Carlos Ho, from Panama, currently residing in Spain" - you might have heard that quote before, but how exactly does a judge from a barely noticeable country in Magic such as Panama get involved in the international scene so much?
Well, it takes a lot of patience, a great desire to do so, and some sacrifices. Is it worth it? If you ask me, yes. Few things in my life have given me so much satisfaction as the judge program, all the people I've met through it, and the various places I've visited so far. This article's main audience is all those judges or would-be judges out there in those countries where the chances to certify are almost null, but if you're just curious about the story behind that guy from Panama currently residing in Spain who seems to be at every event, feel free to read.
I'll start with my first high-level event. I had some experience judging outside of my country, having judged 100+ player Prereleases in neighboring Costa Rica, but I had never been to a GP or PT. After missing a couple of sponsorships, I decided to attend GP—Minneapolis 2005 on my own. Chris Richter was in charge of staffing the judges, and he made a point to the TO to get a room for "that judge who wants to come from Panama to work at the GP" (must have been unbelievable to hear that). The TO, Steve Port, was also very helpful, and he also got me in touch with Laura Mills, a local player/judge. Laura and her husband were amazingly nice to me, providing lodging for the extra days I wanted to spend in Minneapolis, and even taking me on a Mississippi boat tour, to the Sculpture Park, and around some of the many lakes of Minnesota. Yes, judging is not only about covering the floor of an event, creating relationships with people is also a big thing. I was very lucky to find people that were that eager to help me, but there are many other judges and TOs out there that are very aware of the needs of the program and are ready to give a hand to people who come from isolated regions. The Judge Center is definitely a great tool to identify active people in areas where you have an opportunity to travel to, and although my experience was in a GP, there are lots of countries where PTQs and Prereleases are opportunities to meet L3+ judges and gain experience.
Carlos Ho, Raül Rabionet, Jaroslav Karban, George Trichopoulos, and Nicolas Glik at the Grand Canyon before PT—Hollywood 2008. An example of camaraderie among judges worldwide and that judging is more than just going to an event and coming back from it.
All of the judges at that GP were incredibly helpful and nice to me, and I was immediately hooked on judging in international events. When you're isolated, growth is slow. There's no one around to tell you what you can improve and how to do it. Attending an event such as a GP was a blessing for me; I learned so much, and lots of it was stuff I could bring back home. However, you're not getting the most out of an event by just attending it and doing what you're told. You have to set up goals before the event and look for ways to accomplish them. One of these should be to talk to as many people as possible. Make yourself known! I'm a very shy guy, but that didn't stop me from talking to all the judges and staff at GP—Minneapolis. I had a very nice one-on-one with the HJ, Jason Ness, mostly because I asked. You cannot expect that things will come to you, you've to go out there to get them! Look for challenges, opportunities to learn and/or do something new - go and take on the world! I cannot emphasize this enough. I have seen many judges who have grown used to doing the same tasks over and over again and would like to try something new, but don't work on figuring out what that could be, or don't ask for it once they know it. An example: as I mentioned, these events are a great place to get that much-needed feedback on how to improve that you cannot get back home. You'll get a lot more feedback by letting people know in advance that you're looking for feedback and reviews rather than just asking for it at the end of the tournament. Notice that I also said "talking to staff." The WotC, distributor, and TO employees are also an important part of Organized Play, and you want them to remember you. Besides being overall nice people, some of them might have a say in local sponsorships. ;-)
You're probably wondering how I became a judge, being isolated. Well, the good news is, you don't have to be a certified judge in order to judge tournaments. As a non-certified judge (also called L0), you can judge in any of the events being run in your area. Just contact your local TOs or store owners and let them know that you're interested in judging. If your goal is to become a certified judge, there are ways to accomplish this even if there are no L2+ judges nearby (as was my case). Luckily, the judge program is reaching more people each year. It will be even more so with the recent changes to the L2; as of now, all L2s are able to test L1 candidates. The program is growing, with more L2s (or at least more efficient ones), and judges are traveling more nowadays. If there's a National Championship in/near your country, chances that a L2+ will be there are high. If that's not your case, then you might be able to travel to a National Championship somewhat accessible from your country, or perhaps a faraway GP or PTQ. Plan ahead, look at the list of upcoming events in the Tournament Center, and check which ones you could possibly attend. If you happen to get a flight paid to a PT because you won a PTQ, you can use that opportunity to test, too. In any case, I recommend contacting a judge coordinator, as it's better to request testing in advance than just showing up. You can find a list of judge coordinators here. You'll also be able to request some online mentoring to better prepare for the test. After all, if becoming a certified judge means something for you, what you don't want is just show up unprepared and waste your time and someone else's. Not only the rules are important for that test, you also need to learn the Infraction Procedure Guide and Magic Tournament Rules. Do not hesitate to ask your online mentor for advice and information all along your preparation.
