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Hustle & Flow

The International Pool Tour hopes to do for pool what the World Poker Tour did for poker
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

When a publicist calls and tells me that the biggest pool tournament in the history of the game is set to take place in Las Vegas, two words spring to mind: side action. I imagine all the players being eliminated and gambling among themselves for many thousands of dollars. To me, that is infinitely more interesting than the sanctioned event. Still, this tournament, officially known as the North American Open, sounds like a big-money deal.

It marks the debut of an International Pool Tour tournament. Modeled after the World Poker Tour and the PGA Tour, the IPT is designed to bring pool into the mainstream, complete with an obscure cable channel (the Versus network, which is best known for its National Hockey League coverage) on which to view tournaments, loads of prize money ($2 million) and boxing announcer Michael Buffer slated to kick off the final with a pool-centric version of his patented Let's get ready to rumble.

Considering what's at stake, the caliber of competitors, and that pool and gambling are inextricably linked, I figure that the action at the Las Vegas Cue Club and Lou Butera's Pool Sharks will be compellingly juicy. So I head to the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, where the event is being held, and realize that it has attracted a sizable blue-chip crowd. An upstairs ballroom is wall-to-wall pool tables and players. Some of the biggest names in the game—including such international stars as hard-gambling Efren Reyes, British snooker champ Jimmy White and Keith McCready, who cameoed as high-flying Grady Seasons in The Color of Money—have flown in from more than 25 countries to compete.

The room is adorned with giant black-and-white blowups of pool greats from the past, and a new generation of players appears stoked to be getting its due. As far as the cognoscenti here are concerned, this tournament represents the turning point for a game that seems to have missed gambling's great gravy train. While poker has made it big on TV, sports betting has cleaned up on the Internet and casinos have popped up like daisies across the country, pool has failed to escape the smoky rooms and slightly sleazy image that characterize the game.

According to Kevin Trudeau, multimillionaire direct-marketing entrepreneur, ex-con and best-selling author of the controversial Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You To Know About, all that is about to change. Trudeau, a longtime lover of pool and an avid gambler, is the visionary and moneyman behind the IPT. He comes off as a bit of an oily huckster—his right-hand man, tour director Deno Andrews, has been repeatedly assuring me there'll be tons of gambling—and maybe that's a requirement for bringing this game into the twenty-first century. "Pool had been on TV forever," says the well-dressed and bodyguarded Trudeau, as balls collide and players strategize around him. "But it was boring. They played 9-ball, a game that nobody plays anymore. They didn't introduce you to the players, so you didn't get a chance to know them and care about them. And because they did not play for serious money, there was no drama."

One can't argue the fact that Trudeau has created an impressive prize package. And IPT events have a tinge of reality television (viewers get to know the players and learn how they got where they are) and players will develop into personalities. The game being played on the tour is 8-ball, which is the most common form of pool and will be accessible to viewers. Trudeau has encouraged contenders to be themselves, to show emotion rather than act in the blasé manner one usually associates with guys who shoot stick on TV. Trudeau figures that a compelling Web site (he later tells me that the site had "a couple hundred thousand unique visitors" during two tournament days) and sharp editing will imbue the IPT shows with the necessary degree of glitz. "Viewing this as an untapped opportunity," says the hard-selling Trudeau, "I figured I could have a lot of fun and that it could be a huge financial bonanza."

Already the IPT is grabbing attention in Europe. The final match at the Venetian—a showdown between German master Thorsten Hohmann and Filipino ace Marlon Manolo (who is regarded as one of the best in the game)—aired live and in its entirety across the continent by Eurosport. Seventeen announcers, speaking in as many languages, occupied booths inside a Eurosport studio in France and commentated on the live action being beamed to them and to their home nations. Altogether the tournament was seen in more than 50 countries.

The tour seems slick and buttoned down and well financed. Now it just needs to find an American audience. As Johl Younger, an Australian player who went from pool to the business world, puts it, "This [the North American Open] is the best tournament around. The venue is first-class, the prize money is great, and we're staying in a top hotel. If this doesn't succeed, it won't be due to anything that Kevin has [or hasn't] done."

I'd be inclined to agree with him. Still, something is missing: the promised side action. Most players I speak with bristle when I mention that I want to watch them gamble. Even the ones who are searching for opponents to wager against seem to be coming up empty. Keith McCready, a doughy guy with a shortage of front teeth, and a giant personality, would love nothing more than to find somebody to wager against. He's continually trying to scare up backers who'll finance a match and comes close a few times.

At one point he gets into it with Ike Runnels, a dapper hustler from the Chicago area. With lots of macho posturing, they talk about putting together a match for $10,000 a game, negotiate terms ("You're a damned one-pocket mechanic," McCready crows) and agree to play that night.

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