The felt on Mark Wilson's pool tables is as flawless as the greens at Augusta National. Every afternoon, when the Billiard Bullpen slowly comes to life, Wilson places the balls into a machine that opens like a submarine hatch and spins them as shiny as supermarket apples. The pool hall is as immaculate as its owner's clean-shaven face. And the coffee, the hardest drink available, is as good as it gets, made with freshly roasted beans and purified water.
Pool, of course, doesn't conjure images of purified water. For many, the sport is dismissed as a blue-collar wasteland, replete with Busch longnecks and chain-smoking hustlers.
But at the Billiard Bullpen, the sport is serious business and Wilson's first love. "It's the greatest game in the world, and I'll argue with anybody about that," says the 50-year-old owner and pool pro. Baseball finishes a close second, and his pool hall in Collinsville, Illinois, is strewn with Red Birds memorabilia. A row of red-and-white bleachers divide the space, and the drop-ceilings suggest twentieth-century suburban basement.
Wilson is a pool purist, a tournament director and an occasional ESPN commentator. And he happens to be, say billiard aficionados, one of the nation's best instructors, counting among his students the celebrated women's pro Jeannette "The Black Widow" Lee.
Says Lee: "He has been a real role model in teaching professionals that instead of schooling people just by gambling with them, you can be an official instructor."
Two other prized students, Lars Vardaman and Justin Bergman, offer proof. Hailing from the metro east, they're considered among the best young players in the U.S. Last month Bergman, of Fairview, placed fifth in the Junior World 9-Ball Championships in Austria. In May Vardaman, a junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, won his second consecutive Billiard Congress of America (BCA) Collegiate 9-Ball Championship.
Andy Quinn, the 28-year-old owner of Teacher's Billiards in Fairview Heights, took the BCA Open 8-Ball title at Vegas. The twenty-year-old Chuck Raulston is the current Missouri 8-Ball champ. Edwardsville, Illinois-based women's pro Sarah Rousey -- currently ranked 22 on the WPBA tour -- is also a Mark Wilson protégé.
Wilson says the talent pool in the St. Louis area, particularly on the Illinois side of the river, is amazing: "It's unprecedented [to come] from one little location."
But does anyone really care?
"If I was playing golf and was this good, I'd be on ESPN, and I'd be making big-time money already and have sponsorships," laments Bergman. "In pool you don't really get nothing."
Lacking the respectability of tennis or golf, pool finds itself at a crossroads. Professional players can't survive on the meager tournament winnings (usually no more than a few thousand bucks), and most have to gamble to make up the difference, reinforcing the sport's seedy reputation. Poker's rise, too, has directly affected pool. Says Wilson: "It sucks money out of the pool-player economy."
"We're slow right now," concedes Terry Huellsman, owner of the Break pool room in Cahokia, Illinois. "In fact, this is as slow as I've ever seen it."
The number of pool players in the United States totaled 36.4 million in 2004, an 11 percent drop over the previous year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America.
The declining popularity is ruinous to rising stars like twenty-year-old Vardaman and eighteen-year-old Bergman, whose mastery simply goes unrecognized. Bergman, for one, is considered to be the Tiger Woods of the pool hall, routinely beating players three times his age.
"Justin will be on ESPN before he's old enough to drink," cracks Mark "The Shark" O'Brien of Ride the Rail Billiards in south county.
Although victories pad Bergman's wallet, they do little to help Wilson draw players to his pool room.
"Nowadays," he says, "if you don't have a special event, you won't have anybody at your place. It's a sad case, because when I had my first pool room, you didn't have to do anything on Friday or Saturday night. Those were the nights you'd actually do business without begging."
At noon on a recent Saturday, the sun pierces through the windows of the Break pool hall. The 62 pool players, cues in hand and sleep still in their eyes, cower like vampires whenever the door opens.
They're here to play in a 9-Ball tournament. At stake: a $2,500 purse. Competitions like this one take place nearly every weekend somewhere in the Midwest and are the bread-and-butter of a pro's earnings. Over the course of the next two days, the five dozen players will be winnowed down to two, with the victor taking home $1,300.
Located a mile south of Pop's nightclub on Route 3, the Break is home to the east side's best action. The Break is yin to the Billiard Bullpen's yang -- three times the size, with the weathered look of the classic pool hall.
Nine-Ball is played with a cue ball and nine object balls numbered one through nine. On each shot, the first ball the cue ball touches must be the lowest-numbered ball on the table. The balls need not be pocketed in order, as long as the low ball is touched first. If a player pockets any ball on a legal shot, he shoots again, and continues until he misses, commits a foul or wins the game by pocketing the 9-ball.
