I played competitive pool for three decades. The first five years were hard work, but that was probably the most fun time. I often practiced ten or more hours each day, and every day was full of new discoveries and accomplishments. Eventually I attained a level where I play competitively in local weekly and monthly tournaments. After some seasoning and years of experience I was able to test my ability against top players. I did that whenever I could. I was lucky that Tempe was the home of some world-class players and a frequent stop for road players.
Pool was a challenge because it required conquering a weakness, much like baseball had been in my youth. I could apply my passion to over-achieve in an effort to become competent at a skill I was unsuited for, and then see how far I could get. I ultimately got a lot further than I ever imagined. But the real achievements were in learning the game and the art of competing and winning under difficult circumstances.
Some of my pool accomplishments include:
- I reached a “9” rating in AZ (explained below)
- I once got into the top ten of a state championship tournament due largely to a favorable draw. Realistically, I might have made a case that I was in the top 100 active players in the state at one point.
- I once won 9 straight weekly tournaments
- I placed third in a year-long series of tournaments to determine the top “8”
- I ran and promoted tournaments
- I was an especially dedicated student of the game
For years I played tournaments every day. For many of those I played as an “8” (see below) and advanced to the top of that level. I was able to win consistently in the most frequent nightly tournaments, and to play competitively in the less frequent open tournaments. Tournaments were mostly for cash, $10-$20 entry to win $50 to $200. I had a lot of second place finishes. Second place earned good money but it avoided the attention that would lead to getting bumped up to the next handicap and make it a lot harder to win.
The Arizona Rating System
Arizona has a very healthy rating system. Tens of thousands of players are ranked relative to one another and most tournaments use ratings to handicap matches. It was originally a 1-10 rating, but in reality the lowest player might be a 4 or a 5. The highest players were originally 10s. But the scale evolved. Today there are “10 minus 1s” and “10 minus 2s”. Think of a 10-1 as a low pro player and 10-2 as a high pro player. A 10 is therefore a top local player with extraordinary skills and a consistent ability to win.
At my pinnacle I achieved a state rating of “9”. That’s a solid rating, but it requires some explanation. A “9” might be described as a top player with all the skills and knowledge of the game plus a solid record in tournaments. A nine-rated player can beat any player on a given day, but may not have the consistency to win many “open” tournaments that feature the very best players.
I was initially very happy to have been a good “7”. That’s the level that most “good” players get to, those who play leagues every day for years and are considered very good by their peers. A good “7” can run a few racks of 9-ball and run lots of racks of 8-ball on a bar table. I was thrilled when I could enter a tournament and have a chance to win. An “8” is generally a very serious player who has competed with top players and has been dedicated to becoming a serious player. An “8” has very good position play and judgement. Being a top “8” was an elite accomplishment and led to a lot of recognition. “9” was another step up. If I was ever rated a ten, it would have meant that the rating system had gotten soft 🙂 So 9 was the right peak for me.
Pool is largely centered around gambling, matching up against another player for money. It’s called gambling, not hustling or sharking, those are just TV words that you don’t find real players using. But real players do stake money on games, almost always. It’s a big part of the culture of the game.
I was never a big gambler because I cared more about the challenge and competition. And I didn’t like what money brought out in some people. And I wanted to quit when I felt like quitting. When you’re gambling there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t quit when you’re ahead, especially against a better player. So if you were gambling, you might be bullied into playing all night or having to lose intentionally just to break free.
But my greatest love was to match up against a great player and that usually required making a money game. So I would use my tournament winnings to challenge much better players, including an occasional pro or even a world champion. I’d usually lose, but not always. And I could often find a way to win by luring them into a game that I was more comfortable with. I always seemed to rise to the occasion against a better opponent. Lesser players might think I just barely beat them every time. But better players would usually think I was a tough competitor. That impression always haunted me. Lesser players tended to think I was much better than I let on, as if I was gaming them or holding back, while better players might have thought I was just lacking a little consistency to be far better.
Gambling was almost always handicapped. Every player knew the abilities of every other player with reasonable accuracy. The rating system worked well despite that it was the constant subject of complaints. It was almost universal for a lesser player to demand a game handicap of some sort to play a better player. For example when an “8” played a “7”, they might play 5 games to 4. In nine ball, the weight might be a wild ball. All methods were used to even out the game. But I preferred to play “even” as far as the game goes, and to lay odds on the winnings. So I’d play Scott Frost for example a straight race to 5 games, he could win only $50 but I could win $250. That way, if I beat him I knew I deserved it. It was a little harder for good players to judge the proper weight. There was also more pressure on them. If a lesser player beat them with a handicap, no one would notice. But to lose straight up and lose money to a lesser player was an actual defeat. If I rose to the challenge of beating a great player, I wanted it to count and not be so easily dismissed as a fluke. I would have played even on the money as well but I quickly learned that I’d go broke if I did that.
