Tony Tominna, Michael McCafferty, Mary Ann Erskine-Pourier, Larry Peoples, Tony Sorto, Rob Clark
2004 San Diego City Championship 9 ball team

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Agony and Ecstasy in Las Vegas

A story of Humiliation and Redemption at the
National Team 9-ball Championships.
How I played the best pool of my life, and got on TV.

I hate Las Vegas. I hate the cigarette smoke, and the superficiality, and the low-life people, and the food, and the gambling. But mostly I hate the cigarette smoke. It is omnipresent, unrelenting, stinky, and it'll kill you. Even worse, it can ruin your pool game.

Imagine, if you will: several thousand pool players from all over the USA and Canada, all of them champions of their own little corner of the country, representing their local bar, and virtually every one of these barflies is a smoker. Now put them all into one big room (at the Riviera Hotel, one of the seediest hotels on the Strip, just perfect to host thousands of bar pool junkies), give them 200 pool tables, several hundred thousand dollars in prize money, and an ample supply of beer and whisky, and thousands of those cheap little metal ash trays that are stamped out and almost flat, so even one cigarette's worth of ashes will make a mess of it.

At least half of these pool players are smoking all at once. And when they finally suck all the cancer of out that butt, the other half of them light up. And on it goes, non-stop and round-the-clock during the competition that lasts for more than a week.

That's what I just went through...

Our first match was scheduled for 5pm on Friday, against a team of firemen from New York. There must have been a big fire out there, because they didn't show up for the competition, so we won by default.

Our next match was a "bye".

So far, so good: We are in the third round and haven't stroked a cue!

It's still the first night of the tournament, and our first real taste of a fight was scheduled for 10pm, but because of administrative delays, we didn't get started until close to midnight. I don't usually have a lot of fight left at that hour, but we don't get a choice of when we play.

Our competitors were a team from Daytona, Florida. Three other team members had their matches before me, so it was more like 1 AM before I chalked up. My match was against a senior citizen named Susie. She had that hardscrabble look of someone who spent a lifetime in bars: smoking, drinking, and shooting pool.

I started off real strong, sinking the first 6 balls with no trouble, and I was feeling pretty good about myself... but then I missed, and Susie finished the rack. And then the next one, and most of the next, and the next...

I've learned that it's not a good thing to look at a competitor, or get involved with them in any way. Just shoot the balls on the table, and ignore the person who leaves them for me. But there was something about Susie that caught my eye.

She seemed to be twitching in her hands like she was real nervous about shooting. Then it became obvious that she was like that on every shot. But it sure wasn't having any effect on her shot-making ability because she was making everything she shot at, even some seriously difficult shots.

When she would line up a shot, her hands and fingers would be shaking like dying leaves on a tree in a breeze. And then, at the very last second, she would somehow relax completely and execute these really excellent shots! Amazing. She had me mesmerized...

And soon enough, after 90 minutes of punishment, she had me beat. Game over. I just never really got going, never got into any rhythm...

Beat by an old woman with the palsy. How bad is that? So much for my debut at the National Championships! Inauspicious, to say the least. Maybe it was the cigarette smoke, maybe it was the late hour, maybe Susie was just a better player, maybe there are some excuses I haven't thought about yet, maybe all of the above. But excuses are irrelevant. I got beat by an old woman with the palsy. I figured it was going to take a long time to live that one down.

And then, things got even worse before they got better...

Our team lost that match, and by 3:30 AM we were all completely exhausted, but looking forward to our next match at 1 PM. We had plenty of time to sleep it off. This was a double elimination tournament, so we had one more chance to stay in the running.

The next team we faced was, by an amazing coincidence, from Bucks County, PA, the home of McCafferty Ford, the dealership my father started from scratch 50 years ago, and many of the team members currently worked there, so we got to talking like old friends, but when the action started they beat us real bad in the first match. Then we came back and won the second.

Finally it was my turn. I was matched against a player with a higher skill rating. The handicap system dictates that he needed 65 points to my 55. He sank the 9 ball on the opening break, and then ran most of the next 5 racks, (he was a really excellent player!!!) and I was well on my way to another defeat, even more humiliating than the one I got the previous night.

At the worst point I was down 47 to 5, and my worthy opponent needed only 18 balls while I needed 50. To anyone who knew better, it was hopeless, but I guess I just didn't know any better. My instructor has told me many times that pool is a mostly mental game and that, no matter what, you can never think that you are beat, because you surely will be. He taught me to keep thinking positively, and to talk to myself in ways that will get me focused on doing the right things. I never let the opponent see me looking like I was being trounced. Instead, I sat it out with a smile and looking like I was waiting for the bank to open so I could cash my winning lottery check.

And then it happened: He missed an easy shot, so I jumped to the table and whupped him like a red-headed stepchild, while he sat there looking like a deer caught in headlights. Out of the next 64 points, I got 50 of them, and won. He still needed 4.

He could hardly move, he was so stunned. I'd have to admit to being surprised too, because I never knew the score during the entire match. I thought that I was down by about 25 balls, but if I knew I was losing by 42 balls I probably would have given up! Instead, I just waited for an opening, and when it arrived, I simply did my thing, and the balls obeyed the laws of physics. When, at last, my team captain told me I only needed one more ball for the win, I thought he was either talking to my opponent, or had it wrong, but I ignored it either way, and just kept on shooting.

Soon the story got around that this guy (me) came back to win from being down 47 to 5 against a higher ranked player, and I was completely surprised to be congratulated by people I didn't even know who were watching the turnaround as it happened. It was generally agreed that no one had ever seen such a recovery to win.

However, one of our team members had long standing plans to be best man at a wedding and had flown back to San Diego for the event. This meant that he had to forfeit his match, and because of this our team had virtually no chance to win. So, while I got to play one of the best matches in my life, our team was out of the Nationals.

The winner of the competition was decided on Monday afternoon, in a match between two beer-guzzling, cigarette smoking teams from Oklahoma. The event was video taped for replay on ESPN2 sometime in the next few months.

Look for me in the audience...

You may be wondering what "else" happened while I was in Las Vegas, but you know what they say: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!"

Other Pool Stories by Fast Mikie

The Big Win
(a story of Karma and Victory)

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
(the U.S. Amateur Championships)

Fast Mikie Retires His Willie
(how I beat a world champion at 9-ball)

Fast Mikie Goes To College
(recollections of a time long ago)

Diary of a Pool Shooter - The Adventures of Fast Mikie
(the blog)

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