthy of their award. That’s cool, it works great for sales but really doesn’t mean much. All of our awards certainly didn’t stack up to having these guys blessing, time and effort. I hope that I get to see these guys play again and that we can grow the tournament. I’m also excited to see if Barry was affected by these guys brilliance and if that alters his programming in any way. In either case, I’m excited to see if Barry’s code is as good as he says.
As I had expected, the Barry-Charles match-up was a bit problematic, with Charles antics getting on Barry’s nerves a bit, but then Barry ended up over-turning the board, mid game 3, by accident and that game had to be played over, which was a bummer for both players. Next time, I might have to consider that a loss or perhaps keep a video record or something so that the board can be restored to the correct playing position. If that happens as one player was about to win, re-playing the game is not exactly a great option. Charles edged out Barry in a 3-1 win, to put the finishing touches on the event. Alex-June got $500 for his achievement, Tim $200 and Charles $100. They all got $100 gift certificate with MTUSA and passes to next year’s Gen Con.
The US Pentago National Championship was now in the history books and I left Indianapolis feeling euphoric to have witnessed an event that might not have mattered much to most but was enormously consequential for me.