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Early Days - "On the Road"

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  • Early Days - "On the Road"

    I never actually went on the road, so the title is just me being facetious.

    When I was a pre-teen or so my parents bought a pop-up camper. The kind that you crank down while in transit. We took it to Wolf's Den Campground (in Knox, PA) one summer for a couple weeks or so the first year we had it. They had these huge water slides on the top of this hill and a pool area by the arcade. Ah, the arcade...

    To this day my favorite arcade game is called "Truxxon". That was the original name for it, but I think it got renamed to Raiden. This was the game that always had the quarters lined up to the point where you didn't bother trying to get in line. Better off to just come back in the morning when the demand was less. Anyway, it was one of those spaceship shooter games where you beat the hell out of the Fire button and avoid asteroids and enemy fighter ships, and there was always a boss at the end of each level. In between levels, there was a little video of your spaceship landing, refueling, restocking ammo or bombs, but mostly it was to let the stinging of your fingers subside for a minute before the next pounding of that Fire button.

    There was one kid who was incredible at this game. He was the "house pro" who played it like he was Minnesota Fats playing straights, with an entourage and nut-huggers and fans to go along with the analogy. I can actually picture a crowd of kids gathering around watching him play and cheering between levels, just like the movies portray arcades back in the day.

    One of the days that kid (who was maybe 14 or 15, several years older than I was) walks in with his girlfriend. Cute brunette who smiled at me while standing behind him, so he couldn't see it. If only I was better at avoiding those asteroids, maybe I'd impress her. This must be the reason I always dated older women. Anyway, all joking aside, he was really something and was just as proud as he was talented. He was like Vincent the Kid at Stalker. But it turned out I wasn't playing arcade games this day. That's right, this arcade had a coin operated pool table, and they walked in while I was in the middle of a game and had several more quarters in my pocket.

    So we played. It was early in the day so the usual teenage "railbirds" were still at the pool or basketball court. There was no attendant or worker at the arcade so it was just me and him. And her, of course.

    Things were just not as easy for him in this particular game of skill. He was so good at eye hand coordination when it came to two-dimensional video games, but he wasn't very impressive with three-dimensional objects. The first game went very quick, so we started another. I made balls fairy easily and he actually told me to quit. Quit what? Making balls? No chance! He gave me another warning and I just laughed, since I didn't know what else to do. She even laughed. That's when we made eye contact and she smiled, and I smiled, and then he punched me right in the nose.

    "Down goes Frazier!"
    Last edited by youngstownkid; 01-03-2017, 09:42 PM.

  • #2
    Early Days - "On the Road"

    The first tournament I ever played in was at a pool hall which was about 25 minutes from home. It was probably the first or second time I was ever in a pool hall. I didn't know anyone except the owner, Mike, who I met once when he came to my house to re-felt my table. He had told me about tournaments that they run on weekends so I decided to come up and try my luck.

    The tables were not Gold Crowns but they all were better than the table I had at home so I didn't know any better to notice, and certainly wasn't qualified to be a snob about the equipment.

    I definitely wasn't comfortable being there though. Everybody there was older than me. In fact, most were retirement age. And if you can imagine the type of people usually find in a pool hall they weren't overly friendly to the new dumb kid that decided to walk in. Now, I was far from lacking intelligence, but when it came to "street smarts" I was as green as they get. And while I was involved in sports my entire life and was involved in several baseball and basketball tournaments, this was different. I never dealt with the money side of things, like paying my own entry fee, or playing for money, and I didn't even know that there were auctions.

    I don't remember any details of the tournament except it was 9 ball, and that it was handicapped. Mike, the owner, had explained what handicaps were when he first told me about the tourneys weeks ago. However, the guy running it said they weren't going to let me play at the lowest level since nobody knew me. I don't remember what the handicap started or ended or what the range was. But I was very intimidated by it all. Then when he followed that up with telling me that I was required to buy myself for $10 in the auction I was like well never mind I'll just leave and go back home. My Spidey senses were more than just tingling, they were telling me to run away. I felt stupid for not knowing what was going on and I just wanted to leave at this point. I wasn't in the place for 20 minutes and I was already embarrassed and self-conscious about being clueless, and it had nothing to do with what I thought tourneys were all about, but the deal breaker was that I only had enough money for the entry fee. Mike got into an argument with someone about the way the whole thing went down. It was his place and maybe he didn't want to see some new blood leave and never come back. Mike caught me at the door and said not to worry I would be fine and that he really wanted me to stay and play. Before I got out the door they convinced me to come back and they said that they would let it go and I wouldn't even have to worry about the player auction, since Mike would put up the $10 for the first bid. This didn't even matter to me, I just wanted out of there, but somehow he convinced me to stay.

