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01-23-2005, 03:12 AM
Bring on the billiards


Amateur tournament draws tough competition, and one player admits, 'I'd rather play pool than eat'

By JIMMY NESBITT Courier & Press staff writer 464-7501 or nesbittj@courierpress.com
January 23, 2005

Great basketball players perfect their skills in empty gyms, practicing free-throws into the wee hours of the night. Great pool players are made at night too, in crowded bars, where hawking hustlers lurk at every corner.

Some play for money, but most crave the competition. "You're not actually playing one person," Eric Schulz said. "You're playing the table." Schulz, one of 184 men vying for the $1,700 first-place prize in the Arthritis Foundation's 19th annual 8-Ball Classic at Casino Aztar's Conference Center, sent a text message through his cell phone to a friend before the tournament began.

"Do you have your game face on?" he typed. Schulz did. The 32-year-old Dale, Ind., resident arrived Saturday wearing a gray New York Yankees hat. Without a hat, Schulz said, his focus wanders. "It's that comfort zone," said Schulz, whose pool career began at age 14 in a local pizza joint, where he battled his three older brothers for sibling supremacy. Can he beat them now? "Yeah," Schulz said with a confident grin. "Definitely." The three-day tournament draws billiard enthusiasts from all over the Midwest. This year, the 8-Ball Classic drew a record 41 women, said Janice A. Johnson, director of the Arthritis Foundation's Southern Indiana branch. Johnson hopes to raise $27,000 through player fees, donations and silent auctions. About 70 percent of the money will go to the foundation, she said. "There are some players here who could compete on the professional circuit," Johnson said. A few professionals have snuck into the tournament, which is only for amateurs, and won, she said. The fierce competition has caused a few fights too.

"Every now and then, I have to flex my muscles," Johnson said. The men's and women's brackets will be narrowed today to 16 men and eight women. On Saturday, spectators crowded around the wooden tables - 20 in all - whispering scores around the room.

"I just love it," Michelle English said after a victory.

English, 32, of Crofton, Ky, has won the last two women's tournaments. "It's a fun game, and it's competitive," said English, who honed her game while working at a pool hall. The double-elimination tournament attracts some of the best players in the state, several people said. Everyone brings their own cue, and many bring a backup. In one corner of the room, several people gathered around Dennis Schnell, 57, to watch him work the table. Schnell coolly banked the 2-ball off the rail and into a corner pocket and then blew an easy shot. He took a seat and tapped his cue on the ground in frustration. The average player misses five times a game, Schnell said before his match. "Here, it's once a game."

Schnell and his wife, Carol, operate an Evansville league, the American Poolplayers Association. The league has about 800 members. About 100 played in the 8-Ball classic, he estimated. In high school, Schnell would leave at lunch and spend his dollar at a pool hall.

"I'd rather play pool than eat," he said.