You'd expect a 600-year-old sport to have played through its identity crisis. Not the case for pool. The sport's very name comes from pooling money to determine odds. And wagering lends pool mystique; hustling and pool go together like a cue stick and chalk. But that's as much a curse as a blessing. How can a sport thrive at the highest level, when so much of it exists in the shadows? Well, here comes Shane Van Boening, from Rapid City. Age 39, with no interest in gambling, he's arguably the best American player ever to break a rack and ranked number one in the world for 2022. He also happens to be deaf. Can the South Dakota Kid help turn pool—popular in bars and basements but not on TV— into a proper pro sport? We hit the circuit with him to find out.
Another day, another casino hotel. Shane Van Boening spends 300 days a year on the road playing professional pool. Today, he's clocking in early at the jamboree of American pool tournaments, the Derby City Classic.
Held every January outside Louisville, Derby City is a colorful expression of pool's split personality. Downstairs, a felt ocean drawing dozens of the world's best practitioners. They compete 12 hours a day for nine days in multiple events.
This winner is smiling ear to ear and his check tops out at $16,000.
But upstairs, it's a different economy. Behold pool's, zestier side. Pop-up action rooms - standing room only - where pros, amateurs, and wannabes alike come to the table for unofficial competition. The signs say no smoking and no gambling… and we sure didn't see any smoking. Tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars - big timber, they call it - change hands until the sun comes up.
One player we didn't see gambling upstairs: Shane Van Boening.
A generational talent, known for his killer break, Van Boening has won the U.S. Open five times and been named Player of the Decade. Deaf since birth, he wears hearing aids and shuts down any question this makes it harder for him to play pool.
Shane Van Boening: It's actually a big advantage for me.
Jon Wertheim: How's that?
Shane Van Boening: You know, when I play a pool tournament I can just shut it off.
Jon Wertheim: Do you shut your hearing aids off when you play--
Shane Van Boening: Yeah, when I won my first U.S. Open I had everything off. I was focused.
Jon Wertheim: Total silence.
Shane Van Boening: Yes. I'm totally, like, 100% zoned in.
Never more zoned in than in 2018, when he led the United States to victory over Europe at the Mosconi Cup– pool's answer to golf's Ryder Cup.
He closed it out with an off angle, long-distance 1-9 combo - a high-risk, high-reward, pressure-packed shot.
Think you could have made that shot? We went to Rapid City, South Dakota, a side pocket of America, to Van Boening's pool hall, where he explained that making balls disappear into pockets is only half of pool excellence. It's also about setting up your next shots - cue ball control, they call it.
Shane Van Boening: And I'm gonna make the cue ball stop right here so I can shoot the two in the side. Then…
Jon Wertheim: Stop. Whoa, whoa. You did that how? How did you do that?
Shane Van Boening: Just hit it right below center.
Jon Wertheim: So now it lines up that next ball perfectly.
Shane Van Boening: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim: I'm so struck by the geometry of all this.
Shane Van Boening: Yeah. I love geometry. It's all about the angles.
Van Boening says he can see every angle on the table, a sixth sense that comes from practicing as much as ten hours a day; shooting half a million balls a year.
Shane Van Boening: I wanna make the shot perfect. The only way to hit it perfect is you gotta do it over and over and over.
Jon Wertheim: Can you be perfect in this sport?
Shane Van Boening: No. I tried so hard so-- (LAUGH) all these years.
Van Boening comes by it honestly. His grandfather, Gary Bloomberg, a known trick shot artist, opened pool halls off I-90. Easy access for hustlers passing across the Great Plains, but these rooms were family-friendly places. So much so, Shane got his first pool cue when he was two; and went to the pool room every day after school - not just to play, but to escape kids who picked on him for being deaf.
Jon Wertheim: How bad did it get?
Shane Van Boening: The kids would start throwin' rocks at me. They would put gum in my hair. And then I would go home to my mom and I'd be goin' home cryin'. You know. And then she made me feel better by askin' me, "Do you wanna go to the pool room?"
