Pool champ has a few tricks up his sleeve

Following poker's lead, his goal is to rack up a much bigger fan base

December 07, 2004|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

Tom "Dr. Cue" Rossman staged his seven-hour, trick-shot pool exhibition in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Commons game room, which meant he competed against televisions, Ping-Pong tables, computers and video games for students' attention.

It took more than a rapid-fire scattering of balls into side and corner pockets to make him the focal point.

He had to take his shoes off.

As about 30 students watched with curiosity last week, the World Masters Trick Shot champion stood a shoe heel-side-down against a platform about 3 feet from the table.

Then after two unsuccessful tries, Rossman thrust his cue stick tip at the ball with such precision that the sphere leaped off the table, arced downward and plopped into his shoe.

"Whoaaaaa!" yelled a few stunned students over a rousing ovation.

"You like that?" asked the smiling showman.

Their elation drew others to the table, and even when Rossman misfired (often following his errs with the facetious response, "Oh, I meant to do that"), his audience eagerly awaited his next attempt at billiards magic.

"Everyone's going to be imitating him for the next two to three weeks or so," says Russell Orem, coordinator for the UMBC Student Events Board, the group that invited Rossman to campus.

"I've tried some of [Rossman's] shots many times," says Rich Dennis, a junior from Sykesville. "Sometimes I make them."

Rossman, 55, has led the way in vaulting artistic pool - the art making of trick shots - from a pastime enjoyed by billiard professionals to a sport played around the world, more popular in some circles than the game that spawned it.

He loads his coast-to-coast exhibition tour with stops on college campuses, well aware that cable TV, the Internet and the Xbox have helped to make today's collegians part of a generation that prefers its fun and games sitting down.

And, lately they've been pulling up chairs in large numbers for the latest national craze - poker, particularly the Texas Hold 'Em variety.

Mention Texas Hold 'Em to Rossman or his wife and manager, Marty (known as Ms. Cue), and you'll get mixed responses. She's concerned that billiards' popularity has waned because of poker.

But he believes that artistic pool, if promoted properly, can ride the poker wave and ultimately become the next big thing.

"Artistic pool will be within the next two to five years the Texas Hold 'Em," says Rossman. "Right now we don't have it because the average person can see people playing Texas Hold 'em and say, `I can do that.'

"Right now, when they see artistic pool they don't say they think they can do it because they think the shots are too hard.

"But I'm going into private promotional work, and in that work, we're evolving a situation where they can see the shots and think they can make it. I'm making my efforts in that area to get that done. That's my focus."

Rossman's passion for billiards can be traced back to his childhood in Cloverdale, Ind., where he was a rack boy for pool halls. He then took up the sport in high school and played regularly while at Eastern Illinois University.

"While he was there he saw a trick shot by an upperclassman and he fell in love with it," says Marty Rossman. "He started reading as many books as he could, ... asking questions and learning from that point on."

Rossman runs instructional academies for the game and is one of the founders of artistic pool. The term was derived from a training product Rossman invented in 1990. Artistic pool became a sport in 2000 when it was endorsed and sanctioned by the Billiard Congress of America and the World Pool-Billiard Association.

Competitions were held for amateurs at other championship billiards events as early as 1993, and the game became a professional sport in 2000.

"We have different shot categories and nine championship levels at each event," says Rossman. "You can be an overall champion or a champion of a particular discipline."

Rossman is among 69 players on the International Artistic Poolplayers Association tour, where he is ranked third in the world.

The sport is as colorful as the balls players deposit into pockets, and nicknames are common. Among those on tour are Charles "Spitball Charlie" Darling from Missouri; Kaiser "The Visa" Marcell of Germany; and Lucasz "Cool Hand Luke" Szywala of Poland.

They compete in tour events around the world. Top prize for this year's Master's Artistic Pool Championship, a worldwide event, was $3,100, whereas the North American Championship awarded a top prize of $1,000.

The sport's popularity mushroomed with television shows such as ESPN's Trick Shot Magic. Rossman won the 2002 title at ESPN Zone in Baltimore.

The same network launched poker telecasts, and recently its reality-television version of the World Series of Poker has helped to make poker a national sensation.

ESPN says it enjoyed "unprecedented television ratings and viewership" with its 2003 telecast, which it says garnered an average of 1 million viewing households.

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