Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Five Rounds

The unimaginable has occurred.

Readers of this blog are probably aware that I play pool in a league, and have been doing so for at least six years. We play about 210 matches a year, struggling to finish in the top 3 in our division. If we do, we go into the playoffs, playing two of the best teams in the division to determine the division champion.

If we finish first in our division, we are entered in the regional qualifier tournament, in which we play the best teams in other divisions around Central Florida. The regional qualifier is a 3-round single elimination tournament, which means you have to beat three other champion teams. Lose once, and you go home.

But if you win three times, your team goes on to play in the regional championship tournament. The regional championship tournament is a grueling race – a 5-round double elimination tournament. This means you have to beat five of the best teams in Central Florida. Because it’s a double elimination format, you can lose once, but not twice.


If this seems like a lot of effort, it is. But if by some miracle your team wins the regional championship tournament, the league pays to fly your entire team to Las Vegas for the national championship tournament. It’s a fantastic, seemingly unattainable prize, but every year, teams achieve it. This year is our year. Last weekend, in a 2-day, 26-hour marathon, we defeated five excellent teams to win the big prize:


Hundreds of players competed in four brackets at the local Moose Lodge. Here’s what we had to go through to win. In each round, the first team to win three matches is the victor.

Round 1 (9:00 am – 12:30 pm Saturday)

    We played a team called “Bottoms Up,” which consisted of four women in their 20’s and 30’s, and two men. One of the men was named Norm, and he was 88 years old. The captain of the team was a 20-something in a hoodie and a backwards baseball cap named Ryan.

    Bottoms Up quickly won the first two matches. Ever the pessimist, I figured we were done for. But I won my match, one of our players beat Norm, and then one of our players beat Ryan, sending Bottoms Up to the loser’s bracket.

Round 2 (1:00 pm - 4:30 pm Saturday)

    Our next opponent was a team called “Here’s Your Sign,” and they absolutely slaughtered us. They beat us 3 straight matches, to send us to the loser’s bracket.

Loser’s Bracket Round 1 (5:00 pm – 8:30 pm Saturday)

    We had a bye in the first round of the loser’s bracket (which doesn’t count as a victory). We had 3 hours to kill, so we went to a local bar and practiced, because the tournament tables were all occupied.


Loser’s Bracket Round 2 (9:00 pm Saturday –12:30 am Sunday)

    We played a team called “Yes We R,” which had a very highly-skilled player named Greg. I won my match, although I was so horribly nervous, I made a couple of stupid mistakes. The match was tied, but I finally sucked it up and won once I realized that if I lost, my team members would kill me. The match took over an hour and a half to play, which became an issue later, as you’ll see.

    Eventually, we had the lead, 2 matches to 1. But because of my slow play, the next two matches were designated by tournament officials as “sudden death.” This meant that those two matches would be decided on the outcome of a single game each.

    In the fourth match of the series, we put up one of our best players, and they put up Greg. Greg won the lag, broke the pack and ran the table down to the 8-ball. Unfortunately, the 8-ball was snugly nestled in a pack of our player’s balls. Greg was in a tough position where he could only hit about a third of the 8-ball. He studied the layout for a long time, and then stroked the cue ball into the 8-ball, which caromed off two of our player’s balls and slipped into a corner pocket that was half blocked. One of the umpires commented, “That shot should be on ESPN.”

    With the round tied 2-2, the deciding game seesawed back and forth, until our player had only one ball left on the table before the 8-ball. He had to make a tough cut shot on the ball using a lot of English. The ball sliced into the pocket, but more important, the cue ball spun perfectly down the table, leaving him with a straight-in shot on the 8-ball for the win.

    We went home exhausted, but nobody slept.

Winner’s Bracket Round 4 (10:00 am - 1:30 pm Sunday)

    By this time, the number of teams competing had been winnowed down, and the competition got very serious. You could hear a pin drop. The tension in the air was palpable. It felt like someone was driving wood screws into my shoulders.

    Because so many teams had been washed out, we could now practice on some of the tables. I met a guy named Hoagie who told me that his team had made it to the fourth round, but that he was struggling. “My confidence is shot,” he confided.

    We had to play a team called “P’s and Cues,” which was captained by an older guy whom I had befriended the previous day. Once again, the matches were tied 2 -2 and our player won the deciding match.

Winner’s Bracket Round 5 (3:00 pm - 6:30 pm Sunday)

    Remember Round 1? We sent the team called “Bottoms Up” to the loser’s bracket, but like us, they fought their way out and we had to play them again.

