Rack 'em up

All Jimmy "The Kid" Wetch wants is to play in peace---the rack, the cue, and the cool green felt. But there are so many distractions.

When old-timers spin the myth, it always opens this way: The 13-year-old kid--skewed mop of blond hair, pimple-faced, eager--is playing Pac Man at the Rack & Cue in St. Paul. He's rocking like a metronome on his heels and keeping his own time in the machine's dull glow--racking up points, tracking the highs, carving his initials into the electro-light screen. An hour goes by. A day. A month. 1980 melts into '81. He memorizes the patterns, evades capture, learns to cheat his quarter. No one in the room can touch him.

A sign goes up on the wall: High Score on Pac Man. Free Hour of Pool. Game over. The kid picks up a crooked stick and never looks back. Nowhere to go but toward the soft click of the ivory balls, the thunder of the break, the washed-out green of the table's slick, smooth felt. It's better than video. He can't turn it off.

The kid starts trolling Minnesota Billiards on Rice Street, a blue-collar room, long gone now, where, back in the day, the state's best could be found at any odd hour, matching up against seedy homers and out-of-town sharks. The old-timers remember the kid as an infectious sort of pest. Full of rapid-fire questions, begging to challenge guys twice his age with three times the know-how, the kid's always underfoot.

When he loses, he pleads for another game. When he finally wins, the hunt begins for another rival. The balls rack up. The balls roll in. While his classmates over at Humboldt High are swatting baseballs into the summer sun or flirting with girls at the mall, the kid's woodshedding under the flickering table lights of whatever dive will have him--forever afternoons, his right arm a greased hinge, the game's geometry becoming his genius.

At 14, he puts his allowance on the table, just so something's on the line--20 cents a game, a dollar or two a match. By 15, he's pocketing 50 balls without a miss. By 16, 131. The five bucks in his pocket turns into a fistful, rolled neatly in a rubber band. Nothing fancy. Not yet. He makes the round from one local tournament to another, one poolroom to the next, and the wad grows. He wins the Minnesota State Championship in '85, playing 9-ball. No flash. Just the fundamentals. He wins it again. He tells the old-timers he's about to be the best they ever saw. They shake their heads. They chuckle and roll their eyes.

A guy at Minnesota Billiards--a dead-shot regular named Joe Saad--sees something in the kid. Not raw talent, not necessarily, but a kind of coarse ambition, an old soul's tolerance for the maddening subtleties of the craft. He fronts the 18-year-old a couple grand and sends him out on the road to meet, greet, and beat the game's wiliest guys--to mix a little seasoning into his stuff. Sometimes Saad travels along for the ride. Most of the time, he makes the kid go solo.

Saad, the old-timers say, is like a father to the kid. He tutors him to avoid the easy way out. Tells him trick shots are for pretenders, slop's for the pigs. Teaches him that the subtle touch is twice as potent as brute power. Position and patterns, that's what matters. Poise. That, and a touch of class in places where class is long gone on recess.

For the next eight years, the kid's a fixture at tournaments and backroom challenge matches from Duluth to Baton Rouge, Sacramento to Charlotte. Sometimes he sleeps in the backseat of his car; sometimes it's a used Buick, sometimes a Caddie. Depends on the night. The balls get more expensive to miss, the down time between money games more dangerous. The kid's playing for high stakes now--$10,000 a night until he's lost count. With one eye on the table and one on the exit, he wins enough to brag about it, takes the knocks that open doors.

By 1993, this kid, this 26-year-old man--slicked-back brown hair, pockmarks on his tan face, gold watch around a bare wrist--starts to weary. His backer, Saad, dies of leukemia. The gypsy life, the run-and-gun games, eat at the kid's gut. When he hustles and loses, he thinks about punching out a wall. When he wins, the buzz turns into a vague feeling that something's missing, crooked, wrong.

He leaves the back roads and joins up with the Pro Billiards Tour to test what he's got against the planet's grand masters. No handicaps. No scams. No crumpled bills on the rail. Just straight-up pool. Twelve months later the tour names the kid their Rookie of the Year, and ranks him 16th in the world. In 1996 he wins his first PBT tournament and climbs into the world's top 10. This year, as of July 20, he's ranked fifth. The Minnesota kid's legit, a threat--against anyone in the game, anytime, anywhere.

Jimmy Wetch. Jimmy the Kid. When old-timers spin his myth, it always ends the same way. They shake their heads. They chuckle and roll their eyes.

"Best I've seen," they say. "Best I've ever seen."

The world's fastest runner balances on the starting block, coiled like a jaguar, calves twitching, fingertips poised on hot tar. The world's quickest hockey player poses next to him, frozen into a crouch, his jagged blades cutting into ice that, like the blacktop, runs 50 yards straight ahead. The gun pops and both athletes race for the tape. Who wins?

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