By this point many of you have heard the name Alex Bertoncini. He's been putting up consistently good results and is strongly involved in the community. However, there are many still, I'm sure, who haven't heard of the Westchester, New York native. Despite his recent results, he doesn't have half the name recognition of a Luis Scott-Vargas or a Brad Nelson (or in certain circles, a Marc Calderaro – perhaps you've heard of him). This is because Alex Bertoncini is what we call a Grinder. Though he's put up great results in Grand Prix—Dallas and Kansas City – Top 8 and 17th respectively – most of his wins and community recognition have come from smaller cash tournaments and other open events, like StarCityGames.com Open Series and $5Ks.
So, even though Bertoncini has been able to support himself with the game, he isn't a high level mage on the Pro circuit. He doesn't get appearance fees or his airfare paid for. He doesn't even show up to invite-only events with an invite in his hands. He's got to qualify by playing the long, slogging tournaments the night before that go well into the night – affectionately called the Grinders (from meat-grinder, hence the term for the players). He did just that on Thursday. Bertoncini showed up unqualified for Nationals, but took a solid CawBlade deck and earned himself a last-minute slot.
Though these grinders are much less visible to the Magic layman who doesn't hound the coverage like many of us do, much of the tour is made up of them. So I took Bertoncini aside, after winning a convincing match against Conley Woods, to talk to him about the life of a grinder. And now, please note, I do not mean the weekend-warrior "grinder". There are plenty of people that drive six hours to for a PTQ and call it grinding. I mean the, "I-haven't-been-home-in-a-month" grinder.
Alex got into the game after playing other trading card games, but since his county didn't have a large scene, he soon found himself, at a young age, going into New York City, to the famed Neutral Ground (RIP), and battling in the cutthroat NY scene.
"I would take the train after school, usually four or five times a week…an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute each way." It seemed to me this need to travel, combined with the fierce competition, is what prompted Alex to get as good as he did. He needed to recoup the money he was spending just to be able to play the game. So with opponents like Chris Calcano, Nick Spagnolo, David Shiels, Steve OMS, Alex quickly excelled at the game – because it was sink or swim.
Not just competing, but competing right is what Alex attributes his skills to. "Instead of 'practice makes perfect', my father told me 'perfect practice makes perfect.'" Alex has always tried to practice in the right way, and that usually includes playing against people better than you. So with consistent practice, a strong community, and a good mantra, he started traveling to events. And crazily, he started winning. A lot.
The first $5k event he went to was in 2008 in Richmond. He was very green, and wasn't expecting anything much. "Then, I won both tournaments that weekend." Bertoncini says it like it's nonchalant. Like I shouldn't be surprised that with a career consisting of scrubbing out of a few PTQs, he was be able to sweep a large regional event. But that's what I like most about Alex. He's fun and vibrant, but also straight forward and matter-of-fact. However, the latter two characteristics are unsurprising when you take into account that he has to make his living off the game.
"That was when I starting getting better. I realized you have to be comfortable with the big-money games." Alex continued that you can't let the pressures of singing for your supper at every tournament get to you. And then only way to understand that, is through doing over and over and over again.
He continued putting up results, so much so that this year he's second in total points for the Starcitygames.com Open Series. Most recently he finished fourth at their Legacy event in Cincinnati. But he knows he still has a ways to go to reach the next plateau.
"The mental game is what separates good players from great players." Bertoncini knows that's where he's the weakest. "I still tilt and punt pretty badly." When he talks about great mental players, he references two important names, obviously the legendary Jon Finkel, but also Gerry Thompson. "Gerry will walk into an event, lose round one, then win out the rest of the tournament. Then, lose round two of the next tournament and win out again." It's aspects like Thompson's combined with the ability to win games you should have lost that Bertoncini aspires to have. He asks himself after each loss, could Jon Finkel have won that game? And if so, it's time to figure out how.
So constant competition, and practicing well are important to a grinder, but there is one last attribute that Alex talked about, and that's community. "I fly standby; I don't walk into an airport with my ticket purchased a week in advance. I don't stay in hotels; I stay on couches." And Alex concedes that such a life style is impossible without gaining friends wherever you go. When I referenced the Not-being-home-in-a-month-type grinder earlier, I was literally talking about Alex. Right now he's in the middle of a long stint from New York to Seattle to Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Chicago to here, then back to Chicago for another tournament hosted by TCGplayer.com. You can't do that kind of traveling without knowing people all over the globe (or having some sort of magical money machine). There tons of great people playing Magic and if you tilt against your opponents, your lifespan as a grinder will be short.
"I always meet new people wherever I play. I crushed this one guy out of round 4 in a tournament and was staying on his couch a month later. I'd never met him before that."
Alex Bertoncini is poised to break into the next level; he's tearing up Nationals something fierce this weekend. But even if it's not at this event, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hoisting another big trophy soon.