Meet the children winning thousands playing Pokémon– and the parents coaching them

Peter Shapkin bought his own phone with his proceeds from winning at Pokémon tournaments
Peter Shapkin bought his own phone with his proceeds from winning at Pokémon tournaments - Jamie Lorriman

For most children, the idea of spending two hours of an afternoon tinkering with a spreadsheet is the sort of nightmare they hope to avoid until adulthood. But for 11-year-old Drake Zhu, a high-ranking player of the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) from New Zealand, it’s his daily routine.

As part of a strict, self-imposed regime, Drake spends two hours every evening battling opponents via an online simulator. In between games, he meticulously updates his spreadsheet, noting how his chosen deck of cards performs against other players.

With one eye on ExCel, Drake continuously makes adjustments – removing cards and adding others from a pool of hundreds, before firing up the simulator again. He estimates he plays hundreds of games in a single sitting. “But I’m strict with myself,” he says. “I have to do my homework first and eat dinner with the family.”

This level of dedication might seem somewhat intense for a children’s card game, but the world of the Pokémon TCG is a potentially lucrative one. Cash prizes can reach up to £20,000 for over 16s, and Drake is preparing for the largest in-person Pokémon tournament ever.

For the uninitiated, Pokémon cards function similarly to Top Trumps. Players “battle” their chosen Pokémon against their opponents, and the ones with higher attack values win.

Though designed for children to pick up and play, the game masks a surprisingly deep level of strategy. Players must build a deck of monsters which synergise with one another and supplement them with “item” and “trainer” cards to gain an advantage. An aptitude for maths is essential, and Drake is top of his class.

In times gone by, such stereotypically “nerdy” pursuits might have been quite lonely, but Drake also attends in-person tournaments at local hobby shops and plays with friends at school. Much of the time he spends online is social too, in communication with friends across the globe, many of whom he has met at tournaments abroad.

It is at one such tournament that I meet Drake and his father, Joe, 41, a software developer. The pair have travelled to London’s ExCel Centre for the Pokémon European International Championships, on two back-to-back 12-hour flights from Auckland, via Shanghai.

The cavernous hallway is a Pokémon lover’s paradise: Above the thousands of fans and players dressed head-to-toe in merchandise hangs a gigantic inflatable Pikachu – the franchise’s mascot – while speakers blast music from the games over the excited chatter of competitors and spectators.

Drake Zhu, 11, and his father Joe
Bonding over Pokémon ... Drake Zhu, 11, and his father Joe travelled from New Zealand for the final - Jamie Lorriman

It has been an intense weekend for father and son. The day before, they were here from 9am to 7pm as Drake competed in preliminary rounds, sustaining themselves with muesli bars and bananas to keep their energy levels up.

For his part, Joe sees little difference between his son’s hobby and his own childhood, save for the fact Pokémon has facilitated a few family holidays. This year’s World Championships, for which Drake has already qualified, are being held in Honolulu, Hawaii – suggesting the hours with the spreadsheet have paid off.

“The Pokémon experience is similar to any of the hobbies I had when I was young,” says Joe. “I didn’t play card games as a kid – I played volleyball and football. But those sports didn’t offer me the chance to go abroad.”

The family limits how much time Drake spends looking at screens and encourages him to take up sports too, he adds. “But if he’s on a screen we’re fine with it so long as he’s practising and not just watching YouTube or whatever.”

Official Pokémon tournaments are separated into three divisions. Drake competes in the junior division, for those aged 12 and under, while players aged 13-15 compete in the senior division, and everyone aged 16 and over competes in the master division, where the top cash prize is $25,000 (£20,000).

Sadly for Drake, he is eliminated before reaching the final. On a spotlit stage at the back of the arena, the top two junior players are preparing to face off for the chance to win $7,000 (£5,300) in cash and 216 packs of trading cards.

One of them is 10-year-old Peter Shapkin from Hampshire. A live audience of hundreds is watching, plus a few thousand on a live stream, as he anxiously shuffles his deck of cards. Above Peter, giant screens display a live feed of the table dividing him and his opponent, while commentators discuss the players’ chosen decks with all the solemnity of Premier League pundits – it is a broadcast-level production, and the atmosphere is tense.

Peter’s moment in the spotlight does not last long, however. Though he and his opponent wear noise-cancelling headphones throughout the match, the overhead camera can see the players’ hands – and the pundits waste no time in informing the audience that Peter’s chances are slim. It is not long before he is defeated.