The tournament begins at lunchtime as a female bartender bellows, "Tom, your steak's ready!" Over the next 36 hours, pool players will eat their way through many rib eyes.
Lars Vardaman, a pharmacy student, wolfs one down before his first match of the tournament and races through the round on cruise control.
A thoughtful, quiet young man, Vardaman seems too innocent for the sport. But crouched before a rack, his Cardinals cap flipped backwards, he turns badass, and the world beyond the rectangle disappears. He's possessed with the expert eye, the perfect backswing, the thunderbolt break.
His best buddy Bergman isn't here today; he and traveling companion Chuck Raulston opted for a tournament in Memphis with a $12,000 purse.
Vardaman's second-round battle is with A.J. Clemens, a mustached pool whiz known as the Mountain Man.
As the two start the first game, an onlooker motions at the Mountain Man. "That dude playing over there," he observes, "we got suckered by him in Centralia. He came in and played under a different name."
"[Clemens] is obsessed with the CIA and shit," explains Break owner Terry Huellsman earlier in the night. "He'll appear and stay in a boarding house for a couple of months and then disappear."
Before the game begins, Vardaman admits his play is off-kilter. But with a face that betrays nothing, he roams the table, dropping the first six balls in order. Then he misses an easy cut on the seven. The Mountain Man sinks the last three balls in quick succession.
The perfect 9-Ball game contains few, if any, surprises. A seamless run of 9-Ball is characterized by graceful strokes that move the cue ball from point to point as if on a rail, and Vardaman breezes through the next two games as though there are magnets at the back of the pockets.
Vardaman wins the set -- a race to nine games -- handily.
As play progresses, the Break grows more crowded. And by midnight, with the smoke thick and the money changing hands, the place is roaring. The area's best shooters are here, bringing out the hundred-dollar-bill-dropping gamblers who place side bets on the action.
On this night the stakes are reasonably low. "They were only playing for $400 a game," says Vardaman, after he's eliminated. "I've seen it in here when they were playing for $5,000 a game, and sets for $10,000. Thirty-thousand, even, if you can imagine that kind of tension. The place was filled."
While Mary, Queen of Scots -- apparently quite the shark -- awaited her execution in 1587, she was permitted a billiard table in her cell. When it was removed, the outraged inmate wrote letters of protestation, to no avail.
Billiards is the umbrella term for the many variations of a sport that entails knocking balls around on a felt-covered slab of slate. Beginning as a lawn game nearly 1,000 years ago, it moved indoors and onto a table 600 years later, and by the mid-sixteenth century, it was a sport of royalty.
Exported to America by wealthy émigrés, by the early 1800s billiards had trickled down to all classes. It got an early boost in 1825, when President John Quincy Adams installed a table in the White House. Adams' detractors were outraged, calling him a morally bankrupt gambler who was sullying the prestige of the office.
American billiards reached its apex in the early twentieth century, when its most famous players were as well-known as Albert Pujols is today. Championship matches were covered like the World Series. Since then, the spectator aspect of the game has faded. Two films -- The Hustler in 1961 and its sequel, The Color of Money, in 1986 -- brought renewed attention, but it didn't last long.
The sport peaked again in the early 1990s, with well-heeled entrepreneurs investing in swank halls and enforcing strict dress codes. Though many of these enterprises still survive, their carpets are now spotted with cigarette burns, and blue jeans are the norm.
Pool might be behind the 8-ball nationally, but billiard tables are still selling well in St. Louis, says Kurt Schmidt, owner of the 150-year-old A.E. Schmidt Billiard Company. "As houses have gotten bigger, we find more people wanting to add pool tables to their recreation rooms than we did ten, fifteen years ago." Schmidt estimates his sales are up 30 percent in the past decade.
Mark Mueller, fourth-generation owner of Mueller's Pool and Billiard Table Company, isn't quite as bullish. "For a while table sales were going up and up," says Mueller, "but now it's kind of leveled off."
Chantel Davis, manager of Side Pockets Billiards in St. Charles, which describes itself as an "upscale" billiards room, says poker has killed the sport. "The pool leagues are the saving grace," says Davis. "The tournaments help. But since we're more of a restaurant and bar than a pool hall, our tables are full every Friday and Saturday night, and we have a waiting list."
Despite nearly nine million diehard pool players nationwide, the sport is woefully disorganized. Its annual championship, the U.S. Open, is covered on ESPN, but its paltry $40,000 winner's purse is but a fraction of Wimbledon or the World Series of Poker.
