Billiards

The Mosconi Cup Dilemma

I would like to offer some thoughts as to why the United States is not winning Mosconi Cups. There are many reasons of course and for one person to pretend to have all the answers would be presumptuous. Of course we can win again but how?

Actually, we might never win again. Does the game of Ping-Pong sound familiar? Ping-Pong was pretty much a British invention appropriated by the American Parker Brothers game manufacturer in the United States in the early 20th Century. By the middle of the last century we were world champions. I doubt if anybody really knows how or why Chairman Mao Zedong decided that Ping-Pong should become the national sport of Communist China but he did and that was THE END of American dominance in this particular sport. Today the United States has 9,000 registered table tennis players while China has 1.5 million. We ain’t never gonna win big in ping pong anymore. Never.

Although pool also has its origins in jolly England (“Lets to billiards” said Anthony to Cleopatra in one of Shakespeare’s plays circa 1550) it became the modern game here in the United States in the early part of the last century, especially during the Great Depression. With guys like Mosconi, Greenleaf, Crane, Lassiter and The Miz we were far and above the best in the world. However, it is possible that we won’t win again if Ping-Pong serves as an example of expropriation advantage.

First of all, as we search the myriad ineffables for our lackluster showing at recent MC matches, I would posit that the game is played quite differently in the UK and Europe than in the US, which could have some effect on where we are headed as a pool-playing nation. Here it is ALL about gambling. I do not know of a single top American player who does not gamble. The European player aspires to win tournaments while the American player aspires to win tens of thousands of dollars “on the road”. Of course Europeans gamble but I doubt as much as the Americans. I remember when Justin Bergman came through town about ten years ago after winning the world junior Nine Ball Championship and he had some fake name but Vince Frayne figured that out but Justin went on to beat Todd Marsh in a race to nine for five thousand dollars. It seems de rigueur for American players to “hit the road” once they have proven their mettle in their local milieu.

And of course there is 18 or 19 year-old Billy Thorpe coming up here a couple times to play John Schmitt for ten grand last year. The mythologies built around most of the great old timers are rife with accounts of guns, drugs, alcohol, fights and narrow escapes through small bathroom windows as these guys traveled around the country robbing local yokels out of hard-earned cash, hence the title of one of the most widely read pool books: The Bank Shot And Other Great Robberies, “robbery” being the key noun. These are not young men searching for nirvana or some transcendental peace of mind with a copy of Walden in their pack. I recommend watching Jimmy Mataya on YouTube instructing us on “how to hustle pool”. Every young pool player in America wants to be like the young “Pretty Boy Floyd”. C.J. Wiley even had a series of total BS stories in various pool magazines about all his “narrow escapes” after fleecing truck drivers, military personnel, construction workers and anybody foolish and drunk enough to play for a wad of Franklins. Gambling is in the DNA of American pool players and the discussion will probably go on forever whether this is a good thing or not but it is possible that it has something to do with the Mosconi Cup. Perhaps not much but we need to examine EVERY possible nuance if we are gonna get that trophy back on this side of the Atlantic.

For example, how many times have we all heard about how The Color of Money generated a revival of pool in America? A truly second-rate movie with Tom Cruise twirling his pool cue around like a baton made people want to play pool? WTF! I would suggest that this phenomenon alone accounts for the desultory level of pocket billiards in the United States because it illustrates all the wrong reasons why people play pool here. The movie is about a bunch of losers, guys who live to “play dumb”, use a pretty girlfriend as a distraction and set up suckers and gamble and even throw games for an even bigger heist later on. This is all total nonsense and has NOTHING to do with the serious pursuit of this exceptionally beautiful game. If memory serves me at all, I do not think there is one minute of conversation about the discipline, beauty, incredible hard work and technical difficulty of this otherwise amazing game in the entire movie. I think Newman does say something about the elegance of straight pool but that’s it.

The thing about gambling is that it engenders a lot of things that have almost nothing to do with tournament play. Take sharking for example; AKA, cheating. Once when I was driving Steve “The Lizard” Smith back to his lugubrious “weekly rates” motel room he said, “I can show you a thousand ways to shark a guy”. Why would I want to know how to cheat? Maybe that is why he never got past high school and lives in a fly-by-night motel. All the little BS stuff that goes into setting up a money game has nothing to do with tournament play. This is a unique feature of pool and I don’t think it is unrelated to Mosconi Cup preparation. “Weight”, for example. The ONLY reason there is such a thing as “weight” in pool is for the gambling. I am not a big money player so I could care less about “weight”, but all these top American players know the odds of 9-6 versus 10-7 or 12-6 or whatever in One Pocket. . .and then they get to London and suddenly there is no BS, no weight, no sharking; just pool.

