My pool team played in a tournament yesterday. Teams from all over our area converge on a local Moose lodge, and compete for a chance to play in the Cities tournament later in the year. Winning the Cities tournament has the ultimate prize of a free trip to Las Vegas to compete in the national championships. It’s really exciting to play in a tournament like this.
However, excitement has an ugly little companion called nerves. Normally, my team plays our matches in the evening, after a full day of work that blunts the pointy edges of my sensibilities. After a couple of beers, I’m usually loose, relaxed and jovial. But this tournament started at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I was bouncy with nervous energy.
But because it was early in the morning, I had my usual cup of coffee, which only made things worse. By the time we started our match, I was jittery and irritable, peeing every ten minutes like a greyhound. I tried to compensate by drinking a couple of beers (the Moose lodge opens the bar as soon as the tournament starts), but that only threw an alcohol blanket over the problem. Now I was not only nervous, but impaired. Strangely, I kept yawning, as though I couldn’t wake up.
During our first round, I noticed a guy playing at the table next to us. He was a big, barrel-chested man, in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His breathing seemed labored, and he was white as a sheet. After about 20 minutes, he would take a shot and then lean on the table, gasping. His t-shirt was soaked in sweat. League officials were notified, and they came down to talk to him.
It seems that his team had played the previous day, and he had suffered a heart attack. He has a history of heart disease, and is “on the list” for a heart transplant (whatever that actually means). He was clearly suffering some kind of cardiac event, but stubbornly refused to forfeit his match. He continued playing, but he would stand between innings because he couldn’t muster the energy to get to his feet. Eventually, he lost the match and insisted on driving himself to the emergency room. One of his teammates later told me that he was resting comfortably and breathing easier. Then he said, “Pool is his life.” It seems as though he’s not going to enjoy it much longer.
Our team won our round pretty handily, though without my help, thank God. I was positively crawling the walls, alternating between caffeine and beer, trying like Elvis to find that stable point between mania and depression. We moved to another table for our second round of play, and to my dismay, we played the team that had the Heart Attack Guy on their roster, though he was now at the emergency room and wouldn’t be available to them.
Our first player won his match against their team captain, and my team captain put me up next against an equally-skilled (and apparently equally nervous) player. I was so nervous, I played very badly, missing easy shots, making stupid mistakes. But I somehow managed to stay even with my opponent, and suddenly, like a miracle, the clouds parted and a great calm settled over me. I saw how to beat him, and I did.
We put up another player who lost, but we still had two matches to play – we only needed to win one. But so much time had passed, the league officials were forced to announce that Sudden Death rules were in effect. This meant that whoever won the first game of the next match would win the match, and so on. So our next player had to win his first game, no period of adjustment, no settling in, no time to overcome a case of nerves, nothing.
Meanwhile, at the table next to us, a team composed mostly of women was playing, and the Sudden Death rules applied to them as well. I was rooting for them, because women are a growing force in the game of pool, and it’s nice to see them forming teams. I watched our game and their game simultaneously. The stress in the hall was palpable, like an electric current running through everyone. You could hear a pin drop.
Our player made a spectacular shot to set himself up on the 8-ball, and then, to everyone’s shock and dismay, rushed the shot and bobbled the 8-ball in the throat of the pocket. His nervous opponent, who had been chain-smoking through the game, had three balls left to pocket, all in easy positions. He lined up on the first and stunned his team by bobbling it in the throat of the pocket. Our player pocketed the sitting-duck 8-ball for the win, and we responded by shouting, smacking each other on the back, giving high-fives and buying each other beers.
Meanwhile, the woman on the table next to us had played her opponent down to the 8-ball. She was left with a long cut shot, and she made it. To my surprise, she stood up and burst into tears, as the stress of the Sudden Death match was instantly released. All of her teammates rushed over to hug her in a sweet display of team solidarity. I hope we don’t have to play them in the Cities tournament.