Another obstacle, muses Mark Wilson, is the players themselves. "A band of renegades," he calls them. "The only way you can get two of them to go in the same direction is if they agree to cut the third one's throat. Otherwise it's every man for himself."
This reputation, adds Wilson, has made the sport undesirable to sponsors, and without them, there's little chance of landing a national tour. And without a tour, there's virtually no exposure, meaning the average Joe will never get to know the players.
"It's hard for any professional sport to become very successful, to break into the big time without a successful men's tour," says Thomas E. Shaw, managing editor of Pool and Billiards Magazine.
Shaw says that the Women's Professional Billiard Association should be a model for the men. "A successful women's tour helps tremendously. It's almost saved the game, especially publicity-wise with the television exposure. But until there's a professional men's tour that people can aspire to, it's difficult to break into that big-time-sport thing.
"The women did things right," continues Shaw. "They schmoozed the sponsors, presented a good appearance, were charming, attractive, colorful and interesting. The men, meanwhile, fought among themselves, split into two groups, disbanded, reformed, and started from scratch. It's been that way for 40 years or more, and it's like that today."
The most high-profile advocate of the men's tour is the Billiard Congress of America, a trade association that has picked up the slack by sponsoring a few annual championships.
"You always get some fly-by-night guy," says Wilson. "Pool players have been hustled two or three times. We had a great tour, but we got screwed a few times. They'd have all these big billings, and then you'd have to run to the bank on Monday to make sure the check was good."
The men couldn't even keep Camel cigarettes as a sponsor. In the '90s, Camel invested in a tour and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing it. But the men complained that the marketing money should be used for bigger purses. After a few years dealing with ungrateful players -- a few of whom sued the cigarette maker -- Camel bowed out.
"Do you think Coca-Cola is going to sponsor us?" asks Wilson, "or Johnson's Baby Powder, if we can't even get the cigarette image? Do you think Johnson's Baby Powder wants to spend a dollar on a pool player? What would their advertising campaign be? A guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a syringe stuck in his arm?"
Mark Wilson never wanted to live like his neighbors in Moline, Illinois, most of whom work for John Deere. "All these guys went through their whole life living for retirement. They would work their whole life and they'd say, 'When I get to be 62, I'm going to ride a motorcycle to California.'
"In their mind, that was freedom. I just thought, 'Boy, I just can't do it.' I'd rather not be bored. So I gave up children, a structured family life, pension, retirement, new cars, new houses. But I've been happy, and I've been able to see the world."
Wilson is a clean-cut, affable man with a full head of gray hair and an infectious laugh. "You've got offense, defense and different aspects," he says of pool. "This has got so many different levels to it. The sport has a terrible image, but it's not the game. It's the people that have been around it.
"In baseball," Wilson continues, "if there's a late-inning situation and you have to bunt the guy over to second to try to get a run, you know that based on previous years that the probability produces the best result. Here, there so many close calls on things it takes longer for you to discern all the nuances of your selections."
A consistent swing is key to mastering the game, and to convey that lesson, Wilson explains: "The Stone Age hunter would teach kids just to pull the string back properly and with the right technique for as much as a year before they ever gave them an arrow." He lifts his arm and dangles it at the elbow like a breakdancer doing the robot: "It's all in the swing."
Pointing to the yellow one-ball near a corner pocket, Wilson maintains that most amateurs place too much emphasis on the balls. Shaking his stick like a spear, he adds, "This is what's in our hand: the pool cue. Until we get more command over this, we'll never exhibit control over those."
Wilson caught the billiard bug in Moline, and it followed him to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He dropped out with $2,000 in the bank -- and a great notion.
"I told my dad that I was going to take time away from college to play pool. He said, 'Nice going, son, now you're thinking. You dumbass! What are you doing?'"
In 1996 Wilson won the coveted Mosconi Cup in England -- where it's covered on prime-time TV -- as part of Team USA. "I was back home a week later in Moline, and a guy working for John Deere sees me and says, 'I saw you on TV. I was in Beijing, China, in a hotel room, scanning, and it was you.'"
The next year Wilson won the Hong Kong 9-Ball Challenge and ended up staying three months, learning about the thriving Asian billiard scene. When he returned, he landed in Collinsville. He and his wife, Cathy, opened up the Billiard Bullpen, and he started teaching pool.
"He's got so many tricks up his sleeve," says Jeanette Lee of her teacher.