    I don't remember who I played first, next, etc, only who knocked me out. The reason I remember was he threw a fit after i made an early nine ball right out of the gate. The 9 ball wasn't hanging but was maybe 8" from the corner. There were two balls near the spot (one of which was the lowest number ball on the table), and the cue ball was on the the other side. The two balls were laying in a way where there was no combination. It was a lucky shot of course, and a dumb shot to even shoot if you knew anything about playing safe, but I was a long way from thinking defensively, literally years away. Being this was my first tourney and I barely knew what was going on, it was perfectly natural for me to do something stupid. I shot the lowest ball pretty full and firm which cleared the path for the cue ball to follow forward just missing a rebounding ball and hitting the 9 ball just right. I'm up 1-0 playing against a guy who won the Akron Open about 15 years prior, while I was literally still making stains in cloth diapers.

    Reality set in and that was as close to winning that match as I was going to get. Before I stopped grinning from that early nine ball, I was a goner. However, I did just well enough to cash! I went to the counter and Mike handed me $40 dollars. To make a long story short, he ended up giving me a deal on one of the cues that he was selling. I ended up handing him back all my winnings in exchange for a new Mali cue.

    I was so proud to take it home and show my dad. It had a blue-stained Birdseye maple butt with an Irish linen wrap. And it had a tip on it that never came off accidentally in all the time I used it.
    Last edited by youngstownkid; 01-04-2017, 02:27 PM.


    • #3
      Early Days - "On the Road"

      The first tourney that I remember visiting regularly was a handicapped 9 ball tourney on Thursday nights in downtime Sharon, PA at a place called Blackie's Billiards. There was a little bar on the side of the same building, called The Side Pocket Cafe, which I wasn't allowed in since I was under 21. This was when I was early in college, I think, since I just can't imagine being allowed to do such a filthy thing in high school, lol. (That's not to say the place was filthy, I just meant that I had very strict parents.) Actually, I don't know when I would have had time for it, since I never had a break from sports no matter what season it was.

      At the time, I didn't pay attention to what kind of tables they had. Looking back on it, I wouldn't have been able to remember the details of such a complex answer anyway. They had some of this, some of that. A few were Kasson, but I want to say they weren't the same models. The tables were not fast like today, but they were faster than I was used to, especially on Table 1. This was the table next to the bathroom. They bathroom could probably be best described in a separate journal entry, but let's just say I wasn't impressed. Table 1 was close to the corner of the room where there was a little window to the kitchen of the Side Pocket Cafe. There was a counter with some bar stools for the folks who would watch the matches. Since Table 1 was the best playing table, the matches with the better players would usually be there. I tended to frequent tables 2 through 10.

      There were a few folding chairs near the wall by table 1. One of them I can still picture a very large, usually sleeping, fat man (sorry but he was fat) who I only knew as Fat Jack. Fat Jack was not allowed to sleep lying down, but rather, he was instructed, I assume by a doctor, or maybe his wife, to sleep in a chair. I honestly don't remember seeing him awake, but I was told he could play decent.

      There were some characters in this place, and there were some very, very good players. Jack Palmer, aka Jackie Combo, was the house pro. He was medium height, and skinny. He voice creaked when he talked, from smoking a dozens chumps a day. He could play. I don't remember ever winning a game off Jack. He was as seasoned as one of the french fries served at the window of the Side Pocket Cafe, with a similar build. I remember him telling me once "If you have to think about it for more than 10 seconds just play a safe, kid."

      There was a guy who back then I thought was a cement mason, but I'm not sure if he actually was. He would make a ball from anywhere on the table, hitting it like he was trying to split the clay balls in half, never playing shape, never needing to, either. Then he would absolutely crush your damn hand afterwards if you dared to shake his after he sent you packing. Straightest damn shooter I may have ever met. I always thought he was a really mean bad ass, but over the years I got to know him and he's a really nice guy, who would do anything for a friend.

      Another younger, not exactly pretty, fellow is worth mentioning. He was the first person that I ever saw execute a soft break. I remember asking him about it, and he refused to show me anything at all, saying I wouldn't be able to do it anyway. At the time, I guess he was right, but I sure thought it was rude. I was not used to such brutal honesty from strangers. Brutal isn't the word for it, maybe hostile, if that adjective is possible to execute from a 100 pound body, soaking wet, even with bad teeth.

      Then there was Tom Purich, who would always practice by himself. Tom told me he would practice every day until he ran at least one century in straight pool. Some days it would take him all day, other just an hour or two to get the first. This may be the most impressive thing I had ever heard of, both at the time or since. He was always soft spoken, but he sure was a bad man with a pool stick in his hand. Tom is still playing pool, winning pool tournaments, but his practicing days are in the past. To this day, I have never been able to get him to come to the house and play.

