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.
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.
Whether or not Sigel can pull it off—or even if Trudeau can—has yet to be proven. Less questionable is the appropriateness of the IPT's first champion. For an organization that wants to erase the seedy aura of its game and remake pool as a kind of clean-cut tabletop version of golf, bookish-looking Thorsten Hohmann is the perfect poster boy. Minutes after he wins, somebody asks the German pro what he plans on doing to celebrate. Not one to swill Cristal in a high-limit blackjack pit, the lean and intense and somewhat robotic Hohmann replies, "I haven't seen the sunlight in a week. What I want to do is go out and see sunshine."
Ten days after he narrowly wins the Venetian event, I catch up with Hohmann at a pool hall on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He's warming up for an invitational tournament at Mohegan Sun Casino and I wonder if he might be seeking out a cash game tonight. "The pool world knows that I don't gamble," he says, sounding like a scold but looking like a shark in pointy-toed boots and a baggy black suit. "If you want to play for $1 or $1 million, it doesn't matter to me. I tell people that we should play for fun."
The consummate pool professional, Hohmann's won prestigious tournaments across Europe and has never had to hustle (he honed his game during a stretch in the military, serving in a sports unit for pool players). He's garnered endorsement deals, adopted a rigorous exercise regimen and developed a confident game that centers around making no mistakes (just one bad shot can destroy your tournament hopes; in a cash game you can always put up more money to try to make up for it). "The game is changing," he says, sipping a tropical fruit smoothie. "Young players are stepping up. Asians and Europeans are dominating the tournaments and viewing it as a sport rather than as a gambling game. And now, without ever gambling, I've made $350,000 at one tournament. Before taxes, I can make $1 million or more this year."
Hohmann's last statement reminds me of something that Mike Sigel said in Las Vegas. At the time, I doubted it. Now, discounting his unrealistically bloated self-touting, I'm inclined to agree. "There was a time when you learned how to play golf, play cards, play pool, and you could make a lot of money," Sigel told me. "Now I can make money by being Mike Sigel, the greatest pool player in the world. I am not interested in all this other stupid stuff. It's ridiculous. You have $100,000 in your pocket one day and the next day you're broke. All gamblers die broke. I walk around looking good and getting paid. So does every top man in his field. The money is no longer in hustling pool. That is over."
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.