The popular perception of pocket billiards--pool, if you will--is a game played by hustlers, gamblers and drinkers.
Johnny Archer is in the process of changing that image.
Archer, 24, is a small-town man who made it big. He recently won his second consecutive World 9-Ball Championship and is generally recognized as the best pool player in the world.
This weekend, he is playing in the pro billiards tour's Western Open at the Burbank Hilton Hotel Convention Center. The $75,000 event, featuring the top players in the world, ends Sunday.
Probably more amazing than his talent is that Archer has never, even when times were tough, been a hustler.
The nine-ball tour, consisting of 16 sanctioned tournaments, three of them in the Los Angeles area, can be a tough life. Travel generally is by car or bus. There are either 128 or 64 players in a tournament.
Nine balls are used, not including a cue ball. The object is to make the nine-ball, but it must be done in rotation or with a deflection. The winner of either 11 or 13 games--the number varies even in the same tournament--advances to the next round. Archer once ran 300 balls in a row.
There is money to be earned in nine-ball, the only type of billiards with a pro tour. Archer earned $120,000 last year in sanctioned events. Competing against the best players in seven other countries, Archer won the $17,000 first prize at the Las Vegas Hilton this month and leads again this year with $46,000.
The unlikely pool champion grew up in Twin City, Ga., a town of about 3,000 not far from Savannah. Most top players start competing early in life in sizable cities. But Twin City had no pool hall, and Archer had to wait until he was a teen-ager to discover the game.
He became interested in video games when he was 11, and learned to play them well. But in a small town, they seldom change the games. Soon, Archer grew bored.
"My friends said there was a pool table in the back room of the only minimart," Archer said. "I knew right away it was the game for me. But I gave it up after a year, because there were other things to interest a teen-ager.
"I learned they had a pool hall in Metter (a nearby town) and I rode my bike 12 miles to play there. Chester Flynt ran the pool hall. He was a top player in that part of Georgia. He saw I had talent and he took me to my first tournament. I first played in Chattanooga when I was 13. I was hooked on pool. I met my idol, Earl Strickland, there, too."
Archer's father, George, owned a garage in Metter, but he didn't approve of his son becoming a pool player. The argument came to a head when Archer turned 16 and, although he was an A-student, quit school.
"It was the only battle we ever had," Archer said. "He was and is a wonderful man. When he realized that pool was my life, he became totally supportive. My mother died when I was 5, and Dad remarried when I was 7. I love my stepmother. She's special. But at one time, they talked about putting me in a foster home. My one regret is that I didn't finish high school. I am studying now to take an equivalency test."
Archer joined the pro tour in 1985, when he was 17. It was a difficult struggle and sometimes he was down to his last $5, but at most tournaments he was good enough to win money.
He says that when he met Shannon Miller at a tournament in Raleigh, N.C., 3 1/2 years ago, his fortunes began to change for the better.
"Although I had talent, I had the worst attitude and didn't have self-confidence," he said, "I was my own worst enemy. I would get all upset at every mistake. It cost me chances to win tournaments.
"Shannon and I first became friends and later I moved to Raleigh, where I bought a house. We will be married Sept. 11.
"About a year after we met, I began a 180-degree turnaround. I finally won my first pro tournament in 1991, in Reno, Nev. There were many times when I thought I wouldn't make it on tour, but the first win was the start for me.
"I'm not a person without sin, but I haven't ever done anything really bad. God gave me this talent, and it wouldn't be right not to do the most I could with it. Everywhere I've been, I've been exposed to drugs and drink--in high school, hotels, on the street--but not as much as you would think in pool halls. Of course, you could always get beer there.
"I never was a hustler. I'd go into a town and tell them I was a good pool player and did anyone want to play. I never asked for a handicap. I never did much gambling."
In 1991, Archer was second in the U.S. Open in Norfolk, Va., and third in the World Championship at Las Vegas. Last year, he hit the top, winning the World Championship at Taipei, Taiwan. From 1985 earnings of $3,000, he soared to six figures. He has three sponsors, among them Schon Cues, which recently made him a custom $2,500 cue stick.
"I haven't caught any flak for my lifestyle," he said. "We are like a family out on the road. I remember that Earl (Strickland) came up to me early in my career and shook my hand. I almost passed out. I never thought I would ever be as good as he is. It seems like a dream to be No. 1 and Earl No. 2."