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From Russia With Love

Oleg Tkach relished the opportunity to visit the U.S. for the first time, visit with his daughter Kristina and test his skills in a pair of iconic American events.

By Keith Paradise
Photos by Erwin Dionisio

Oleg Tkach couldn't help but let his eyes wander.

The 47-year-old Russian player was locked up in a one-loss side match against Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famer Thorsten Hohmann on the third day of the Turning Stone Classic in January and was down early. As he sat in his chair, he kept stealing glances at the match taking place on the table next to his. At one point, Hohmann was working his way through the rack, yet Tkach's complete focus was on what was happening on that adjacent table. Then again, it's tough not to watch the other table's match when one of the players competing is your daughter and former pupil, Kristina Tkach, who was in a tight tussle of her own against American Donny Mills.

“It actually helps me when I'm trying to get away from my match to watch hers,” he said through Kristina as a translator as they sat in the stands at the casino. “I was very nervous and concentrating really hard and so I was just trying to get away from my own game.”

What's there to be nervous about? You're just spending your first week ever in the United States by playing in your first professional event on American soil against a two-time world champion.

Oleg Tkach fell in love with the cue sports as a 15-year-old when he discovered Russian pyramid and was Kristina's coach early on, developing her into a WPA World Junior and seven-time Euro Tour champion. So, when the family's first trip to America was officially scheduled, of course a couple of tournaments would be included in the itinerary, with Oleg and Kristina both competing at Turning Stone and last month's Derby City Classic. The trip was an opportunity for father and daughter to connect as well as compete, with the family taking a cross-country drive to substitute billiard balls and pool tables with mountain ranges and oceans.

“It was honestly a very warm time that we spent together,” said Kristina. “When I play, and my dad is watching and cheering for me that is a great experience for me. To be honest, I was homesick for a long time, and I'll always want to go back but having them here really changes everything.”

Oleg, 47, was born in Moldova, eventually moved to Moscow and picked up Russian pyramid, a game played on a 6 foot by 12-foot table with numbered white balls, when he was 15 years old. He played for three years but, with the Soviet Union crumbling all around him and his first child on the way, he put down the cue.

“It was different times,” he said. “Everyone was just working hard to survive.”

Kristina was born in 1999 and Oleg would occasionally take her to the billiard room in Moscow while he played. He soon realized that she was too small for the pyramid tables and moved her to a pool table instead. The two of them started playing the game here and there, eventually getting hooked on the new discipline.

A former professional boxer, Oleg began training his daughter for success early. He constantly searched for instruction materials, knowledge and information on technique and fundamentals that he would use to work with his daughter for the first two years that she was playing, taking her to the pool room for three hours a day after school to work on her game ;— actually, just to work on her stroke.

“His first experience with coaching was based in snooker and the idea of having the perfect stroke and that straight shooting was most important,” said Kristina. “For the first two years, it wasn't about the game, it was about mastering the stroke.”

Some days, they would work on “Mighty X” drills for an entire day, only to come back and do it all over again the next day. When celebrated coach Johan Ruysink was hired to train the Russian national team, he occasionally stayed at the Tkach's apartment. Oleg was analyzing every training regimen he could get his hands on, discarding the elements he didn't like and using the ones that he did.

Kristina placed third in the first Moscow Championship she ever competed in and caught the eye of then star players Ruslan Chinakhov and Konstantin Stepanov. They approached Oleg and soon she was offered a small monthly stipend and access to the poolroom used for training in the center of the city.

“The game plan was to work really hard and see where it is going to get you,” said Kristina. “There were many years I was told to work hard and be disciplined and dedicated and see what happens.”

He continued to dabble with his own game as well, developing a love of bank book and occasionally matching up with a teenaged Fedor Gorst, especially after Gorst had returned to Russia from his own inaugural trip to Derby City.

“He said, 'Now you know the game so give me a spot and we can play,'” said the two-time Derby Master of the Table. “He knew I didn't have any money and I wanted to play someone that I could beat. I thought he had no chance, and he probably didn't.”

The entire time, Oleg had a vision for where his daughter could and would go in the game. Friend Alan Khestanov recalled one year when she won the Russian Junior Championship despite not playing particularly well. Although the victory secured a spot in the European Junior Championships, Oleg, who was known for having a bit of a temper, stood there in the aftermath with a beat red face, furious. A parent finally asked why he was so upset when his daughter won.

“He knew that if she went to the European championships and played like that, she would win nothing,” said Khestanov.

“I was always impressed with his passionate approach to training his daughter,” said Vladimir Nikolai, the Russian billiard promoter who was instrumental in helping to start Fedor's career. “He had an algorithmic and fundamental approach. When you look at her accomplishments you see his passion for pool.”

Her accomplishments include winning the European Championship four times in her young career, twice each in 8-ball and straight pool. With the ban on Russian athletes lifted midway through 2022, Tkach had the opportunity to play a full professional schedule last year and had the most successful season of her career, notching three top-four finishes on the Women's Professional Billiards Tour and earning a top-three finish at the Women's World 9-Ball Championship in Atlantic City. Facing Allison Fisher in the semifinals of that tournament, she committed a couple of unforced errors costing her a spot in the final. She was visibly disappointed in her performance in the aftermath but when the topic transitioned from the match to where she was heading next, her face brightened, and a grin appeared. She had just secured her green card and was heading back home to Moscow to spend a month with her mother, father and sister. It had been nearly a year since Russia had invaded Ukraine and forced Tkach and her boyfriend, former World 9-Ball Champion Gorst, to flee to the U.S. and embark on a half-year barnstorming tour of local events after they were banned from competing in professional events by the WPA for six months.

