Pool champ has a few tricks up his sleeve

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"Poker has been the phenomenon of the 2004 television ratings," says ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle. "Some people think a certain amount of that is due to the reality-TV lore; there are everyday people doing something a viewer can relate to that is receiving a great reward a viewer can dream about."

Even many in billiards circles agree that poker is the hot draw.

"Poker is definitely everywhere on TV," says Amy Long, director of marketing for the Billiard Congress of America, which is based in Colorado.

"I think it's the flavor of the month, maybe of the year," she adds. "People are either watching poker or reality TV; it's either Texas Hold 'Em or eating worms."

Long says the BCA hopes to follow poker's lead in televising a celebrity pool tournament. She says the group is working on a venue and a date for the tournament and hopes to make an announcement next month.

"You can't argue with [poker's] popularity," she says.

That popularity has extended to college campuses as well; poker is played for hours a day by thousands in dorm rooms and fraternity and sorority houses. Adding to the frenzy is the College Poker Championship, a worldwide online event that began with satellite rounds in August. The final will be held online in May, with a first prize of $41,000.

Orem says that the UMBC Student Events Board stages about two poker events a year, drawing an average of about 40 students.

He says that the board's Casino Night, at which poker is among several games played, draws about 800 students. But he adds that each night students play poker in their dorm rooms.

Marty Rossman says that as she and her husband have visited colleges, they've been told that increasing numbers of students are now staying in their rooms playing poker rather than taking up other pastimes.

"It's really sad," she says.

The gap between spectator and participant isn't as wide in poker as it is in pool; among the thrills of watching trick shots is knowing they can't be done by just anyone.

That might be Rossman's biggest obstacle in making artistic pool as popular as poker. So the American Poolplayers Association's Web site (www.poolplay ers.com) demonstrates many of his signature shots via film clips, and some leave you with an appreciation for how much time he spends working at his craft.

On one shot, he places an eight ball before a corner pocket, two balls before an adjacent side pocket, then from the opposite end of the table, he stands a coin before the corner pocket and pokes it at the balls.

The coin rolls past the side-pocket balls and bumps the eight ball into the pocket.

The APA Web site illustrates how many of his trick shots are made. His personal Web site offers instruction services and game-improvement products.

Rossman believes that while some observers might figure that such shots require more time than they're willing to invest, those passionate about the game will at least know the fundamentals.

"Then what happens is that [artistic pool] attracts those thousands of people who are more appropriately oriented for the sport," he says.

"If you're there and watching somebody perform all these top shots, and you don't think you can do them, you don't get the attraction of the Texas Hold 'Em.

"With Texas Hold 'Em, everybody thinks they can do it. You can get the cards. We want you to think that you can get the cards in artistic pool."

Long says that Rossman's game already serves a purpose in making practice entertaining. "We always see strong participation by junior players when they go to national events because it adds an element of fun and expertise to practice routine."

Whether artistic pool will catch on at UMBC is anyone's guess. Yet Rossman's visit will at least have a short-term impact. "Anytime my friends and I watch artistic pool on TV we get that urge to go out and try it," says Dennis. "It's the same reason why poker is extremely big now as compared to last year."

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