Hustle & Flow
The International Pool Tour hopes to do for pool what the World Poker Tour did for poker
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007
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But it never comes off.
I ask McCready what happened. He mumbles something about unreliable backers and recounts his salad days on the road. "I've played for $25,000 a game before," he asserts. "Once I beat a guy out of $360,000. His name was Rosenbaum and he was connected in Detroit. We started playing for $8,000 a game and things escalated from there. I eased into him, got him stuck, and he wanted to gamble."
Midway through the IPT event, with plenty of players eliminated and (one would think) hungry for action, there are no Rosenbaums in sight. Instead, McCready and I and a couple of others wind up in the Venetian casino. They're putting together a bankroll and planning to play craps. McCready assures me that it's a great investment. He says that he and his pals are really good at the game. Now, I know that nobody is really good at craps. But I kick in a few hundred dollars anyway and, in no time at all, it's lost to a series of unfortunately timed 7s.
We put in a little more for blackjack. McCready cadges $100 off of me (swearing that he'll pay me back the next day; I figure that I'll never see the money again, and I don't), and reckless play wrecks the bank. I go to bed, knowing all too well why Trudeau has decided to release none of the prize money until the very last day of the tournament, right before his players are scheduled to fly home.
Like most planned IPT tournaments (the full schedule is set to unfold in 2007), the Vegas event begins with 200 players, playing in 40 groups of five. The top three sharks from each group advance to the next level. After the fifth round, two players from each of six groups advance. The sixth round on the penultimate day is a round-robin that concludes with the top two finishers poised to play each other for the title and a first prize of $350,000. Clearly, that is the dream and a mega amount in a sport in which successful players traditionally earn no more than $200,000 during a good year.
Pool hustling's meager prospects, compounded by a dearth of suckers to win money off of, have driven guys like Corey Deuel to the tournament world. It's less romantic than being on the road, but you're also less likely to get your knuckles smashed by a disgruntled opponent. He began playing at age 10, won $3,500 during a single night of hustling when he was only in the ninth grade, and spent the latter part of his teen years crisscrossing the country with a coterie of well-financed professional gamblers. By his early 20s, the sharply dressed, spiky-haired Deuel was already phasing out live action. "It reached a point where I couldn't go into a pool hall and get a good game," he recalls. "Nobody would play me. Suddenly there is not a lot of money to be made on the road."
No doubt the increasing difficulty for anyone to be anonymous has contributed to beating the gamble out of the game. And so has poker. It's taken money out of pool and claimed action-hungry hustlers such as John Hennigan and Nick Schulman. So a tournament like this one makes the notion of pool as an organized sport—complete with players who court high-profile attention and endorsement deals—all the more compelling. Deuel, who had been as much of a hustler as anyone, actually envisions a genteel future when parents won't freak out at the hint that their kids might want to grow up to be pool players. Unlikely as it might be, he'd like to see the game become part of university curriculums. "Maybe one day guys who can't make it on the IPT will teach college and instruct students on how to play pool," he says. "Then the best ones can finish school and join the tour."
Toward the tournament's final days, online poker site Bodog.com throws a big party at Tao, a fashionable restaurant/nightclub at the Venetian. An attention-grabbing attraction at the bash is a pool exhibition being put on by Jeanette "Black Widow" Lee. She's a pro with a big image, good looks and an ability to transcend the game's déclassé reputation. According to Mike Sigel, touted by Trudeau as the winningest tournament player in the game, Lee gets $10,000 a day. She's opted not to compete in the tournament, but seems perfectly content to mess around at Tao for what is most assuredly a decent payday.
Her appearance represents where Sigel wants to see the game going. "At this point, we don't need to talk about gambling at all," he tells me, a little testy after I voice my disappointment at the lack of side action. "This should be promoted as the most gracious, luxurious, competitive game on the planet. It's not like poker, where you can get lucky enough to beat a much better player. You won't beat a better person playing pool."
Skinny and bald, still retaining a knock-around edge, the 53-year-old Sigel made plenty of money as a road gambler. Then, after a certain point, like Deuel and countless others, he couldn't get action and became a tournament pro. He stopped playing competitively 12 years ago and went into what he calls "the business of pool." He sold custom cues and imported products with his name on it. He used to give Trudeau pool lessons for $500 an hour and came out of the woodwork to compete when word got out about the league launching. Besides playing, he's providing color commentary for U.S. broadcasts and serving as the face of IPT. Sigel appears thrilled by this opportunity to be his sport's equivalent of the World Poker Tour's Mike Sexton. Trudeau calls him "a cartoon character" and is betting heavily on Sigel's ability to bring the game to life.
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