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."
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?
And then...nothing. The discussion ends, the bar closes, and you drive home. You sober up, and you're not so brave anymore. You've got a steady job to go to, which is nice. Sports are unpredictable, and when it comes down to it, you, like everyone else, are satisfied enough to wait for the next passing moment of athletic beauty to fall upon you as an accidental gift from the gods. After all, if you really tried, the question of whether you could run with the pros would be answered.
But what if you actually did try?
Christine Honeman didn't play her first game of pool until college in Oklahoma, when she roomed with another woman who had her own table. She loved the game from the start. There was the competition, of course. She'd always been a game-player -- soccer, softball, cards, board games. Anything that produced a winner and loser at the end was fine with her.
But she also loved the setting of billiards. The glossy colored balls rolling true on a meadow of green felt. The strangely delicate "click" of the balls striking each other and the silky slip of the cue through her hands. The deliberate pace of the players as they circled the table eyeing the positions of the balls, mentally measuring the geometry of a shot. Everything about pool seemed so smooth.
She moved to Denver in 1990 and, lonely for companionship, joined a pool league with a near-beginner's rank of three. In most handicapped pool leagues, players are ranked from two to seven. What that means is that to win a match, a No. 2 must win two games before her No. 7 opponent wins seven. A three is a decent-enough shooter, capable of a few good shots and thinking a stroke ahead, two at the most. But she has only spotty consistency and, more crucial, little control of the cue ball.
Honeman quickly became a student of the game, always on the prowl for someone better to watch and then copy. "I really paid attention to their playing -- their shot selection, how they moved the cue ball from one shot to another -- and then I'd try it myself." Usually she played twice a week, although at times she rearranged her schedule so she could play in three leagues simultaneously. By 1995 she was ranked a four, and she entered her first tournament, at the Billiard Institute on Colfax Avenue. She came in third out of 130 entrants. But then she stalled.
She marked time for two years before finally breaking through. Part of her success could have come from the bar table she installed in her small foothills cabin. With its thin, torn felt and spongy rails, it hosted lousy pool. But the repetition helped, and in 1997 she finally won her first local tournament.
She kept at it. Pool is less a game of physical motion than one that rewards conservation of motion, so Honeman kept paring her game at its ragged edges. "For example, when I was trying to draw, I'd just poke at the ball and then jump up. I'd just freak out. There was nothing smooth about it."
Beyond that, there was always more work to be done on disciplining the mind. After a certain level of mechanical proficiency, the glitches to which a player falls victim more likely than not will be mental ones. Even the errors that at first appear to be physical tics can be traced to lapses in concentration. For example, Honeman says, "Some people, when they're in a run, they start moving faster and faster until they are almost running around the table. It's a mental thing, controlling your body." Other players let down their psychological guard at the most illogical times, during the simplest shots. "Which is why you've got to take every shot seriously, even a dink. You've got to give every shot its fair shake."
Oddly, one of the most common mental mistakes -- even among experienced players -- can pop up right at the moment that should be a player's exact instant of triumph, as if she has been holding her breath all match and then let it go just a few seconds too early. "I've really struggled with making the last ball, the money shot," says Honeman. "I can consistently run the table, and then I'll just have a brain fart -- it's frustrating. A lot of people have that problem. It's a matter of overcoming the emotion of, 'My God! I'm this close!' It's a matter of, 'How badly do you want to win?'"
Honeman took a final look at the woman about to send her home. As Katrina Lyman walked over to the table with triumph in her face, Honeman turned her back and awaited elimination. She closed her eyes.
But instead of the cheers that accompany a hard-fought victory, the crowd just...sighed. And Honeman whipped around to see that Lyman had muffed the shot.
Maybe she let her body go too soon and hurried to the shot because she could see the finish line so clearly ahead of her. Maybe she stopped concentrating a few seconds too early. Whatever it was, "she just freaked out," Honeman recalls. The cue ball was so badly misstroked, in fact, that it hopped up, became airborne, popped over the target ball and rolled into the corner pocket. "That's when it solidified in my mind," says Honeman, "that I could win this thing."
She finished out the match and then cruised through the next three easily. The finals were held on Tuesday evening. The ballroom had been filled with hundreds of players shooting at maybe two hundred tables, but now there were only three matches, each packed tight with spectators: The men's finals, the men's masters finals, and the ladies' open championship.
Honeman met Marr again. This time, however, Honeman was well and she had gained strength as she'd marched through the loser's bracket. Even though she had to beat Marr twice in a row, the match was over quickly, and it was no contest. The Colorado contingent, which had traveled to Nevada to play and to watch, exploded in applause and cheers. That evening, Honeman accepted the first-place check for $4,000 and a guaranteed return trip to next year's tournament, all expenses paid. It was glorious.
There was only one problem. "Coming back home," she says, "it was difficult to think that ordinary life would continue." And so -- it is here that Christine Honeman, 34, made her departure from the ordinary, fearful dreamer -- she decided it wouldn't. "I just said, 'I want to do this. I want to do this. I don't want to go to Denver every day to my job. I want to play pool.' Nothing else mattered."
At the end of last year, Honeman found what she'd been looking for since her victory in May -- a home-based business that would leave her plenty of time to concentrate on pool. Three months ago she quit her job at the state Department of Labor and Employment and drove home to the mountains, to her house with the new pool table, ready to try to break into the world of professional billiards. Another victory at this May's championships -- where Honeman will play at the masters' level -- would propel her onto the qualifying circuit for professional matches. After that, she hopes it's a steady climb up the professional rankings.
It could happen.
Honeman nods to the table. "So, you wanna play some?"
Two years ago she moved to a new house, a half-hour drive farther away from Denver. She wanted a full-sized table to practice on, but there was no place to put it until a friend recommended framing in the carport to make a billiards room, so that's what she did.
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You must pass through the room to get into Honeman's house. It is plastered with plaques and trophies commemorating numerous pool victories. A blown-up photo of Paul Newman in The Hustler is tacked up on one wall. Above it is an autographed eight-by-ten of an older man leaning deep into a shot. This is "Fast" Eddie Felson, the man who inspired the movie, the original hustler. Next to that is another autographed picture, of Vivian Villareal, a professional ladies' champ; and, a little bit farther down the wall, an autographed shot of Janette Lee, another top shooter, holding a cue and leaning against a motorcycle in front of the Las Vegas skyline. "To Chris and Kathy," she wrote. "Play hard." (Kathy is Honeman's roommate. She is an excellent player in her own right.)
Honeman shoots with a two-piece custom cue stick, handmade by Roland Becker, a Fort Collins craftsman. It has a blue-threaded grip, faux mother-of-pearl inlaid feathers decorating the butt -- "I like to watch birds" -- and a delicate balance you will not find in bar cues. She lends me a McDermott to use. It's her table, so she breaks. Her break is loud and dispersive, but she comes up empty, and I hit a couple of balls in before missing a long straight shot to the corner and returning the table to her.
Honeman's fingers are long and slender. She bridges the cue on top of her left hand rather than using the more affected and fastidious style of curling her index finger around it in a circle. When she strokes a shot, her right arm swings like a pendulum from the elbow down, the humerus and shoulder locked close to her body. She runs six straight, then misses a sharp cut. Surprising both of us, I finish out the table, and then, in the next game, do it again. She wants to play more, but I unsportingly decide to stop on a rare positive note. Besides, we both know it's a fluke -- that in match play, in front of a crowd and with something on the line, I wouldn't stand a chance.
Of course I know this. And yet, as I drive away from Honeman's house, I get to thinking about some of my shots, how awfully good they were, and I can't help wondering: If I put my mind to it -- I mean, really, really tried...