If you've seen a poster of a hot Asian woman with a cue in her hand, that's Lee, the Black Widow. She's one of the highest-paid pool players in the United States. "He'll teach you one way, and if that doesn't work he'll teach you another," she says. "He's got a million other tricks up his sleeves to get the message across.
"People get good at things for a number of different reasons," Lee adds. "Sometimes it's the passion, sometimes it's the money, sometimes it's the fame, or the attraction, or the mystique. For him, he truly loves pool. That's it. It's as simple as it gets, and that, in its rarest form, is beautiful to me."
Wilson met Bergman, then nine years old, and Vardaman, then thirteen, at Teacher's Billiards in Fairview Heights. The three played in leagues together two nights a week for two years, and Wilson tutored them. A bond developed.
"We'd go out for dinner and talk about things," says Wilson of those years. "I'd take them to tournaments, and guide them -- and not so much in a fatherly way, but just for the fun."
From the start, says Wilson, both showed great promise. But Bergman, who learned the game on a little Fisher-Price table, was the natural.
"When he was playing pool," recalls Wilson, "there was no way you couldn't draw your eye to it, because it was so interesting to see somebody that could play that good that's half the size of anyone else that's even halfway good."
"We all learned pretty damned fast," adds Vardaman.
Justin Bergman has rather simple aspirations. "I don't want to work for a living," he says. "No honest work." And from the looks of the pimp-like wad of cash he pulls from a pocket of his baggy Nike basketball shorts, he's succeeding. He returned from Memphis not only with the championship, but with $4,000. A few days later at Teacher's, he seems to be carrying the entire purse with him.
Bergman's shooting 10-Ball (like 9-Ball, plus one) for petty cash with Vardaman, Raulston and Andy Quinn, while on the big screen yet another Texas Hold 'Em tournament is airing.
"That right there is what's killing pool," says Quinn, who's been playing in tournaments since he was in his early teens, winning his own BCA Junior 9-Ball title when he was Bergman's age. But now he's tethered to Teacher's, which he bought two years ago. Quinn's a deliberate, menacing player, and when he's on a roll, his face registers the hint of a smile.
Bergman is more like a cobra, jerking every so often as he floats around the table. He cranes his neck to examine a shot from another angle, then steps back and drops his head before stepping up to the shot with an air of cockiness.
Despite his young age, Bergman's lived his life on the road, traveling the circuit. "If you ain't winning nothing, it can get really depressing. But when you're winning a lot of money, and you're not doing nothing, your whole life's basically like a vacation."
Mark Wilson calls Bergman a sophisticated player for his age. He may be only eighteen, adds Wilson, but he's thirty-five in pool.
"He's played at a high level for so long with some of the best players, that you might beat him, but you're not going to scare him, and you're not going to show him something that hasn't happened to him before. You're dealing with a real hard veteran that way."
For the past five years, Bergman, Raulston and Vardaman have journeyed throughout the Midwest. "Ninety percent of the time we come back with money," says Vardaman, who figures he's pocketed between $10,000 and $15,000 in the past year.
This summer Raulston and Bergman went on a month-long tour of the South. Says Raulston: "I've put 20,000 miles on my car since June, and Justin's been with me for 15,000 of them."
"I can't keep track of him anymore," confesses Justin's father, Al Bergman.
When breaking, Bergman crouches low with the stick, his eyes mere inches from the table. As he takes a few practice swings, his lower lip drags across the cue. Then in one huge, surging motion, he lets loose, and as he jams the cue ball his body expands like a wrestler diving for a body slam.
This summer in Georgia, Bergman played a guy for 36 hours straight. He walked into the hall, introduced himself as Brian from Montana and started innocently knocking balls around the table.
"I said I was here with my uncle," Bergman recalls. "I just was looking for a game." They started off with hundred-dollar bets. "Then we jacked it to $200. Then we jacked it to $500. He wouldn't quit! He just kept playing." When they finally stopped, Bergman was nine grand richer.
"I've always had money since I was little," he says, "because in pool they can pay you [whatever your age]. Whenever you're older, it's one of the worst-paying jobs."
This attitude worries Wilson: "He's been playing thousand-dollar games for years. The excellence of the sport and becoming a world champion has lost some of the luster."
Bergman readily admits he'd rather win money than trophies. "[When] you beat somebody out of money, you can win a lot of money, and nobody really knows about it except for the people that were there."
The pool world, he adds, is rife with suckers, which bodes well for Bergman. "A lot of people think they can play," he says. "That's what's good -- that a lot of them can't."