Yoyo Store founder Jan Kordovský on the ups and downs of the Czech yoyo scene

Jan Kordovský, photo: archive of Jan Kordovský

Fidget spinners may be all the rage right now but if your hands are free maybe it’s time for a bigger challenge, something requiring skill and dedication. The yoyo. The pastime has grown significantly in popularity in the Czech Republic since the early days (that is, around the year 2000) and a man who knows a thing or two about that is Jan Kordovský (aka. Korda) a former national champ and owner of Yoyo Store in Prague.

Jan Kordovský,  photo: archive of Jan Kordovský
I met up with Korda this week at his store to discuss the history of the hobby as well as his yoyo business. In the second half, he shows me a couple tricks.

“The history of yo-yoing goes back to the 1930s in the United States; in the Czech Republic the pastime really only caught on after 2000. So our community has not been around that long but on the European level it’s fairly big.”

I read that a small group of people were instrumental in bringing over modern yoyos to the Czech Republic at first.

“That’s right. The first five years of the Czech scene it was maybe 50 people in all who knew about modern yoyos and what you can do with them. The big boom came around 2010 when it became more popular. Basically, the history of the yoyo, whether is here or there, in the US, is that there have been periods when it has been extremely popular and then there is a lull. It goes up and down, like the yoyo itself.”

How do you explain the ups and downs?

“I think that each generation of kids re-discovers yoyos for themselves. There is a need to play with something mechanical and, today especially, something that is not digital. The yoyo is a great way of making social connections with peers, classmates or others. Every single person, once they pass a certain beginner point, can come up with certain tricks. They go home after school and try to learn or invent new tricks and the next day at school they show their friends who learn it from them and they learn it exponentially. The bigger your social group, the faster you learn.”

Nowadays you can post something right away or show it in real time…

“YoYo Store began as a website run from home. Then, demand increased and I had no more room for storage and had to open a proper shop.”

“Exactly. When I started in 2003, there were two or three sites you could visit where you could see pictures showing how to do tricks, some quite technical. These days there are tutorials on youtube, with footage slowed down, so that kids can learn how it’s done. Myself, I prefer the older sites, but the kids, this is how they learn and through footage, different angles and so on, they learn much faster. The whole process is sped up.”

Are there any rules? I read that there are five different styles – do you have to follow a certain orthodox approach or does anything go?

“You have to learn some basics first: to tie the yoyo to your finger so that it doesn’t fly off and you break it. Then you learn a trick called the sleeper: that means throwing it and it begins to spin at the end of the string…”

And it comes back.

“That is the only trick that everyone needs to know. After that, you can start learning any way you want.”

I imagine that many children or teens never make it even over that first hump: many of us had yoyos as kids but we never really learned how to use them properly.

“Yeah, one of the most common noises in the store is this: the sound of the yoyo hitting the ground. Basically, kids throwing the yoyo and it lands on the ground and doesn’t work. And they give up. That is one of the biggest issues with yoyos is a high learning curve: you have to gain a certain proficiency, to be patient, and you have to want to learn it. If you just want to try it, it is quite difficult to start.”

Photo: archive of Jan Kordovský
How old were you when you first got into it?

“It was in 2003, when I was 12 or 13. I learned that those first yoyo fans who brought them here were meeting at a park so I went in secret, took the metro all the way across town to attend. There were around 15 people, standing around, trying different stuff. They were friendly and tried tricks and I got to know them. They were nerds – you kind of have to be a nerd to appreciate yoyos as a technical item – and something clicked and I kept coming back. That led all the way to hosting the world competition in 2014.”

What was the first yoyo you tried?

“It was a Duncan Profire which is no longer made. It doesn’t have a ballbearing in the middle but a transaxle and it didn’t work that well. But it was enough for a 13-year-old. You can learn stuff and you gradually grow into it and build muscle memory to do tricks and figure out how it works.”