Jon Wertheim: Why did coming to the pool room make you feel better?
Shane Van Boening: You know, when you walk in the pool room, what do you see? You know, you see people having a good time.
But it was more than that. He had a prodigious ability for thinking multiple strokes ahead. When Van Boening was 18, he hit the road. He and his uncle loaded into a RV looking for money games.
Of course they did. The Hustler - that stealth roadman, armed only with a wooden stick and confidence, divorcing the locals from their cash - has been romanticized for decades, not least by Paul Newman. This reporter was so taken by pool hustling, he once wrote a book about it. For Van Boening, the romance hit the rocks - abruptly.
Shane Van Boening: I actually was playing in a pool room in Tennessee, and I was playing this guy for money. And we were playing for a whole lot. And he was losing. And he picked up the cue ball and threw it at me.
Jon Wertheim: Where'd he hit ya?
Shane Van Boening: He hit (MIC NOISE) me right on the chest.
Jon Wertheim: That's the kinda thing you do to start a fight.
Shane Van Boening: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim: How'd you react?
Shane Van Boening: I told my uncle, I said, "I don't wanna do this anymore. I don't wanna live on the road anymore. It's just too dangerous."
He chose to go legit and began playing - and winning - proper tournaments. Though less lucrative than the rambling, gambling life, Van Boening enjoyed being a professional.
Jon Wertheim: Did you worry that comin' in off the road was gonna impact your finances?
Shane Van Boening: I know some of the pool players, like the top pool players, were makin' money. "So if they can do it, I can do it."
But pool is a deceptively tricky sport.
Just ask Shane's Scottish counterpart, Jayson Shaw, another top player. Earlier this year, Shaw holed up in a Virginia pool room for five days and broke the straight pool record, making 714 shots in a row.
Jayson Shaw: The stuff that happens in pool will completely screw your brain up.
Jon Wertheim: What do you mean?
Jayson Shaw: You'll see shots that-- and you'll be, like, "How did that happen?" You'll-- you'll hear that all day. "How did that land over there?" Or, "Did you see that, how that went in?" In pool you see every game somethin' weird'll happen.
Jon Wertheim: Does that make it more exhilarating or more frustrating?
Jayson Shaw: Both. Mentally, you wanna, like, flip the table at some point.
Jon Wertheim: You ever flip the table?
Jayson Shaw: No. I've thought about it a few times.
Jon Wertheim: People come in, "How hard could it be? It's just a rectangle with--six pockets?"
Jayson Shaw: Yeah, and then 20 minutes later, there're still 15 balls on the table. (LAUGH) They've not potted a ball and the guy's, like, scratchin' his head, like, "I thought this was easy." It's not.
Jon Wertheim: We watched you at Derby City play Jayson Shaw…
Shane Van Boening: Jayson who? (LAUGH)
Jon Wertheim: Is he your rival?
Shane Van Boening: Yeah. It's been going on for several years now. He's a great player and we're always gonna have a battle.
Jon Wertheim: You okay with that?
Shane Van Boening: Yeah. You have to accept losing. If you don't accept losing you're just - you're gonna go crazy.
Jon Wertheim: How thick is this ice right here?
If having a rival is central to being an elite athlete, so is this: leaving time to clear your head. So it was we found ourselves following Shane Van Boening out onto Pactola Lake in the Black Hills.
Van Boening goes fishing, season be damned. Every morning when he's back home. We didn't catch any fish. We did catch Van Boening's drift though, his take on the virtues of complete silence.
Vanity plate notwithstanding, few extravagances come with being number one in pool. The rag-tag pro tour, barely televised in the U.S., struggles to draw much interest - or investment - outside of pool die-hards.
Jon Wertheim: How many sponsors do you have?
Shane Van Boening: I have six sponsors.
Jon Wertheim: Cues and tables and pool products.
Shane Van Boening: Yes.
Jon Wertheim: Any sponsors outside of pool?
Shane Van Boening: No.
