Video Games

Coolidge Pokémon Champ Zack Thornberg on How Battling Is Like Chess

Most kids wish they had parents as cool as Zack Thornberg's mom and dad. Like most kids his age, the 14-year-old Coolidge resident has a serious video gaming habit, playing upwards of seven hours per week on his Nintendo DS and other systems. And his parents are nothing but supportive, probably because of his success as a competitive gamer.

He's a longtime player of video games from Nintendo's blockbuster and long-running Pokémon franchise, which -- for anyone who's lived in a cave for the past 15 years -- involves capturing and training freakish creatures for use in battling other players. And Thornberg is aces at doing all those things, especially on the latest game in the series, Pokémon White and Black 2, for the Nintendo DS. And a couple of weeks from now, the teenager will get a chance to become a national champion and earn himself gaming glory.

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Back in April, the ninth-grader was one of the winners of the Pokémon Spring Regional Championships in Salt Lake City, beating out hundreds of other kids and teens during battles using the game Pokémon White and Black 2. And much like the kids in the 1989 flick The Wizard, he's about to travel across the country for a big gaming battle.

With his father Greg -- who told Jackalope Ranch that he's "extremely proud" of his son -- in tow, the younger Thornberg will head to Indianapolis for the National Championships and will attempt to beat the competition using Bisharp and Scrafty, his prefered Pokémon creatures. At stake is a big trophy, the honor of being the best in the United States, and some awesome gaming gear (including a new Wii U). The winners will also nab a berth to the world championships in early August in Vancouver.

Jackalope Ranch spoke with Zach recently about his Pokémon-related pursuits and learned a thing or two about the game series, the people who play it, and some of the dastardly hackers and cheaters involved. He also compares the game to chess, something he also enjoys (natch), and how both games help hone the mind.

And although Thornberg is considered one of the best players in the nation, the teen admits that he might not wind up winning. Even if that's the case, however, he's still gonna have a blast competing.

How does it feel to be a champion Pokémon player? It's pretty cool. It's kind of funny, because a lot of people think of it as a TV show and not as an actual competitive thing. It's very exciting.

Do you think this is as much of a sport as football or basketball? I think it's as much of a sport as chess, how people go to chess tournaments. Football and basketball are more athletic. This is, by far, only [involving] your brain. It doesn't even have anything to do with your reflexes.

Are you a big fan of chess? Yes. I don't play it competitively. I play online and I play with friends and family. It definitely helps give you a strategic mind.

How long have you been playing Pokémon video games? I've probably been playing the games since I was 9. And I've been playing competitively at tournaments since I was 11.

What's the secret to your success? Well, there are a lot of different strategies I could talk about. Basically, I focused on winning my matches quickly without trying to go into a lot of in-depth setup, which a lot of people do. Which is fun in testing I've found, but it isn't as effective overall.

How many hours a day or week would you estimate you play the game? Probably about six or seven hours a week. I do online simulator testing.

Um . . . for Nintendo? There are certain groups of people that really like the game who have programmed simulators to work just like if you were playing the game on the computer.

Do your parents restrict how much you can play each week? Oh, no. I practice what I need because my parents are very supportive because it's a thinking game unlike a lot of other games that are a lot of fighting. It's a game that is a lot like chess.

How so? It's a lot of turn-based strategy and what you're doing is you're trying to defeat the other four Pokémon of the opponent. You each choose a team of six out of 650-something Pokémon. And then for each match, you choose four of them to try to beat the other four of the round.

Most people think Pokémon is just the cartoon or card game. How hard is the video game? Well, it depends on your age division. In my division, which is the senior, it's difficult the higher you get. It depends on . . . a lot of it is your match-ups because different teams counter different strategies. It's a difficult game to win at a competitive level.

Do people try to cheat at these competitions? Sometimes, but it's very risky. People rarely do now because they have made a lot of ways to catch hackers and cheaters. How do people cheat? There are some websites you can make hack Pokémon rather than getting them through the normal game-training process. People can create Pokémon files on the computer and then try to send them to their DS to make it look like an original, but it's really one they made themselves. That's very rare now [and] something that people tried when it first happened, but when they got caught and disqualified, they don't do it anymore.

Was this your first time winning the regional championship? This was my first time winning but I qualified for nationals before. At 2010 nationals, I qualified but I couldn't attend. We were too busy. In 2011, I was top 32 at regionals, that's not the national cut. This is my first year going to nationals, but I compete at the national level online.

How intense is the competition during regional and national battles? It's a lot of thinking. I suppose it's intense but it's definitely intense when you're in the finals, like we had our matches on a big TV screen for a crowd of people at the regionals to see. We were just sitting at a table a few yards away. Yeah, it's intense. Like 95 percent of the game is strategy-based but they do throw in some luck-based elements, such as critical hits and freeze chance. And whenever someone gets really unlucky, it's gets pretty bad.

Have you gotten pwned a lot at this game? Oh, no. It's a game I'm pretty good at, actually. For most of the people online, because I do a lot of chat rooms and forums of the community, I'm one of the few people predicted to make top four at nationals.

What sort of prizes did you win at regionals? I won the four-night hotel stay and round trip plane fare for me and my dad to go to nationals and I won a few memorabilia things like hats and different play mats for the cards and stuff. But that's about it for regionals. I'm more excited because they have bigger prizes at nationals. They have extra large Nintendo 3DS and for first place they have the new 32-gigabyte Wii U.

Is there a trophy involved? There is, I got a trophy for regionals. It was a glass trophy, it was maybe like seven inches high and it was glass plate that said you were regional champion. They have a bigger trophy for nationals.

Do you have shelf space picked out yet? No, I don't. I'm actually not expecting to win nationals because a lot of the competition is sort of random when you get there. Because there are certain people that I've met online that I know I could beat and others that I would probably lose to, so it is the luck of what match you'll be paired with. But I'm just going to have fun. I've actually been really excited because these are people from around the country that I've really wanted to meet.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.