Rack & Roll

The metro east is the corner pocket for some of the nation's top pool sharks. Bring it on, ESPN!

The tournament begins at lunchtime as a female bartender bellows, "Tom, your steak's ready!" Over the next 36 hours, pool players will eat their way through many rib eyes.

Lars Vardaman, a pharmacy student, wolfs one down before his first match of the tournament and races through the round on cruise control.

A thoughtful, quiet young man, Vardaman seems too innocent for the sport. But crouched before a rack, his Cardinals cap flipped backwards, he turns badass, and the world beyond the rectangle disappears. He's possessed with the expert eye, the perfect backswing, the thunderbolt break.

Mark Wilson at his Billiard Bullpen. "The only way you can 
get two of them to go in the same direction," he says of 
his peers, "is if they agree to cut the third one's throat."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mark Wilson at his Billiard Bullpen. "The only way you can get two of them to go in the same direction," he says of his peers, "is if they agree to cut the third one's throat."
Mark Wilson at his Billiard Bullpen. "The only way you can 
get two of them to go in the same direction," he says of 
his peers, "is if they agree to cut the third one's throat."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mark Wilson at his Billiard Bullpen. "The only way you can get two of them to go in the same direction," he says of his peers, "is if they agree to cut the third one's throat."

His best buddy Bergman isn't here today; he and traveling companion Chuck Raulston opted for a tournament in Memphis with a $12,000 purse.

Vardaman's second-round battle is with A.J. Clemens, a mustached pool whiz known as the Mountain Man.

As the two start the first game, an onlooker motions at the Mountain Man. "That dude playing over there," he observes, "we got suckered by him in Centralia. He came in and played under a different name."

"[Clemens] is obsessed with the CIA and shit," explains Break owner Terry Huellsman earlier in the night. "He'll appear and stay in a boarding house for a couple of months and then disappear."

Before the game begins, Vardaman admits his play is off-kilter. But with a face that betrays nothing, he roams the table, dropping the first six balls in order. Then he misses an easy cut on the seven. The Mountain Man sinks the last three balls in quick succession.

The perfect 9-Ball game contains few, if any, surprises. A seamless run of 9-Ball is characterized by graceful strokes that move the cue ball from point to point as if on a rail, and Vardaman breezes through the next two games as though there are magnets at the back of the pockets.

Vardaman wins the set -- a race to nine games -- handily.

As play progresses, the Break grows more crowded. And by midnight, with the smoke thick and the money changing hands, the place is roaring. The area's best shooters are here, bringing out the hundred-dollar-bill-dropping gamblers who place side bets on the action.

On this night the stakes are reasonably low. "They were only playing for $400 a game," says Vardaman, after he's eliminated. "I've seen it in here when they were playing for $5,000 a game, and sets for $10,000. Thirty-thousand, even, if you can imagine that kind of tension. The place was filled."


While Mary, Queen of Scots -- apparently quite the shark -- awaited her execution in 1587, she was permitted a billiard table in her cell. When it was removed, the outraged inmate wrote letters of protestation, to no avail.

Billiards is the umbrella term for the many variations of a sport that entails knocking balls around on a felt-covered slab of slate. Beginning as a lawn game nearly 1,000 years ago, it moved indoors and onto a table 600 years later, and by the mid-sixteenth century, it was a sport of royalty.

Exported to America by wealthy émigrés, by the early 1800s billiards had trickled down to all classes. It got an early boost in 1825, when President John Quincy Adams installed a table in the White House. Adams' detractors were outraged, calling him a morally bankrupt gambler who was sullying the prestige of the office.

American billiards reached its apex in the early twentieth century, when its most famous players were as well-known as Albert Pujols is today. Championship matches were covered like the World Series. Since then, the spectator aspect of the game has faded. Two films -- The Hustler in 1961 and its sequel, The Color of Money, in 1986 -- brought renewed attention, but it didn't last long.

The sport peaked again in the early 1990s, with well-heeled entrepreneurs investing in swank halls and enforcing strict dress codes. Though many of these enterprises still survive, their carpets are now spotted with cigarette burns, and blue jeans are the norm.

Pool might be behind the 8-ball nationally, but billiard tables are still selling well in St. Louis, says Kurt Schmidt, owner of the 150-year-old A.E. Schmidt Billiard Company. "As houses have gotten bigger, we find more people wanting to add pool tables to their recreation rooms than we did ten, fifteen years ago." Schmidt estimates his sales are up 30 percent in the past decade.

Mark Mueller, fourth-generation owner of Mueller's Pool and Billiard Table Company, isn't quite as bullish. "For a while table sales were going up and up," says Mueller, "but now it's kind of leveled off."

Chantel Davis, manager of Side Pockets Billiards in St. Charles, which describes itself as an "upscale" billiards room, says poker has killed the sport. "The pool leagues are the saving grace," says Davis. "The tournaments help. But since we're more of a restaurant and bar than a pool hall, our tables are full every Friday and Saturday night, and we have a waiting list."

Despite nearly nine million diehard pool players nationwide, the sport is woefully disorganized. Its annual championship, the U.S. Open, is covered on ESPN, but its paltry $40,000 winner's purse is but a fraction of Wimbledon or the World Series of Poker.

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