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Rack 'em up

Michael Dvorak

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?

At Jimmy's Pro Billiards in Columbia Heights, this fantastic scenario, this sucker's bet, drags five street-smart regulars from three generations into a 30-minute debate. It doesn't matter that the witching hour's come and gone. Or that the 22 other tables in the state-of-the-art, all-ages pool hall are vacant. That it's anybody's guess. Loitering under the dim light of a corner table, cutting each other off and upping the ante, the men go at it as if they're about to stumble on the meaning of life.

"Look man, I don't care who the white boy is. If Carl Lewis is running the dash, he wins."

"Bullshit. My man's gonna bust into a glide, break Carl's balls."

"He doesn't have time."

"How far is 50 yards?"

"Half a football field. Give me a half a football field and a pair of skates, and I'll break the sound barrier."

On and on it goes, each proclamation more absurd. Meanwhile, Jimmy Wetch--The Kid, the pool room's co-owner and house pro--turns an oblivious ear to the jabber on the perimeter of his 4-1/2-by-9-foot sanctuary.

Two days from now, on August 1, The Kid's flying to Las Vegas for the Riviera Hotel's Pro 8-Ball Open, a weeklong event where the cream will rise to claim shares of a $75,000 purse. To win, Wetch must tighten up the mind and loosen the limbs. One missed opening, one wrong move could mean an early loss and a slip in the rankings. So he blocks out the midnight gamblers and stares at the 8-ball, resting alone between a side and corner pocket, an inch or two off the rail. The cue ball is at the opposite side of the felt, flush against the bumper on a diagonal line. It's an unsavory shot--one that, in theory, only a hacker would leave himself to miss.

Wetch stares it down. He chalks the finely-sanded tip of his $3,500 cue, gently testing his stroke a few times, then, after a split-second's hesitation pulls back smooth and pushes out steady. The cue ball collides with the 8-ball; the 8 rolls gracefully to the corner pocket. But it doesn't go in. It just hangs on the edge like a putter's nightmare.

Wetch stands up arrow-straight, loosens the grip on his cue so its butt bounces lightly to the floor, then crinkles his spare, fair eyebrows. He scratches the back of his head with a manicured index finger, then he calmly strolls around the table to set up the shot again. It will be his third attempt in a row. He couldn't hear a pin drop, or a bomb.

The night before, Wetch shot game after game of 8-ball with Johnny Williams, an old-time hustler cut from the same rock as Saad, and one of the few Midwesterners who can keep up with The Kid, who can put him through the motions and test his patience. The two play from 9 p.m. right through until 11 the next morning. Just like the old days, Wetch remembers, "when a man got down to his last dollar, then played all night."

During the marathon, Wetch works on his match play which, in the game of 8-ball, means hammerhead breaks, defense as offense, and the wherewithal to see around the other guy's seven striped balls to set up seven solid shots of your own. As the body tires and the eyes blur, the head clears. Strategy becomes everything, because strategy is all that's left. "Before a big tournament, I like to stay up all night like that a few days before I leave, just once," Wetch says. "It loosens me up."

Having slept it off all day, Wetch is freshly shaven and relaxed tonight. He won't play another serious game until his first round in Vegas. Instead, he'll fine-tune, practice his break, run some balls with a customer or rehearse a few shots that might give him trouble--like that 8-ball.

Again, he studies the angles. This time, though, his body language recalls the night before. Eyes locked on target, jaw slightly clenched, he shifts his weight and seems to dig the balls of his feet into the floor. He replants the pinkie on his left hand, which rests on the table to bridge his cue, spreading it away from the ring finger, straining the web of his hand, pressing at the table's felt until blood stops flowing and his nails go white. He takes a few more practice strokes than usual, as if the match were hanging in some cosmic balance. Transfixed, he fires. The cue ball flies. The 8 disappears.

 

Wetch stands, draws a full breath, looks up at the crowd around his table, and quickly shakes his head--as if coming out of a trance, as if he'd forgotten they were there.

"If there were a black skater out there, then maybe I'd take your bet."

"What difference does that make?"

"White people invented skates for a reason, man."

Wetch laughs--a joyous barroom howl that trails off into a mischievous giggle. "These guys," he teases, "are just like a bunch of little kids."

