When the World Union of Billiards welcomed America back into international play, it was with the understanding that U.S. federation members would be untainted by the wheeling-dealing commercialism that had provided the gold of the golden era in this country. This covenant was entrusted to Dr. Virgil E. Erickson, the president and a founder of the U.S. group. The choice was well made. Doc has the stature of Avery Brundage in billiards.
Doc Erickson has watched international-class amateur competition on several occasions, and he admits that American players have a distance to go, the first step being the admission that the art has fallen to a low state in this country. Realizing this, however, Doc had no compunction about agreeing to the suspension of Al Gilbert, one of the federation's prot�g�s and probably its best three-cushion player. Gilbert had taken part in an unsanctioned prize-money match in Mexico.
Doc is undeterred, even though Eastern representation at his national tournaments has disappeared because of his strictures on commercialism. He is a man who owns Welker Cochran's private table, a beautiful piece of massive inlaid furniture, and plays billiards with a cue stick he bought 44 years ago when he was 12. It is at Doc's strong suggestion that the competitors in his tournaments wear suits or dark cardigans while at the table as a substitute for the satin-sleeved vests worn in Europe. "We want the players to look presentable, not like bums," he says.
The competitors at the 1974 nationals in the San Jose Elks Lodge wore dark sweaters, with the exception of Gentleman John Bonner, a retired steel company supervisor from Buffalo. He earned his moniker by never removing his jacket when he plays. His title was taken from him, however.
On April 2-7 in Antwerp the United States will be represented in the World Billiard Championship by Frank Torres, an American who speaks English with a Spanish accent. Torres, at 29 the kid of the tournament, was undefeated in San Jose, beating Bonner 50-33 in their final game. The most exciting aspect of the tournament was whether Torres would maintain the .750 average demanded by the World Union of every player entering its championship. Torres drove up his average to the minimum only in the last game.
Torres was born in San Antonio but was raised in Mexico City, where pool is little known. It wasn't until 1968, after college, that he returned to his native country. His interest in school had been mathematics and Torres had decided to become an electronics technician. His weekends were devoted more and more to billiards.
"I asked questions of the good players," he says. "Al Gilbert was one of them. And when I had a system that wasn't improving my game, I dropped it. That is hard to do, but you must if you want to get better.
"Now at the table I can see the angle clearly, I can split it in my mind very easily and calculate the cushions. The most important thing is to forget your opponent. Don't watch his style, his stroke. After finishing the shot, you stop thinking."
When Torres goes to Belgium, it will be his first exposure to great players such as Ceulemans, who was not much older than Torres when he became world champion. What is his plan of action at Antwerp? Torres thinks for a moment, then smiles brilliantly.
"Ask questions," he says.