In the mini-tournament room, a dozen or so vendors had set up booths selling cues, t-shirts, accessories, instructional systems, etc. One guy had set up a table with a radar system, inviting players to try their luck at beating the fastest break speed of the day. Three shots for $5.
The main tournament hall was packed with throngs of players from the US, Canada and Japan. The elegant trophies were on display – very tempting prizes indeed.
In each round of play, the first team to win 3 matches wins the round. We would have to win four rounds to get into the money, eight rounds to get into the sweet sixteen, and four additional rounds to win it all - twelve grueling rounds total.
Our first set of matches was with a team called Eagles from Lansdale, PA. We were assigned to table number 13. I’m not superstitious, but we lost. I didn’t play. The tournament is a double-elimination format, so the loss pushed us into the loser’s bracket. We didn’t play badly, just not well enough.
We trudged back to the hotel, dejected. By then it was 4 am. Our next match was scheduled for 11 pm on Tuesday night, so everybody slept late and didn’t get too crazy during the day, trying to conserve energy and stay focused. One more loss, and we would be out of the tournament.
At 11 pm, we faced a team from Abilene, TX called Crazy 8’s. Their team captain was a tiny, skinny woman who had an incredibly smooth, powerful stroke. But she played one of our aces, and he beat her. Then, our team captain put me up against one of their low-skill players. I have to say, in all fairness and honesty, that I sucked. I’m a naturally high-strung guy normally, but that night I was shaking from head to toe. The combination of first-match nerves and Parkinson’s disease was causing me to suffer from uncontrollable spasmodic twitching. About two-thirds of my brain shut down. It looked like there were 100 balls on the table, and I was unable to calculate a shooting pattern. She beat me in two games, but our team went on to win that round anyway.
Once again, we went back to the hotel at 4 am. However, this time it was with a combination of elation and dread, because our next match was at 9 am, only 5 hours away. A couple of guys didn’t even bother going to sleep – they just walked the length of the Strip all night.
At 9 am, we played a team from Richmond, VA called 6-Pack. My team captain put me up against a player of equal strength. But this time, the first-match nerves were gone. I played extremely well, moving the cue ball around the table confidently, and beat him easily. Our team captain is a smoker, and the tournament is a non-smoking event. When our team captain played, he was desperately craving a cigarette, and it was obvious that it affected his game. He made one stupid error that cost him his match, infuriating one of our other players. We eventually beat them around 1 pm, and moved on to our third round, which was at 2 pm - only one hour later.
At 2 pm, we played a team from Crescent, PA who call themselves Fuego Pelota (flaming ball). If we won, we would move into the money and win $1,000 for the team. Fuego Pelota won the first two matches, so our backs were against the wall. Worse, our earlier victories had come with a price. The league monitors the matches carefully, reviewing the skill rankings of every player. If it appears that a player is winning too easily against an equally skilled (or higher skilled) opponent, that player will be raised in rank. The league chose to raise two of our players. One of our aces was raised to the point where we would be unable to play him, because there’s a limit to how many skill points we can play.
We put up a player who won, and then our team captain played. He had to win four games to beat his opponent, and he won the first three handily. In the fourth game, he had a simple, short cut shot on the 8-ball to win the match, but his nicotine craving had reached crisis proportions, and he missed the shot. His opponent came back strong and won four games straight to eliminate us from the tournament. It was a shame, because I was scheduled to play the final match of the round, against an equally skilled opponent. Unlike my first match, I was actually looking forward to it.