There’s magic in the rifle-like crack of a solid break, or dropping the eight-ball on an impossible three rail shot with your peers watching. It’s kind of like swishing a three-pointer in basketball or winning a huge pot of cash in poker. But shooting pool’s even better, because it’s wheelchair friendly–and inexpensive. And a great social outlet. Just show up at any bar or pool hall, play a few games and you start to make friends. There are other benefits: Pool is easy on the joints and tendons, you can play at any age, and it’s not weather dependent. Shooting pool from a wheelchair also provides one of the most level playing fields in all of sport.
“Watch an able-bodied pool player. They have to lean over to get their chin near the table to line up a shot. The cool thing about playing from a chair is you’re in this position to begin with, so you have a slight advantage in lining up a good shot,” says Ken Force, CEO of the National Wheelchair Poolplayer Association. Force, 46, a T1 complete para from Garden Grove, Calif., has been playing pool most of his life and has played competitively for the past seven years.
Force explains that the rules for playing in a chair are the same as stand-up pool with a modification or two: Stand-up players must keep one foot on the floor when making a shot; wheeler-players must keep one butt cheek on their wheelchair cushion. The only other change is that wheelchair players are allowed to have help with a bridge (where you rest the end of the pool cue) for extra long shots. Other than that, the more serious players make adaptations–like having screw holes on the butt end of their cue sticks so they can add an extension for long shots, and creating mechanical bridges, such as taking a plastic air hockey paddle and carving a “V” into it for an inexpensive bridge.
In October the National Wheelchair Poolplayer Association held the world championships in Decatur, Ala. The finals, won by Jouni Tahiti of Finland, will air on ESPN on Dec. 5. From the competitive side, Force says that the NWPA has tournaments with a points structure all over the country, so you don’t have to be rich to earn enough points to make it to big tournaments–which by the way have prize money in the $6,000-7,000 range.
Aaron Aragon is a 46-year-old T10 complete para from Lake Elsinore, Calif. He’s been playing on the nondisabled professional pool tour for the past seven years. His highest ranking has been number 22 in the world. “I love playing with the pros, but the big drawback is it costs a lot to travel all over the world and I have yet to land a big sponsor,” says Aragon. Still, he’s headed to a big, invitation-only professional tournament in Las Vegas in May. “I keep doing well in the big tournaments and they keep inviting me back, so I’m headed in the right direction,” says Aragon.
He adds that just like in the movies, the really big money changes hands over games played before and after the tournament, but it’s not too realistic to be a pool hustler in a chair. Why? Too easy to be recognized.
Hydred Makabali from San Diego is another player who has made it to the stand-up professional ranks. Makabali, a T9 para, has only been playing for six years. “I started playing pool at a friend’s house and really liked it. I found a local pool room and started practicing a lot and read a lot of books on the subject and studied videos, and here I am, a professionally ranked player.” Makabali played in her first pro event this past April, and although still ranked in the pros, she plans on focusing her time on getting her degree in chemistry and biology and playing just for fun.
A friend adds with a great deal of admiration that in her early days of playing pool, Makabali would show up at a bar frequented by Navy personnel and beat every sailor in the place. Makabali says now she is beyond that, and just likes to play for the purity of the sport.
Terry Darling from Davenport, Fla., is a C5-6 quad who has been competing in tournament play for nine years. Darling says the toughest part of pool for a quad is figuring out how to hold on to the cue. He has come up with a system of a sling with O-rings that go on his fingers and wrap around a tennis grip on the cue stick, which provides good traction on the cue. “I like pool because it allows me to compete on a level playing field with everybody else,” says Darling. “I’d like to see more quads come out and compete. Now that we have advances in adaptive equipment, it’s time we quads give everybody a run for their money.”
Darling does most of his shooting in pool halls and bars. When asked about betting on pool, his lament is identical to other wheelers: “It’s pretty hard to get a good money game when you are in a wheelchair–you get known, and word travels pretty fast.”
Alex Hutchins, from Arab, Ala., is a single-leg amputee, 36, with a paralyzed right arm. Hutchins shoots one-handed from a chair and has been competing in tournament play for about eight years. “I started playing when I was in Spain Rehab in Birmingham, Ala. There was a pool table in the rec room and it seemed like there was always somebody to shoot with, and it just kept going from there,” says Hutchins. “Now I play all the time and just got a job at a local pool hall.” Hutchins says he shoots one-handed about 50 percent of the time, using the rail for a bridge; other times he uses the air-hockey device with the V carved in it for a bridge.
Just for Fun
The great thing about pool is it’s just as much fun for a beginner or a recreational player as it is for a pro. Craig Gray, 46, a T11 para from Scarborough, Maine, says, “I used to play pool a lot, mostly in bars–this was before I got married. I still play from time to time, and I still enjoy it very much. I really like the fact that being in a chair doesn’t really matter. Suddenly you’re ‘a normal guy’–you have pool in common with everybody else and you start meeting everybody, which makes pool a great social outlet.”
Doug Garven agrees with Gray. Garven, 34, a T6 para from Denver, Colo., plays “bar pool” about three nights a week. “It’s great, I go into a bar and start playing pool and before long I meet most of the people in the bar, including all the good-looking women,” he says. “And the good looking women are the reason to go to a bar in the first place, right?” He adds, “My game is pretty good and I usually win. But the thing about bar pool is no matter how good you think you are, there’s always somebody that comes along and just waxes you.”
Another recreational pool player is Monica Bascio, 33, a T12 para from Evergreen, Colo. Bascio is an occupational therapist and also the reigning world handcycling champion. “I mainly play pool when I’m out with my husband or with friends. Perhaps it’s my OT background, but I’m really task oriented, so when I’m at a bar or pub I want something to do. I don’t really care if I win, I just like playing pool for the fun of playing. I really like the fact that I don’t need to bring any adaptation to the game, just plug in a couple of quarters and rack ‘em up.”
How to get started? If you’re serious about the game, try contacting the American Poolplayers Association. Chances are they have a league in your hometown. League play is “handicapped”–meaning beginners still have a chance of beating seasoned pros–and wheelchair players are welcome. There’s also the National Wheelchair Poolplayer Association.
For the recreational scene, check out local pool clubs and pool halls. Most of the modern pool halls are very upscale and have a family atmosphere. Or check out the local rehab hospital–I have yet to see a rehab rec room without a pool table. There are also disabled sports groups and local bars and pubs.
So rack ‘em and crack ‘em! And as Paul Newman said in The Color of Money, develop a break like a cannon and hope to drop that impossible three-rail-into-the-corner-pocket shot with a big audience watching–just like it was nothing at all.