Pool and Las Vegas used to be a perfect fit. No more.
The sport needs help and soft-spoken Allen Hopkins is carrying the big stick.
"I don’t know the answer to popularize pool," said Hopkins, the only player ever to win both the U.S. Open 9-Ball and World Straight Pool Championship in the same year (1977).
"Pool fits Las Vegas in the same way boxing and gaming does," said Hopkins. "Billiards hasn’t been able to reach enough of the 22-35 age group. I don’t want to see it become like horse racing."
Hopkins was both playing and running the inaugural Las Vegas Invitational, which ended last Friday at the Riviera.
"My tournament was open to anyone that walked through that door," said Hopkins, who has done expert commentary for numerous billiards tournaments on ESPN. "I’m 50 years old and dividing time between being a promoter and playing. I love the sport and I hate to see what’s happening to it."
Pool is sinking into oblivion. Once glamorized in classic films like The Hustler and later in the popular sequel The Color of Money, the sport is rarely seen on TV. The interest among players is great as ever, but not with the media.
"My biggest disappointment is to call newspapers like the Review-Journal and hear they don’t call it a sport," Hopkins said. "Pool has so many wonderful characters, just like poker. It belongs in Las Vegas. The pool halls on East Sahara are legendary."
Interestingly, Hopkins is not a fan of the way Hollywood depicted pool.
"The smoked filled rooms, all the booze, it’s not really like that," he said. "Oh yeah, there are the groupies, the $500 hustle games going on in the next room or at the local hall. But they don’t dress in tuxedos and suits anymore. It’s more like a rock concert or a country western show."
Hopkins picked 9-Ball for his open tournament because it was the fairest test. But he wouldn’t mind seeing a game of one-pocket break out.
"That’s the game people love to bet on," he said. "I would love to see a sports book put odds on that. We need live coverage on television. I doubt people would watch golf if it were taped."
Pool is golf on felt. Players lining up bank shots and one-railers as if they were reading the breaks on the greens to sink a huge putt.
"There is a lot of drama to the game, especially in the format I use where you have to win three out of five sets with the first player to five games winning a set," Hopkins said. "Plus, alternate breaks allows a player to get to the table. Could you imagine Michael Jordan in a one-on-game, winners out? You’d never see the ball."
As for Hopkins wife Dawn, a member of the women’s pro billiards tour, she pushed one of the tourney favorites Rodney Morris to full five sets before losing 5-3.
Dawn’s performance, particularly after losing 5-0 in the first set and dropping the pivotal 4-4 game in set two to go from potentially even to two sets down, was the stuff that would have made for great television.
"It certainly would have," he said. "Las Vegas has known it for years. We just have to sell it to the media."