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08/27/2018 12:00 AM

Billiards Going Strong Along the Shoreline

Amanda Aruny is quite the competitor when she hits the pool table, but the Guilford resident also likes to offer tips and tactics to new players who are just getting started with the sport. People like Aruny are part of a local billiards scene in which participants want everyone to play their best, while having a good time at the pool hall. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier

While other sports have risen to prominence in recent years, there remains an active community of amateur pool players who are playing the game on a competitive level in Connecticut. There are around 15 pool halls throughout the state, including several that are within shouting distance for players along the shoreline. Places like Branford Cue & Brew, Yale Billiards in Wallingford, Towne Billiards in Hamden, and TCB Bar & Billiards in North Haven provide people with an opportunity to get involved in open-table nights or various leagues. Participants view this as a great way to play either casually or competitively as they promote the sport by welcoming in a new generation of players.

From the Basement to the Stage

Many pool players get their start in the comfort of their own home by playing on a table in the basement. Such was the case for local player Greg Nappo, a Madison resident who started shooting pool with his brothers when he was 10. Nappo currently competes in the Branford Cue & Brew in-house league.

“We had a table in my basement when I was a child, and I just started playing with my brothers. It’s just something we did in our free time. Then, I played a lot more than my brothers did and got more into it,” said Nappo, 59. “It’s a fun game, and it’s always different every time. I like how you have to plan your shots, and it really is a skill game.”

Wallingford’s Bobby Hilton, 50, started playing pool by tagging along with his father as a child. Hilton’s passion for the sport grew throughout his life. Now, he’s the owner of Yale Billiards.

“I became addicted to the game. It’s in your blood once you start playing, and you get that bug you just can’t stop,” Hilton said. “It’s never the same game twice, and you’re always learning something. You think you’re getting good, and then you learn a new shot, and it takes you to the next level. I like how I never stop learning. I’m still learning new things today at 50 years old.”

Guilford resident Amanda Aruny really enjoys the competitive aspect of pool. She initially started playing the game just for fun. However, Aruny soon found out that competing in a league was an option, and she’s been all in ever since. Aruny has played pool competitively for the past decade.

“When you realize there is a more competitive level to it and more skills you can develop when playing is what spawned me to want to get more involved,” said Aruny, 32. “I have three brothers, so I’m competitive in everything I do. It can even be like finishing dinner first, but I wanted to find something I can be just as good or better than boys at.”

Pool halls typically have their own in-house leagues that feature friendly competition. Many of them are sanctioned through the American Poolplayers Association (APA), which features teams from the United States, Canada, China, and Japan. Bruce Barthelette of South Hadley, Massachusetts heads the Connecticut franchise of the APA and said there are approximately 5,000 registered members in the organization.

“Our league is made up predominately of amateur skill players. The franchise we run is actually the second-largest league in the world behind only Baltimore, and the shoreline area is a big part of it,” Barthelette said. “The Ladies Division is a big part of our league. We have over 40 teams, which is one of the largest in the world.”

For those players who aren’t quite ready to join a league, they sometimes get that spark by simply attending a venue. That’s why 59 year-old North Branford resident Joe DeLuca, who owns Branford Cue & Brew, offers an open-table night on Tuesdays with the purchase of food and/or two drinks.

“That’s when we get a lot of non-league members, people off the street, which is a very good thing. Guys and gals come and tell their friends, and it all starts again,” DeLuca said. “All of our stuff is word of mouth. We fill up and people are really into it. They really like the atmosphere.”

A League of Their Own

Experienced players want newcomers to feel comfortable when they step up to the table. Everyone understands that nerves can affect new players, but regulars make sure to offer encouragement and advice to anyone who’s racking them up for the first time at the pool hall.

“I can see how coming in new is intimidating a little bit because you think people have these relationships that are already established and you’re hesitant about coming in, but it’s so easy because there are no challenges with making friends or being a part of a team,” said Aruny. “It’s fun to help new players get better. When I first started, I knew how to hold a cue and knew which balls to shoot at, but people I’ve been playing with showed me that if I hit a ball this way, it’ll go that way. It’s just people helping each other develop their games, and I think that’s the most cohesive part about it.”

