Quick. What’s a popular winter sport in the L-A area that doesn’t require a love of frigid weather?
That’s right: Pool (and not the kind that involves cannonballs and chlorine burn).
To get some sense of the popularity of pool in Lewiston-Auburn, visit Rack ‘Em Up in Auburn on a Monday evening. A word to the wise: Get there early, or walk. Because by the time the league matches start, you likely won’t find a single spot in the parking lot.
Rack ‘Em Up is the local home of the American Poolplayers Association, which means that dozens of teams and hundreds of players congregate there weekly to learn, socialize, perfect their craft and compete for a shot at larger tournaments.
But that’s just one location. Pool leagues meet Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings in dozens of local places, from the Elk’s Lodge to Lisbon Street social clubs. And the largest leagues run all four seasons.
Joe Walker, 44, has owned and managed an independent pool league for the last 15 years. The Auburn native created the Independent Pocket Billiards Pool League in 1996 with his father, Leroy Walker Sr. “They come from Lewiston-Auburn, Mechanic Falls, Poland, Norway” and farther afield, Walker said of his players. Walker now manages the league, after selling it in 2008. “It’s a full-time job,” he said. He organizes 44 teams in four divisions that play in 11 locations in Lewiston, Auburn and Mechanic Falls.
Those numbers are nothing out of the ordinary. The American Poolplayers Association (the world’s largest pool league), the Billiard Congress of America, the Maine Valley League and various independent leagues all operate in the area, meaning that hundreds of teams and roughly 1,000 people participate in the sport locally, many year-round.
Leagues are organized by division, separating the more experienced players from the novices, usually on teams of between four and six players. A handicapping system helps to further equalize the competition. “It’s about handicaps, so you don’t have to feel like you can’t play if you’re just a beginner,” said Janet Mathieu, 43, of Auburn. Mathieu plays in the APA league on Mondays. In fact, she said, there are benefits to being a novice. “I learn more because I’m the low player on the team,” she said.
Mathieu and her boyfriend play for the Pool Hall Junkies. Her son, 12-year-old Jacob Kyajohnian, sometimes accompanies her on league nights. Jacob wants to join the league when he is older. “I practice whenever I can,” he said.
The advantages to playing in a league, besides the camaraderie, include the chance to regularly play against more experienced players and the opportunity to play in larger tournaments, most of which pay prize money. “You get to play with a different caliber of shooters” in the leagues, said Walker.
It’s not just the large number of local players that makes pool stand out in central Maine, but also the success local teams have achieved. This year the APA, BCA and Valley leagues are all fielding teams for the Las Vegas qualifier, a precursor to a national amateur tournament held in that city. Numerous local teams have gone to Las Vegas to compete nationally in the past.
Historically, the best area players have come out of social clubs, often in New Auburn and Little Canada. Stan Coffin, 67, of Hebron, has been playing since he was 22 and a member of a Lewiston social club. “I worked a split-shift,” he said, “and I wound up with time in the afternoons. I played at the 7-11 Club on Lisbon Street.” Today, Coffin plays four nights a week in four different leagues.
Walker started playing competitively at age 21, when his father bought Andy’s Baked Beans in New Auburn. “I played out of Andy’s pretty much my whole life,” he said.
The social clubs continue to be local hubs for the sport. Even today, “all the social clubs have pool tables,” according to Ray Gagnon, 67, of Lewiston.
Gagnon explained how pool became a mainstay in the Franco-American communities of New Auburn and Little Canada. “People didn’t have a car. They never drove. They walked to church. They went to the Pastime Club. They played pool.”
Moreover, the game “has a generational history here,” said Gagnon.
The Franco-American connection is also reflected in the fact that, today, local players face the stiffest competition from our neighbors to the north. “The Canadians are phenomenal,” said Walker.
Give it a break
Last year, when Sean “Buda” Higgins’s team went to the APA’s National Team Championship in Las Vegas, he was unable to attend. Luckily for Higgins, 33, of Auburn, his team, The Dawg House Mafia, has another shot at the tournament this year. Soon, his team will “go to another match called ‘the Vegas qualifier,'” and if they finish well enough there, “we go to Vegas,” he said.
Chris Tarmey, 28, of Lisbon, who played on Higgins’s team last year, attended the APA’s National Team Championship. “We ended up placing 65th,” he said, “out of between 800 and 900 teams. We were four rounds away from the top 10.” That’s an impressive showing for a team from Maine, Tarmey said, when states like California and Texas can produce many more teams.
“We had a really good mix of ability and knowledge” on the team, said Tarmey. Still, the trip was challenging at times, he said. “There was so much going on. It was tough to balance the experience of Vegas with the competition.”
Asked why he thought Lewiston-Auburn produced such skilled players, Tarmey answered, “There are good players all over the state. I guess there’s not much else to do in Maine, especially in the colder months.”
Organizers say anyone thinking about joining a league shouldn’t let the skill of the best shooters scare them away. “You cannot build a league without beginners. Your league will fold in a heartbeat if you don’t have beginners,” said Jim Jordan, 42, of Auburn. Jordan owns Rack ‘Em Up and manages the in-house APA league.
Jordan isn’t just being friendly. Due to the handicapping system, teams actually need lower-ranked players to fill out their rosters. A team comprised of all top shooters is not allowed to compete.
“There’s always teams looking for players,” Walker agreed, and “a lot of teams are looking for beginners.”
What’s the secret to good pool playing?
“Knowing your english,” said Higgins. “Some of us, we’ve played for a while, we’re looking six or seven balls down. If you’re starting out, focus on one shot. Just try to put one ball where you want it.”
If you’re interested in league play, Walker suggests checking the respective websites of the APA, BCA, Valley and independent leagues. “Or just go into the establishments,” he said. “There’s always people playing.”
APA — http://apamaine.com/
Contact: Jim Jordan 207-784-7225
BCA – http://mblpool.com
Contact: Dan Small 207-577-7102
Valley – http://mainevalley.com/
Contact: Jack Gamage 207-577-8876
Independent Pocket Billiards Pool League — http://www.independentpocketbilliardsleague.com/index.html
Contact: Joe Walker 207-333-1617
What you need to know to get started
— It’s pretty cheap to get into. Seasonal league dues range between $10 and $20. Some leagues charge dues for league-night play; these are usually around $5. Fees to participate in larger tournaments will be higher. “All the leagues charge dues,” said Joe Walker.
— Many people join leagues affiliated with social clubs. Joining a social club is a good way to get involved and hone your skill. “The thing about the social clubs,” said Walker, “is that once you join, it’s all free pool.”
— “Some of the leagues require players to be 21 and up,” Higgins explained, because they serve alcohol during the matches. Others set the limit at 18, while many have no age requirements.
— Most leagues play 8-ball, though some (particularly in-house social club leagues) play 9-ball or less common variations of the game.
— “You don’t need to buy a $1,400 cue,” said Higgins. You don’t really have to buy a cue at all. However, league players recommend purchasing a personal cue if you’re going to seriously get into the sport. “Go to Walmart,” said Higgins, “get a cheap cue there.”
— The leagues run seasonally. While some diehards play year-round, many shooters take the winter or the summer off.
— Each league organizes its own tournaments. So if you’re a true player looking to make some money, make sure to check the various calendars to see which tournaments have the best payoffs.