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From the Publisher
By Mike Panozzo
Mike became editor of Billiards Digest in 1980 and liked it so much that he bought the company. He has served on the Billiard Congress of America board of directors and as president of the Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.

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October: Détente
October 2017

So, what did we learn from the Great Moscow Experiment? It’s certainly not an overstatement to assert that Team USA has been the story of the year in 2017. From the hand wringing over the dismissal of Mark Wilson as Team USA captain after three years of trying to restore pride in the American pool program and attempting to build a team that could reclaim its Mosconi Cup glory, to the selection of a foreign coach — and former Team Europe coach to boot — as his replacement, to the team selection process and eventual lineup, Team USA has been the most discussed and debated subject for the past 10 months.

Now, with his team selected and the Mosconi Cup (which Team USA has lost nine times in the past 10 years) just two months off, captain/coach Johan Ruijsink set up a trip to Russia for some stiff international competition and a Mosconi Cup-style warm-up tournament. (Shane Van Boening, Dennis Hatch, Oscar Dominguez and Billy Thorpe made the junket. Team USA’s fifth player, Sky Woodward, cancelled his trip for family reasons and was replaced in Moscow by Corey Deuel.)

Ruijsink, who has worked as coach for the Russian pool federation for several years, managed to get the federation and promoters of the Kremlin Cup 10-ball tournament to subsidize Team USA’s participation in that event and to have the Americans remain in Moscow for a USA-Russia team challenge.

What American pool fans need to know about Ruijsink is that he is a meticulous planner and a detail-oriented coach. His plan was to put the Americans in rugged international competition in an unfamiliar place and see how they responded. Then he planned to pit them against Russia’s five top players in a team match.

It was a brilliant move for many reasons. First, it would give him a chance to see how his team worked as a unit. How would they get along? How would they bond? He needed to establish trust: trust between the players, and the players’ trust in him.

Additionally, the USA-Russia match — the Dream Challenge — would provide the American players with a firsthand look at Ruijsink’s handiwork. The Russian squad featured three teenagers, a 25-year-old and a 34-year-old. They all train under Ruijsink. Many uneducated pool fans scoffed at the opponent as being a less-than-formidable challenge for the Americans. The truth is, if a Mosconi Cup-style event was staged among European nations, the Russian five would be one of the betting favorites, behind only Poland and perhaps Holland. Check the record. All five Russian players are in the top 40 in Euro Tour rankings. Only Poland can claim a better five-player lineup. Through three days of training and competition, the Americans couldn’t help but notice how technically solid the Russians are, which, in turn, would bolster Ruijsink’s credibility as a coach in their eyes.

As for the event itself, Team USA struggled early against the Russians. The team lost several matches by a single game, despite having control of the table in the deciding rack. All along, Ruijsink could be seen sitting at the edge of the arena, his leg crossed, constantly jotting down notes in a notebook.

On the final day of the competition, Team USA found itself trailing 8-5 in the race-to-nine format. The team rallied to take the final four matches to earn a 9-8 victory. The American players hugged and hammed for photos clutching the Dream Challenge trophy, while Ruijsink discreetly slipped out of the frame.

Was it critical that Team USA win the Dream Challenge? Not at all. A win doesn’t mean they are ready to face the five best players Europe can put forward. And a loss would not have meant that they couldn’t win in Las Vegas in December. Still, there was a lot for Team USA to be excited about. Young Thorpe got his feet wet playing in a team atmosphere which, every player who has ever competed in a Mosconi Cup will tell you, is completely different than normal tournament play or action matches. Thorpe commented later that the pressure was intense. His teammates will undoubtedly caution him that the Mosconi Cup arena will make his experience in the Dream Challenge seem like a walk in the park.

Not unnoticed was Van Boening’s play and attitude in Russia. The Mosconi Cup has not been kind to America’s top player in the past. His overall perfomance is well below .500. People speculate that he feels too much pressure to carry the load. In Moscow it was obvious that Van Boening was relaxed and comfortable with his teammates, and it showed in his performance. He dominated in virtually every match he played. That is a good sign for Team USA.

What was critical to the Moscow trip was getting the players to think of themselves as a team. It was about building trust. It was about getting the players to put their complete faith in Ruijsink and to follow his instructions going forward without reservation. In that respect, Team USA hit a home run in Moscow.

Ruijsink plans to get together with his American charges again before December, and he will undoubtedly go to that notebook of his to continue the building process.

I watched the Moscow Experiment very closely, and it left me feeling very good about this year’s Mosconi Cup.