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Good Sport

Jason Togyer

Rack 'em Up

The game that starts with a break

 John McCormick
Old men wearing arm garters and green eyeshades stand around the battered table. Smoke hangs in the air. The light from the cut-glass lamp reveals a pile of greasy twenties on the rail.

To the chagrin of the Billiards Congress of America, which sanctions pool in the United States, this is still the game’s reputation. “The back alley image is part of the history of pool,” says John McCormick, a junior majoring in marketing at Pitt. “It gives it a little character." Today, though, the game is mainstream, with nationally televised contests and the International Olympic Committee considering a proposal to add billiards to the 2004 Summer Games.

At Pitt there are games in the William Pitt Union on Thursday nights—where 40 or so student-players rack ’em up for tournaments sponsored by the Pitt Billiards Club. McCormick is the president.

“It’s a great atmosphere. There’s no pressure.” That’s Mike Ginsburg, a junior from Trafford, Pennsylvania, majoring in computer science and another member of the club. Ginsburg met his roommate playing billiards. “With a common interest, it’s really easy to make friends,” he says.

Club member Andrea Sudik, a junior marketing major from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, started playing billiards seven years ago. “I like the confidence that comes from being able to do something that not a lot of women are exposed to,” she says of the game that demands finesse and an instinct for geometry. “You have to be able to concentrate when there’s a lot going on around you.”

Pool halls are still around, of course, like the one in suburban Philadelphia that McCormick visited at age 12, not long after his father had taught him the basics of the game. A grandfatherly chap at the pool hall showed McCormick the finer points of the game. He seemed like just another kindly old man. He turned out to be five-time world champion Jimmy Caras, then in his 80s. Caras introduced McCormick to another local youngster—Corey Deuel, who’s now one of the best professional pool players in the United States.

With those influences, how could McCormick fail? Today, he’s among the top college players in the Northeast. Last spring, he represented Pitt at the Association of College Unions International championship in Bloomington, Indiana. Melissa Zgola, the regional women’s champ and a master’s student in Pitt’s School of Information Sciences, also competed. While neither won top prize, McCormick says the tournament was about more than taking home trophies.

“It’s a bunch of college students hanging out to play pool,” he says. “You can’t go wrong there.”

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