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The felt on Mark Wilson's pool tables is as flawless as the greens at Augusta National. Every afternoon, when the Billiard Bullpen slowly comes to life, Wilson places the balls into a machine that opens like a submarine hatch and spins them as shiny as supermarket apples. The pool hall is as immaculate as its owner's clean-shaven face. And the coffee, the hardest drink available, is as good as it gets, made with freshly roasted beans and purified water.
Pool, of course, doesn't conjure images of purified water. For many, the sport is dismissed as a blue-collar wasteland, replete with Busch longnecks and chain-smoking hustlers.
But at the Billiard Bullpen, the sport is serious business and Wilson's first love. "It's the greatest game in the world, and I'll argue with anybody about that," says the 50-year-old owner and pool pro. Baseball finishes a close second, and his pool hall in Collinsville, Illinois, is strewn with Red Birds memorabilia. A row of red-and-white bleachers divide the space, and the drop-ceilings suggest twentieth-century suburban basement.
Wilson is a pool purist, a tournament director and an occasional ESPN commentator. And he happens to be, say billiard aficionados, one of the nation's best instructors, counting among his students the celebrated women's pro Jeannette "The Black Widow" Lee.
Says Lee: "He has been a real role model in teaching professionals that instead of schooling people just by gambling with them, you can be an official instructor."
Two other prized students, Lars Vardaman and Justin Bergman, offer proof. Hailing from the metro east, they're considered among the best young players in the U.S. Last month Bergman, of Fairview, placed fifth in the Junior World 9-Ball Championships in Austria. In May Vardaman, a junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, won his second consecutive Billiard Congress of America (BCA) Collegiate 9-Ball Championship.
Andy Quinn, the 28-year-old owner of Teacher's Billiards in Fairview Heights, took the BCA Open 8-Ball title at Vegas. The twenty-year-old Chuck Raulston is the current Missouri 8-Ball champ. Edwardsville, Illinois-based women's pro Sarah Rousey -- currently ranked 22 on the WPBA tour -- is also a Mark Wilson protégé.
Wilson says the talent pool in the St. Louis area, particularly on the Illinois side of the river, is amazing: "It's unprecedented [to come] from one little location."
But does anyone really care?
"If I was playing golf and was this good, I'd be on ESPN, and I'd be making big-time money already and have sponsorships," laments Bergman. "In pool you don't really get nothing."
Lacking the respectability of tennis or golf, pool finds itself at a crossroads. Professional players can't survive on the meager tournament winnings (usually no more than a few thousand bucks), and most have to gamble to make up the difference, reinforcing the sport's seedy reputation. Poker's rise, too, has directly affected pool. Says Wilson: "It sucks money out of the pool-player economy."
"We're slow right now," concedes Terry Huellsman, owner of the Break pool room in Cahokia, Illinois. "In fact, this is as slow as I've ever seen it."
The number of pool players in the United States totaled 36.4 million in 2004, an 11 percent drop over the previous year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America.
The declining popularity is ruinous to rising stars like twenty-year-old Vardaman and eighteen-year-old Bergman, whose mastery simply goes unrecognized. Bergman, for one, is considered to be the Tiger Woods of the pool hall, routinely beating players three times his age.
"Justin will be on ESPN before he's old enough to drink," cracks Mark "The Shark" O'Brien of Ride the Rail Billiards in south county.
Although victories pad Bergman's wallet, they do little to help Wilson draw players to his pool room.
"Nowadays," he says, "if you don't have a special event, you won't have anybody at your place. It's a sad case, because when I had my first pool room, you didn't have to do anything on Friday or Saturday night. Those were the nights you'd actually do business without begging."
At noon on a recent Saturday, the sun pierces through the windows of the Break pool hall. The 62 pool players, cues in hand and sleep still in their eyes, cower like vampires whenever the door opens.
They're here to play in a 9-Ball tournament. At stake: a $2,500 purse. Competitions like this one take place nearly every weekend somewhere in the Midwest and are the bread-and-butter of a pro's earnings. Over the course of the next two days, the five dozen players will be winnowed down to two, with the victor taking home $1,300.
Located a mile south of Pop's nightclub on Route 3, the Break is home to the east side's best action. The Break is yin to the Billiard Bullpen's yang -- three times the size, with the weathered look of the classic pool hall.
Nine-Ball is played with a cue ball and nine object balls numbered one through nine. On each shot, the first ball the cue ball touches must be the lowest-numbered ball on the table. The balls need not be pocketed in order, as long as the low ball is touched first. If a player pockets any ball on a legal shot, he shoots again, and continues until he misses, commits a foul or wins the game by pocketing the 9-ball.