Rack 'em Up
The PVA/NWPA Billiards Tournament Series provides a unique blend of skill levels, competition, fun and camaraderie.
It takes focus, control and careful planning to become a skilled pool player, but anyone who picks up a cue stick can enjoy the social benefits of billiards. Billiards has been part of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) sports program for decades, but in 2006, PVA partnered with the National Wheelchair Poolplayers Association, Inc. (NWPA), the national governing body for wheelchair billiards, to launch a national tournament series for people with disabilities. Now in its 12th season, the PVA/NWPA Billiards Tournament Series draws players from novice to expert, providing competition and promoting the sport across the country.
“Just along the lines of [wheelchair] basketball, it’s something easy to do. We can get in and out of any pool hall for the most part,” says Alan Earl, PVA’s associate director of Sports and Recreation. “Some VA’s [Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals] have pool tables in their VA [recreation] centers where they can just go to directly and play. So pool’s always been an interest of our members.”
Cultivating that interest for players of all abilities, promoting the sport and providing opportunities to play outside of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games was the impetus behind the creation of the series. Prior to that, PVA had sponsored individual tournaments and national championships, but it wasn’t a formal tour. In 2006, the NWPA received $15,000 from PVA to put together the joint PVA/NWPA series, and the first sanctioned event was in Memphis, Tenn., in October 2007 with 38 players attending. There are a handful of wheelchair billiards divisions that compete nationally and internationally, but wheelchair pool players often get lumped in with able-bodied players, making the PVA/NWPA series one of a kind. Rather than being classified by disability, players on the tour are classified by skill level. The events are open to anyone with a mobility impairment who uses a wheelchair.
The series typically consists of five or six tournaments hosted by PVA chapters, which put in event bids each year. The NWPA sanctions the events and makes sure the selected venues are accessible and have enough pool tables to accommodate a tournament. A referee is provided, and volunteers help rack the balls. Earl says there are usually about 15 to 20 players per event. Names are drawn randomly to pair competitors. In the main event, the first person to win either five or seven games wins the match and advances. Players are whittled down to the top of the field through double elimination. The players who are eliminated can then compete in the second flight tournament, which has separate awards and provides a more even playing field for every skill level.
“That’s two full days of really playing pool, and each participant, no matter how good or bad you are, is going to be playing quite a few games both days,” Earl says.
Players accumulate points based on how they play throughout the year in each tournament they attend. While prizes are awarded to players at each tournament, the players with the most points at the end of the year receive additional prizes including cash, pool cues and a plaque or trophy. Those awards are generally given to the overall points winner and runner-up, highest finishing PVA member and runner-up, and second flight high points winner and runner-up.
“I think those trophies mean more to those guys than the cash or pool stick,” Earl says. “Having that eagle trophy on their mantle or their wall, they’re pretty proud of them.”
A Lot Of Games
The games played to earn those meaningful trophies can vary a little bit. Earl says most events on the tour are played with games of 9-ball, but PVA chapters have a choice between a 9-ball or 8-ball style of play. In 9-ball, the cue ball must contact the lowest-numbered ball on the table first, but the balls need not be pocketed in numerical order and players don’t have to call their shots. In 8-ball, all 15 balls are on the table, and the 8 ball must be pocketed last.
Players are allowed to use adapted bridges, cue extensions and specialized hand grips. From there, the tournaments follow standard billiards and NWPA rules, including:
- Players must keep both feet off the ground while taking a shot, and their legs can’t be used to stabilize the wheelchair. This rule ensures no player can acquire a stability or leverage advantage.
- Players must shoot from a seated position and keep at least one cheek of their rear ends on their seat.
- Players can’t sit higher than 27 inches from the floor and seats must be level.
Earl says he’s working on getting more people involved and expanding the program. They may consider adding doubles tournaments or team tournaments where standing players could compete alongside wheelchair players.
“You’re going to play a lot of games. You have a chance to win a lot of money with the second flight tournament,” Earl says. “The only way we’re going to grow the program is to encourage these novice players to play and show them the tricks of the trade, ’cause there are a lot. And pool playing is definitely an art.”
A Social Game
Someone who’s spent many years perfecting that art is Jeff Dolezal. In addition to holding various offices in the PVA Veterans Benefits Department and his work as current national director of the PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter, Dolezal has been part of the PVA billiards program since its inception. Not only is he a regular player on the tour, but he also was a consultant when the program was in its infancy and was appointed NWPA president in 2006. The Air Force veteran has played pool since age 12 after his parents installed a small pool table in their basement.
“Through my high school years, I probably played more pool than I should have,” he says. “I should have been focusing on school. But then I ended up going in the military and played all through the military.”
In April 1980, Dolezal sustained a T3 complete spinal-cord injury (SCI) when his motorcycle hit a concrete mailbox at 40 mph. While he was in rehabilitation at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center in Wisconsin, the first sport he picked up again was billiards.
“I thought I was pretty good. I could beat a lot of able-bodied players. But then I went to go play wheelchair pool players and they just beat me really bad. And I’m like, ‘What’s going on? I can’t play with these guys, they’re so good,’” Dolezal says. “And I realized the reason they were so good was because they were able to beat all their local able-bodied players, too. They were just that good, they worked on their games. So I continued to work on my games.”
Dolezal says the aspects he likes most about playing billiards are the challenge and ability to compete on even par against either able-bodied or other wheelchair players.
“The thing about pool which is interesting and the reason why it’s so important, I guess, (is) it’s a social game in a lot of ways,” Dolezal says. “So most of the people who play in wheelchairs don’t play against other people in wheelchairs on a regular basis because you more often run into, go into a local pool hall, you’re not going to find a bunch of people in wheelchairs playing there. So if you play pool, you’re going to play against people who are standing, your wife or your friends or what have you. So it’s a social game.”
In addition to the PVA tour, Dolezal keeps his skills sharp by competing on several leagues and in national and local tournaments. He believes it’s important to give people a chance to participate and wants to spur more of them to take part in the game.
“It’s not necessarily about competing on the tour, but allowing them to compete and bring it back and add it into their social and personal lives and do what they want to do,” Dolezal says. “I think the goal I really have is to continue promoting and encouraging people to play because I think it helps get people out and improve the quality of their lives.”
For more information, visit pva.org/adaptive-sports/billiards, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-817-1215.
Rack 'em Up
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