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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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December: ‘Look What They Did’
December 2021

There is a scene in “The Godfather” in which Vito Corleone goes to the undertaker’s morgue to view the body of his son, Santino, who had been ambushed by a rival gang. As he looks at the bullet-riddled body, he chokes up, mumbling, “Look what they did to my boy.”

For some reason, that scene popped into my head in Norfolk as I settled in for the recent International Nine-Ball Open.

[Listen, I get it. That’s an over-the-top, overly dramatic analogy to make. But, hey, it’s my column and I get to reference one of my top-five movies of all time.]

The 2021 incarnation of Pat Fleming’s $50,000-added tournament featured a host of changes from previous years. Remember, Fleming ran Barry Behrman’s U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships in Norfolk for several years before the Behrman family sold the storied tournament to Matchroom Sport. To me, the International is simply a rebranded version of the U.S. Open that Behrman had run for 40 years, and that had justifiably earned a reputation as the toughest tournament in the world to win. It is/was a staple in the Norfolk area, an area rich in pool history.

That is the tournament I loved. And that is the tournament that I want to see continue, under whatever banner. It’s the tournament, not the name, that I relished.

Before I address the changes to the 2021 event that left me nonplussed, let me be clear: This is Pat Fleming’s tournament. He is the person who kept a major tournament going in Norfolk after the U.S. Open departed for greener pastures. He does it at his own expense. He has to drum up sponsorship. He has to make commitments to the venue. He guarantees the added money. He sells the tickets. He produces the live streams.

And to do all that, he must produce a tournament that will draw that money, draw those fans, draw the players, and make everyone happy.

Tough task.

I also know, through years of watching him, that Pat Fleming doesn’t make changes without a lot of thought and consideration.

But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.

In my view, the changes in 2021 took away many of the nuances that made the Behrman U.S. Open/Fleming International the toughest event in the world.

First, the full double-elimination format was scrapped in favor of double-elimination to the final 32 (16 unbeaten players, 16 one-loss players), and single-elimination from that point on.

Also, the traditional winner-breaks rule was changed to alternate break. And to accommodate the likely longer battles, match lengths were trimmed from 11 to 10.

I felt like the International fell into a trap by doing what everyone else is doing.

I understand that single elimination is easier to follow, and the days are shorter. But the experiment comes at a cost. The field was cut to 32 three full days before the final. Players who would normally still be battling on Friday night left town Thursday morning. How’d that sit with all those loyal ticket buyers, most of whom roll into town Thursday night or Friday morning for the weekend? (And how’d the hotel like all those players checking out early?)

More importantly, full double elimination to the title match (which was then extended to a longer race) is one of the things that made the U.S.Open/International the toughest test in pool. And the longer races and winner-breaks format brought the best out in the game’s stars.

Don’t believe all that makes a difference?

Just ask 2021 International winner Albin Ouschan.

The two-time World 9-Ball Champion is clearly one of the top players on the planet. Yet his history at the U.S. Open and International has been borderline abysmal. Until this year. What changed?

“I definitely think I had a disadvantage in previous years with winner break because I could never run two or three in a row,” Ouschan said after his win. “I always had opponents who made a four- or five-pack. And if you go to the loser’s side, you’re almost done because you have to win, like, 10 matches.”

Exactly my point. There is no argument that a 200-player, double-elimination, long-race tournament is harder to win than an event that breaks to single elimination for the last five rounds. When a player won the U.S. Open/International Open, they knew they’d outlasted the best field in the world under the toughest conditions. Especially if they had to battle through round after round of elimination matches on the loser’s side, each round facing a top-flight player who’d just been bumped out of the winner’s bracket.

(A smaller gripe was the use of three-point rule on the break. People! Please stop this nonsense. For starters, the International used referees and rackers, with the 9 on the spot. Taking the racks out of the hands of the players was enough to dissuade most from babying the break.)

To his credit, Fleming acknowledged that several of the changes proved less than great. Going forward, single elimination will start at the final 16. And the three-point rule will go away.

Not enough, for my taste.

I beseech you, Pat: Separate your event from everyone else. Keep it unique. Market it as the toughest test on earth. Winning the Event-Previously-Known-as-the-U.S. Open used to be career-defining. Keep it that way.

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