Monday, July 25, 2011

BOOK: grinder: the brad nelson story, by rich hagon

(Note: if you're unfamiliar with the book, here's an explanation.)

After the success of Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids, it was inevitable that someone within the Magic community would write another book about a pro player with the intention of giving those with no knowledge of the Magic pro scene a glimpse inside this difficult-to-penetrate lifestyle. Potential authors, once they know that Grinder: the Brad Nelson Story by Rich Hagon exists, will probably stay away.
This is about Brad sitting at home, alone, in front of a computer screen playing Magic: “Because Brad understands that no matter how hard he tries he will never solve Magic, never reach the end boss, never disbelievingly read the words "game over" when all the content has been exhausted, he can let The Fire burn bright. He quests deep into twilight, night after night, the greyhound in pursuit of the hare that will never be caught. Throughout this endless Grind, The Fire drives him on.”

This is about Brad after going to some tournaments: “It also means a time to recharge the batteries, both mental and physical, that have taken a pounding during the previous six months. Perhaps most of all, it means time to reflect on all that he has seen and done, accomplished and thought, and to try to make sense of it all as he heads for hearth and home.”

This is about Brad improving his playing fundamentals: “Imagine Michelangelo wiping clean the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, retiring to his quarters, and asking himself, "What is art?" Imagine Mozart throwing the score of his latest symphony into the fire, retiring to his quarters, and asking himself, "What is music?" Imagine George Soros giving away billions of dollars, retiring to his quarters, and asking himself, "What is money?" In the privacy of his North Dakota home, Brad effectively does exactly that.” (Haddaway is unmentioned.)

This is about Brad playing a game at a tournament: “They go at each other with huge skill and crushing will. Quarter is neither asked nor given and, while neither will go on to lift the World Championship trophy, this is where the last round action truly lies: with the grinders in the trenches, with careers on the line. Both games 1 and 2 go long, marginal mistakes pounced on with killer instinct and singleton cards coming to the rescue in the nick of time. Speaking of time, Brad is running out of it, and fast.”

That last sentence will stay with me for years.

Brad Nelson’s claim to fame is being really fucking good at Magic. He did that by playing a lot of Magic at the expense of everything else in his life. That’s the basic gist of the first half of the book or so. In the second half, he plays a lot of tournaments and becomes Player of the Year. Unfortunately for the entertainment value of the text, it’s not all luxuriously overwritten prose like the above passages. While the portions that read as yearning nonfiction romance novel are by far the most interesting to quote, most of the text is impossibly dry listing of what Brad did (go to this tournament, beat this player, finish Xth in tournament) that slogs on chapter after chapter, leaving my memory of large portions an interchangeable blur.

Characterization would have helped. Brad, despite being quoted for roughly a third to half of the book, shows no personality traits at all (which is odd, since everything I’ve heard about him describes him as likable, approachable, and funny*) other than that he plays a lot of Magic and is good at Magic. Offhand, the only other things I can remember the book saying about him, person-wise, are that he dislikes board games (because why aren’t those people playing Magic), that he’s had a tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship with Amber (because he was playing too much Magic), whom the book never describes in any meaningful way either, and several mentions that he prefers aggressive decks to reactive ones (without any true explanation or speculation as to why). And that’s the man the book is about.

Stories of tournaments or pre-tournament testing quickly devolve into unreadable lists of names with their spreadsheet-style list of accomplishments. I barely follow the professional scene, yet I know more about their personalities than the book describes. LSV is the everyman of Magic professionals, always playing goofy formats and making tortured puns. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (who the text sets up, weakly, as a rival/best friend, and who Brad accurately refers to several times as being the best player in the world) speaks English as something around his ninth language yet can write circles around practically any Magic player, including Brad himself. The book doesn’t say anything like this, or anything about anyone at all.

There are many facets of competent writing Hagon lacks, and one of the most striking is his lack of perspective about Brad, the pro scene, or the game in general. Imagine for a second that you’re looking at a book about someone who’s the best in a certain field of competitive play. Thumb wrestling, let’s go with that. How is a book about a champion thumb wrestler going to hold your attention? Well, it’d better have interesting characters including a true villain our hero has to declare thumb war on, a good central narrative with our hero eventually triumphing over/falling to said villain, and the exact right amount of explanation so that the reader feels like they’ve been given a window into a previously unforseen community without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the sport or the exact weight each person can lift with their thumbs (each hand). Hagon completely misses this. He assumes, rather than convinces, that the number of pro points specific Magic players have earned and their number of top eights is of crucial importance; that it’s more important than, say, their appearance, manner of speaking, or personality in helping the reader picture this cast of people. Hagon just gives lists.

The perspective-less-ness of the book comes across best in passages like the previously quoted prose, where Magic is held up as a plainly noble endeavor. As I'm a complete douchebag, I’d really like to see the humor and overdramatics of these enormous tournaments played up in any biography of professional players, but Hagon can talk about the nerve-wracking situations caused by “hundreds” of people watching from their computers without the faintest touch of irony. It’s difficult to imagine a non-Magically-inclined reader picking the book up and taking in the earnest depictions of players playing a children’s card game surrounded by cameras in a faux-Roman arena with cardboard columns in the back of the shot. Ironic detachment is probably too much to ask from someone taking paychecks from Wizards to promote the game, but some of it is necessary when the game is written about in longform. Failing that, I wish he could have realized the place that Magic holds in most people’s minds, and not have made his metaphors so bizarrely overwritten. True, they’re funny to read, but the fact that they’re so horrendous makes any imitative parody superfluous, and I was really looking forward to writing that.

