Each year in late May or early June, sometime around Memorial Day weekend, Las Vegas, Nevada plays host to the VNEA World Pool Championships. As one of the largest amateur pool leagues in the world, the Valley National 8-ball League Association bolsters close to 100,000 members participating in roughly 1,400 local leagues throughout the United States and even beyond. And at this year’s 35th annual tournament, over ten days of pool playing at Bally’s Hotel & Casino, several local shooters from Jacksonville and the Pike County area – competing both indivdually and as a team – made their mark with several top finishes.
After a third round loss in the Regular Open 8-ball Teams division, the Pike County Can Kickers, led by captain Bruce Baker, went on to qualify for the consolation championship, eventually taking first place in the Hard Luck #2 Division. Baker, a native of Griggsville, Illinois and retired lieutenant at the Jacksonville Correctional Center, brought home the second place trophy in the Regular Open Seniors 9-ball Singles Division, winning six consecutive matches on his way to the final.
“It’s more than a hobby to me cause I really love the game and I always have, from when I was young until now,” Baker said of his relationship with the game of pool. “I grew up in Griggsville back in the day, and it was a real small town and there really wasn’t anything to do, except we had a pool hall in town. And when I was 12, my brother was 22, but you had to be 16 to get into the pool hall. My folks let me go in as long as he was there. I learned a lot, they played Kelly Pool for 10, 25 cents, just something to do, and there was a lot of good pool shooters back then.”
Although he finished as the runner-up in the Senior 9-ball Division, Baker says that he actually prefers 8-ball more. Even when he arrived in Vegas, Baker said “I thought: ‘I’m going to play 9-ball just to kind of get me geared up for the 8-ball, but I got to playing and everything just kind of fell into place. You know sometimes you’ve got to be a little luckier than good, got to have some breaks.”
Along with Baker, the other seven members of the Can Kickers – Kent Deeder, Ralph Birch, Brian Davis, Reggie Hart, Dick Lambeth, Nate Stone and Mike Baker, Bruce’s son – compete in a weekly league at The Emporium in downtown Jacksonville. Stone and Hart both had impressive showings that week, with Stone earning a top-12 finish in the Regular Men’s 8-ball Singles Division, and Hart landing in the top-8 of the Regular Men’s 8-ball Sports Division.
“It’s a game of a quarter of an inch where that cue ball goes, but it’s just fun and ichallenging, and I’ve met so many nice people, I mean really, super nice people,” Baker said. “So I love the game, I like the people, and I’m competitive. It’s really a good time.”