Area I recreation programer Jay Underwood, left, and program director John Hanger are working to turn the Camp Casey Community Activity Centre into a pool player's paradise.

Area I recreation programer Jay Underwood, left, and program director John Hanger are working to turn the Camp Casey Community Activity Centre into a pool player's paradise. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — U.S. soldiers will be able to gain national billiards rankings by playing tournaments at bases in South Korea if a pair of Camp Casey recreation programmers have their way.

Area I recreation programmers Jay Underwood and John Hanger say they’re establishing a billiards league they hope to have certified by the Billiards Congress of America (BCA). Certification would let the pair run sanctioned tournaments in which soldiers could achieve BCA rankings similar to the world tennis rankings, they said.

Soldiers who compete “could get rankings that are recognized nation-wide and play in tournaments in the States,” said Hanger. “It would be like a bragging right to say something like, ‘I’m the 157th ranked player in the U.S.’” Hanger said he was unsure if any U.S. military players in South Korea are good enough to be ranked that high.

“If you were ranked in the top 100 you would be playing on the pro circuit,” he said, adding that some professional billiards tournaments pay up to $25,000 as a top prize. If the league was certified, he said, the 8th Army billiards champion might gain entry into a high-profile competition in the United States.

League games will be played at the Camp Casey Community Activity Center, where the pair have set up eight billiards tables, mostly salvaged from recently deactivated Western Corridor bases, he said.

Underwood said the tables, Brunswick models crafted from cherry, were worth $8,000 each when new.

“None of this cost the military anything except moving the tables here,” he said. “Before we moved them, this room (at the CAC) had just three tables and some darts boards … it was pretty empty.”

The CAC has been packed with pool players each weekend since the tables arrived, Underwood said. “We have so many people. If we only had three tables the tournaments would last two days.”

Many soldiers were overwhelmed when they saw the facility, Underwood added, saying he saw several players calling to ask wives, fathers and mothers to send their pool cues to South Korea.

According to Underwood, billiards have followed U.S. soldiers in every war in which they fought.

“In the American Civil War, people were more concerned about news about billiards tournaments than news of the war. Billiards followed the American soldier to World War II and Vietnam,” he said.

Underwood said he and Hanger — the league organizers — know what they’re doing because both play. Underwood has played since boyhood.

“Back in South Texas, I couldn’t afford golf (his other passion),” he said. “But where I am from, you can’t go into a bar without finding a pool table. Go into any honky tonk and there is always pool.”

Underwood’s goal is to become the Johnny Appleseed of billiards in South Korea.

“We will teach everybody the different games and the rules and the etiquette of playing,” he said.

Several soldiers with outstanding billiards skills have volunteered to show others the game’s intricacies and teach them billiards etiquette, he said.

“The proper etiquette is to let the other guy shoot the ball. Stay away from the table and don’t yell ‘Miss!’” he said.

Hanger said soldiers also could learn official BCA rules — which he suspects many people don’t know — by playing in the league.

“In eight ball, most people think that when you scratch you put the cue ball behind the head string. In fact you play ball in hand,” he said, citing one example.

Sunday, 10 officials and 22 players from the Korean Billiards Association squared off against about 25 soldiers in a tournament at the CAC, Underwood said. While the game is the same, Underwood said the American style is brasher than the Korean style.

“We talk a lot while we play,” he said. “They are dead serious. The KBA players have aspirations to be professionals.”

With so many players, the organizers are thinking of playing some games in the Camp Hovey CAC, which has another four tables, so players need not wait too long between games.

“You have to stay warm when you play pool,” Underwood said. “If you sit out for too long, you lose your focus.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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