Peter Shapkin
Peter Shapkin: 'I was really tired yesterday and I'm tired now – you use your brain for a solid 50 minutes for each round' - Jamie Lorriman

His father Konstantin, 47, is watching on from the sidelines, dressed in a Pokémon T-shirt resembling a football jersey – giving him the air of a coach. The championships have been a family weekend holiday of sorts for him and his two sons: all three have competed in separate age brackets, but only Peter made the final rounds.

“I only got into the card game for them – my wife has no clue,” says Konstantin. “One day they brought some cards home from school and tried to create their own rules, so I helped them learn the real game by buying some simple pre-made decks.”

Konstantin says Peter was only five when the family began learning the game and credits the cards with developing his son’s reading and maths skills. “Ultimately, it’s nice to have something in common with your kids,” he adds.

Peter began playing in small competitions at a local game shop in Aldershot, Hampshire, and quickly proved a prodigy at the TCG. Despite his loss in London, he has already qualified for this year’s World Championships. His prize money pot is largely spent getting to and from the next tournament, with only the very top players handed “travel awards” by The Pokémon Company International (TPCI).

As for the rest of the cash, Konstantin says it has allowed Peter to understand the value of money at an early age. “He has a phone that he paid for himself. I would have bought him one anyway, but he feels like it’s his phone because he won the money to buy it,” he says. “Other kids get their phones for free, but he earned it.”

None of this has come at the expense of a social life, either, Konstantin argues. “Peter is only 10 but has already visited Brazil, the USA, Australia, Japan and many European countries. He now has friends from all over the world,” he says. “As a child, I never had such opportunities.”

But the tournaments are undeniably taxing on the children striving for the top. A few hours after his match, Peter is still visibly upset and exhausted. Though the 10-year-old still walks away with a second-place $5,000 cash prize and a free trip to Hawaii, losing at the last minute clearly stings.

“There’s so much stress on you,” he says. “You can’t make mistakes and it’s just really tiring. I was really tired yesterday and I’m tired now – you use your brain for a solid 50 minutes for each round.”

Not in the mood to say much more, Peter heads home to Hampshire with his father. Does seeing his son so devastated not bother Konstantin?

“This was the first time Peter was on the big stage and the live stream,” he says. “He was understandably tired and overwhelmed by the whole situation. However, he was absolutely delighted to have reached the finals.”

In fact, Konstantin says the experience is character-building. “Learning to deal with winning and losing is part of the journey,” he explains. “When Peter was younger he got very emotional every time he lost. Since then he has matured and learned to accept defeat gracefully.

“As a parent, I think this is an invaluable experience for him as later in life he will have enough resilience to deal with adversities and frustration.”

Peter Shapkin's father Konstantin
Peter Shapkin's father Konstantin, centre, says his son has learnt the value of money after competing in the tournaments - Jamie Lorriman

The TCG matches wrap up, signalling the start of the Video Game Championship (VGC) finals. These games are played on the Nintendo Switch, and cash prizes range between $1,000 and $5,000.

Up first is 12-year-old Kevin Han, from Pennsylvania, who is unbothered by the crowd and commentators. In mere minutes, he wins, two games to zero. After gamely hugging his opponent, a beaming Kevin thanks his family for their support before explaining in detail his strategy, peppering his speech with percentage calculations and in-game jargon.

Backstage, he gives a flavour of the mental maths required. “For example, my Flutter Mane holds the Choice Specs item, so its Moonblast attack will do 70 per cent to an Incineroar’s health bar, but if the Incineroar is a ‘bulky’ variant the attack will only do 50 per cent,” he explains. This is one of dozens of calculations Kevin has committed to memory, typically with the help of fan-made calculators.

Kevin’s attitude to practice is far less regimented than Drake’s, and he is less obviously overwhelmed by the occasion than Peter seemed to be. But it wasn’t always that way.

“Kevin had his fair share of disappointments and bitter experiences, where as a parent I questioned whether or not he should even continue his Pokémon tournaments,” says his mother, Anita. “My husband and I take our kids to these tournaments primarily to spend time with them and to have fun. When you see your child experience a competition where it can crush your child’s love for the game, you start to ask if continuing in this journey is truly worth it.”

Ultimately Anita left it up to Kevin, who decided to continue. Like Konstantin, Anita believes that learning to cope with defeat is an important part of growing up. “People talk about children needing to develop ‘grit’ now,” she continues. “I realised that through an activity like competitive Pokémon, children can develop grit through the process of losing, going back to the drawing board, and competing again.”

Kevin now has a rule for himself: if it stops being fun, he stops playing. “Before tournaments, I sometimes have no sleep at all because of the nerves,” he says. “But I don’t like to practise every day, because if I force myself to play when I don’t want to then I’ll lose my love for Pokémon.”


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