Pool pro chases record set in Springfield 65 years ago

John Schmidt, Mr. 400. CONTRIBUTED
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John Schmidt, Mr. 400. CONTRIBUTED

When John Schmidt undercut the five-ball Wednesday on his first shot at the 36th rack at Easy Street Billiards in Monterey, Calif., he had drawn within a tantalizing 36 balls of the record 526-ball run legend Willie Mosconi post March 19, 1954, in a straight pool exhibition at Springfield’s East High Street Billiards.

Moments before walking into Easy Street Billiards in Monterey, Calif., the previous week to continue his assault on the record, the 46-year-old pool professional sounded like a person with deepest respect for Mosconi and the record that still stands into a 66th year.

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“I’m thrilled and honored to be mentioned in the same sentence (with Mosconi),” Schmidt said. “I also have my doubts and my fears that go with” the attempt to break the record.

His 490 on Wednesday was 26 balls better than his 464-ball run shot last month at Bull Shooters Sports Bar and Grill in Phoenix. Those two marks plus a 421-ball run at East Street May 9 means “he has the momentum,” said Doug Desmond, a retired West Coast sales manager for Scott’s Miracle Grow, who racks the balls and considers himself Schmidt’s Caddy.

Still, the man known as Mr. 400 for the seven times he’s now eclipsed that mark, has a sense of urgency about his assault on the record.

“If I don’t accomplish this goal in the next couple of years, it might not be broken by anybody; and his record may be good for 1,000 years.”

Some of Schmidt’s worries have to do with being 46.

After hours at the table, “my back hurts, my feet hurt and my knees hurt. Mentally and physically it wears me out.”

The game of straight pool has a great to do with the psychological toll.

Not as popular as it once was, Schmidt calls it “probably the most challenging, complex pool game,” adding, “it takes the highest level of execution.”

For one, there’s no safety, he said – no chance to make a shot that concedes there is no shot available.

Added to that is the break ball, “the really difficult part” — and the one that ended Wednesday’s run.

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In straight pool, the shooter must leave a ball aside from the cue on the table before the next rack is set. With that done, the player must sink the final ball from the last rack and then hit the freshly racked balls with enough force to open them up to continue the run.

As an added challenge, he said, that first shot must be made from “wherever the (last) ball lays and wherever the cue ball lays.

As a consequence, the player begins each fresh rack having not only to consider how to sink the next 14 balls, but how to manage play so that both the final ball on the table and the cue ball are in position to be made and for the break.

“I’m always looking for one, and I usually can identify it” early in the rack, Schmidt said.

But sometimes two or three can seem like good candidates until a ball gets nudged, which alters the special chess and “changes the whole game.”

While “a weak pro player” can run 600 balls if the table is cleaned and all the balls in a fresh rack, Schmidt said, managing that final ball in straight pool “complicates things dramatically.”

Schmidt’s quest also involves logistical challenges.

One of them is the willingness of a pool hall to virtually close off its playing area for the 30 days he generally devotes to each phase of his challenge. Another involves the help of someone like Desmond, who arranged the rental of a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium near the pool hall; helps to financially support Schmidt; and acts as a publicity manager, sending out messages to keep those interested in Schmidt’s quest up to date.

“It almost takes a team or a village to make it happen,” said Desmond. “As a professional pool player, John is in a perpetual state of insolvency.”

As with all people who flirt with a hallowed record, Schmidt has detractors.

Although Desmond said “the support for John really overwhelms … any of the negative opinions out there,” he admits there has been “a little bit of chatter.”

Some of it involves Schmidt’s use of a 9-foot table instead of the 8-foot Brunswick Mosconi set his mark on. While nay-sayers say the angles of the game are tougher on an 8-foot table, Desmond argues that the longer table creates a greater challenge, as do the smaller pockets that are customary on more modern tables.

He likens the greater difficulty to “playing from the blue tees” on a professional golf course.

For his part, Schmidt accepts that “none of the old timers” — and likely few Springfielders — would be thrilled if he manages to break Mosconi’s record. On the other hand, the man who has tried to learn as much as he can about Mosconi’s record-breaking night doubts that anybody appreciates the achievement more than he does.

Desmond, who played Mosconi as a young man and visited Springfield multiple times on his visit to Scott headquarters in Marysville, Ohio, says that regardless of the nay-sayers, “We’re going to keep going. There are no guarantees, and there’s an element of risk here. But on each challenge, (Schmidt’s) performances always exceed the previous challenge.”

The question now seems to be whether Easy Street and East Street Billiards will be spoken in the same sentence as Willie Mosconi and John Schmidt.

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