I can drop a few names and some brief stories. These are a few of the players who had an influence on me or contributed to my interest in the game.
Glenn was a top Arizona player, a ten-minus-one. He played many national tournaments and could compete with anyone, an awesome talent and a good guy. He was always around and willing to play anyone under any circumstances. When I was a high “8” and playing well I took him on, race to five games of nine ball for $5. I won 5-3! That was a great thrill. I earned it by winning the final three games playing strong. I still have the $5 bill. It’s not actually a big deal to win one race to five against a player of any caliber, but this match was a big confidence-builder and one of the first times I beat a player of that ability without some big mistake on their part. Glenn was an instructor as well, and one worth paying attention to! He has a video that’s hard to find but it’s one of the few I’d recommend. You can also find him on YouTube.
I believe Scott is the best pool player in the world. A lot of great players would agree. A more conventional pick for the best player ever might be Efren Reyes, and Scott might even agree with that. But Scott has beaten Efren many times when big money was at stake, including a decisive win for $50,000 in Tucson in 2016, a three day match in which Scott won 30-17.
When Scott moved to town he was already a great player, well known for being almost unbeatable at one-pocket, the hardest game. The photo above is of him winning the Derby City Classic in 2002.
When Scott was new in town he played the Kolbys open tournament every Monday rated as a 10-2. The tournament was nine ball, race to handicap minus one game. So a “10” would play an “8” 9 games to 7. A 10-2 is essentially a 12, but instead of making the race 11 games to 7, the handicap is applied to the other player to keep the matches to a reasonable number of games (that’s why they use “10 minus 2” instead of “12”). Therefore when I was an “8” and played Scott in these tournaments, I had to win only 5 games before he won 10. Despite all the top players giving it their all, and up against the handicap, Scott never lost a match in his first 11 weeks. I played in every one and survived to play Scott only a few times, but that was the reason I was there. On the 12th week, I beat him in the semifinals! To my knowledge it was his first tournament loss in Arizona! He was having an off day and I had a few breaks, but it was still a great thrill. Of course no one believes that story when I tell it, but I stand by it.
I gambled a lot with Scott. His ability was amazing to watch and no one was more sporting. He would give me any weight I asked for and he’d still win. Of course I almost always lost, but the occasional victory was well worth it all.
A memorable ring game: The best thing about playing at Kolbys was flip-up Scotch ring games. For only $5 a game you could end up teammates with a player like Scott Frost or any pro passing through town. A teammate protecting their $5 would give you advice and coaching for free that they’d never sell to you at any price! And Scott’s was always the most valuable to me. But it took thick skin. It wasn’t pleasant being the cause of a loss for a player who was not at all ok with losing! Late one night the then #6 rated MPBA player Rob Saez was in town. I stayed late when the pool hall closed and only Rob, Scott, and Jeff Thomas and I were left. We played a ring game until morning. It was me (an 8), Scott (maybe the best player in the world), and Jeff (who was every bit as talented as Rob). No matter how the coin flip came out I was paired up with a GREAT player, and of course my team was a huge underdog. It was an amazing night and I didn’t mind losing $50 or so. I didn’t even mind the situation… all three were great competitors and took pride in being able to win regardless of who they were teamed up with. What really stood out though was something I noticed between Rob and Scott. Rob was the most consistent player that night as one would expect. But what really struck me was his deference to Scott. He was learning from Scott, and was very eager to get Scott’s advice. It was partly that Rob was such a humble guy and always willing to learn, but it was more. Like so many great players, he recognized that Scott was something special even to guys on that level. Scott could do things no one else could. I’d say Rob was a blue collar player, one who had fought tooth and nail to get where he was. He was talented as heck, but he was as intrigued by Scott as I was. I think Rob would agree to that, and so would any great player you could name. That was the moment I really knew where Scott stood.
Dennis was a good competitor and a friend. When he moved to town he was rated an “8” at first, the same rating as me at the time. I was often in the finals in those days, but Dennis was always in the finals. And it wasn’t long before Dennis got very hard to beat. He was soon bumped to a 9, then a 10, then few years later to a 10-1. I couldn’t keep up. He was a great competitor, a solid talent, and intimidated by no one.