Seeing that Wetch is heading off for a break, Jayme Sanford--one of the "little kids" willing to put even money on the runner--leaves the quarrel to show his friend a new trick. Four years Wetch's junior, 26-year-old Sanford is The Kid's alter ego, all slicked up and ready to con the next sloshed sucker who strolls through the door. The clean-cut Wetch is wearing a loose-fitting, short-sleeved polo shirt, khaki shorts, and plain white sneakers. Sanford, his long black hair in a ponytail, is got up in jeans and a tight Harley T. Wetch rarely says more than 10 words at once, shies away from talking about the ins and outs and finer points of his profession. Sanford can talk a blue streak.

"Pool is like crack, man. It's like a bad girlfriend. You just can't walk away." Wetch, who, according to old-timer legend, earned $90,000 a few years back hustling pool, is unwilling to discuss his finances or detail his days on the road. Sanford, a solid but not stellar local player, loves to trade in secrets, gets off flashing the wad. Still, The Kid is relaxed--not his usual public posture--around Sanford. They get each other's jokes, and scope girls when they're not shooting stick.

Sanford carries his cue over to Wetch's table, pulls the 9-ball out of a pocket, and sets it on the "foot spot," where balls are typically racked to start a game. At the head of the table, he slips a golf tee from his pocket and wedges it in the space between the plastic corner-pocket lining and the table's polished, wooden rail. Cue ball perched atop the tee, he takes aim at the 9.

"When I was in Chicago, I bet this guy I could do this five times in a row," Sanford tells anybody caring to listen. "After I made the fourth, I thought he was gonna start crying."

"You made it five times in a row?" Wetch asks.

Sanford strikes the cue ball. It soars over a sea of green and crash-lands on the 9-ball, squirting it into the corner pocket. "Nah, I missed the fifth shot."

Wetch takes up the tee stunt. He is obsessed with perfection, with leaving as little to chance as a player this good can. After missing a series, he sends the 9-ball in twice without missing. Wetch is rapt. Sanford watches with an approving, devilish grin.

"Y'know what?" Sanford calls out to no one in particular, cue case in hand and sarcasm in his voice thicker than the room's cigarette haze. "I can't wait to have my name in those billiard magazines. I can't wait to have a case with my name sewn on it."

Wetch doesn't even look up. "I can't wait to take you with me to a tournament someday," he replies under his breath, sinking the 9 again. A kid in a candy store. "We'll bust somebody with this."

Decked out like a bunch of gray-haired golfers on the senior tour--pleated pants, pressed polos, polished leather loafers--16 of the world's best pool players warm up without a word between them on eight buffed-and-brushed billiard tables parked in a grid across the ballroom atop the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. It's August 4, the second day of the weeklong Pro-8 Ball Open, the fourth of eight tournaments in this year's Camel Pro Billiards Series, and only a few spectators are scattered around the $7-dollar-a-seat gallery. Otherwise it's all pros here, sizing up their rivals and laying odds on whoever they figure will matter by week's end.

There's two-time Player of the Year Buddy "The Rifleman" Hall. Earl "The Pearl" Strickland, winner of the 1996 Dallas Million Dollar Challenge. Efren "The Magician" Reyes, considered the toughest 9-ball player alive. Johnny "The Scorpion" Archer, who won ESPN's Ultimate 9-Ball Challenge in January and is far and away the most recognized American on the tour (either The Color of Money's Tom Cruise studied his affable, cocksure style, or vice versa). And from Minnesota, the player who just weeks ago took third (and $6,100) at the Charlotte 10-Ball Open, Jimmy "The Kid" Wetch.

 

If Wetch, seeded 11th in the 96-player field here, performs to his fullest this week--which ought to at least secure him a spot in the quarterfinals--he'll earn rights to dip into the tourney's $75,000 purse and put himself in the running for a bulk of Camel's year-end $300,000 bonus pot. To do that, he has to avoid the twin trap of overconfidence and nervous jitters. The setup here is double-elimination, allowing for one loss along the way. But Wetch says it's almost impossible to climb back into the winner's bracket if you drop a match too early.

