It's getting harder to tell the hustlers from the hustled these days.
Professional pool players catch a lot of grief from fans, industry types and promoters - for having bad attitudes; for doing "business;" for a perceived lack of respect for the game; for not always looking like professional athletes. Some of the criticism is deserved, most of it isn't.
But one thing you can't fault the players for is their willingness to take people's words at face value. They are, in a way, surprisingly trusting. And surprisingly accepting.
How else could you explain their attitudes and perseverance in the face of tournament promoters who continually come up short on promises?
The recent buzz around the pool world centers on a pair of well-known promoters who have had problems fulfilling promises made to the players.
First, there are the well-chronicled woes of the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship. Promoter Barry Behrman "guarantees" a healthy prize fund each year, but when it comes time to pay the players, shortfalls seem to be the order of the day. Over the past decade, a sizeable percentage of cashing players have been subjected to late payments, many times in installments over several months.
Having to wait an inordinate amount of time to be paid from a tournament in which player entry fees make up more than half of the prize fund is not only unfair, it is a genuine hardship for many. Being a "professional" these days isn't easy. Most of the players live a hand-to-mouth existence.
And how do the players react? There is always disappointment and, in some cases, disgust. And they always threaten to boycott the next year's Open. But they also grudgingly accept their fate and wait for the checks. And they always show up in Virginia the next October.
The pros did take matters into their own hands in 2013, when they forced Behrman to allow Hall of Famer Johnny Archer and Chicago attorney Dennis Walsh to handle the prize fund. Player payouts were made in full, although not without a few tense moments.
And in a move that may well save the U.S. Open in future years, Behrman is allowing Accu-Stats founder Pat Fleming to handle the collection and disbursement of all prize monies in 2015. One of the game's most respected figures, Fleming's participation will certainly quell player angst.
Still, even in years when his payouts were delayed, Behrman, to his credit, eventually paid every player.
The same can't be said for the promoters of the recent pool double-header in the Philippines, where boxing champion and pool benefactor Manny Pacquiao staged the World Pool-Billiard Association-sanctioned World 10-Ball Championship, and immediately followed that event up with a doubles 10-ball tournament. The first event, that the Pacquiao camp all but begged the WPA to allow them to produce, was to feature a $200,000 prize fund. The doubles event offered a $100,000 prize fund.
Obviously, the money was significant enough to draw players from around the world.
When it came time to pay out the prize money, however, approximately $10,000 was missing. According to several players, the promoters (the boxer's brother, Bobby, and his wife, Lorelei, reportedly were in charge of the event) informed the cashing players that five percent of their winnings had been withheld to pay the WPA sanctioning fee. The odd thing is, the WPA actually allowed the promoters to charge an entry fee for the event for that very purpose. (Traditionally, WPA World Championships do not charge an entry fee to the qualified players and pay the sanctioning fee separately from the prize fund.)
"I can assure everyone that the WPA certainly did not receive any part of this money," WPA President, Ian Anderson said in a letter posted on AZBilliards.com. "The WPA charged an entry fee in lieu of any sanction fee being deducted. Whoever decided to take the money had no right to do so. To add any other fee after the event is announced is wrong, but to do so after the event has completed is totally wrong and unacceptable."
The WPA, pool's world governing body, is investigating, but don't hold your breath. The association has neither the means nor the legal footing to do much about promoters who fail to live up to promises. They can choose to not do business with those promoters in the future, but not much more.
Ah, but the double-dipping wasn't finished.
Prior to the start of the doubles event (which was not a WPA-sanctioned tournament) - but after the 56 teams ponied up their $300-per-team entry fee - the Pacman promoters announced that the $100,000 prize fund had been reduced to $60,000. Just like that. Between the World 10-Ball and the Pacman Doubles, the Pacquiaos saved themselves (or their benevolent brother) $50,000!
Of course, the players shrugged their shoulders in resignation, screwed together their cues and played on...like they always do.
Unfortunately, this is the world of professional pool in which we live. The players, too often vilified, are at the mercy of promoters who are not held accountable.
They deserve better.