It must be quite satisfying, as anything which requires practice or study or patience – anything from music to skateboarding – when you have been practicing something or inventing something new, to finally nail it and get it right. Ehen you know you’ve done it!

“Yes, no question. That is definitely one of the most rewarding aspects. As a teenager, I spent hours and hours to learn, sometimes going to bed at 5 am two or three nights in a row, and when you learn something or get it right it, that’s perfect.”

Yoyos have been a large part of your life and in it is also your business: you launched your Yoyo Store here in Prague and it caught on…

“We started the business in 2009 and the website in 2010, so it has been seven years. There weren’t many places you could get quality yoyos in the Czech Republic so we said, Let’s do it.”

“If you want to learn how to be a good player, listen to the pros: buy a quality beginner yoyo for your first tricks.”

So it was a website before it was a stone-and-mortar shop…

“Yes. Basically it was out of my home at first but items began to pile up so soon I needed a place to store everything so we found a spot where there was both room for storage and a front room which could act as a store. It was reasonably-priced, people started coming in to my surprise, it grew and grew and eventually we had to move again to a larger place and a more central location.”

That sounds like the ideal way of launching a business like this one: to begin as a website. You learn that the demand is there and then you move into a bigger place.

“I am not complaining! It is also such a nerdy and niche hobby that big businesses don’t understand it. There were large retail attempts to corner the market but they failed because they didn’t understand it. You need to talk and listen to your customers and to explain what it is all about. This is kind of a safe haven for us: we know the trade, we know our customers, sell quality yoyos, and there is no hostile competition. That is cool.”

If you are a kid or teen interested in the hobby, does it make sense to invest in a more expensive, high quality, yoyo?

“If you are starting out and want to be as good as the yoyo you bought, buying an expensive yoyo is the worst thing you could do. It will not work for you and you will end up breaking it within five minutes. We sell quality beginner yoyos and it is good to start with something that has been recommended. A good starter yoyo will last you the year it takes to learn all the tricks you can do with it. Listen to the professionals with basic plastic yoyos we have tried over the years and we know that work.”

Photo: archive of Jan Kordovský
What about collecting? Is that an aspect of yo-yoing as well?

“It is. That is a massive thing. But at this point you would have to have an enormous collection to be considered a collector. I have about 300 and I am definitely not a collector. I keep them in a box somewhere, not [in a display case] on the wall.”

What plays a role in choosing a yoyo to add?

“Now we are getting into the ‘nerd’ sector… IT’s just when you throw it you like how it behaves. Others have a story behind them and some are just used by players I like, so I got one and so on.”

I get it. When I was in my 20s I was heavily into mountain biking and I went through many different bikes and each one had its own character or soul. Each brought something unique to the table.

“That’s it. Of course, normal people consider that crazy, but so what. There are different aspects to it and luckily I can do what I want.”

I can only wrap this up by asking you to show me a couple tricks – we are radio, so people won’t be able to see them, although they can look up similar tricks online…

“Sound is interesting: there was a time when yoyos weren’t so big and they had a broadcast in the US where they asked listeners to name the yoyo and model. I didn’t want to admit that I listened to it. If you know your stuff, you can guess the make and name just from the sound.”

Listeners will be able to hear a couple tricks from you now…

“So I have thrown the yoyo and you can hear a particular whiny sound that drives parents crazy.”

For someone with no yoyo experience, it looks amazing already. What are some of the moves you are showing me?

“That was what is called a front-style combo including a Mach 5, boingy boing and other tricks that don’t even have a name. Tricks which everyone knows include rocking the baby…”

“There are booms in the hobby and lulls: but every generation of kids re-discovers yoyos for themselves.”

Oh yes or walking the dog…

“That’s right. And listen to this: this trick, a gyroscopic flop, which results in a very distinct noise, when you make the yoyo rotate on a different axis.”

We should mention that the store has evenings which anyone interested in yo-yoing can attend…

“That’s right. We are here for everyone, so if you are interested in yo-yoing and getting involved, look us up.”