The Kid turned a tough, first-round match on Monday night against Kunihiko Takahashi into a schooling. This morning, he's feeling it--primed for a showdown with Top 50 journeyman John "The Mustache" Galloway. He passes on some of his practice time to chat up a couple of women he recognizes from his days on the road. But he's not straying too far from the game: He's watching Efren Reyes warm up for a match against Danny Medina (an unlikely, early replay of last year's final). Still, he knows not to look past this match, not to get cocky. Galloway is a notch below, but Wetch must win seven games to move on. And he knows the balls roll funny for everyone.

"I played flawless pool last night," he says while Galloway chips his way through a sloppy practice break. "I played as well as you can play. From here on, though, it's gonna be tough. I can't worry about my opponent. At this level, I can only take care of myself." Like it was back in the day, maneuvering joysticks at the Rack & Cue, The Kid's best when he's playing himself; heedless of fans, without concern for the money or the skill of his opponent. The Kid's best when he's thinking in patterns, playing pure position.

Three young admirers rush up before the match to pester "Mr. Wetch" for a signature on their $4 copy of Camel's 1998 Tournament & Players Guide--a yearbook plastered with full-color action shots of their sharp-shooting idols. Wetch offers a quick nod and goes about the task awkwardly.

It still seems strange. The glossy programs. The awe-struck groupies. The gallery politely applauding when he sinks a routine shot. Alone on the road, there were no ballrooms with cavernous ceilings and crystal chandeliers. There were no autograph sessions, no pricey promo shots. Alone on the road, no one wanted to read your biography. They just wanted you to take on the local yokel, skew the in-house odds, make them some money. Alone on the road, no one ever called him "Mr. Wetch."

As the ninth and final game of The Kid's 7-2 drubbing of Galloway kicks off, The Mustache slumps in his stool. He shoots another round of Visine at his eyeballs, and lights his 12th cigarette of the morning. When Wetch sinks a ball on the break, Galloway mumbles an expletive and shakes his head in disbelief, as if he'd been dealt a stack of jokers. Meanwhile, Wetch takes a breather to map the spread, then makes quick work of the table. He's lining up a last shot, and Galloway's already unscrewing his cue.

The win is a flawless combination of artful shot-making, battlefield strategy, and athletic style. Vintage Kid. Wetch is a hybrid--one of just a handful of young stars the old-school purists respect. That's because he excels at today's faster, more fashionable and less complicated games by mastering the basics many modern phenoms skip over. He's not a natural talent. He's a worker. He understands the math. He plays for the easiest shot in lieu of the spectacular. Put simply, he was taught the game by guys who knew straight pool.

Straight pool. That used to be the thing. Before instructional videos and made-for-TV challenge matches, that used to be the test. A player names his ball, calls its pocket, drops it, and earns a point. When one ball remains on the table, the other balls are pulled from their pockets and racked again. A player must then sink his last ball and send the cue ball crashing back into the rack to create another set of shots. Shooting until he misses, rack after rack, a player tries to be the first to pocket 150 balls. That's how a player wins at straight pool.

It's a game that has everything to do with position and patterns. The old-timers, they didn't bust up their first rack with a violent bang like today's 9-ball wizards and 8-ball champs. They didn't fall back on fancy trick shots when the going got tough, or master the geometry in a few short years. They didn't hope to win a match in a couple of hours. No. The greats tapped the rack gingerly, then carved it up, slicing off a ball at a time--their mind's eye mapping the next dozen shots, making sure not to leave much if they missed. Speed and power were for showoffs. Straight pool was about patience. One match could take all night.

 

Wetch understands all that. He learned early that the world revolves around the cue ball. That giving it just a touch more English or a tad more spin can spell the difference between winning and getting trounced. He knows how to control its speed. Exactly. He can make it stop on a dime's breath. He can make it slip and slide. He can make it dance.

Most importantly, though, The Kid sees patterns through the eyes of a straight-pool player. In 9-ball, which calls for order (make the 1-ball, then the 2, etc.), there are fewer combinations to learn and they are easier to see. In 8-ball, which is literally won or lost depending on who controls the break, the patterns are more complex, but they're as often the result of blind luck as of planning. In straight pool there are tens of thousands of patterns--patterns that, when everything's clicking, fall under a player's spell from first break to final point. They take even the gifted a decade to learn. Patterns can wear camouflage--a cluster-fuck that looks like chaos on the felt. And The Kid sees them. He owns them. It's his gift.

