A trip to the Cigar Smoking World Championship confirms that competition, regardless of the discipline and the contestants, remains just a state of mind.
The smoke machine seemed redundant.
This was the Cigar Smoking World Championship. There was already a lot of smoke.
But there it was, next to the laser lights and the rattling sound system, pluming white fog around a subterranean hotel ballroom in which people in tuxedos and evening gowns representing more than 40 countries had gathered to find out who among them could smoke a cigar the slowest.
The noise, the pageantry, the glittery prizes valued at tens of thousands of dollars — for Marko Bilic, a garrulous local cigar lounge owner, it was a far cry from the genesis of the event 10 years ago, when 17 people came by to try a game he had just made up.
When the most recent edition was held, in the last week of August, there were close to 250 attendees, many of whom had competed in one of the 34 qualification events held around the world this year.
"The best smokers in the world are here tonight," Bilic declared after all the rules were recited and the ceremonial first cigar was cut. "Let's see what they can do."
The smokers lit their matches. The room fell silent. This was their one chance to apply fire to their cigars. The clock counted up from zero, and for the next several hours, the competitors sat there, staring at their embers, quietly watching them burn.
I first heard about the Cigar Smoking World Championship three years ago, around the time that I began my current assignment as The New York Times' international sports correspondent. It sounded then like something to avoid: contrived whimsy, quirk for quirk's sake, un serious and unimportant.
Over the next couple of years, though, as I reported articles from 21 countries, I felt my perspective change. The competitions I attended — motorcycle racing, darts, soccer, chess, cycling, basketball and whatever else — started to feel more alike than different. Athletes, whether they were skating in an Olympic rink in Norway or on a frozen lake in Austria, told me the same things about their motivations and desires. The bonds inside these communities, however different, felt equally strong, from the Swamp Soccer World Cup to the actual World Cup.
My assignment overseas will come to an end next month. As I get ready to return to New York, I feel as if I've achieved a deeper understanding of sports at their essence, of the heart of why people everywhere gather to compete.
And so, in that spirit, I decided to go watch a cigar smoking contest.
Slow and steady
Humans are naturally competitive. That's what Igor Kovacic, who holds the slow cigar smoking world record (3 hours 52 minutes 55 seconds), was explaining to me a few minutes before the competition began. I had found him pacing in a hallway with his headphones on, listening to Rage Against the Machine at full volume.
"I need to get angry, and then I put it into the competition," he said. "I almost don't like myself when I compete. I look like I'm going to kill somebody. I'm not that kind of guy."
Kovacic broke down the event for me. There is luck involved, to be sure. The cigar you pick or even where you sit in a room makes a difference. But there is room for skill, strategy and instinct, too. One has to read the way a cigar burns, to interpret the heat emanating from its skin, to measure the weight on each puff.
People train seriously for this.
"Athletics like running or weight lifting are the only sports where people are truly competing against physical limits," Bilic said. "But for sports like football, cricket, there are rules created by humans, and in the framework of these rules, people try to be the best. It's the same in cigar smoking."
Kovacic, 48, an infrastructure project manager from Gothenburg, Sweden, snatched the world record earlier this year from Darren Cioffi, an American who has held it eight times. Their heated rivalry constituted the main competitive storyline of the weekend.
"They're like Magic and Bird," said Alex Lerian, a competitor from New York who wore earplugs to help him focus.
I met Cioffi the night before the event on a hotel terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The waterfront felt serene, but he confessed he was finding it "hard to be chill." The contest was weighing on him. He wanted to have fun. He was among friends. But there were a lot of people, he said, who would be happy to see him lose.
A cigar brand owner from Nashville, Tennessee, Cioffi first entered the championship in 2014 "because it sounded wacky." He ended up winning it. He attributed his skill (besides simply knowing his way around a cigar) to his "really good up-close vision," which he honed through a side gig as an antique paper dealer. He pointed to my notebook and told me he could tell me how many pages it had.
"Like, I just happen to be able to do this," he said, sounding almost weary. "Part of me wishes that I could never have done it, and that way I could just be here having fun."