Secondly, in the modern era, it must be acknowledged that the coach (and coaching) is hugely important. Do the names Lombardi, Hayes, Wooden, Gable, Belichick and Saban come to mind? John Wooden won TEN NCAA titles and the year after his retirement, the championship team he left behind did not even make it to the final four the next year. THAT says something about the importance of the coach if anything does. There is something ineffable about what a coach does but whatever it is, it is important. Some coaches are former stars like Lenny Wilkens and some, like Dick Motta hardly played the game at all but each brought something special to their coaching. Coaches are sort of like conductors. Once I asked a famous musician who he would rather hear: a stellar orchestra such as the New York Phil conducted by a mediocre conductor or a mediocre orchestra such as the Tacoma Symphony conducted by a great conductor and he said unhesitatingly, “Tacoma”. A great conductor can bring things out in each musician to make a beautiful, unified sound. Same with a great athletic coach, they get us to do things we might not have known we were capable of. I know that in my own (limited) athletic career, in high school and collegiate Division I wrestling I have had coaches at both ends of the spectrum. Even in an individual sport a coach can be hugely transformative.

Pool is unique among games/sports in that there are very few (highly renowned) coaches. Pool players, certainly not any professionals I have heard about, do not play for coaches like almost all other athletes including professional tennis players. Venus Williams and Rafael Nadal have coaches. As a matter of fact, EVERY elite tennis player has a coach. Once Tiger Woods spent an entire year with a coach to develop a new stroke. American pool players almost seem to eschew the notion of coaching. I heard that one year Thorsten Hohman spent an entire month, eight hours a day, training with his coach in Germany. I have never heard of an American player who went up to the Adirondacks for a month so he could spend eight hours a day training with a coach. There is an excellent article in the New Yorker (October 3, 2011) about a Yale Medical School surgeon who, at the peak of his career, got the idea that he might be able to get even better so he asked his old surgery professor to come in the operating room and observe and then discuss what could be done better. I recommended this article to several pool players and they were not the least bit interested. There isn’t an athlete or pool player on the planet who cannot get better; but we need guidance. Supposedly, Jerry Breiseth and Stan Shuffett help out a few pros now and then but I have never heard of a regular coach such as the tennis players have.

Needless to say, a player has to have absolute confidence in his/her coach. So I was surprised that Mark Wilson was not able to pull off a MC comeback. He is an excellent player himself and has been coaching now for several years at LIndenwood University so I fully expected that he, of all people, would be able to establish a rapport and build a strong team. So what happened? Sometimes it is just a matter of chemistry and no amount of skill on either part, player or coach, can result in victory. Plain old luck cannot be discounted altogether. And of course Jupiter has to be lined up with Saturn just right to make the balls drop in the right holes.

Thirdly, I think pool is learned/taught differently in the United States than abroad which has something to do with the Mosconi Cup. Here young men learn to play through a combination of auto didacticism and haphazard instruction; that is to say, we do not have ANY semblance of a national project in teaching/learning pool. Boys and girls have to learn to play pretty much on their own. As a country we care about as much for pool as we do for classical music, curling or cock fighting. Once in awhile a kid gets interested in learning how to play pool and perhaps he is lucky to have a friend with a table, or as we see in a few of our better players like young Landon Shuffett, Shane, Dennis Hatch and Max Eberle, they had family support from an early age. I do not pretend to know the pool histories of most players but I don’t think I am too far off the mark when I aver that many guys just learned on their own. I know for a fact that the best player where I live says he had no mentoring whatsoever.

So then, even if a kid does have talent where is he going to find an alcohol-free room where he can play all day? There is only ONE such room here in Seattle. There was a VERY promising kid named Chuck Holyoke in Seattle around the 05’s, taught largely by Dan Fitzsimons, but when the only “dry” room, Dr. Cues, closed, the kid suddenly had no legal place to play so he took up golf. Did anybody care? One day, when Chucky was about 14, I saw him take five hundred dollars off Jason Klatt. This was a kid who was clearly destined to be a top player and not a single organization stepped up to nurture him. As a matter of fact, the older players at Dr. Cues resented Chucky; felt he was uppity.