Just ask Lou Butera. Machine Gun Lou. Former straight-pool world champion.

Hall-of-Famer at 61. Owner of Pool Sharks, an out-of-the-way room in Vegas. He's two tables away from Wetch and Galloway, about to dispense with some hotshot juvie from NYC. He'll lose eventually--to some other hotshot juvie, some other "prodigy" with more power, more speed, more shot-making "talent." The eyes aren't what they used to be. The hands shake when he goes for the chalk. But he'll get through a few rounds on wits. Then he'll turn around and cheer for The Kid.

"There's no respect today. That's the problem," Butera grouses, sipping a cup of black coffee to jump-start the adrenaline. "The game's too fast. It used to be an observer would come up to you and say, 'Great shot on the 2-ball in the fifth game yesterday.' Now people can't remember what happened 20 minutes ago. So these kids, these kids who are at a championship level when they're 18, they don't get that respect we used to get. They just want to win, and win fast.

"But Jimmy Wetch. He knows how to concentrate. He's great now, sure. But he would've been great then, too. A lot of these guys, they wouldn't have lasted. They don't have the tools. They don't know their history. Jimmy Wetch? To me, Jimmy is an old-breed player in a new breed's body."

Camels. Two of them, right behind the Riviera Hotel, lounging poolside on a scrap of roped-in artificial grass. Chewing cud, they stare sleepily at a Tuesday evening crowd gearing up for a week's worth of mini-8-ball tournaments and nonprofessional 9-ball matches in the hotel's convention hall. Attracting thousands of barroom players from coast to coast, the amateur event is sponsored by Camel cigarettes. So to sell their product and, ostensibly, to get more natural-born fans upstairs to watch the pros battle in the ballroom, the promotions department at R.J. Reynolds has laid down a spread. There's gratis booze, free munchies, a billiard table afloat in the swimming pool, and an outdoor exhibition match featuring--who else?--Jeanette Lee, a world-ranked player on the women's tour that gets the gawk like any Playboy bunny. (Back at Jimmy's Billiards, when Jayme Sanford spots an airbrushed photo of Lee in Pool & Billiard magazine--jet black locks, high cheekbones, hourglass curves--he throws back his head in mock exasperation. "Look at that, man. Ouch!")

Ninety-six stories above the cocktail soiree, The Kid is losing his cool. Here he is, engaged in third-round battle with Claude Bernatchez--the 22nd best player on the tour--and the windows are vibrating. It's the amplifiers rocking by the pool. And this is a money round. The winner moves into the tournament's top 24 and, at the least, a $1,500 share of the purse. Under normal conditions, Wetch wouldn't think twice about such a piddly pot. He's played for 10 times as much, 100 times over. But the dull thud of the bass, the dwindling, restless crowd hopping on and off the elevators with free cups of beer, yakking about this and that...The Kid can't focus, can't find the zone.

The match is a nail-biter. Both players are missing routine shots. The cue ball won't behave. It's always a fraction off target, leaving Bernatchez and Wetch in the rough. Wetch is rolling his eyes, throwing up his arms, and cursing under his breath. The Zen-like rituals turn sour and give way to minor tantrums. During the first game, Wetch tells the tournament officials to turn on a CD to drown out the bass. During the second, he complains about their choice of music. By the third game he's begging them to shut the damn thing off.

 

Finally, in the seventh game, with the match tied at three, Wetch runs a rack of balls. The success settles him. His shoulders relax. He trances-out on the table, ignoring the surround-sound. He takes the match 7-4.

"You try not to get distracted," Wetch says, looking back on the win that's only minutes old. "But sometimes everything distracts you. This was one of those times." It's hard to know just what was crawling under The Kid's skin. He won't say. He never does. Maybe even he doesn't know. It could've been the money or the noise or the time of day. It might've been Bernatchez. He's very solid. He's beaten Wetch before. Still, it's a good bet that Wetch's mood had something to do with those camels.

"What Camel does is great, don't get me wrong," he says, referring to the shindig that's winding down below. "But this is about promoting cigarettes, not promoting pool players."

