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Born to Play Pool

The son of professional pool players, Canada's John Morra has the pedigree. Now he's displaying the skills.

Story by Keith Paradise

Photos by JP Parmentier

John Morra is rarely satisfied. Not even a nearly flawless run to the final in the 10-ball division of the Canadian Billiard and Snooker Association Championships in Quebec City in early May allowed the 27-year-old self-proclaimed perfectionist to pat himself on the back.

John Morra

"This guy is a different player," Morra told his father, Mario, prior to his title match tilt against Alex Pagulayan, the former World 9-Ball Champion and U.S. Open 9-Ball Champion, and the player against whom all Canadian pool players are measured. "If I'm going to be the best, I have to stand up to him and beat him."

By age 10, Morra was competing in and winning tournaments in Toronto.

Morra had already gone toe-to-toe with Pagulayan on three occasions during the weeklong national championships, losing all three times during play in the 8-ball and 9-ball divisions. In the 10-ball finale, however, Morra more than stood up to Pagulayan, using a powerful break and pinpoint position play to post a convincing 13-3 win.

Morra, here in China, doesn't shy away from international competition.

"That tells me that he belongs, and that he can beat the big guys," Mario Morra said. In the past couple of years, Morra has been showing a lot of people he belongs with the upper echelon. After a handful of second place finishes, the 27-year-old Canadian broke though at April's Super Billiards Expo Pro Players 10-Ball Championship, capping off an impressive charge through the loser's bracket with a win over America's best, Shane Van Boening, in the title match. And with a recent commitment to healthier living and a perfectionist approach to the game, Morra doesn't plan on going away any time soon. A life leaning over the green baize was all but preordained for Morra, the son of professional pool and snooker players Mario Morra and Anita McMahon. McMahon remembers John throwing the balls into the pockets on her basement snooker table when he was a toddler. He graduated from ball-tossing to using a small cue and a milk crate to reach the table when he was four years old, with his stiffest competition coming from his older sister. Morra blossomed into a player when his family moved to Toronto when he was 10 and McMahon secured sponsorship from a local poolroom, with John receiving free practice time. Soon, he was entering weekly 9-ball tournaments around Toronto, sometimes as many as four a week, with organizers spotting the young child three or four balls. Eventually, Morra started winning the events as a grade-schooler and earning prize money.

A young John Morra poses with Canadian pool and snooker player Jeff White.

"He was making a lot of money," McMahon said. "He would have $500 to $600 on him and that's a lot of money for a 10-year-old kid." "I loved the game," said Morra. "I really didn't know how good I was. I just knew that I loved the game." One of his earliest pool memories was attending the Super Billiards Expo with his parents when he was about four years old. A decade later, Morra won the 14-and-under division in Valley Forge, qualifying him for the 2004 Billiard Congress of America Junior National Championships in Tucson, Ariz. Morra captured the 18-and-under Open title, earning a birth in the Junior World Championships in Australia, where he captured a bronze medal. After that, there wasn't any question about what Morra wanted to do with his life. "He just wanted to travel and he wanted to play," McMahon said.

Morra recently scored his biggest U.S. win, beating Shane Van Boening (seated) at the Pro Players Championship.

Morra was 22 when he scored his first big professional victory, taking top honors in the banks division of the 2012 Derby City Classic. The next four years witnessed tremendous growth, but also frustration. Improving performance and increased competition failed to yield more titles. Morra finished runner-up twice in 2014 and six times 2015. One defeat that sticks in Morra's mind is his loss to Van Boening in the 2014 Derby City Classic 9-ball division championship. Morra held 5-3, 7-4 and 8-6 leads in the race-to-nine, but made a couple of mistakes to allow the match to reach hill-hill. In the final game, Morra made a safety error that allowed Van Boening to close out the set.

"I was in control and I blew it," Morra said. "It took every ounce of strength to hold in my tears. People were coming up and consoling me. I felt like breaking down. It just hurt so bad."

Although she never showed it, the second place finishes took a toll on McMahon as well, who hurt watching her son's pain. "I'm just positive with him, and I would tell him, 'You have to learn how to lose before you can win,'" McMahon said. It also didn't help that Morra was applying tremendous pressure to himself to succeed. Part of the pressure came from wanting to live up to the accomplishments of his parents, but much of it stemmed from a perfectionist work ethic that started when he was young. McMahon remembered her then-13-year-old son frustrated with a ninth-place finish because he believed he should have won. "Right away, he always wanted more and more," McMahon said.

While trophies were slow in coming, Morra did earn a major victory away from pool conquering a self-defeating lifestyle. Morra, who had spent many a night partying, found sobriety a little over a year ago. He traded in the late nights for a gym membership and now works out five days a week for up to three hours a day. If Morra is hooked on anything at this point, it's running. "Whatever I do is to the extreme," Morra said. "That can be a bad thing when you like to party. "I simply made a decision one year ago to give it 100 percent. I sacrificed a lot of things that I enjoyed because they were hurting my game." "He's really treating himself like a professional athlete now," said fellow pro and close friend Erik Hjorleifson.

