Story by Dustin Senger
CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – Top-ranked pool players Rodney “The Rocket” Morris and Charles “The Korean Dragon” Williams provided tips and tricks for U.S. service members at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar, June 28, a day before competing in the 2010 World 9-ball Championship in Doha.
Morris and Williams both arrived at Doha International Airport in Qatar, June 27, but on separate flights. Morris flew in from Spain, where he placed third at the Spanish Open 9-Ball Championship. Williams’ plane skidded onto the runway late at night, completing a trip from his hometown in Orlando, Fla. The following day, they exercised at their hotel to help beat jet lag, and then visited troops at the Camp As Sayliyah.
After entering the Army base, the professional pool players walked into a warehouse that seemed – on the exterior – much like any other desert tan facility. However, the building’s contents revealed something far removed from the expected piles of materiel and modular office spaces. Between polished concrete floors and orange bay lighting, the competitors stepped into a club-like atmosphere.
Since 2004, the Top-Off Club has accommodated nearly 200,000 war fighters participating in the Central Command rest and recuperation pass program at Camp As Sayliyah. Third Army/U.S. Army Central Area Support Group Qatar executes the program, providing a four-day respite for troops serving in contingency operations across Southwest Asia.
Beyond the eight-lane bowling alley, adjacent to a set of sofa chairs, next to six digital tabletop touch games – before the four electronic dart boards and a pair of arcade driving simulators – are eight pool tables where off-duty servicemembers spend hours shooting 9- and 8-ball pocket billiards.
Army Spc. Jamie Scott of Oil City, Pa., took several opportunities to discover professional pointers, which included a massé shot that can produce amazing curves at various ball speeds. Scott coaxed his noncommissioned officer in charge, Army Sgt. Michael Moats of Virginia Beach, Va., to play Morris.
Moats had played regularly for 15 years. He grew up with a pool table in his parent’s house, and then another in his apartment before enlisting in the Army. Moats says he went against pool professional Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee more than a dozen times during her appearance at an Army base in Darmstadt, Germany, several years ago.
His 8-ball game against Morris lasted a few minutes.
“It was fun to watch – that’s all I can say,” said Moats, shrugging off a rapid win by The Rocket.
“The better you get,” says Morris, “the funner it is.” He recalls playing pool consistently at 16 years old. He’d practice 14-16 hours a day at Hawaiian Brian’s Billiards on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu. Patrons often discovered young Morris sleeping under the tables.
“I didn’t know when I first picked up the stick that I was going to be a professional pool player,” says Morris. “I was actually going to join the Air Force, like my grandfather. I really wanted to fly F-16s.”
Morris started to rack in big earnings on professional tables while Williams became a top amateur player. They first competed against each other during the 1996 Ocean State 9-Ball Championship in Providence, R.I. Williams, then 19, had been following Morris’ career.
“Rodney had just won a big tournament in Puerto Rico,” said Williams. “Rocket was young and fast – I wanted to be just like him.” Morris, then 25 and building his prestige, defeated Williams 9-5.
“I didn’t expect to do that well,” says Williams. “I was the only one who came close to having a match with him… nobody came that close.”
The Ocean State served as a warm up for Morris. Three days after winning, he began the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship in Chesapeake, Va. Celebrating another first-place win, which awarded him $25,000, he bought everyone dinner, and then later met Williams at the restaurant.
Since then, the pool players have competed together across the United States and in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. Qatar represents their first visit to the Middle East.
Morris is currently number two, behind Johnny Archer, in the 2010 Billiard Congress of America points list published in June. Williams is ranked number seven.
“They have a lot of fans supporting them and they’re showing support for what we do,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Reuben Brown of Los Angeles, who met Morris and Williams during his first day on pass at the Army base in Qatar. “They took time out of their day to show they care about their troops.”
Brown eagerly challenged Morris to an 8-ball pool game. Morris sank two solid-colored balls with the first break – his other five quickly followed. Brown hit in two before Morris won the game with a swift strike of the eight ball. Morris provided some tips to help him improve.
“I learned how to spin the ball and hit a jump shot – legally – by hitting the ball on top,” said Army Staff Sgt. Priscilla Sanchez of Paterson, N.J., after some instruction from Morris. “It was so cool how, in a matter of minutes, he showed me the imaginary ball theory,” a tactic that requires players to aim at a “ghost ball” for angled shots.
“They were so patient,” said Sanchez. “They took the time to look at the table and then led me where to take a shot, and then I made them in the pocket.”
“It all boils down to mechanics,” says Morris. “The game is easy when you know the right bridge, stance and grip.” He says it’s important to learn the right techniques and then practice them repeatedly.
“We appreciate everything they do for us,” said Morris, after departing the Army base. “We wouldn’t be able to do the things we’re doing, if they weren’t doing the things they do.”
The 2010 World 9-Ball Championship began June 29, at the Qatar Billiard and Snooker Federation with 128 players divided into 16 groups. A total pot prize of $250,000 is up for grabs, with the champion winning $36,000 after the finals on July 5. The tournament is sponsored by the Qatar Olympic Committee, and sanctioned by World Pool-Billiard Association and Asian Pocket Billiard Union.