Pool of Dreams

A fine line separates champs from the hacks.

So there she was, standing in the vast ballroom at the Las Vegas Riviera at the North American Eight Ball Championships last May, and Conifer resident Christine Honeman knew she was toast. She knew it with such certainty that she couldn't even look at the table. The shots that were going to flush her were so unbearably simple that a sloshed hacker in the corner tavern could stroke them between gulps. The balls formed a perfect triangle. The cue ball was the tip of the triangle, in the lower middle of the table. It was lined up dead-on with the other woman's final ball and the corner pocket. The eight sat poised in front of the opposite corner, waiting for a finishing kiss.

It was more than a disappointment; it was as if she had been betrayed. The tournament, which 500 women had entered, had started so auspiciously for Honeman that her success had seemed predestined. Before the real action began, on Saturday, small mini-contests had sprung up all over the hotel. There had been nothing at stake -- just a series of warmups for the real competition. Honeman had entered one intending to buff her poise. Instead, she recalls, "I just sucked. I got crushed." But instead of crumpling, allowing the confidence to dribble out of her, she retreated to her room to regroup and reflect. "And it was at that point that I felt I got some spiritual guidance -- that there were folks around me giving me good energy, keeping me focused," she explains. "It was amazing. I just knew what I had to do. It was a sense of peace."

Moments of revelation -- even religious ones related to billiards -- will take you only so far, however; you still have to get out of the chair and shoot. And so Honeman also had taken some time to chew over in her mind what she needed to fix. "I had still been thinking over the ball," she concluded. "Before you shoot, you make all your decisions on how you're going to shoot -- the speed, what kind of English, the kind of stroke. It's easier said than done, but doing all that before you get over the ball allows you to let go of everything else when you get down onto the shot."

Stroke it: Christine Honeman carries a big stick.
Anthony Camera
Stroke it: Christine Honeman carries a big stick.

The vision and the shooting adjustment had carried her through the first two days of the tournament in style. She'd had a single match on Saturday evening, another on Sunday, and had cruised through both of them. Monday was rougher. She had been sick all day -- a stomach bug from the flu, or maybe it was the water, which all of her friends had told her to avoid but which she'd heard only after emptying out her guts. Even with the illness, though, Honeman had played strong, streaking through half a dozen matches, until she ran into a woman named Lisa Marr.

The match was late in the day, and Honeman was exhausted. At times she'd felt ready to faint. Yet the two women had gone hill-hill -- three games apiece -- before Honeman finally went down in the seventh and final game of the first-one-to-four match. "I just pooped out," she remembers. "I couldn't focus anymore. I just didn't have the energy."

Still, the North American Eight Ball Championships are double-elimination, so Honeman had one more shot to get to the finals, through the loser's bracket. After the loss to Marr, she'd gone back up to her room and called room service to deliver some soup. She'd gulped four bottles of Gatorade. When she woke up on Tuesday morning, she felt replenished, revived -- and oddly calm, despite being only one loss away from a long flight back to Conifer.

Now this. She was two ridiculously simple shots from oblivion. She and the woman had gone hill-hill, and although she lost, Honeman would still finish in the money. "I thought, 'Well, eighth place -- that's not so bad.'" That's what she told herself, without really meaning it at all.

The thrill of non-athletic sports -- think billiards, bowling, golf, curling -- is that, occasionally, even a hacker is capable of achieving momentary brilliance. You may be too short to ever attain basketball immortality, and maybe your genetically heavy feet prevent you from threatening any track records. But you can, at any random time, roll a strike, run the table or hit an iron to within a couple inches of the pin. (This is also the agony of such sports. If, after making a sixty-foot putt you miss a four-footer, then you want to hurl the putter, because how could someone who just sunk a twelve-yarder miss a gimme? It's easy to forget that such moments are arbitrary.)

But after a few beers those flashes of success can make a person start to fantasize: If I really put my mind to it and, for a specific period of time, dedicated my life to the sport -- really, really tried -- couldn't I, too, be a professional? How much could it take to bowl for a living, or shoot pool?

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