Jose Del Rio wanted everything perfect when the country's top amateur pool players come to Strokers in Palm Harbor this weekend for the U.S. Amateur Championship.
He redid the 14 tables in tournament-grade Simonis blue cloth. He calibrated the pockets to precisely 4.75 inches. He stocked extra beer and chicken wraps.
"We've hosted professional events before, but this is our first amateur championship. It's a big deal,'' said Del Rio, the Strokers co-owner who has played in five championships but didn't qualify this year. "The mood will be intense.''
The winning male and female will advance to the pros' U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships in Virginia and become the person to beat among serious amateur players. Their names will be etched on a 50-pound, diamond-shaped marble trophy.
"It's one of the few events that doesn't offer prize money,'' said Jason Bowman, a spokesman for the American Poolplayers Association, which puts on the event and has 270,000 members worldwide. "They get the prestige of being known as the amateur of the year. They go into an exclusive club.''
A total of 128 men and 32 women qualified for the event during preliminary rounds held in September at pool halls nationwide. Of the 90 players who competed in the local prequalifier at Fatso's Billiards in Tampa, just six players advanced.
The men will play Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Strokers; the women will play Saturday at the Crooked Cue in Clearwater and finish on Sunday at Strokers. The public can watch for free, but most of the tables will be reserved for the tournament of 8-ball and 9-ball games.
The championship event started in 1994 and rotates between the Tampa Bay area, Atlanta, Baltimore, Las Vegas and Hartford, Conn. For the past two years, it was held at the Strokers on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, which Del Rio closed in May.
Event officials chose Tampa Bay for its weather, convenient airport and year-round, active pool playing community. Florida has more APA members than any other state, Bowman said.
"It's a game that can be played by anybody regardless of age, gender and physical ability,'' he said. "You don't have to be the tallest in basketball or the biggest in football.''
Shooting for this year's crown is Jason Richko, the 2007 champ who plays at Strokers. He appeared in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd and is a local favorite going into the tournament.
"It's like walking into my house. I feel comfortable,'' he said. "Hopefully, I'll have some home-field advantage.''
Richko, 39, started playing at age 15 when he lived in Chicago. He practices almost every day and has used the same cue for 18 years. His secret to success? Hard work and a lot of losing.
At his side will be 80-year-old coach "Cadillac Bob" Salvidio. A fixture at Strokers, he took up the sport in 1945 and plays a few days a week. He describes it as a mind game that helps build character. Like chess, in order to be good at it, you have to think several moves ahead.
He looks forward to seeing the top male players battle for first place.
"When you've got the best 128 amateurs in the country coming here, it's going to be terrific,'' he said. "They didn't pay to come here, they earned it. They are all good.''