      There was a guy there who was big and tall and not very talkative. I don't want to say he was unfriendly, so let's just say his circle of friends was small, and I was not in it. He would break the balls so hard on table 1 that the cue ball would come straight up in the air and hit the light, and I swear the light on table 1 was far higher than the rest of the lights on the other tables, likely because of him. I remember beating him in a race once after coming through the losers bracket when I was a 3 and he was an 11. I recall him yelling at me for setting my cue down on the table while aiming a shot. I also have a fond recollection of sitting in one of the chairs (normally occupied by Fat Jack) next to my then-girlfriend, who I was paying far more attention to than him at that moment in time) and being yelled at for moving my cue stick in his line of sight. A friend had to settle him down because he was a less than happy camper. I remember he said "Relax, ____, this is just a Disneyland tournament." I swear he was determined to three foul me 11 times in a row in the finals. This proved to be more difficult than he thought, due to my uncanny ability to curve the cue ball. After pocketing his first 9 ball, i don't know what game it was, he gave up, or he was convinced to stop trying to 3 foul me by his friend. (Why it was acceptable for him to have an emotional coach didn't occur to me at the time, since I was preoccupied with the extremely difficult task of making as many good hits as possible.) He would have to settle for a shutout. He was very talented, even more determined, and would one day be ranked high in the world, even if it were just briefly. There was nothing he wanted more than to become a professional. He has lightened up a lot since back then and is still a force. He still hates losing more than anyone I have ever met, but luckily for him, it's an extremely rare occurrence. I'd like to think that someday I can fit in that small circle, or at least step on the line from time to time.
      Last edited by youngstownkid; 01-06-2017, 08:01 PM.


      • #4
        Early Days - "On the Road"

        During my 4 years commuting to Youngstown State, I met a lot of people thru playing pool at The Pub. When I first walked in and saw the 4 tables in a lowered section of the room, a perfect amphitheater, it seemed like a perfect setting, but there was just never any action or anything worth watching. In all the time I went there I only played one game of pool for money, if a $5 bet qualifies. There just wasn't a single good player there. Oh, and we were all broke college students. I heard stories of a kid a few years earlier who was really good, but he had graduated and moved on. I did make a few friends, one that eventually got me started playing in APA leagues. But my most significant acquaintance and eventual friendship came from what was mostly a chance encounter.

        I would usually go to different places for lunch depending on the day of the week since my schedule took me to different building on Mondays and Wednesdays compared to Tuesdays and Thursdays. There were a few places near the south end of campus, but the north end was the food court area. I made it a habit at first to peak my head into The Pub to check out if there were any players worth approaching, but as any sane person would do when met with constant negative reinforcement, I began looking less and less. After a while, the only reason I would enter The Pub would be if I were meeting friends to play Euchre, since I preferred Arby's Beef and Cheddars over anything on the menu at The Pub. There would be an occasion comedian performing on stage, which just wasn't a good idea during the day. College kids have to be the absolute worst audience for a performer, since everyone is trying to hard to be cool to allow themselves to enjoy a performance from some older person who, by being older, is automatically not cool enough to even listen to. Usually.

        One day, on my way to Arby's I noticed an unusual gathering by the entrance to The Pub. As soon as I got thru the door, I was shocked to see the huge crowd was gathered around the area where the lowered section was. Did the replace the tables with a stage, and finally do a wet T shirt contest? Maybe a big name comedian? As I worked my way through the crowd I saw the pool tables were, in fact, still in place. The only other good (now I'm using that adjective loosely, after all "it's all relative") player was already there, recognized me, and called me over. He was playing an older gentleman who was wearing a suit and tie. I learned that the older gentleman had walked in, loudly announced that he was the best player in the room, and stated with great enthusiasm that if anyone could beat him, he would give them a $100 bill. If he won, no debt would be owed. I don't know how long ago this started, only that so far he hadn't lost a single game.

        So after my friend had lost, it my was turn. I don't remember how many were on the waiting list, but the gentleman was becoming more and more of a show, and had requested the best player in the room to step up and play him. The few frequent players had pointed my way, of course, since pool players usually learn each other pretty quickly if they frequent the same room often.

        So I grabbed a cue from the rack, and the gentleman said "Hold on, there. What are you doing? You can't win playing with one of those! Come here. You can use this." He reaches into his rather large leather cue case, and pulls out a nice looking cue, and starts screwing it together for me. He made sure everyone within earshot heard him, too! So obviously, anybody who can talk like this in a crowd is going to clean my clock! I don't mind getting beat, but I'm not sure what to make of this guy. Is he trying to embarrass me, or is there a candid camera nearby? Why the show?

