Amy Ralston leaned over the pool table, eyeing the cue and eight balls intently. She set her cue stick on her left hand, lined up her shot, then removed the stick and walked to the far side of the table. Lips pursed, she studied the table again. Then she moved to the head of the table, sliding a coaster along the table's rails as she tried to choose a pocket for the eight ball.
Ralston, 37, is a skill level three player; her opponent, 57-year-old Chadha Uttamjeet, is a level seven. But by league rules, she needed to win only two games yesterday before her opponent won six to take the set. And if she sank this shot, she would send her team - Giddy-Up - to Las Vegas.
The trip is a prize sought by all 108 local amateur pool teams in the Maryland American Poolplayers Association 8-Ball and 9-Ball National Qualifier Tournament. After kicking off this weekend, the playoffs will continue July 7-9 with a second round of matchups for those knocked out this time around. The top 28 teams - plus five randomly chosen wildcards - will qualify for the American Poolplayers Association National Team Championships, to be held Aug. 18-26 at the Riviera Hotel and Casino.
Terry Justice, who has run a local Maryland league with his wife, Valerie, for 22 years, credited the handicapping system and unpredictable competitive structure with keeping players interested in the sport.
"It allows us to dig deeper down into the pile so that we can rotate all the teams through the big events," he said. "As long as they play nice and show good sportsmanship, they have a chance to go out to Vegas."
In Maryland, the appeal has been especially strong. Justice's league, which covers the northern half of the state and the Eastern Shore, has about 1,600 teams playing in 150 locations.
He estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people head to bars and pool halls to play league games each week, easily making it the largest of the American Pool Association's more than 200 franchises.
"This is the biggest hotbed of pool in the country," Justice said. "We have more players just here in Maryland than in all of Canada."
Yesterday afternoon at Sports 2000/The New Green Room Billiards in Dundalk, about 400 players perched on risers, watching tense eight-ball and nine-ball matches through a haze of cigarette smoke. The steady din of jukebox music - the Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac - was occasionally broken by enthusiastic clapping and shouts of "Mark it up!" when a player took aim at the eight ball.
There was an eruption of hollering as a team from American Legion Post 182 in Whiteford won its match. The team's seven members had just landed $5,000 in prize money that will cover their trip to Vegas.
Ralston was looking to secure a similar purse for Giddy-Up. But she still couldn't decide on her shot. Dani Remeikis, a 26-year-old teammate, called, "Time out!" and offered some advice at the table.
After several minutes, Ralston settled in, aiming for the side pocket. She took her shot and the cue ball clacked off the eight ball, just inches from the pocket. But the angle was too sharp; the eight ball glanced gently off the rail and came to rest in the middle of the table.
Uttamjeet sank it. He kept his team - Champs - alive and went on to take the next three games, winning his round. Then his level-three teammate, Bob Sohn, 40, eked out a victory over Giddy-Up's level-six player.
Having lasted from noon until well past 4 p.m., the best-of-five match between Giddy-Up and Champs was tied and moved into sudden death.
Joe Bertorelli, a 40-year-old member of Champs, paced nervously and lit a cigarette as the winner-take-all game began. And after two turns, his teammate Greg Keck, 42, ran the table and won one of the Vegas trips.
Bertorelli leaped in the air, springing from the risers. He bounded to the pool table and kissed Keck on the head.
It was the third day in a row that Champs pulled off a come-from-behind win.
"It's been a sick ride," Bertorelli said.
Across from the celebration, Ralston looked slightly stunned, but she was not dejected.
Giddy-Up may be down, but they're not out. There's always the second-round tournament in two weeks. "Hopefully July 7 will have a better ending," she said.