I woke up Monday to an email telling me a friend and business partner was dead. Unlike a couple of weeks ago when my grandmother passed away, this was devastating. He was still years away from 30 and I had literally talked to him the day before about work.
I’ve spent the last two days genuinely not knowing what to do with myself. Thankfully work is a bit slow this week, because I haven’t been able to get anything done. I need to talk about him, so today I’m going to tell Gadiel stories about a little shit that grew up into a big shit, but still managed to be pretty loveable along the way.
I first met Gadiel when he was 14 playing at Pro Tour New Orleans in 2003. It was my first Pro Tour for coverage (in this case, for StarCityGames.com), and his first one for competing, having graduated from the Junior Super Series into the big leagues. It’s extremely unusual for someone so young to even make the Pro Tour, but almost everything about Gadiel was unusual, starting with his ridiculous name.
After that Pro Tour, I received a tournament report submission that was consistently laugh out loud funny, but also mean-spirited enough to get me into trouble with Pete Hoefling when I posted it, despite editing it twice to try and tone it down enough for publication. It was from that same 14-year old, and announced his arrival onto the Pro Tour scene in a way no one else ever would.
Even more than a decade later, we genuinely never stopped laughing about Lebarre’s giant forehead, which was originally how his round 5 opponent was listed.
At age 14, he was already a prodigious talent in one of the world’s most difficult intellectual games. He was also a prodigious shit talker, with very little filter or soft skills. He was scathingly honest with everyone, including himself. Needless to say, this lead to complicated social interactions.
Magic as a community communicates differently than the rest of the world. Things are outed as “fucking stupid” constantly, but when someone says it, they are usually correct. The game itself selects for a level of IQ far beyond population norms, and harsh criticism – and learning to accept that – is often the best way to improve your game or someone else’s. Ideas are constantly challenged and destroyed in an environment like almost nowhere else, but it’s not (generally) overtly mean or hurtful, it’s just a process of learning and improvement.
That style of communication isn’t very acceptable in the broader world, and teenage Gadiel was on the extreme end of blunt.
At age 14, Gadiel was already one of the top 500 Magic players in the world. The problem, if you want to call it that, was that he knew it, and was perfectly happy to tell everyone else how bad they were at the game, in detail. Thankfully, he was often quite funny when he was doing it, which meant he ended up with friends and fans as well as haters.
Fast forward a year, and a 15-year old Gadiel was winning Grand Prix: Chicago with teammates Tim Aten and John Pelcak as team :B, a buck-toothed emoji they wanted as a team name. Aten, later a multiple day Jeopardy champion, was one of the better Limited format players of the era and one of the best writers Magic ever produced. Pelcak, or The Cak, was the quiet 3rd member of what had grown into quite a good team of young Magicians. They had a good finish at Pro Tour: Seattle earlier in the year and the win in Chicago kind of cemented the three as “rather good,” but Gadiel would turn out to be the best by quite some distance.
Six months later, and one week after his 16th birthday, Gadiel would win Pro Tour: Philadelphia. From that point forward, he would never stop complaining that his win was one of the least rewarding ever, due to a skins format that Wizards of the Coast would never use again. The poor kid merely cashed $21,000 for his weekend of gaming (the norm was either 35 or 40K), plus ancillary benefits like free airfare for the rest of the Pro Tours that year and a $1,500 check just for showing up.
The game of Magic came easily, as did writing about it. He had a clarity of vision with regard to lines of play few people on Earth could match, and he could cleanly dissect his own play plus that of everyone else and make it easy to understand.
What was difficult was balancing the demands of being a professional gamer, who made tens of thousands a year playing a card game, and hundreds of dollars for every article he wrote, and being a teenager who was still two years away from graduating high school. Unlike some top players who travelled 3 out of 4 weekends in a month, Gadiel mostly just showed up for Pro Tours four times a year and the occasional nearby Grand Prix. His parents kept him grounded with what was actually important, like finishing school, as opposed to spending all his time playing a fantasy card game for money.
That’s not to say he didn’t have fun. He did. Drunken karaoke happened in Japan well under the age of 18, and the tales of what happened in Prague with The Cak and Chris McDaniel are strictly not for public consumption. The words “The World’s Largest Brothel” may or may not have been involved. During that time, I was his editor at Star City, a fan, and a bit of a mentor trying to keep a young genius I liked out of as much trouble as the world had to offer.