    We jumped ahead quickly, winning the first two matches. But we lost the next one, which left us in the lead, 2-1.

    They put up Norm, and we put up a 23-year old. It was a classic “Youth vs. Experience” matchup. Norm shambled around the table, his cue shaking in his hand. I noticed a lot of older members of the Moose Lodge gathered around, silently watching, rooting for the old-timer. Norm won three straight games to tie the round at 2-2.

    It came down to our player and Ryan – the guy with the backwards baseball cap. He shoots with cocky arrogance, hitting the ball harder than necessary to look authoritative. Our guy is a cool and methodical player, and he had it under control, winning the first 3 games (he needed to win 4). Ryan won the next, but in the 5th game, he made a mistake and gave our guy ball-in-hand with only three to go out.

    We took a time-out and there was a lot of discussion about the correct shooting pattern. Our guy made the right choice, but in the shot before the 8-ball, he choked. He made the ball but left himself with a tough cut on the 8. He settled down on the cue ball, stroked it smoothly and the 8-ball cut perfectly into a corner pocket.

Nobody could believe it. We’re going to Las Vegas in August to play in the National Championship tournament. It’s like an amazing dream.

Meanwhile, on the table next to us, Hoagie won his match decisively, and his team won the round, so they're going to Las Vegas as well. I suspect Hoagie's confidence is restored.

I remember one indelible image from the competition. Players are obligated to sit in isolation seats set up away from their team members, so they can’t be coached. One woman, having missed a shot, sat sobbing uncontrollably in the isolation seat, believing she had lost the deciding match on the error. Moments later, her opponent flubbed his shot, and she jumped up and won the game. Misery to joy in less than a minute.

Our team won a hideously ugly trophy, which we're obligated to give to the bar that hosts our team. It will be prominently displayed, with a plate engraved with all of our names. I asked the lovely barmaid to pose with it to soften the grotesque contours. The trophy guy came by and offered to sell us exact replicas for our homes at a cost of $45. We're all getting them, of course.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A very long time ago, I was working as a printing press operator. One of the tasks I had to perform was to watch for “hickies,” which are bits of lint or dust that get stuck to the inked areas on the printing plate and leave blotches on the printed piece. To remove a hickie, you can stop the press, but most printers save time by dabbing at the plate with a wet cotton ball while the press is running. It’s a dangerous practice, and one day I got the middle finger of my right hand caught between the rollers.

The press stopped, because the belts were old and loose. Had it been a newer press, I’d have 9 fingers today. The finger was squashed pretty flat and popped open like a bratwurst on the grill, but thankfully was not broken. I lost most sensation on one side, and couldn’t bend it very far. Once the stitches healed up, the doctor told me that I would probably never get a full range of motion or restore the damaged nerves. I resolved to prove them wrong.

I bought a book on card tricks, and spent hours every day learning manipulations. They are hard skills to master even with a full complement of working fingers, so they were agonizingly slow for me. In less than a year, I recovered my range of motion and all of the sensation in the finger. Here’s one of the tricks:

About a month ago, I was at work, typing. I’m an excellent typist - fast and accurate. But on this particular day, I typed the word “appear,” and it came out “appppppear.” I held my right hand up to my face and demanded to know what was going on, but got no answer. Later that same week, I woke up one morning to the insistent chime of my alarm clock. I reached over with my right hand to hit the button that turns it off, but my hand hit the button repeatedly, oscillating up and down. Eventually I rolled over and used my left hand to turn it off, but it was enough to send me to the doctor.

The doctor sent me to a neurologist, who conducted several tests, including a brain MRI. He concluded that I have the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. There are medications I can take to control the symptoms, up to a point. There’s no cure. The disease will progress at its own pace, different for everyone. The most I can hope for is that it progresses slowly, and that over the remainder of this decade, new medications or surgical procedures are developed to treat it.

However, the neurologist did tell me that I can take some steps to slow the progress of the disease. These include aerobic exercise and coordination exercises for my affected hand. So I’m working out on the exercise bike 4 – 5 days a week, and I’m back to card tricks and one of my favorite mindless activities, juggling:

When I first got the diagnosis, I was shocked and depressed. Now I have mixed feelings. Yes, it’s incurable, but it’s not going to kill me, so there’s hope. However, I’m angry about my game of pool. I’ve worked hard to develop my skill, and it’s already starting to deteriorate. I started playing the game because I felt that nothing could make me stop. There are elderly players, players with missing limbs, players in wheelchairs. But it looks like in a few years, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines, shaking and cheering them on.