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Playing pool with Jim Barber is like playing golf with Tiger Woods. You might get lucky and beat him. Then again, you might win the lottery.
Barber is Colorado Springs' version of Minnesota Fats, minus the girth. The lanky 6-foot-3 California-born Barber has quietly become one of the best pool players in the United States.
The 49-year-old was almost the best, but admits "choking" in the final rounds of the 2001 U.S. Amateur Championships in November. Barber still finished third and got a nice, 30-pound trophy for his efforts, but believes he could have won it all after leading early against both finalists.
"If you get beat and didn't play too well, you don't feel so bad, but when you give it away on a silver platter, it makes you feel sick to your stomach," says the easygoing Barber.
In pool talk, it's called "getting the lump." Or, as Barber puts it, "doggin' it."
Still, third place is pretty good for a guy who played pool "about 15 minutes in 20 years" before buying a Colorado Springs pool hall in the late '80s.
Can't wait to get to work
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Barber walked away from a comfortable life selling real estate to open a small casino in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the late '80s when the mining town legalized limited-stakes gambling.
His nose for real-estate opportunities brought him to Colorado Springs about the same time and he bought the Corner Pocket pool hall at 3780 E. Boulder Street.
Barber ended up running the pool hall full-time after a manager was dipping into the money drawer too often and his dreams of striking gold with the casino fell flat.
By 1993, after running the pool hall for a few years, Barber started to get serious about his game. He'd play pool several hours a day, in between serving drinks and closing down the place. Within a few years he was consistently winning local pool tournaments. After qualifying for the 1998 U.S. amateur's for the first time, he finished a solid ninth overall. Barber kept playing tournaments and kept winning. He was hooked.
"You have to have a passion for it. It's real hard to make a living on tournaments or by gambling. You gotta love the game."
Now a confessed pool fanatic, Barber decided to open a second pool hall in Colorado Springs. The "Antique Billiard Museum," just north of Citadel Mall in the old Social Security office, is Barber's homage to pool.
"It's like Hard Rock Caf, but for pool," Barber beams as he shows off the pool memorabilia he showcases throughout the bar. Posters, vintage pool cues and balls, photos and movie-stills adorn the walls. "It's the only billiard museum in the world with a bar."
The large 10,500-square-foot hall features 35 tables, ranging from small 2-foot-by-5-foot tables to 6-by-12 tables. Many of the tables are antiques from New York, Colorado and Washington dating back to the late 1800s. All have been restored and are being played on.
"Coming to work is a pleasure. Owning a pool hall is the greatest job in the world. I don't have any second thoughts. I can't wait to go to work."
Feeding the ego
Barber qualified for the 128-player field for the November amateur championships out of 663 players that tried nationwide. Conducted by the American Poolplayers Association, the tournament is the most prestigious amateur billiard event in the United States.
Barber says the field was highly competitive, with many of the amateurs hoping to join the lucrative pro tour.
"Everyone thinks they can win it. You're not going to travel 2,000 miles and think you're not going to win. A lot of people in pool have big egos. It's very competitive. There's no real prize money. Everyone's going there to feed their ego."
The top two finishers qualified for the 2002 U.S. Open Pro Championships, the Super Bowl of pool. Barber says he has no real interest in trying to become a pro ("I have a wife and a kid and a dog").
In last month's championships, Barber was one match away from advancing to the finals, but was defeated by the eventual runner-up.
"I played real well throughout the tournament, but I kind of choked there in the end," he says.
That familiar crack
It's an early Thursday evening in December and the bar is starting to fill up with players. This crowd is serious about its pool. Many pack their own cues and come nightly for the pickup tournaments.
Playing for playing's sake is good enough for Barber.
"The excitement of playing and having a shot to win is a real high," Barber says.
Barber racks up the pool balls with experienced ease. No second takes on the rack. He breaks with a forceful, precise rocket, sending balls scattering across the table. He nonchalantly sinks shots that would cause heart palpitations in most people.
"It's a very comfortable sound." Blop, the two-ball sinks as Barber talks in between shots. "It's a motivating sound." Another four balls drained. "It's action." Game over.
We play three more games of nine ball. I shoot once each game before succumbing to the master. It's not humiliating playing against someone so much better than you are. Belittling is a better word.
By game five, I get lucky, hitting a tough bank shot. I sink three more balls. Barber intones like a knowing Buddha, "Good shot." Suddenly, I have the nine ball in my sights. It's an easy angle, but a lot of green -- a lot of green. My stomach knots up and everything goes quiet. Barber's a gentleman but he doesn't want to lose, especially to a hack like me. The game's mine, but I duff the shot and Barber taps it in for the win.
I guess that's the classic choke. I got the lump.