Morra's fitness regimen, geared in part to keeping his back and neck muscles strong and loose, includes twice-weekly visits to the chiropractor, acupuncture and occasional massage therapy. Morra even got a massage before his final match against Pagulayan in Quebec City. McMahon is also quick to credit Morra's longtime girlfriend, Kaitlin Bick, with helping her son to get active and remain sober. "They just want to live a clean life and stay away from anything that is negative," McMahon said. Not that Morra is completely void of negativity. An early-round loss to Donny Mills in the Players Championship left Morra feeling like he wanted the tournament to be over. So frustrated was the young pro that he contemplated ditching competition altogether and opening a pool hall in Toronto. When they returned to the home at which they were staying in Valley Forge, Morra vented to Bick. "To be honest, I just want to get beat so I can drive home early," he admitted. "I'm miserable when I'm competing against these top players." Following his mini-meltdown, Morra sought the refuge of a nearby LA Fitness, where he ran, stretched and sat in the sauna. He left the fitness center revitalized.

"I went from playing 50 percent to playing 90 percent," Morra said. "That's when I thought, 'I have a chance now.' From there I fought through." "The gym is a really big thing for him," said Hjorleifson. "It just makes him ready to play." Morra also prepared with some mental gymnastics as well after a talk with Chris Kuntz from sponsor Falcon Cues, who noticed him brooding and talking to himself after mistakes. Kuntz encouraged Morra to live in the present instead staying in the past. Morra concedes he's not the most open-minded when people offer advice, but this time the words stuck. He struggled in his next match but held himself together, pushing through to a 10-7 victory. Morra's next opponent was Hall of Famer Johnny Archer. Once again, Morra kept his composure and didn't let mistakes affect him even as Archer showed frustration at times and won, 9-8.

"I feel like I won the mental battle in that match," Morra said.

After the Archer match, Morra went on a roll, defeating Mika Immonen, Mike Dechaine and Thorsten Hohmann to reach the final. The two traded wins early, but Morra pulled ahead, 10-6, after Van Boening's break failed him a couple of times. Unlike Derby City four years earlier, Morra remained in control, fought off a late rally by Van Boening, and won, 13-10. McMahon wasn't able to attend the tournament but was receiving frequent updates by phone. "I was so nervous," she said. "When I played I was never nervous but with him I'm so nervous." Now that Morra has won again against a star-studded field, his next goal is to win a world championship. "That's what's kept me playing pool," he said. "That's what I have wanted since I was 10 years old. I've always believed and I really don't think it's too far away."

Competing on a worldwide level isn't anything new for Morra, who has been globetrotting to tournaments since that trip to Sydney as a teenager. In 2015 alone, Morra traveled to 28 tournaments worldwide including the China Open, World Cup of Pool and World Pool Masters in Great Britain and World 10-Ball Championships in the Philippines. Hjorleifson recalls a time when Morra competed at a Canadian tournament for a week, only to hop on a plane two days later to play in the Don Coates Memorial in North Carolina. "He's not thinking about taking two days off. He's back on the plane and out and competing," Hjorleifson said. Morra will pretty much play any game anywhere. He's placed in the top five twice at the United States Bar Box Championships, despite the dearth of bar tables in Canada. He's also traveled to the Chinese 8-Ball Championships the past two years, with his only exposure to Chinese tables being a week at a Vancouver pool hall prior to the event.

When he's not traveling, Morra is still a regular at those same handicapped 9-ball tournaments where he started competing as a kid. Of course, no one is spotting him balls anymore. Now he's weighted as a "13," and facing players who only have to win a fraction of that number. Hjorleifson estimates Morra still wins 75 percent of the time.

"It puts me to the test and helps me to remain in stroke," Morra said. "I play every tournament I can." Morra said the days of feeling like he has to live up his parents' accomplishments are long behind him. However, McMahon said her son does keep one eye on the scoreboard. Following his 10-ball win in Quebec City, Morra reminded McMahon that he now has 11 Canadian championships to her 15.

"He said, 'I'm catching up to you.' And I said, 'And when you beat it, it'll be the happiest day of my life,'" McMahon said. "So he does think about it."

While Morra has the passion and drive to compete and win, he's also striving to achieve greater balance in his life. He enjoys watching sports as well as learning new things. Hjorleifson said Morra likes to discuss a variety of topics and absorbs information like a sponge. He has his family, his friends and a home in Toronto, which has the Expo championship trophy displayed on its own shelf in the entryway. "I'm just doing the right things and I'm being a better person overall," Morra said. "I think I put a little too much importance on pool at one point and everything else suffered. I'm just as happy away from the table."