Jon Wertheim: What can a top player make legit--
Shane Van Boening: Top player in pool can make only six figures. After--expenses, maybe five figures.
Jon Wertheim: No one's making a million bucks.
Shane Van Boening: No.
Jon Wertheim: As a pool player--
Shane Van Boening: It's never happened.
Van Boening says cleaning up the sport - doing away with backroom money games - would lure big corporate sponsors, big media deals, and grow professional pool. We saw firsthand his discomfort with gambling - and all that comes with it.
Jon Wertheim: When we interviewed you in-- in Derby City, I don't know if you remember, the interview was interrupted. Do you recall what happened?
Shane Van Boening: Oh, the gambling? Was that what happened? Yeah.
It was morning at Derby City and the action upstairs from the night before was still simmering.
Shane Van Boening: Are they arguing?
Over the course of a few minutes, two players who'd bet on a game nearly came to blows.
Shane Van Boening: You cannot gamble, you know.
Van Boening could only shake his head.
Shane Van Boening: It's gotta be a clean sport.
Enter pro pool's unlikely new guardian. Emily Frazer, of the British sports promoter Matchroom. The company recently revamped pro darts and snooker in the UK, streamlining their circuits and turning top players into celebrities who make millions. Frazer is tasked with doing the same for pool. And she says gambling is the least of her worries.
Jon Wertheim: What's the state of professional pool today?
Emily Frazer: Ah, an absolute mess.
Jon Wertheim: Why do you say that?
Emily Frazer: The first ever US Open that I did in 2019, oh my gosh, the players turned up, they were in jeans. And I'm going "Hang on a second." "What's happening here? Why is this guy turning up in jeans?"
Frazer has asked pro players to dress the part but she won't ask them to give up their side-hustles.
Emily Frazer: Now all of the basement tables and the money matches, I think that's brilliant. And that can still--
Jon Wertheim: You do?
Emily Frazer: Yeah, I think that it's fantastic, because it's got the history behind it.
Jon Wertheim: You're okay if people are still-- they're gambling and playing money games.
Emily Frazer: As far as I'm concerned, in a couple of years' time, they won't need to have any money matches--
Jon Wertheim: It will be obsolete-- the market will do its thing?
Emily Frazer: Exactly. But right now, it's not viewed as this professional sport. And it has all the ingredients to be one.
She's standardized the format: this is commercialized, sponsor-friendly nine ball - not the solids-and-stripes eight-ball you've likely played. In October, at the U.S. Open—held in Atlantic City— Frazer brought in bigger live audiences and ramped up TV production. She has kept one pool hallmark: the smoke-filled room… close but no cigar; there's a machine puffing away in the corner.
When the smoke cleared, there was Shane Van Boening.
He was fresh off winning his first World Championship, sealing his status atop the sport. He confided to us that he'd slept with the trophy for a month. Van Boening is mobbed at pool tournaments, but can still walk through an airport unbothered.
Emily Frazer: Well, he's no Lebron James. And I totally understand that. And I recognize that. And it's our job to turn that around.It is our responsibility to turn that world number one prize money from $80,000 to a million. So it's prize money. It's more events. And let's get these players known. You've got to fall in love with them.
Jon Wertheim: Are they lovable?
Emily Frazer: Yes, some of them, (LAUGH)
The health of the sport also depends on minting a new generation of elite players. So this tournament had a junior division, held alongside the pros and named - what else? The Shane Van Boening Junior Open.
Jon Wertheim: These are future pros?
Shane Van Boening: Oh yeah, definitely. DefinitelyThey have so much passion for the game.
Back at the pool hall in Rapid City, we experienced pool's highs and lows in the same hour.
Jon Wertheim: You didn't even let me hit a ball.
Ever the sport's gentleman, Shane Van Boening wouldn't let us leave without setting us up to sink a trick shot. Pool may or may not clean up its act, but any sport that can provide this kind of pure, simple thrill, you reckon it'll survive just fine.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producer, Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Robert Zimet and Matthew Lev.
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