There were two things I thought were unusual about Dennis, beyond his ability. One was his approach to the game. He approached it like an athlete with discipline and focus. Every shot was important and there was no show boating. He also had very solid character. He never got a big head and he treated everyone well, whatever their ability or their status in the pecking order. If you had to pick someone to play a match for your life, Dennis would be a good choice. And the same goes if you just needed someone in your corner when things were getting out of control.
We went to Reno once to play in the Reno open. I played my best practicing. Honestly I think I beat Dennis 9 games of 10 in the practice room, means nothing but a nice memory. But I was eliminated early from the tournament and Dennis did a lot better. He could play at that level and he’d go on to win a lot of big tournaments.
Bernie moved to Arizona from England where he was an accomplished snooker player. He took to pool very well and was the most gentlemanly presence at Kolbys for years. He was also the hardest working player I ever saw and maybe the smartest. He went on to do well in some big national tournaments. I recall him in the top ten one year of the US Open. I played Bernie a lot, and almost always lost.
I have one special memory I can thank Bernie for. At one point I learned I should play him at 8-ball. I was very comfortable with that game and he was not. So for a short time I could dominate him at 8-ball! What’s amazing about that is how great he was and how easily he should have dominated me. Bernie could place the cue ball with incredible precision. It made him a dominating straight pool player and remarkable at one pocket. But 8-ball bugged him a bit because he didn’t like playing the more approximate position it favored. If you play 8-ball like straight pool, attempting pinpoint position, then when you roll over your spot by just an inch or two you can get in a lot of trouble. So if Bernie played perfect he could kill me. But it only took one mistake early in the rack and I could finish the rack easily. I think that put a lot of pressure on him. It was too easy a game to him because a player like me could take advantage of any opening to win. But it was too hard a game on a tight regulation table because position had to be perfect. I don’t want to sound as if he didn’t know what he was doing. He did. It was just a matter of a comfortable style. Smart 8-ball play requires that you play the odds and give yourself a lot of options in case you’re a bit off of your position. It’s not a natural way to play when you’re a great straight pool player and a snooker player. Well, in a couple months I’d never beat him again at 8-ball, but it was fun while it lasted.
Angel was special in many ways. She was raised in a pool hall. I remember when she was a teenager and beating a lot of the men. She had a really rough upbringing for a lot of reasons. It made her strong in some ways. We played on a similar level up until she reached the pros, but she had this ability to raise her game up many levels in top tournaments. In weekly tournaments she’d play like some of the better men. She’d win plenty in that environment, but that wasn’t the environment where she excelled.
A strange thing about pool is that the top men can beat all the top women with only rare exceptions. It’s not about strength, just watch Angel break! In general, the top women in the world are “9”s and “10”s as opposed to the men who are “10-2″s. Last I recall angel was a “9” yet was once ranked in the top ten on the women’s tour. But the women can be much tougher competitors and command as much respect as the men when they reach a national level. Try gambling with Vivian! Still some of the men don’t watch the women play at their top level. They should.
I was fortunate to see Angel play against pros like Vivian Villareal and Jeanette Lee in gambling and in WPBA tournaments. I first saw it late one night when the women pros were in town for a tournament. Angel matched up in a money game with one of the top players (I forgot who it was but I knew her from ESPN) and they played all night at Kolbys. I had nothing to do and I wanted to see her opponent play. But Angel played awesome and crushed her! It was side of Angel that I hadn’t seen. There is a class of very long hard shots that have to be made with a lot of stroke that players on my level really struggle with, but seem effortless for pro-level players. When Angel played the top women she made those shots as comfortably as the top men. That impressed me.
But when I played her in weekly tournaments and was on my game, I expected to win, and once in a while I did 🙂 If I knocked Angel out of a tournament, I felt humble and undeserving, and that was a rare feeling for me, reserved maybe for a pro having an off day. It was because I had seen her play many times at a level I could never even sniff. I never experienced that disparity with any other players. I don’t know what to make of it. I think it says something strong about Angel. Pool players use words like heart to express that kind of thing with an almost religious reverence. I don’t buy into the woo woo, but there’s something real there. It might be that she developed more ability than she had natural talent for. Maybe it’s just something I can’t understand about players who started very young. I give up. But it’s selfishly fun to watch someone you feel you can play competitively with rise to another level and squash players you could never beat.