Rack & Roll

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

The next year Wilson won the Hong Kong 9-Ball Challenge and ended up staying three months, learning about the thriving Asian billiard scene. When he returned, he landed in Collinsville. He and his wife, Cathy, opened up the Billiard Bullpen, and he started teaching pool.

"He's got so many tricks up his sleeve," says Jeanette Lee of her teacher.

If you've seen a poster of a hot Asian woman with a cue in her hand, that's Lee, the Black Widow. She's one of the highest-paid pool players in the United States. "He'll teach you one way, and if that doesn't work he'll teach you another," she says. "He's got a million other tricks up his sleeves to get the message across.

Chuck Raulston travels the Midwest playing pool. He's 
put 20,000 miles on his car since June.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chuck Raulston travels the Midwest playing pool. He's put 20,000 miles on his car since June.
Justin Bergman has been playing for cash since he was 
thirteen: "A lot of people think they can play," he says. 
"That's what's good. And a lot of them can't."
Jennifer Silverberg
Justin Bergman has been playing for cash since he was thirteen: "A lot of people think they can play," he says. "That's what's good. And a lot of them can't."

"People get good at things for a number of different reasons," Lee adds. "Sometimes it's the passion, sometimes it's the money, sometimes it's the fame, or the attraction, or the mystique. For him, he truly loves pool. That's it. It's as simple as it gets, and that, in its rarest form, is beautiful to me."

Wilson met Bergman, then nine years old, and Vardaman, then thirteen, at Teacher's Billiards in Fairview Heights. The three played in leagues together two nights a week for two years, and Wilson tutored them. A bond developed.

"We'd go out for dinner and talk about things," says Wilson of those years. "I'd take them to tournaments, and guide them -- and not so much in a fatherly way, but just for the fun."

From the start, says Wilson, both showed great promise. But Bergman, who learned the game on a little Fisher-Price table, was the natural.

"When he was playing pool," recalls Wilson, "there was no way you couldn't draw your eye to it, because it was so interesting to see somebody that could play that good that's half the size of anyone else that's even halfway good."

"We all learned pretty damned fast," adds Vardaman.

Justin Bergman has rather simple aspirations. "I don't want to work for a living," he says. "No honest work." And from the looks of the pimp-like wad of cash he pulls from a pocket of his baggy Nike basketball shorts, he's succeeding. He returned from Memphis not only with the championship, but with $4,000. A few days later at Teacher's, he seems to be carrying the entire purse with him.

Bergman's shooting 10-Ball (like 9-Ball, plus one) for petty cash with Vardaman, Raulston and Andy Quinn, while on the big screen yet another Texas Hold 'Em tournament is airing.

"That right there is what's killing pool," says Quinn, who's been playing in tournaments since he was in his early teens, winning his own BCA Junior 9-Ball title when he was Bergman's age. But now he's tethered to Teacher's, which he bought two years ago. Quinn's a deliberate, menacing player, and when he's on a roll, his face registers the hint of a smile.

Bergman is more like a cobra, jerking every so often as he floats around the table. He cranes his neck to examine a shot from another angle, then steps back and drops his head before stepping up to the shot with an air of cockiness.

Despite his young age, Bergman's lived his life on the road, traveling the circuit. "If you ain't winning nothing, it can get really depressing. But when you're winning a lot of money, and you're not doing nothing, your whole life's basically like a vacation."

Mark Wilson calls Bergman a sophisticated player for his age. He may be only eighteen, adds Wilson, but he's thirty-five in pool.

"He's played at a high level for so long with some of the best players, that you might beat him, but you're not going to scare him, and you're not going to show him something that hasn't happened to him before. You're dealing with a real hard veteran that way."

For the past five years, Bergman, Raulston and Vardaman have journeyed throughout the Midwest. "Ninety percent of the time we come back with money," says Vardaman, who figures he's pocketed between $10,000 and $15,000 in the past year.

This summer Raulston and Bergman went on a month-long tour of the South. Says Raulston: "I've put 20,000 miles on my car since June, and Justin's been with me for 15,000 of them."

"I can't keep track of him anymore," confesses Justin's father, Al Bergman.

When breaking, Bergman crouches low with the stick, his eyes mere inches from the table. As he takes a few practice swings, his lower lip drags across the cue. Then in one huge, surging motion, he lets loose, and as he jams the cue ball his body expands like a wrestler diving for a body slam.

This summer in Georgia, Bergman played a guy for 36 hours straight. He walked into the hall, introduced himself as Brian from Montana and started innocently knocking balls around the table.

"I said I was here with my uncle," Bergman recalls. "I just was looking for a game." They started off with hundred-dollar bets. "Then we jacked it to $200. Then we jacked it to $500. He wouldn't quit! He just kept playing." When they finally stopped, Bergman was nine grand richer.

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