In wrestling, table tennis or judo a kid with that much talent would have ended up at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. I guess what I am getting at is a total lack of systematic instruction in the United States; almost NO top pros turning to instruction as a second career like we find in tennis and golf. For example, once Scott Frost was here in Seattle hoping to squeeze a few grand out of Harry Platis. For the better part of a week a lot of us would go up to Randy’s place to watch the action and then a few of us One Pocket duffers got together and asked Scott if he would give us a clinic before going back to Phoenix. NOT interested. As soon as he had fleeced Harry he was outta town faster than you can say, “Rack ‘em”.

I would like to mention another thing, which might play into this whole discussion: straight pool, AKA 14.1. Apparently, and I confess to a shortage of expertise in this, but apparently 14.1 is VERY popular in Europe. I have heard that there are 14.1 leagues all over the place with huge participation. Straight pool is an AMERICAN game for god’s sake. WE invented it and by god we used to be without peer; and now all these European guys are beating us in our own game, guys like Oliver Ortmann and Thorsten Hohmann winning world titles. EVERYBODY always says straight pool is THE best foundation for all other pool games. We stopped playing 14.1 because of gambling, pure and simple. Can the demise of straight pool in America have anything to do with our lackluster MC performance? Just a question as we all sit around the table trying to figure this thing out. One thing that is different about straight pool and Nine Ball here in the states is the ambience and attire. Straight pool tournaments are an exercise in elegance.

For some reason, American pool and beer are like peanut butter and jelly. I bought my table from a guy who said he gave up drinking so he “didn’t need his pool table any more”. I say what? If there is money involved I LOVE it when a guy says, “I always play better after a few beers”. Hey, buy this man another beer! Come on; would we really like it if our brain surgeon said, “I always operate better after a few beers”? Good pool is as delicate and demanding of ALL our faculties as brain surgery. As Bob Jewett corrected me about the advertising of alcohol in pool magazines, I would argue that a GREAT deal of pool in America is played in establishments that depend on alcohol for their bottom line. I have never heard of such a link between beer and any other sport. One of my best friends stopped playing pool because he couldn’t stand the noisy, raucous alcoholic environments in which most pool is played here in the United States. Pool is sort of like chess; an incredibly (infinitely) complex, difficult, beautiful game that should be played in sacred silence. At any chess tournament you can hear a pin drop. You can barely hear yourself talk at any BCA tournament.

This is not good for pool my friends. As an aside, I did try going to wrestling practice once in college after a couple pitchers of Coors and it was not good. I might have been a wee bit “looser” but certainly not smarter or stronger. Anybody who thinks they play pool better after a few beers needs to read about the effects of alcohol on various parts of the brain. It makes about as much sense as smoking cigarettes for a long distance runner. If alcohol really made one play better then I would expect every brain surgeon, diamond cutter and Swiss watchmaker to have a flask of Jack Daniels in his back pocket. I do not mean to totally discount the phenomenon that SOME people SEEM to play better pool after a few beers but I would strenuously argue that that is a psychological issue, which they would do themselves a favor by looking into.

Actually, very few top players drink, but the fact is that MOST competitive pool played in the United States is played in establishments where the main source of profit is from the sale of alcohol, not from renting out slabs of metamorphic rock with a few balls rolling around on top of worsted green cloth. 99% of BCA league games are in taverns or sports bars. I am not sure how this kind of pool is going to redound to more MC wins in the future.

Many of our top players, if not all of them, play a lot of pool, for a lot of money. Practically every week we read about So-And-So playing So-And-So for ten, fifty or a hundred thousand dollars! I happen to know two very fine pool players, guys who have gambled for many, many tens of thousands of dollars. Both of them are unfamiliar with the word “fun”. They never just play for fun. Playing pool “is work”. These are players just one rung below national caliber players, that is to say, on any given day they would beat anybody if their game was “on” and John’s, Shane’s, Justin’s or Thorsten’s game was off. I am talking about guys who play One Pocket for five and ten thousand dollars on a regular basis. I showed one of these guys my money belt (an actual belt that holds up my pants that I have been wearing for ten years) which holds about thirty hundreds folded lengthwise and he laughed and said, “Its not big enough”. Maybe the few thousand dollars they make playing for partypoker once a year is not enough incentive to get the Yanks truly excited.

I know another top player who has given up pool and sells cars now. I said, “Well, don’t you ever want to play just for fun, you know, a few games of eight ball with friends”? He said, absolutely not. Pool is work, not fun. He sounded like Don Schollander after wining a bunch of Olympic gold medals; never wanted to see a swimming pool again.