She talked to them about applying for their visas while she was there, adding that the two of them could hit a couple of tournaments while they were in the country.

“My dad really got back into playing,” she said. “I thought maybe it would be a good time to come and play Derby.”

Oleg (closely watched by Kristina) prepared for his U.S. pool debut with hours of practice.

The process for applying for a visa in Russia is costly and difficult, with paperwork and interviews, but the family began applying for the permits in early summer and were approved in August. The flights were booked two months later and, on December 28, the Tkach's landed in New York and began sightseeing, walking approximately 20,000 steps in Manhattan on the first day. After the second day, Oleg was getting the itch to play, and they found a handicapped tournament in Brooklyn in a room with cinder block walls which reminded him of Moscow.

“He wanted to play pool as much as he could,” said Gorst. “We're celebrating New Years and drinking, and he wants to be in the poolroom all day.”

Plus, he wanted to tests the work he had been putting in. He had started to play again during the pandemic when he and Kristina were locked down at home and working on her stroke again. When restrictions lifted and she had started traveling the world again, Tkach was still practicing a few hours a day. When the trip was booked, he called Khestanov to start honing his skills more, with the two of them working on position play and drills. Oleg then matched up with players of various speeds in preparation for the competition.

“I am going to the United States, and I have to do my best there,” he told his friend. “I have to show them my best game.”

Mike Zuglan's semiannual Turning Stone Classic takes place in the hotel and resort's multipurpose arena, with bleachers on both sides and tables stretched down two lines in between. It was exactly the atmosphere Oleg envisioned, with the region making him feel even more at home by dumping a good six inches of snow on the resort as the tournament persisted. He battled his nerves and somehow won his first-round match 9-4 over Ed Culhane. After dropping his next match hill-hill to Canadian Barry Hetherington, Tkach headed to the one-loss side and faced Billiard Congress Hall of Famer Pat Fleming. The two split the first 14 racks of the race-to-9 set before Tkach used a break-and-run and a victorious safety exchange to win the final two games and clinch the set, 9-7.

“He's a strong player,” said Fleming in between racks. “If he can run out, he will.”

The next day, he defeated Sean Santoro, 9-6, and Brendan Ince, 9-5, before falling to Hohmann, 9-4, good enough for 17th place and a check in his first American event.

“Today was one of the best days and one of the best games I've ever played,” said Oleg. “I could show what I was doing in the practice room.”

“He said he liked the atmosphere,” said Gorst, who went on to win the event over Jayson Shaw. “It's been cool. It's always better when you have someone here. Last time, I came by myself, and it was not the best. I'm way happier this trip than last time.”

From New York, they headed back to Tkach and Gorst's home in Memphis, Indiana, where her family grew to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Midwest. A few days later, they arrived at a much less tranquil environment — the Derby City Classic. The tournament had always been a bucket list item for Tkach and the build up in his mind met his expectations and then some, especially when he walked into the casino for the first time.

“I loved everything,” said Oleg. “I had goosebumps when I saw all of the legendary players – including Fedor – on the banners.”

He was eliminated in the seventh round in the banks division but was satisfied to come from behind in a couple of his matches to pull out wins. He had a shorter stay in the 9-ball division, lasting only until the fourth round when fatigue caught up with him. As Gorst competed in one of the late round matches around 3 a.m. Sunday, the Tkach's made their way back to the room to start packing up Gorst's podcasting equipment and other gear before grabbing a quick nap. They set an alarm but, after 10 straight days of pool, couldn't answer the bell.

“We never showed back up, but we tried,” said Kristina.

Gorst recalled gambling with Oleg, while Kristina revelled in competing with him.

“I warned him that this is how Derby is,” said Gorst.

After the tournament, they flew into Denver to drive through the Rocky Mountains into Salt Lake City, then continued onto Las Vegas where they hung out for a couple of days and caught Cirque du Soleil. The trip continued south to Los Angeles, up the coast to San Francisco then back to Denver where they caught a flight home. After a week on the California coast, they loved the beauty of the ocean. The road trip even reminded Kristina to occasionally stop and admire the view, something she and Gorst haven't really done while traveling from tournament to tournament for the last two years.

“I hadn't been to any of those places myself,” she said. “To be honest, I'm under a huge impression myself from what I've seen in California and the drive from Colorado to Utah. Those mountains are crazy. Oh, and then there's California wine.”

Oleg also immediately observed things about the country that a guy would.

“The first he noticed were roads and highways and how good the quality is,” said Kristina. He also noticed the lives that his daughter and Gorst have built for themselves in the U.S. He was astonished by all the people that approached them at Turning Stone and the Derby to say hello or ask for a picture or an autograph. He noticed all the things that, in the end, helped them take the trip that they'd just gone on.

“He really enjoyed seeing how many people are involved in pool,” she said. “It's something you will never see back home, and it definitely impressed him a lot.”

The Tkach's are already talking about coming back next year and he's again working on a training regimen, but this time it's for himself.

“He already built up a practice routine,” she said with a laugh. “He's already analyzed his mistakes, so he already knows what to keep working on. He said, 'I'm going to come back next year and show them.”

Oleg, flanked by Kristina and Vitaly Patsura, had a front row seat for Fedor's title run.