        After he handed me the cue he said, "I'd let you use this cue," holding up the one he was using, "but it's rather expensive." Then I took a closer look at the cue he was referring to. I had never seen one like it before. He mentioned the name, which I didn't even understand, let alone recognize - not that I would, as I had only ever owned one cue at that point in my life. Then he whispered how much that it was worth, and I took my eyes off it immediately and looked him in the eye. I didn't know it was possible to make a cue worth that much. Anyway, he said I could break, so I set his cue aside and start heading towards the rack of house cues. "Alright, now what are you doing?" I explained that I was going to get a house cue to break with. "You can use the one I gave you. It wouldn't be much of a cue if you couldn't break with it, right?" He always talked loud enough to everyone could hear him, but i could tell he wasn't out to embarrass me. He was just unlike anyone that I've ever met, as he possessed a level of showmanship that I'd only seen in a circus or large carnival, like a Medieval Faire. At least if he was talking in Olde English I would have known what I was getting myself into.

        So I broke the balls, but didn't make anything. "All bust, no balls." He said, partially smirking, as if he'd said it a thousand times before, pretending to still find it funny, but saying it for the benefit of the crowd. He gets to the table, shoots something quickly and misses. "Oops, I missed." Now I get it. He just wants to see if I can run out. I ran a few balls, then found myself without a shot. I tried a difficult shot and missed. He gets to the table running several easy shots, then missed again. "Oops-I-did it again." He didn't have Britney Spear's looks nor moves, but everyone was enjoying the show. Everyone except me, of course, because I really wanted to beat this guy. However, despite his first few attempts at giving me chances, he decided against continuing the charade and proceeded to end the game his next turn.

        The man in the suit then announced that his name was Scott Lee, and that the university has brought him here to put on a demonstration, and that he would run a pool tournament the next day. He put on a great show, showed more trick shot than I can remember, discussed various pool related topics, hustlers, professionals, etc., and hung around afterwards for quite a while, even after most of the crowd had left.

        It was at this time, that one of the other players brought up my unusual stroke (mentioned in detail in a different journal entry). They wanted to know what he thought about it. He looked around, and saw that the crowd had completely disbanded, hesitated for a moment, and then gave his honest opinion. His opinion was that I definitely needed to change the way I shoot pool. He said I would never improve past a certain point unless I changed it. Nobody likes hearing they're doing something wrong, and I was no exception. He gave me some details as to why it would be much easier if I learned some fundamentals. He appealed to my general sports knowledge and experience regarding the importance of fundamentals, and it made some sense, I suppose. I had never met anyone who was so convincing, or was simply incapable of losing to me in an argument regarding this topic.

        The next day we had our pool tournament and to make a long story a little shorter, I missed an eight ball in the finals which cost me the tournament. Throughout the day, he continued to convince me that if I changed my stroke that I could be a lot more consistent. He obviously was better than me, so maybe he knew what he was talking about. I asked him more questions about his Traveling College of Billiard Knowledge, as he called it. He told me that he travelled all year to different colleges doing trick shot demos, and sometimes running tourneys. He gave lessons and played every chance he could get in between. I was instantly jealous of him, making a career out of pool! It was too bad that I was just a broke college student and couldn't afford lessons from him!

        My girlfriend came by and during the conversation he learned that I was studying Computer Science and that she was in Graphic Design and Marketing. He remarked how we were both interested in computer related jobs, and asked if we were able to make websites. We both laughed and said that's exactly what we could do, but that we haven't done anything like that yet. I didn't realize where this was going but to skip ahead a bit, we eventually agreed to make him his first website (and our first website "job" in exchange for a 4 hour pool lesson. He would drive to my parents house the next day and record the lesson so I could watch the video over and over and nothing would be forgotten. At the time, it was the only way I would have ever been able to get a lesson from someone like him. I absolutely couldn't wait!

        Last edited by youngstownkid; 01-09-2017, 01:25 AM.


        • #5
          Early Days - "On the Road"

          Tuesday night, I had Scott Lee, one of the top instructors in the country, give me a 6 hour lesson! He even stood until after 3am to complete it. Its been 15 years since my last lesson with him, and it shows. it's amazing how poor I am in certain areas.

          I recently spent a lot of time trying to improve (on my own), but until last night, I didn't realize what needed the most attention. Just goes to show you no matter how good you think you are, you might be able to improve in areas you didn't even know about. You can't fix what you can't see! I really wish I could have made time for a tuneup now and then over that period of time...