Camel's Pro Billiards Series has been controversial since it joined up with the Pro Billiards Tour. The PBT formed in 1991, and brought in guys like Johnny Archer and Buddy Hall who, until then, traveled solo from one event to another, organized and paid for by hit-and-run backers. Players didn't share in the profits from ticket revenues, sponsorships, or TV contracts; back then, they just paid the entry fees and fought it out for the prize. That all changed once the PBT got going. Players learned the business of pro pool--setting schedules, finding sponsors, formulating rankings. In a sense, they functioned as a union.

According to PBT head Don Mackey, Camel came on board as one of a few tour sponsors in 1996--the year Wetch went legit and professional pool enjoyed its renaissance: Tournaments got televised, purses grew, the fans multiplied. Everyone in this game, it seemed, was flush. Then in 1997, Mackey says, Camel used its financial muscle to take over management of the tour, and told the PBT to butt out--a move he calls "highway robbery." In short order, Camel's tournaments turned into the only game in town. You wanna win? Wanna make it big? Wanna play? Play Camel.

On May 6, 1998, the Pro Billiards Tour filed suit in U.S. District Court against Camel for breach of contract, fraud, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. "They're the minions of the deep," Mackey says. "They don't care about these players. All they care about is creating a delivery system to the last frontier: The last place you can smoke is in bars and billiard rooms."

Fans of Camel's high-profile sponsorship, pro player and ESPN commentator Allen Hopkins among them, pooh-pooh Mackey's bombast. They say Camel pulled away from the PBT because the organization was mismanaged to the point of corruption. They say Camel is the best thing that's ever happened to pro pool. And Don Mackey--sore loser status aside--is a dime-a-dozen con man. "He has all these [players] thinking Camel's the bad guys," Hopkins says. "They're making more money now than they've ever made in their life. They're all stars. Guys like Jimmy Wetch should be thrilled to death that people are coming up to him and getting an autograph."

Ultimately, the lawsuit's legalese is blurry; no doubt fodder for at least a decade's worth of appeals. But the sides in the dispute are clear: On one, Camel's legitimized the sport, just like it did with NASCAR racing. On the other, players from the PBT's early days remain loyal to Mackey. When competing at Camel events, they refuse to take part in autograph sessions organized by the company; around the tables, they wear a PBT patch on their sleeve in protest. Of the tour's top 20 players, 13 are allied with the PBT, including Jimmy Wetch.

Of this group, it's no secret that The Kid is among the most outspoken. His opponents know it. And Camel knows it. (When a Camel publicist found out I was shadowing Wetch in Vegas for a profile, she immediately encouraged me to seek out "other points of view," before the lawsuit was even mentioned. When R.J. Reynolds sent photos to City Pages of Wetch competing at the Riviera, they spin-doctored the shots by erasing his PBT patch.)

The old-timers understand Wetch's rebel stand. It's all working-class-hero, buck-the-system fire. "They're doing millions of dollars of business," Machine Gun Lou says of Camel. "The players are barely getting a dime. They're getting prostituted." Hell, Lou says, The Kid took up pool in the first place so he wouldn't have to call somebody Boss. He did it to get free.

 

The Kid knows what it's like to lose control, what it's like when someone else is calling the shots. That's why he's a card-carrying member of the PBT. That's the reason he never wants to go back to hustling when the bills come due. Oh sure, he'll put money down if some shooter wanders into his pool hall, his turf, and asks for a game. Sure, he'll fly here or there--Kansas City, San Antonio--to play a challenge match. As long as he knows the players. As long as he's playing with someone else's money--someone he trusts.

Wetch doesn't want to end up wandering some dive pool room with a burnt-out chest full of glory days and war stories, his stomach bloated, cancer gutting his lungs, an ulcer where his stomach was and nothing but lint lining his pockets. He's already lived on that side of the tracks. He escaped once, and he's not going back.

Scott "The Shot" Smith, a long-time vet of the game who's currently contracted to direct tournaments for Camel, remembers Wetch's darkest hours in the early '90s, just before he joined the pro tour: "When Joe [Saad] died, Jimmy ended up running with an element I didn't have respect for. He traveled through the South with a Johnny somebody, who was a gangster. He wasn't in it to aspire. He was in it to rob suckers."