There are people like Cioffi all around sports: reluctant stars, torn between feeling responsible for sharing a cosmic gift — in Cioffi's case, being able to smoke a cigar really, really slowly — and wanting a simpler life.
Amid all this tension, though, Kovacic and Cioffi insisted they were friends. And to be fair, the feeling of community in Split seemed just as important as the competitive spirit. Sportsmanship was repeatedly held up as a virtue.
One competitor, Guy Pardillos, a 49-year-old professional magician from Nice, France, implied that, if he desired, he could use his magic to undermine the contest and claim the shimmery prize package: a watch, a lighter, a knife, a case of 500 cigars, a ring, all of them one of a kind and each worth several thousand dollars.
"But no," said Pardillos, who was wearing one white shoe and one black shoe. "If you compete, do it fairly. There's no glory if you cheat."
A world champion
Cigars were all over the place, of course. They were the main competitive apparatus. They were among the prizes. They were appetisers, side dishes and desserts at the post match dinner.
There were victory cigars. There were defeat cigars.
Once underway, the contest inspired a creative grab bag of smoking styles. Competitors cradled the embers inside their fingers, like fireflies. They lifted the cigars above their heads, perpendicular to the ground, and touched them to their lips, as if they were sucking ice cream from the broken point of a cone.
Cioffi assumed his own signature competitive pose — sitting sideways in his chair, elbow propped on his knee, cigar inches from his face, the Thinker in a black tuxedo — and barely moved for hours.
An editor from Cigar Journal, which began covering the event a few years ago and now regularly runs contest recaps, was nearby absorbing the action.
In an early surprise, Hauke Walter, 52, the champion last year, tumbled out around the half-hour mark. A manager at a shoe retailer in Neuwied, Germany, Walter had been training once a week, hitting 3 1/2 hours each time. Stunned by his failure on a stage he once ruled, he re lit the cigar and smoked it against the ballroom wall, staring into space.
The competition oozed into its fourth hour. Cioffi departed in fourth place, petering out after just over three hours. Kovacic's flame was extinguished well before that, at 2:27:23. Through it all, Bilic kept up his relentless commentary — "It's the final countdown! Every puff counts!" — as the remaining competitors' eyes grew red and watery.
In the end, it was Oleg Pedan, 29, a cigar lounge owner from St. Petersburg, Russia, who outlasted the field, smoking for 3:26:46. He looked like an exhausted boxer when Bilic lifted his left arm high into the air. The smoke machine shot a celebratory blast of smoke into the room.
"Oleg Pedan!" Bilic shouted. "The champion of the world!"
The statement, given the setting, given … everything, felt a bit absurd. And yet, I thought, Bilic was just employing the same nonsensical logic that, among other things, emboldened MLB to call its championship event the World Series.
It wasn't that serious. Perhaps the games we play shouldn't ever be.
Toasting the champions
The trophy celebration later that night featured two shirtless dancers pretending to fight with swords that were very much on fire.
"I really believe cigar smoking reflects our lives," Elena Tronina, who won the women's division in 2 hours 36 minutes, told me.
Despite training seriously with a group of slow smokers in Warsaw, Poland, Tronina could hardly believe she had won. Her victory that night, she said, had persuaded her to focus more fully on her painting, a passion that until now had been overshadowed by her office job.
"If you love what you are doing, then, as you can see, anything is possible," she said.
Later, I found Pedan and his wife, Anna, by the pool, where the competitors had gathered for a post-smoking Champagne reception.
A five-piece woodwind ensemble had appeared from behind a screen and was playing "We Are the Champions." A lot of people were singing along.
"I feel a little bit empty," Pedan said. "It's like exams in school: You prepare a long time, and then you're done, and you feel empty. I'm happy. But I don't totally understand what I've done."
Fireworks appeared in the sky above the beach. He squeezed his wife's hand and kissed her cheek.
Written by: Andrew Keh
Photographs by: Pete Kiehart
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES