She Who Turned Her Love of “Harry Potter” into the Not-to-Be-Missed Event of the Year

Tomorrow, Saturday, August 15, will herald the third annual Chi-Wizard Tournament, a Harry Potter-themed pub crawl established five years ago in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, under the creative tutelage of Elyse Hertko.

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I am a giant Harry Potter fan – obviously, since I write for the site – but while I merely partook in movie marathons and friend-to-friend discussions about the books, Elyse took her love for the books to the next level: She decided to celebrate the release of Deathly Hallows – Part 1 with an appropriately themed pub crawl just between friends. However, thanks to Facebook, that crawl soon grew and turned into a phenomenon.

Elyse and I went to college together. We never really crossed paths until something awesome happened my junior year of college: the first legitimate Harry Potter-themed pub crawl I attended/knew existed. It coincided with the advent of the seventh movie, which definitely helped bring out all the HP fans from the woodwork, but man, it was incredible. The entire campus turned out for the event. I finally understood what a physical, tangible Potter community looked like.

Five years after the OG crawl, I was able to grab an interview with her, using my MuggleNet staff cred to my advantage. We Skyped for two hours, the 15-hour time difference not putting a damper on anything except for my wanting to reach through the screen and snag one of the macarons she, her boyfriend Marty, and her best friend Tricia were snacking on. She now lives in Sydney – a city whose drinking culture is quite different than the shameless, exhaustive, enthusiastic one that permeates America (or is that just Chicago?) – having fallen in love with the place (and a boy) during study abroad years back. Originally a business analyst at News Corp, she’s currently one at Penguin Random House. The one and a half years she’s lived in Sydney have already lent a slight Australian accent to her Chicago one. (Additionally, her boyfriend is just darling.)

Elyse and Tricia – a special education teacher who also attended the University of Illinois – bonded over the series in sixth and seventh grade. Elyse’s penchant for forming collectives around Harry Potter, and taking the leadership role in any venture, actually started way before she majored in business in undergrad. “I had a secret Harry Potter society in seventh grade!” Elyse grinned. “I made business cards and everything for people who identified as ‘closet nerds.’” She had a shrine to the character and the series, read MuggleNet like a beast, waited in the never-ending line for the book release of Half-Blood Prince, and met the band members of Harry and the Potters.

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They had originally intended the pub crawl to be a tiny one, just something fun between their groups of friends, in anticipation of the seventh movie. “We actually almost cancelled the crawl,” Tricia admitted. “No one seemed to be able to participate.” However, both Elyse and Tricia were adamant about standing up for what they believed in – and definitely, as college juniors, they were a bit wary at people’s reception to the extent of their fannishness – and boom: the minute Facebook events got wind of it, the pub crawl blew to enormous size. Hundreds of people RSVP-ed, so many that they were taken completely aback.

Elyse acknowledged that the first year was definitely the trial year. Unprepared for the flow of people, Elyse’s manila envelope and spreadsheet weren’t able to keep up with the snaking line outside the Union. Police got involved, people were kicked out – but then an awesome Gamestop manager, who was a crawl participant, helped move the whole setup to the store, just down the street. The days after that, they took shelter at the campus’s indie coffee shop, Espresso Royale. “I sent the biggest man I knew to take the money to the bank,” she laughed; she didn’t want to take any chances. The campus newspaper, the Daily Illini, even wrote a piece on her, the pub crawl, and the insurgent Harry Potter fan community on campus. Many obstacles cropped up that first year: the original T-shirt company that was supposed to make shirts bailed, as did the building that was supposed to hand out shirts to the 1,500 pub crawl attendees. In addition, because of the sudden influx in interest, Elyse explained, “I wasn’t able to make the shirt as cool as I wanted. There wasn’t enough time,” she sighed. (This was a staggering discovery because I still proudly wear my first-year pub crawl shirt to this day. I love the damn thing.)

“But now that there’s so much more interest, I have a lot more fun, and I can be more creative,” she said. And indeed, after gauging the massive interest and turnout from the first two years, she decided to turn the pub crawl into something that resembled more of a competition, slipping in some riddles and rhymes. (Elyse’s House is Ravenclaw, and for good reason.) Fast forward to June of 2013. The pub crawl had made its way to Chicago and got the moniker Chi-Wizard Tournament, as it grew up and found its way up to the big leagues. Elyse was able to turn the whole thing into an actual tournament, with Houses and a Snitch to be won. Reception to the crawl was huge. (“Hufflepuff won that year!” fellow House member Tricia recalled, which shocked no one more than Elyse and Tricia. “Hufflepuff’s probability was low, but the winning guy was a crazy chugger, which helped [them] win,” Elyse nodded.)

Thanks to word of mouth and fantastic turnout the past handful of years, Elyse has pull over Chicago bars. They make themed shots and sell them at a discounted rate to anyone who has a pub crawl wristband on because they know they’ll see a huge traffic jam of people ready to get their butterbeer on. (Which, by the way, is one of the specialty shots to be on the menu, alongside the Golden Snitch.)

Each year was a learning experience. “We have different types of people who come to the crawl,” Elyse said. “Some of them don’t drink, so I wanted to have other options there for them. That’s when I came up with the trivia part.” This allowed non-drinkers or designated drivers to partake in the fun as well; they can focus on the game and ignore the drinking part of the crawl, should they choose to. Elyse is a huge fan of brainstorming new rules and new games, so she has no qualms about drawing up new ones every single year. “I play board games all the time. Half the fun – half the game is arguing over the rules!” She doesn’t try to make these rules complicated, just hard enough that it’s not too easy to win the House Cup.

The August 2015 tournament marks a slight change from years prior. The shirts this year are baseball-styled (and they’re adorable. I’ve already started sleeping in my Hufflepuff shirt) to emphasize the competition aspect of the crawl. It’s completely Quidditch-themed, with a Chicago-style twist *cough* WRIGLEY! *cough* They were delivered to each person’s house, effectively eliminating the overwhelming craze that was handing out T-shirts every year. A small group of very early attendees have been grouped together into Dumbledore’s Army, and they will oversee that the rules and riddles of the crawl are followed. Additionally, both Elyse and Tricia are across the world now, down under in Australia, so unfortunately, neither of them will be making appearances tomorrow. They’ve been slowly working on turning this annual event into an independent, self-sustaining machine; now that it has stable legs to stand on, Elyse is eager to see the event continue with just as much abandon and enthusiasm as it has in the past.

Check out the Facebook event for this year’s Chi-Wizard Tournament, and if possible, join the fun!

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