Near the end of his downward spiral, somewhere in Texas--Wetch won't say exactly when or where--two guys mugged him. They'd followed him back to his hotel just before daybreak, after he'd cleaned up on a late-night money game. They stuck a gun in his face and shook him down. All they left in The Kid's pocket was a rubber band.

Hustlers can't dial 911, so Wetch called on some old-timers, did some research, and mapped a way up from where he'd bottomed out. "I talked to him long-distance," Smith recalls. "He reached a fork in the road. And I said, 'Man, you can't be the best until you play the best.' After that, when he started to come on tour, he dedicated himself to excellence."

By the close of 1996, Wetch was walking on clouds he'd only been dreaming about since he first touched a cue 15 years earlier. He won his first pro tournament, in front of a sold-out house, on national television, where the lights burn and the pressure cooks. Then, with little warning, a kind of dullness set in. "Somehow, it didn't fulfill me," he says. "I knew I wanted to play, but something was missing."

Wetch's thoughts turned to his idol, Mike Sigel. Here's a guy, retired at 42 in Florida, fashioning cues for a living in the endless sun. Around the table, no one played with more grace or precision than Sigel did. When he left the game, he left a winner. Then he started a business. Now his money's clean and his future golden. What more could a man want?

Not much, Wetch figured, but you've got to leave the game on top. In early 1997 he set about memorizing a new set of patterns, and struck out in search of ways to beat his only worthy opponent left--himself. He studied The Inner Game of Tennis, a guide to spiritual enlightenment through sport. He listened to Tony Robbins's self-help tapes. He committed to daily workouts on the treadmill. "If you're not going to do it all the way, why do it at all?" Wetch says now, sounding a bit like a motivational guru himself, speaking to an audience of one.

Then, to make sure no one would ever own him--not Camel, not some sleazy bookie, not even the PBT--Wetch called his friend of 16 years, David Wagner, a 37-year-old engineer with a love for pool and a mind for business. Together, along with a third partner, the two cobbled together enough cash to open Jimmy's Pro Billiards on November 20, 1997.

Now Wetch can hold court like a champion, dropping insider knowledge on some of the state's best junior players who often come by for a round. At Jimmy's he can practice until dawn, while his buddies make silly bets. There he can schedule, promote, and play exhibition matches with other pros. All he has to do is hang up the posters, roll out the bleachers, and hundreds--old-timers and new recruits alike---show up. There he can work side-by-side with his father, Jimmy Sr., a retired painter who keeps watch on the place during the day, and brags about his son ("He's my best friend") to anyone in earshot.

 

At Jimmy's Pro Billiards, The Kid can grow old in style.

After blowing past fifth-seeded Jim "King James" Rempe in Wednesday night's fourth round match-up (7-2), Wetch is set to play Howard Vickery on Thursday afternoon. It's a good draw for The Kid. Ranked 44th, the middle-aged Vickery has seen better days. He's strategically sound, but can't always find the nerve to finish an opponent. Once the match kicks off, though, Wetch starts to steam--again.

By 5:15 p.m. the ordeal is well over two hours old and tied at five. Whoever wins plays in the quarterfinals at 7:30. Before each shot, Vickery checks his angles. He paces about, chalks his cue, checks his angles again. If there were a shot clock, he'd be disqualified. There isn't. He chalks again.

Wetch squirms in his chair. "Obviously, he's afraid of my run-out ability," he murmurs between his teeth. "This shouldn't be allowed. It's unbelievable."

Every time Vickery's in trouble, he pushes the cue ball out of Wetch's reach--a chess match for cowards. It's a painful ordeal for The Kid, who anyone with a head for pool can tell is the better player.

Still, while Wetch stews, a few fans in the near-capacity crowd get behind Vickery.

"Let's go Howard," one guy shout-whispers. "Make him pay."

Ahead six games to five, one game from victory, Vickery laps the table three times, looks to be lining up a shot, then laps the table again. Wetch starts to howl.

"C'mon, Howard."

"Stop."

"You stop."

"No, you stop."

