Zen & the Art of Billiards

I was fifteen years old. Our mother announced to us that we would be leaving our low-income apartment in South Cushman and head south to Oklahoma. She bought an old brown cargo van, with no side windows and three V’s, each sitting inside the next, getting progressively smaller, spray-painted down the length of the van on both sides. The previous owner had converted it to have a folding bench bed in the far back, so it could double as a hotel on our pilgrimage south. She was accepted to the University of Oklahoma in Norman where she would work to finish a bachelor’s degree in history of Native Americans. I had a driving permit, so drove hundreds of miles on that trip, which was an epic journey, but I have to write about that another time, as the focus of this story is actually billiards. I just had to let you know how I ended up in Oklahoma.

Flashback. I was ten years old in Arctic Village, the electric poles were going up in the summer, so all the men in the village had work. There was a burger shack that opened up to serve lunch and dinner. It had a bar size, seven foot long, pool table. I would watch the teenagers play and for some reason was called to give it a try. They finally let me to the table and it was like magic. I ran every ball on the table, didn’t miss a single one, all in a row. At least that’s the way my romanticized childhood memories tell it to me. In any case, I won the game and discovered a natural talent.

Back to Norman, Oklahoma. It is a small town south of Oklahoma City. There is a downtown main street with shops on it. One of them was called the Quarter House, an old time arcade, which likely went out of business with the boom of home gaming systems shortly thereafter. They had a few pool tables and I returned to the game after a several year hiatus. After a couple months of developing my game, I crossed the street to a pool hall, that was also a bar, which allowed underage people until ten in the evening each night. A retired dentist asked me to play for a dollar a game. That was big money to me back then, but I took a chance. Within a half hour I was up nine games, was feeling great, and then he opened up that he was just checking out my game. He proceeded to beat me nine games straight. At which point he says, “you have natural talent, why don’t you come in here and play with me, I’ll teach you a few things. Then we can go play scotch doubles against some other folks and give them a challenge.”

I grew to love the game. There is a unique beauty, a necessary precision of execution, limitless possibilities, and a time stopping solitude when you approach a table to shoot. It comes down to you and the table, at which point your opponent and spectators don’t matter. The mental focus is exhilarating and calming at the same time. There is a pinnacle of knowing that happens when you are ‘in-stroke’, a term developed to express the feeling and moment of being on fire, on top of your game.

At twenty-one years old, near the completion of my bachelor’s degree, I chose not to pursue a professional career in Billiards, despite becoming a top-level amateur. I chose instead to move back to the villages and work for my people. I set my cue in the closet.

Fifteen years later, my friend Marc convinced me to play for his team in Fairbanks. We won a local tournament, securing airfare, hotel, and entry fees to the National Pool Championships in Las Vegas this past week. Without any real practice and years from the game, I shot the best pool in my life at the Nationals. My teammates held their own weight as well. We made it five matches into the Nationals and won a second round tournament against thirty-two teams from across the country.

In each of my games, I remained completely calm, sitting upright in my chair, grounding both feet to the floor in front of me, taking slow deep methodical breaths. I essentially meditated through each game, allowing nature and the skill set I had developed years ago take its course. It was a wonderful feeling, all around. Of course, all the winning helped a lot. Just as importantly, we were being rooted-on by many supporters, via facebook, from across Alaska and the states. We felt the support. Thank you!