Aiming for the corner pocket; local billiards players part of a growing industry

"As she lines up her shot, Jessi Krauser looks for ways to put her opponent on the defensive.You have to play defense to win, she says. That means sizing things up as she approaches the green felt expanse and examining the way its billiard balls lay.Krauser, of Federal Way, is one of 1,000 people who belong to about 200 teams in King and Snohomish counties that play in the American Poolplayers Association league.Local players are part of a nationwide trend. The billiards industry is booming, with some analysts saying pool is the No. 2 recreational sport in the United States, behind bowling.A player who tries to use offense - stepping up to the table with the idea of sinking all balls in one run - usually falls by the wayside in league play, Krauser says. As soon as that player misses, his opponent usually has a golden opportunity - especially if he didn't hit his object ball or if no ball hits a rail. In league play, that scenario gives the opponent what's called ball in hand, meaning the pool cue can be picked up and placed anywhere on the table.Krauser, who plays on a team called XPex (for expects to win), has been playing pool for close to 25 years. In past years, she's belonged to four different league teams at the same time.You can play on different teams and play multiple nights if you choose to, she says. Lots of people do that.Krauser says she likes league play because it brings out the competitor in her. Teams get weekly standings to track how they're doing.Teams usually play their games at taverns or bars, like PJ Pockets, the Time Out Tavern and Tall Timbers in Federal Way, though some smoke-free pool halls are used, says Gene Birkeland, APA league operator for Snohomish and King counties.The teams, which play in various divisions that are usually based on location, compete for trophies and prize money against each other during three yearly sessions in the summer, fall and spring. There are five to six teams to a division, and different divisions play on different nights.League play offers a social outlet for many of the players, Birkeland says. Some teams play purely for fun, while others are out to win, he said.No matter which type of team is playing, beginners are welcome. In fact, each team is required to have players with certain handicaps, meaning it will have some high level players but must also have players with lower skill levels, he says.League players include everyone from doctors and lawyers to Boeing workers to Microsoft employees, he says.And billiards is a sport that's gaining popularity with women, who in large part have helped change the sport's image. No longer are the stereotypical pool sharks the dominant player, Birkeland says.It's a great sport. It's nothing like it used to be, he says. Just about anybody can play.League play can have other rewards.After the spring session ends in June, players can enter local APA tournaments. Those who win are sent, with air fair, room and board paid, by the APA of Snohomish and King counties to Las Vegas to compete in a national APA tournament.Going to Vegas is an absolute thrill, says Krauser, who was sent there with her doubles partner in August. She and her partner placed 33rd, with 450 teams competing.Billiards can be an inexpensive sport to take up, Birkeland added. It can be as cheap as the 50 cents it costs for a table at a tavern, though most league players own their own pool cues. I don't know any who are playing 'off the wall,' as we call it, or off the rack, Birkeland says.A beginner's cue can cost $40 to $100. A serious player can spend upwards of $50,000 for a fancy cue decorated with diamonds, he says.Billiards' growing popularity doesn't surprise Birkeland, who says it's impossible to estimate the number of recreational players who don't join leagues but play billiards at home, pool halls or bars.Krauser and partner Courtney Krauser aren't surprised by the sport's popularity - or the economics that follow it - either. They have made a living selling pool-related items for the past four years.In 1996, Jessi Krauser developed a leather pocket chalker. She originally made the decorative leather cube, which pool cue chalk can be kept in, for herself so that she could keep chalk in her pocket without making a mess of her clothing. Some of the other women in her league saw it and wanted one, so she made more. League members also encouraged her to bring pocket chalkers to a tournament in Las Vegas. Krauser sold all 400 that she toted along, and picked up three dealers during the tournament. For the next two years, she and Courtney made a living selling the chalkers. The sales gave the women the revenue to open their store, Beads and Billiards on Pacific Highway South in Federal Way.We've been in the green since day one, Krauser says of the store, which features about 160 pool cues, 60 styes of cue cases, billiard balls, books, videos and other pool-related items. The store also features specialty items not related to billiards, but its steady stream of business is based on the game Krauser loves.We now sell the chalker to seven different countries, she says. We're not rich, but it pays the bills and we make a living.Several publications also thrive on business derived from the billiards industry, which is booming worldwide. The sport is growing fast in Europe, but the best players are coming from the Phillipines, Birkeland said.Birkeland, who has run the local league since 1993, understands the sport's allure.The better you get, he said, the more interesting it is. "

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