A regular holiday might be another chance to test; go to the Judge Center and check if there are any judges in the country/region you'll be visiting, and send them a message. I cannot express how important it is to me to plan to test during a holiday, or plan a holiday around your test. Traveling is expensive, and doing it just for the sake of testing doesn't feel right to me. Sure, it might be your main objective, but you've got to do something else that will make the whole experience more enjoyable. I got my L1 when I traveled to Spain to visit my sister during the end of year holiday season. I got in touch with David Sevilla, a very nice guy who was the only L3 in Spain, and we arranged a meeting at a restaurant. This is also a much more personal approach to testing than mass certification at GPs or PTs, and your chances of success are higher – you've already demonstrated a lot of commitment, which is something extremely valuable to the judge program.
Once you become a judge, a whole new world of possibilities opens to you. You've always seen those sponsorship announcements, reserved for certified judges. Don't expect to get a sponsorship on your first few tries, and don't take it personally. There are a certain number of sponsorship slots for Pro Tours dedicated to people that are relatively isolated and unknown to the program's managers; however, there are many isolated people, and we can't bring them all each time. Just be patient. Keep trying, and in the meantime, show what you're capable of. Build your local community, and don't forget to write reviews on your peers in the Judge Center (yes, you can write reviews about higher level judges, or about level 0 judges). You'll probably have to pay your way to a couple of big events before getting sponsored. Scan the Tournament Center and contact in advance the people responsible for staffing GPs, for example. Odds that you'll land a spot on the team and at least a room sponsorship are very good, as everyone in the judge program wants to help out each other. Don't forget that with so many applicants, you need to make efforts to introduce yourself and your motivations as good as you can in all sponsorship applications you fill. "I want to come to get experience" isn't the way to go, and you should not hesitate to introduce how you are behaving in your local community and how it will benefit from any experience you'll draw from an international event. In my case, after getting so much help from people at GP—Minneapolis, I finally landed a sponsorship for US Nationals that same year. When I received the news, it was exhilarating and I went immediately to share it with my friends in my local Magic scene.
A lot of what I've said implies spending a lot of money for your own travels. This might not look very enticing, but I'll repeat myself: it's worth it, and each travel can be an extremely rewarding experience. You should also get some kind of compensation for your hard work, and this can help you to cover your expenses. This is especially true at GPs and PTs, where you get promotional judge foils and some product (which and how much is up to the organizer). You could try to talk to a local store or player to come up with an arrangement, as they might be willing to buy the foils and/or product you receive. Also, you could ask the TO for a little extra if you're traveling from far away.
To make up for the investment, I think every trip must accomplish three goals:
Make it a holiday. Traveling just for a test, a GP or a PT might be fun on the first few times, but if you don't take some time to do some sightseeing, shopping, or whatever you like to do when traveling, you won't be doing it for a long time.
Meet people. Talk to everyone and make yourself known. You'll make lots of friends if you open yourself to other people at these tournaments. I have stayed at other judge's homes in places like Vienna, Prague, Barcelona, Paris, Mexico, and Tampa (FL), and I have lodged judges in my place, too. Judges are that friendly.
Run a great event. Do your best at the event, so you're known not only for your friendliness, but also as a great judge. Learn as much as possible, and I guarantee you, the first few events will be overwhelming in these aspects. Bring back home what you've learned and share it in your community. This is one of the reasons judges are sponsored to Pro Tours: to spread knowledge to hard-to-reach communities through the judges from those areas.
At one point, you'll see that you're no longer spending so much money and that you're actually being sponsored more often. Congratulations, your hard work is being recognized. Now, don't rest in your laurels, it also means that you've got a lot in your brain to share with other judges, and not only from your community.
After GP—Minneapolis and US Nationals 2005 (Baltimore), I judged at GP—Mexico City 2005 before moving to Spain. No longer in an isolated country, I made the most out of this: since moving, I've been to 27 European GPs, and also a GP in Asia, another in the US, and two more in Latin America. Why have I traveled so much? It's a mixture of the three goals I summed up before, besides a great love for judging, traveling, and meeting new people and places.
I hope that by telling my story, other judges from hard-to-reach countries will be inspired to show up more commonly in high level events, and we all get to know more about those fairly unknown places that "produce" extremely good and nice judges (like many of the countries in Latin America). =)