Hand Jobs

For most of us, twirling a yo-yo for eight hours would be the ultimate display of slacker behavior. Not so for Denver resident Jon Gates, a professional yo-yo player who earns his keep "walking the dog" around the world. "I travel around the planet," Gates says matter-of-factly, "playing with my yo-yo."

Since taking up the yo-yo (which was invented by early residents of the Philippines; its name translates to "come-come") ten years ago, Gates has paid the bills by performing in competitions, entertaining at various events and demonstrating products for various yo-yo makers--"anywhere they need a yo-yo man," says Gates, who claims to have competed in more global yo-yo showdowns than anyone on earth. His deep trick bag includes a six-minute sleeper (a move in which a yo-yo spins in place at the end of a slack string), which placed him thirteenth in a recent international contest.

Gates also works as a motivational speaker for youth groups, preaching a message that centers on daring to live one's dreams. "When I was a kid," he says, "I had a teacher tell me, 'You're not going to be able to play for a living, so you'd better start studying.' And I thought, play for a living? That's a good idea."

After seeing Tommy Smothers twirl a Duncan Imperial on his short-lived return to television in the 1980s, Gates, 27, chose the yo-yo as the tool for fulfilling his dream. According to Gates, Smothers had a similar effect on most of today's string-slingers, whose enthusiasm and limit-shattering approaches have fueled the current yo-yo boom. "He was the spark behind most of the demonstrators who are working right now," Gates says. "Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, nobody bothered to promote yo-yos, and there wasn't much of anything going on. And if you want a bunch of yo-yo players, you've got to teach them how to use it."

That's what Gates will be doing this Sunday at the Rocky Mountain Yo-Yo Championships, the first of a number of off-season events he's helping present along the Front Range this summer. Local yo-yoists, Gates points out, have advantages over their lower-altitude peers. "Denver is a great place to yo-yo," he notes, "because there's very little humidity. Humidity makes the string tighten up on your finger, so you can yo-yo for a lot longer here." He says he has no evidence that his extreme yo-yo methods (which include advanced string-riding displays and two-handed twirling feats) are any easier at this high elevation, but he does admit one thing: "I have a friend who has picked up so many ladies with his yo-yo," he reveals.

Challengers at the upcoming all-ages and all-skill-levels competition (which also features performances by another local pro, John Higby, and 1996 World Champion Dale Myrberg) won't be expecting similar rewards, but they're guaranteed shots at a variety of prizes. Winnings include any of the new high-tech toys, some of which feature automatic clutches, ball-bearing mechanisms and other whiz-bang gadgetry. At the very least, all comers will take home a cache of strings just for entering. This may be the most important trophy of all. "The more strings you wear out," Gates notes, "the better yo-yo player you are."

--Marty Jones

Rocky Mountain Yo-Yo Championships, Sunday, June 6, 11 a.m. at the Wizard's Chest, 230 Fillmore Street, Cherry Creek North. Admission is free; 303-321-4304.

 
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