Hagon tries to portray it as a universal tale that could be about anyone succeeding at anything (the promotional material goes to great lengths to talk about this) but the book has absolutely no idea who its audience is supposed to be. The idea that people with no interest in the game will pick up the book as some sort of inspirational story is rather silly, since how are they going to find out about an ebook published by a Magic strategy website? If the intended audience, then, is people who play, then why are there unending explanations of the intricacies of how decks work?** His normal occupation is as commentator***, where unless people mute it entirely they’re held captive if they want to see what’s going on in current matches, and as such Hagon has no real need to continually say interesting-enough things to keep people listening. Books are a much less kind form of media, where readers will viciously gloss over entire pages looking for the next bit of relevant action, or abandon them entirely if they don’t like the current words.

The most interesting portions of the book, almost by default, are the few times when Hagon addresses everything Brad has given up in life, i.e. everything under the sun other than the ability to beat people at Magic. The idea of Brad as someone addicted to Magic features prominently and, I’ll admit, was a truly troubling bit of biography. Basically, the guy loses everything because he spends all his time/money/brainpower on Magic, quitting or getting fired from every job he’s ever had****, going to college unsuccessfully twice, and pushing away what seems to be the only woman who could possibly care for him in a romantic way, all because he’d rather be playing Magic Online. Credit where it’s due, the text refers to Brad as an addict, which is entirely accurate. He tries to quit, gets roped back in by a “one last time” sort of tournament which he obviously wins, and things go on as before, but more successfully.

The idea of Magic-as-addiction doesn’t surface after that at all, and it troubles me that either Hagon no longer considers Brad addicted, or that he feels it’s no longer a relevant issue. It seems plain that the man is still addicted to the game; he just happens to be good enough that he makes tens of thousands of dollars feeding his addiction. Is that a bad thing? It’s hard to say. He’s basically in the same spot at the end that he was at his depths, just with more stable finances and a habit that has pulled family somewhat closer rather than pushed them away.*****

Because the book was written right after he got Player of the Year, it ends triumphantly but extremely prematurely, like a biography of Jordan that came out immediately following his first championship. If Grinder was instead written years from now after Brad’s inevitable decline from (statistically) best player in the world, we might see a more reflective version of the man with more perspective on what the game has done to him, and his attempts at making a comeback. There almost has to be some sort of comeback in the trajectory of his career, really.

*On Something Awful, after posting that I was reading the book, someone recalled Brad saying that he was going to dress up for Halloween as Conley Woods. That line alone is more interesting than anything he said in the book he apparently co-authored.

**Hagon spends 333 words describing Tooth and Nail in Standard. This might be justified if it’s of extreme importance to the plot, but the tournament that the description is leading up to only mentions the deck offhand once, as one that he lost to in the Swiss**(a), and I cannot for the life of me figure out who’s going to read 200 words (exactly) about how the combo of Triskelion and Mephidross Vampire works. Let’s go over some possible situations.

A) I was playing Magic then. I’m going to skip this explanation.

B) I’m new to Magic. I’ll take your word for it that it’s good, and skip the explanation.

C) I don’t play Magic. What are these words you’re using? Why do I care? Is this relevant to my quest to become the world’s best gardener? I’ll skip this explanation.

Unbeknownst to Hagon, information that is irrelevant to the main storyline but of potential technical interest can be put in footnotes or endnotes (like this one) where people can read or skip them as they so please, rather than gumming up the main text with that head-shootingly dull explanation.

**(a) There’s also a detailed explanation of how Swiss pairings work, since that’s like, crucial knowledge to figuring out that going 9-0 at a tournament is a good thing.

***Brad will occasionally run into Hagon in the story, who is never referred to in such contexts as “I” or “the author” or “this reporter” or “yrs truly Professa Rich Magic$” but, disorientingly, as “Pro Tour Statistician Rich Hagon.” Both parts of this confuse me. What does the Pro Tour Statistician do? All I’m seeing in this book is just like how many finishes certain players have gotten, which is only statistics in the vaguest sense of the term. There are no Bell curves of expected outcomes or discussion of standard deviations as they relate to Nelson’s extraordinary finishes. It reminds Magic Literary Critic Jesse Mason of the extravagent titles that third-world dictators give themselves. Also, why is he referring to himself in the third person at all? As soon as I saw that I wanted to read it as a story of how Rich Hagon is writing this by going through alternate dimensions and if he interacts with Alternate Universe Rich Hagon it’ll cause a paradox in the continuum, leading to impossibilities like Hagon writing a half-competent sentence.

****This leads to possibly the biggest bit of bullshit in the book: “He takes a job, learns to do it better than anyone else, and then quits.” The fuck he does, Hagon. The man can’t hold down a job because of his addiction to Magic, don’t make it seem like he accomplished something great here.

*****At several points, family members who don’t play Magic and have no non-Brad-related reasons to care either travel out to tournaments with him or stay up until the wee hours watching GGslive or Pro Tour webcasts just to see how he’s doing, which has to be the most boring and confusing possible activity for those people unless they’re getting a cut of the winnings.


Unknown said...

Excellent tear-down of the book. I caught a lot of Hagon's general lack of writing ability from the sample chapter, and your review seems to hold pretty true to that. I'm a big fan of Nelson, and it's a shame his biography fails to show any real insight into the man behind the legend.

D said...

How Brad Nelson Broke My Heart

KillGoldfish said...

re: D:

yeah i ripped off dfw pretty hardcore with this review. shocking i know! me??? copying dfw?????

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