The 2nd Czech Kendama Open
12. 11. 2011
"I can move the CKO to Zlin and I will." So said the message I received from Mirek when I told him that I would not be able to attend his carefully handmade event if it remained a part of the delayed Prague Juggling Marathon on November 18th.
I thought that the last-minute delay to the PJM had totally scuppered my chances of visiting the Czech Republic, being reunited with Mirek and playing kendama among friends old and new. But Mirek has powers, scary powers. And so after a journey by car, bus, ferry, bus, plane, another plane, bus and train, I was able to shake hands with him in Zlin, new home of the 2nd Czech Kendama Open.
For my entire sojourn in Zlin (one week), I was Mirek’s honoured guest and that is exactly how I felt, for his hospitality was delightfully limitless. I would like to extend to him my sincerest thanks for that. Naturally I was ridiculously, comically tired after my travels, so we did very little on that first day. Most of the rest of the time, however, was devoted to sightseeing, eating and, naturally, a hell of a lot of clicking. We trained, played and traded tips and tricks; all the very best elements of kendama.
In the days before the competition, we were joined by two local clickers: Marek and Filip, then later by Pavel, who made the journey from Italy. After Pavel came David and Peter, who’d traveled from Holland and Germany respectively.
For the day itself, Mirek had anticipated that perhaps ten people would show up. In fact it was thirteen, plus one or two spectators. The venue was a small gym near Mirek’s home, a small gym that swiftly proved to be ideal in size and facility. There was plenty of room for everyone to warm up, play and socialize. The atmosphere, while a little excited in anticipation of the events to come, was relaxed and easy.
The bird contest
Mirek welcomed everyone and announced that it was time for the games to begin. First up was the bird contest. Each participant had five attempts at each of the Bird tricks Mirek had set up: bird, small cup bird, bird and in, small cup bird and in and bird fly over the valley. Since this was more of a game and not strictly a part of the championship, Mirek himself was permitted to enter. It was really thanks to Mirek that I made any headway in the bird competition. I had shown him how staggeringly bad I was at bird tricks, but he’d helped me through it in the days leading up to the competition. My technique looks a little odd to most players, but it works best for me. I’m not saying that I won the competition; I didn’t, but I was happy to get past the first trick. It was small cup bird and in that tripped me up. Local clicker Adam made a few mistakes, but nonetheless made his way through the list with enough skill to earn himself 3rd place. Pavel had trouble landing bird over the valley, but on his fourth attempt the ball fell from small cup to ken with a satisfying click: 2nd place to Pavel. It was Mirek’s breathtaking performance that really stole the show: he sailed through the list, missing small cup bird only once and landing everything else first time. Mirek was and is the bird-man: 1st place to our host and organiser.
Ah, the classic game. Someone lands a trick, then everyone else has to emulate. If you miss three times, you get a letter. If you miss enough times and spell out the word kendama, you’re out. It was during this game that some new talent presented itself. Players Radek and Adam (also local) displayed some skill and threw out a few tricks that drew impressed gasps and whistles from everyone around. A few groans could also be heard when people realized that almost every time it reached Radek’s turn, most of the other players would find themselves another letter closer to becoming a spectator. I do not know how he kept his talent quiet for so long.
One by one people found themselves defeated by lighthouse tricks, around the cosmos, birds plus a few for which no one had a name. It was quite an epic battle and eventually only four people remained: Radek, Mirek, Pavel and me. It was another of Radek’s insane combo tricks that impelled both Pavel and me to sit down. I pointed out that I tend to spell kendama with seven Ms, but no one bought it. Worth a try. And so it came down to just Mirek and Radek. They were quite evenly matched, but in the end Mirek found himself faced with a trick he simply could not do. When his last attempt failed, a generous round of applause rose from the watching crowd and the two competitors shook hands. A dazzling victory for Radek, who had only earned the letters K-E by the end.
The beginner’s competition was modest in scale, but no less interesting for that. Four kendama newcomers (Livia, Kristina, Honza and Anicka) assumed a line in front of the seated Mirek, who would announce the trick that was to be performed and take notes on the results. The trick ladder was small, but well sculpted: challenging for the players involved, but not so arduous as to seem more like work than play.
Each had their newfound skills put to the test as they performed the trick ladder. It was the dreaded airplane (the final trick in the ladder) that put Livia out of the competition. The other players successfully completed the ladder, with Honza taking second place, closely followed by Anicka. With the fewest mistakes, Kristina assumed the title of beginner’s champion and was warmly applauded, as were the efforts of all participants. One of the greatest things about kendama is the spirit of friendship and encouragement that players, whether they are beginners or advanced, receive. Who knows what new skills those players will bring to the next event? I look forward to finding out.
Nine people wished to enter the advanced competition and so Mirek divided all the entrants into three groups of three. Names were drawn at random from a hat. The first group consisted of Peter, Radek and me. None of us had any difficulties with the first few tricks. We all worked our way through small cup, candle, orbit, tap back, spike and big cup to small cup without incident. It was when we reached thumb trap that tension began to rise. I had had terrible difficulty with this relatively simple trick and thought it would be the one to knock me out of the competition. It wasn’t. I landed it on my second attempt. Peter made it on his first. To everyone’s surprise, it was a trick that Radek just couldn’t do when he needed to. It took him out of the competition much sooner than anyone expected. The next trick was airplane, which again Peter landed first time. I narrowly avoided defeat by landing it the third time. It was the reverse swing-in that bested me. That left Peter standing alone as Mirek announced each trick he had to perform. One by one, Peter got them right. There were two scary moments: the first was when it seemed that faster than gravity would bring an end to his round, but on the third and final attempt, he got it; the second was his now legendary lighthouse. On the first attempt, he was compelled to chase the trick around the room in an effort to keep it alive. Several times he brought it under control and Mirek would begin counting, but every time Mirek said “One,” it seemed to prompt the stick to go off balance, forcing Peter to continue his pursuit. Eventually, that first attempt ended in failure, but the second did not. Peter finished the rest of the ladder without great difficulty and was cheered for his supreme effort.
Next up were David, Lucia and Marek. Without difficulty, they worked their way through the first five tricks on the ladder. It was the unusual trick of big cup to small cup that proved too much for David and Lucia, leaving only Marek. He worked his way up to lighthouse, having only struggled with faster than gravity until then. But it was lighthouse itself that put Marek out of the competition.
The third and last group consisted of Pavel, Filip and Adam. Thumb trap came close to eliminating Adam, but his third attempt was successful and he fought on with the others. Two tricks later, the reverse swing-in, put an end to Filip’s game. Pavel and Adam continued until the competitor-killing lighthouse took Adam out. It was the final trick in the ladder, the small cup bird, that saw Pavel shake his head in disappointment.
With the contest over, Mirek totaled up the scores. Although Marek and Adam had both reached lighthouse before being eliminated, it transpired that Marek had done so with the fewest errors, making him the highest-scoring Czech player and therefore the 2012 Czech kendama champion. Pavel, having reached the end of the trick ladder but not completing it, earned 2nd place. It took a few minutes for it to dawn on Peter that as the only person to complete the entire ladder, he was the winner. It wasn’t really until the medal was hanging around his neck and the Emperor kendama was in his hands that he dared accept what had happened.
Almost all competitors
It was during the celebratory dinner that evening that we all had time to contemplate how the day had been. The 2nd Czech Kendama Open was modest in its scale, but hugely successful. I know I am not the only one who has nothing but fond memories of my time in the Czech Republic. I raise my mug of tea as a salute to Mirek, who made it all happen.