Referee Smith, noticing the tension, ambles over with an unlit cigar clenched in his jaw. Wetch delivers a half-sentence of complaint, then retreats. Vickery does the same. Smith looks them both over, gives a shrug, and turns back. "That reminded me a bit of when Jimmy was younger," Smith says later. "He used to be a big baby. When he was younger, he was whining about this and that. I'd say, 'Just save it, man. You need to come in here and take care of business.'"

Wetch does just that. As expected, Vickery spoils his chance to close the door--pocketing his last solid but leaving the cue ball at a poor angle behind one of Wetch's stripes. The Kid cleans the table, then puts everything he has into the next break. A ball drops on the snap. Vickery's done. 7-6.

Later, Wetch says it didn't bother him to fall behind. It didn't bother him that his game wasn't well-oiled. But Vickery's pace, his refusal to be aggressive, touched a nerve. Back on the road, if you wanted respect, you never pulled that kind of shit unless you were hustling. And if you were hustling, well, even then the tactic probably wouldn't have worked. "I don't know what you call that," The Kid says, shaking his head like an old-timer. "But it wasn't pool."

Eight-ball, today's sweetheart game at the local pub, isn't played much by professionals. It's also not widely respected by those in the know. In Byrne's Standard Book of Pool and Billiards, a beginner's bible, the game is discounted as an "inadequate test" of skill. In a sense, though, 8-ball--like Wetch--is a hybrid. In this game, power players (9-ballers) must worry much more about the nuances of position. Position players (straight-pool shooters) have to generate a powerful break, or leave their opponents to step in and control the table.

Wetch--possessing both strength and finesse--knows he stands a good chance of winning this, the only 8-ball tournament on Camel's annual calendar. Still, Vegas bookmakers will tell you that when things whittle down to six or eight players, luck plays an unpredictable role in the proceedings. A match can literally be decided by a stray ball, bumping off other balls on the break, finding a pocket by chance.

By the time Wetch makes it into the semifinals against Johnny Archer on Friday, the odds are too close to call. The two play nip-and-tuck. Scottie Smith calls it one of the closest, best-contested matches of the tournament. When it's tied at five, though, Wetch leaves himself a tricky shot, and misses. Archer takes advantage, wins, then sinks a ball on the next break. The balls are spread nicely, and he runs the table. Wetch just sits on the sidelines watching.

Since it's double-elimination, and The Kid is undefeated, there's one more match before the final: Wetch vs. Bustamante. Bustamante is on fire. This has nothing to do with luck. The No. 2-ranked player just does everything right. Again, Wetch spends the last four games of the match as a spectator. What could've been an afternoon in the $15,000 winner's circle turns into a respectable, but disappointing, $6,000 payday. The Kid takes third in the Pro 8-Ball Open and steps his world ranking from fifth to fourth. Tomorrow, he catches a plane home.

 

"I hear he wants to play for some serious money," Jimmy Wetch Sr. says, pointing to a skinny, mustached stranger across the room at Jimmy's Pro Billiards. "I hope Jimmy gets here soon."

It's Monday evening, three days after The Kid's loss in Vegas. When he finally arrives around 8 p.m., he shakes the upstart's hand and shoos him away. The man says he'll come back later. Wetch checks to see if anyone's listening in. Later.

A big, white banner hangs on a wall behind the cash register: Congratulations Jimmy!! 3rd Place at the Riviera Hotel Pro 8-Ball Open. Look closer and you'll see that the "3rd" has been scrawled on a scrap of construction paper and glued over the "1st." When Wetch called on Thursday night, his father had a feeling. He was sure his son was going to win.

No one at Jimmy's seems to hold it against The Kid, though. There's a 9-ball tournament about to get under way, and a room full of fuzzy-faced adolescents--studded cue cases slung over their shoulders, smokes stuck in their soda-stained lips--sizing each other up, laying side bets, talking tough. While Wetch messes with a practice rack at his favorite corner table, one of the teenagers comes by to let Jimmy know he's heard the news. He looks to be about 13.

"Great tournament, Jimmy."

"Thanks."

Wetch strolls off to chat with his old man, leaving his $3,500 cue on the felt. The kid swivels around to see if anyone's looking, then touches the stick's decorative ivory. He doesn't pick it up. Doesn't disturb it. He just brushes it with his fingers--a passing touch--and goes back to his game.


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