One day a couple years ago there was a young roadie in the room practicing between the limited “action” he was getting and I happened to be on the next table with my 11 year-old nephew. The next day I went alone to practice and the roadie said to me, “Why would you want to f . .k up your nephew by teaching him how to play this sh . tty game”? Can you imagine anybody saying such a thing about the violin, piano, tennis or golf? This was not the first time I have heard such a remark in relation to me and my nephew. Why are there people in the pool community who entertain such thoughts? How many times have we all heard that stupid cliché about a “mis-spent youth”? Pool is an infinitely engaging and exquisitely beautiful game. Why are people disparaging it? This question is not altogether unrelated to the Mosconi Cup.

I think that playing pool at “break-and-run” Eight Ball, Nine Ball or 50+ runs in 14.1 level is comparable to being able to play all the Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms piano sonatas in front of appreciative audiences in large metropolitan areas. I am talking about a skill that goes way beyond the putative 10,000 hours level. If Corey Deuel were a violinist he would be winning Grammys every year and booked everywhere from New York to London to Moscow. Most top violinists and pianists drop out of normal society at about the same age as top pool players (between the ages of 10 and 15). The big difference is that the violinist who starts thinking about Carnegie Hall when he is fourteen, has already been taking lessons for ten years and goes into a small soundproof room and plays arpeggios, scales, solfeggio’s and works on various pieces of classical music all by himself while guided by a professional teacher over-seeing the progress week by week and there is a clear path to a career; finish high school, go to Indiana, Julliard or Curtis, practice some more, audition for a seat in some orchestra and you’ve got it made.

The 14 year old pool prodigy, on the other hand, usually takes up residence in a local pool room where, if he is lucky, he gets mentored by a few of the local top players, who very likely are not necessarily good teachers and do not necessarily give good advice (the first and most important piece of advice should be “Get good grades and go to college”). Then, very likely he is told, as I was told by my first pool instructor, “You have to play for money Arthur if you want to be any good”. (What if the eight-year-old wrestler or pianist was told that he must only play for money?) How did these older good players learn? The same way, but worse because until the last twenty years pool knowledge was as secret as the combination to the safes at Los Alamos. It is much better today but still there is some of that old depression-era guarded attitude about technique and strategy (especially regarding One Pocket).

The music teacher, meanwhile, has learned through a disciplined system of pedagogy passed on generation after generation; this guy studied with So-and-so who studied with So-and-so who studied with Brahms etc. producing over the generations a series of virtuosi. Perhaps this is an analogy: American pool is like jazz and European pool is like classical music. It is only very recently that jazz has become a staple in university music programs. In the past one just found a Saxophone, hung out with some musicians in New Orleans or Harlem and hopefully, learned some technique. Classical music allows for very little improvisation and mischief and the early years are seldom described as fun. So it is ironic that in pool the early years are fun and later on it is “work” but in classical music the early years are work and the later years are fun.

For example, I know for a fact, that virtually all classical musicians have fun making music, even Glenn Gould. Look at Yo Yo Ma, arguably the most famous classical musician alive. He LOVES almost any kind of music and plays with Blue Grass, Metal, Country and folk ensembles. Same could be said of Itzhak Pearlman; it almost doesn’t matter what kind of music it is as long as it is music. He will enjoy participating even though his métier is Beethoven and Brahms. I grew up in a family of classical musicians and it seems as though every week people came over and after dinner played trios and quartets late into the night. My parents were professionals but many of the guests were doctors and professors who knew how to play the fiddle or cello and share the camaraderie of working through a Mozart quartet together. Professionalism should not preclude FUN.

My point is that guys who play only for the high stakes money games might not be suited for the long haul of tournament play. In fact, one of my friends, a very high stakes player eschews tournaments altogether for two reasons: one, he does not want to be “known” and lose the opportunity to sneak up on some high rolling sucker, and secondly, he says, “Why play all day for two days for two thousand dollars when I can make twice that much in one night of gambling”?

Perhaps it is worthwhile taking a look at snooker in England if that might offer any interesting clues. I do not pretend to know the ins and outs of English snooker but I have heard that it is highly regulated and NOT easy to get into the highest category of competition. One thing I do know is that Ronnie O’Sullivan is a multi-millionaire while Shane van Boening owns a duplex in the Dakotas. Snooker is a national pastime in England. I was in London once during the world championships and it seemed as though every “tele” was tuned to the snooker games. Ronnie O’Sullivan is a household name in England. If you were to query a hundred people on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan about a guy named Shane Van Boening they would think you were talking about some German WWII general or perhaps an abstract expressionist painter.

