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He goes by the name of Doctor Popular, and his wacky appearance is just a crafty facade to hide the fact that he's a real player. And he's here in an NYU basement auditorium to act as judge for the fourth annual New York City Yo-Yo Open Tournament.
Doctor Popular is judging in tandem with Steve Brown, one of the country's top players, who now works primarily for Duncan, the world's most famous yo-yo maker. Brown competes only a few times a year; most of his energy is spent on judging. Doctor Popular, on the other hand, is something of a yo-yo teacher/guru/visionary, and he serves as a sort of ambassador for the sport. He placed third in the Extreme Division of the world championships last year.
The room is an absurd mix of paunchy, middle-aged bachelors, amped-up 10-year-old boys, and a handful of sober teenagers who have the intense stare of those for whom competition is serious business. The field is divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced divisions, but the majority have entered in the latter category, either through actual skill level or outright chutzpah.
A short, balding man with a mustache takes the stage, one of only a handful in the intermediate division. As the afternoon sun starts to slant harshly onto the very middle of the platform, it causes this sad sack to sweat profusely, while he berates himself and sighs loudly after every mistake (of which there are many). When his routine is mercifully completed, he leaves the stage in a state of disgrace.
"I thought we'd get a lot more intermediate players," says Erin Finnegan, organizer of the tournament and head of the NYU Yo-Yo Club. Simply by submitting a list of the tricks to be performed, Finnegan was able to get sanctioned by the American YO-YO Association (AYYA), the governing body for the sport. The NYC Open is one of dozens of small local tournaments held throughout the country. The yo-yo season culminates in a national tournament that's held every year in Chico, California.
The scoring in yo-yo is very straightforward: There are 10 tricks for each level that everyone must perform; each player also chooses six additional tricks from a larger list. These are more difficult tricks, and they have exotic names like the Freehand Trapeze Suicide (don't ask). You are awarded five points if a trick is done correctly or failing that, you may attempt a second throw, which is worth three points if you nail it.
"You must stay within the pentagon!"
Doctor Popular has a low tolerance for breaking the rules, and this is one of them. In general, all tricks have to be performed within a circumscribed area, usually a circle. The stage here has a taped-off pentagon, and a number of competitors had problems moving either in or out of it, prompting this unusual reprimand.
There is an intriguing lack of respect from the contestants during each other's routines; the constant whirring sound of yo-yos combines with rampant chatter to create a background noise that occasionally rises to a level whereby the whole group gets a stern admonishment from Brown to "shut the hell up, or I'm going to have to come back there and kick somebody's ass!"
There's also a refreshing abundance of roly-poly competitors; so much so that I discreetly inquire as to whether or not the extra baggage might somehow be an advantage in this particular sport. Most people demur, until I ask an eight-year-old boy, who posits that "they're just fat because this is a game for lazy people."
At the conclusion of the advanced group, two other more interesting competitions take place. The first is something called the two-handed division, which consists of exactly three players, two of whom are father and son. Two-handed simply means spinning a yo-yo in each hand and pulling off maneuvers like milk-the-cow (a fairly simple up-and-down trick). None of the two-handers proves capable of much more than short bursts of feverish double spinning, followed by the inevitable crash of the two yo-yos, which, in turn, is followed by a prolonged interlude of self-consciously untangling the strings.
The climax to the day's events is the freestyle competition, where players put together their own routines and set them to music. According to judge Brown, there's a lot more leeway in scoring the freestyle. "The tricks are judged on technical difficulty, execution, and originality," he says. "Presentation is also taken into account, and sometimes can factor into 10 to 20 percent of your score. I consider it general showmanship. . . . If you stand up there looking like a zombie, and you nail a bunch of cool tricks, you're going to suffer because you stood there like a zombie."
During his freestyle routine, a shy 12-year-old pudge named Nathan Auger drew in the crowd as he spun his yo-yo to some frenzied ska-metal music. Suddenly, the buzz of the room had stopped, and the entire unruly crew was focused on this little kid. It was impossible to escape the surging feeling of benevolence toward him, and for everyone who was watching him. It was such an unlikely scene. But it was exactly the thing that made this strange, quirky event so compelling and, well, cool: that a shy, dorky but sweet kid could sustain a prolonged moment where he excelled in an obscure skill, and in the process was able to beguile a mob. Nathan didn't win, of course, but for a small while there, he got to own the room.