I honestly believe if he had continued to give a shit about playing Magic, he would have ended as one of the best players ever. He didn’t though. Life had a lot more to offer him and he was more interested in that than in grinding hours keeping up with the Magic scene.
About the time I was stepping away from Magic to work at Pinnacle in the Caribbean, Gadiel finished high school and headed to Stanford. We’d interact once in a while via Facebook, but he was having fun at one of the world’s best universities with his fraternity brothers and I was neck deep in the world of professional sports betting.
I think because we were both from Chicago and liked sports, we started talking more as he graduated and went into the world of finance. Da Bulls were a regular topic of discussion, especially since he worked overnight shifts and was often bored, but Gadiel was well-read and a voracious learner, so any topic was possible.
That said, contact was only occasional until his dad’s stroke. When that happened, I saw him unravel and we talked every day for a long time. There were few constants about the growth of the boy into a man, but perhaps the overriding one was an adoration of his parents. Igal’s stroke hit him so hard, not least because it made Gadiel feel completely and utterly powerless to help. Smart, highly-motivated people often have difficulty adapting to issues completely out of their control, and here Gadiel – for once – was just like the rest of us.
He sought me out because he knew I’d gone through cancer bullshit previously and he wanted to talk about how I handled it emotionally, as well as how I talked to my family about it. I don’t know why because it’s certainly not my usual role, but I ended up a bit of a counsellor to him about loss, grieving, fighting in whatever way you were allowed, and holding on to hope that things were going to get better. Gadiel’s dad survived, and still does, but I think Gadiel found the change in his father painful to accept.
In spring 2016, he was visiting Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and started asking me who I thought might be good to see. We got to chatting at that point about what I was up to, and I said I was likely leaving Brentford and Midtjylland soon and trying to figure out what was next. He told me his dad’s condition, and having to be back in Chicago to help him recover, sidelined a new hedge fund venture he had started, and maybe it was something we should talk about, since he needed help.
I came on board as an advisor, and we worked together almost literally every day for the last 18 months. He was just as sharp as ever, but along with the brain these days came a bit more tact and insight into the human condition. Our sporting interests now crossed over completely, and we talked about eventually producing NBA radars using advanced stats across positions, much in the same way as I had produced the soccer ones years earlier. His true passion was the NBA, so watching the Bulls completely shit the bed with their free agent moves the last two summers was a shared pain.
He’d also grown into a huge foodie, and we’d compare and contrast experiences at various restaurants around the world. The last time I saw him, we had literally one of the best meals either of us had ever eaten at Azurimendi outside Bilbao.
He was still unfiltered though, both in his communication and his requests for feedback. The brutal honesty was there, but most of the meanness was gone, especially for people inside the circle of friends. He also listened, but sometimes to a fault, reading too much into nothing statements from people around him. Generally though, I found the honesty of our communication refreshing. It was a far cry from guarded corporate communications or English life, and even further from the often passive aggressive positivity of the football world.
The email from his father announcing Gadiel’s death felt initially like a hoax, and part of me wants to believe this is an Andy Kaufmannesque stunt instead of a new reality where my friend is gone. I still have the messages from him this weekend talking about his read for a business deal on the table and what the counter offer should look like. He was also annoyed that he hadn’t gathered all the possible cash he could and bet it on Mayweather against McGregor. Professional gamers gonna game, and he was one of the very very best.
He was also a frustrating, often lazy genius, but someone I watched grow up, and who came to me for advice in a crushing time of need. To be honest, right now I desperately wish he was around so that I could do the same.
Rest in peace, my friend. You are gone far too soon, but I’m glad you got to see the Cubs win before you died. And I’m glad you got those extra years with your dad. I know they were hard, but I hope you managed to enjoy them all the same.
If there’s a next life, I hope your Tinder game brings you as much joy as it did in this one. Maybe you’ll get a chance to take over the Bulls – it’s clear they desperately need someone like you for guidance.
As much as I’ll miss you, I know your parents will even more. Children should never, ever pass before their parents, and especially not when they are loved as much as you.