Snooker is highly governed in England. I heard that Corey Deuel once tried to get into the snooker scene and encountered some sort of obstacle. I love Corey and do not take this (rumor) as gospel but it is part of the conversation we are having right now: American pool versus English snooker (and, by extension English eight ball and American-style pool). One thing for sure is that you will not play a serious snooker match in England, or anywhere else for that matter, wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt. I can just hear the unflattering epithets and guffaws right now, “What an a-hole. What difference does it make what I wear as long as the balls find gravity”! Right, and how come Ronnie is driving a Ferrari and Earl is a houseman in Queens? And meanwhile, those guys are beating us.

My point is this: here in the United States, if you want to become a baseball player, wrestler or swimmer we have associations, schools, coaches and school programs that will guide you from the time you can walk all the way through college after which you can turn pro. We have long traditions of coaching providing the youngster with the latest technology, nutrition, weight training and coaching to get you to the top. England and several European countries have similar programs in snooker and pool. I put this question to a soccer buddy of mine; I mean, I was wondering which background would prove more victorious in World Cup competition, the sort of dirt field, back lot, helter-skelter, shithole country, up-by-your-own-bootstraps soccer like we find in undeveloped countries such as Haiti, Cameroon, Ghana and Brazil or the highly organized national training programs we see in England and Europe and he just said, “Well, look at the last several World Cups”. Europe. Discipline.

I am reminded of an interesting sports-coaching situation fifty years ago that might have some relevance to this discussion. The United States came to competitive skiing rather late. In the Fifties and Sixties it was all the Austrians and then the French (remember Jean Claude Killy?). In the Fifties and Sixties the University of Denver won 13 national ski championships under the supervision of a former German army ski racer named Willy Schaeffler. So of course, about 1970, the United States Olympic Committee figured that he would make a great national ski team coach. Willy had some VERY strict notions about skiing and he was no friend of “hot dogs”. The most singular feature of his coaching system was, like ALL great coaches, a firm belief in fundamentals and the first week of training every winter was for the whole team to go back to basics doing the same things every beginner does over and over. You would look up the mountain and see twenty guys slowly coming down the “bunny slope” back and forth in perfect unison with each other as they made long, balletic sweeping turns with the most elementary techniques. No high speeds, jumps or hot dog stuff for the whole week… and if you didn’t like it, auf wiedersehen!

We all thought Willy would make a great national team coach but it did not work out because American skiers were all loners and mavericks and not used to strict discipline and they rebelled at his rigorous (Germanic) coaching methods. What many people also did not realize was that Willy had won all those collegiate championships using many European (scholarship) skiers, especially from Norway, which had a strenuous national ski-training program. The top American skiers had all learned on their own, paid their own expenses, driven their own cars, slept on friend’s couches and done things their way (remember when the Olympics USED to be an amateur competition?). So when coach Schaeffler was in charge of a team of just American mavericks they rebelled at his old school, Teutonic coaching/teaching methods and the whole thing was a disaster. I can’t help but wonder if something like this happened with the US Mosconi team this year. I can’t quite picture some of our highly individualistic American road players doing Hohman/Appleton-type drills, eating prescribed low-fat meals, running laps and weight training.

I would love to know what Johan Ruisjink did specifically to prepare our players for this rather bizarre, boisterous competition. What a weird thing to be thrust into an MMA-like arena when one is accustomed to the “no talking, no booze and no BS” classic pool room atmosphere with Sam Cooke crooning softly in the background and the quiet click of phenolic spheres against each other and the distinctly pleasant plop as the eight ball finds gravity in the corner pocket of a 9 foot Gold Crown. There is no way a player could make that transition without some very serious psychological training. Speaking of strange psychological stuff going on. . .does Dennis Hatch usually throw his cue down after making a perfectly standard run-out. . .or is Matchroom Pool/Partypoker encouraging uncharacteristic behavior to excite the crowd? Something is fishy.

Did Ruisjink make them practice with stupid loud music blaring, lights flashing, a pretty girl racking while inebriated fans yell after every shot? Did he set up a facsimile arena with fake smoke, TV cameras and flashing lights? Was he actually able to get them to do all sorts of drills? I mean, how do you coach guys, some of whom are world champions?

I look forward to a thorough treatise from Mr. Ruisjink about how he used to coach the Europeans, and how he coached this past year’s American players. I do not say this with pejorative suspicion but for sheer curiosity and as a means toward getting a silver chalice with Mr. Mosconi’s name on it back on American soil.

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