Pointing to the far pocket of the pool table, John Brown leaned in close to a younger teammate and explained how cue control can help him stay several steps ahead of his opponent.
Brown, 52, is considered one of Augusta’s best eight ball players. Last summer, his team made it through four of the American Pool Association’s six championship rounds in Las Vegas and won $1,000.
Recently, the mechanical engineer from Evans, who uses his knowledge of physics to spin his way past even the most difficult shots, was putting together another national title run at Robbie’s Sports Bar off Washington Road.
His protégé, first-year pool player Tommy Kitchens, 21, guided the 13 ball to block the far pocket. On his next turn, he made the shot and used the momentum to win the match.
“Nice coaching, John,” said teammate Cody McIntosh, 56, of Augusta, who has 20 years’ experience to Brown’s 30.
Once thought to be a dying sport, billiards is making a comeback in Augusta.
The city’s professional league has more than doubled its number of master players, those who rank in the top two skill levels, and in the past six months has had six more teams join the APA’s Augusta roster.
Jennifer Hitchcock, 46, of Grovetown, is captain of one of the league’s 16 teams from Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties that play weekly at a dozen area bars, including Wagon Wheel in North Augusta and Rack and Grill in Martinez.
Her squad’s name, Five Can, Eight is Great, explains the main format of league play.
“Each team can have up to eight players, but only five are allowed to play per night,” said Hitchcock, a six-year pro.
Hitchcock said the league operates on three 15-week sessions, and in the spring, the top three teams that survive a playoff advance to the regionals in Columbia to compete among the nearly 200 in the Georgia-Carolina district for a spot in the national finals in Vegas and a chance to win $25,000.
To keep an even playing field, each person’s skill level is ranked on a scale of three to seven for eight ball and three to nine for nine ball. On any given night, teams can only play two senior players, those with skill levels of six or higher, and their total combined skill value cannot exceed 23.
“It’s a lot of work,” Hitchcock said of winning. “You have to strategize.”
At each meeting, teams flip a coin, and the winner of the toss gets to choose which players compete in the first match. In eight ball, a series of games decides the winner, and in nine ball a point system decides the victor. In each format, higher-skilled players must win more games or earn more points.
“You don’t always want to match up even skill levels,” Hitchcock said. “Sometimes you might gamble and put a two up against a seven in hopes of a beginner outrunning a master pool player.”
Augusta’s league has come a long way from the hustlers who used to fill pool halls. A 121-page rule book that is strict about sportsmanship guides their play. Smoking is prohibited at the pool table. Dress codes are enforced at regional and national tournaments. Lower-skilled players get two timeouts per game, and the seniors get one. All players must mark the pocket of their winning eight ball shots with an object or coin to prevent confusion.
Beyond knowing the rules, players also must know the many techniques. Some wear gloves to prevent dirt and oil from interfering with their grip. All carry two sticks, one with a stiffer shaft and stronger tip to transfer energy for the game’s opening break and a second that’s more flexible and has a softer tip to spin the cue for regular play.
“A lot of people hit around and develop bad habits, but the one advantage here is you are playing with a team,” Brown said. “They share knowledge because they are not competing.”
Theresa Martin, 41, of Waynesboro, Ga., has played as a member of Hitchcock’s team for 2½ years. She said the most valuable skill she learned was “safeties,” a move where players trap an opponent’s ball behind their own to force a table scratch.
Other players’ techniques are not as complicated.
“Break and run,” said McIntosh, 56, of Augusta. “Make as many as you can and then hide the rest.”
McIntosh, who finished 33rd in singles nationally in 2007, said the beauty about pool is anybody can win, regardless of skill level.
Martin, who has a skill level of four, said her team lost in regionals by a point last year, after coming from behind to force a tiebreaker match. She said the loss only strengthened her desire to reach Vegas, where teams from as far away as Canada and Japan compete.
“I can only imagine what it would be like in Vegas,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Hitchcock said to her teammate. “We are going to get there.”