North Haven’s Steve Gaudio, 49, feels the same way when it comes to helping people become better pool players. Gaudio was on the other end of that equation when he began league play six years ago and said that people went out of their way to help him sharpen his skills. Now, Gaudio is the one who’s helping players improve their abilities, while elevating their interest in the sport.

“It can definitely be nerve-wracking for them, but I see myself when new players come in. I was there once,” Gaudio said. “We just want to help them because, they better they get, the more they’re going to like it, which is a real good feeling. Everybody is in a rush to help because we want you to become a part of our team and a part of our family. It’s all about having fun.”

For people who are still getting their feet wet, the handicap system that’s offered in many leagues helps to level the playing field.

“You get a lot of beginners, which is great. It’s handicapped, so players are rated [two through seven],” Nappo said. “A lot of twos come into the league, and they have a chance to win even as a beginner because you have to win fewer games in a match.”

Gaudio said the competitive advantage that new players get from this system results in a better all-around experience for everyone. He feels it boosts morale by making the matches closer and putting a smile on everyone’s face.

“It’s awesome. When you get in a situation where you’re playing in a league and everybody is here for the same thing, nothing can be more fun,” said Gaudio. “The people are nice, and everyone comes one or two nights a week to have fun. The goal is winning, but if you’re not having fun while you’re doing it, the whole thing is useless.”

Gaudio added that he’s happy he started playing pool on a competitive basis after his friend introduced him to the scene.

“Ever since then, it has gotten more competitive, which is more fun for me. Win or lose, you still have to go to work the next day, but I absolutely love it because of the competitiveness, and you can see yourself getting better,” he said. “To me, this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m glad my friend asked me to do it.”

When a team performs especially well in league play, it has a chance to qualify for the APA World Pool Championships that are held in Las Vegas. Earlier this month, a team from Yale Billiards featuring Hilton, Robert Piersa, David Garvish, and Phil Davis took first place in the Masters Championship at the event.

“It’s the most prestigious amateur event in the world. It was the top 256 teams,” Hilton said. “We won 7-2, 7-2, and the guys played phenomenal.”

Getting Better

Pool players aren’t shy when it comes to showing beginners the ropes. It takes a little a patience, but Aruny likes lending a hand to new players and often develops a bond with them in the process. Aruny’s approach is to take it slow when she breaks down the game with them.

“I think it’s easier to talk to somebody of my skill level when you’re a new player because I’m not going to flood you with all this crazy terminology and overwhelm you. I’m going to help one step at a time,” she said. “If you get advice from a higher handicapped player, maybe not intentionally, they’re going to give you all this information that you can’t retain as a brand-new player.”

While Hilton has competed among the best amateurs in the world, he has a similar philosophy when it comes to schooling up-and-coming pool players. Hilton details the biggest things that they need to learn.

“Coaching to me is something I find relatively easy, but I can see where people find it hard, since pool is not the easiest game. You can’t teach somebody everything in a matter of two hours,” Hilton said. “The biggest thing to work on is fundamentals, things like your stance and how to hold a cue. The second thing is how to [make shots], and third is learning positioning of the cue ball, which is the hardest part. Sometimes the best thing to do is just watch people play and ask questions.”

Family Atmosphere

The perception of pool has changed a great deal throughout the years. It’s evolved into a sport that anyone can play, and Hilton said that he’s seen the environment change for the better at the local pool halls.

“Back in the day, there were hustling guys, the room was full of smoke, and you needed to be worried about a fight,” Hilton said. “Now, it’s a completely different atmosphere. It’s more like a family atmosphere now, and the biggest thing is pool has become an everybody sport. It’s a sport you can play at your leisure with friends or, if you want to take it to the next level, you can join a league and play in tournaments.”

DeLuca expressed similar sentiments regarding the close-knit atmosphere at Branford Cue & Brew. DeLuca likes that he frequently sees people whose ages range from 25 to 60 having fun while they play.

“This is so family and friend oriented. We don’t want anybody to be intimidated to shoot pool here,” said DeLuca. “We have so many people that just come here to enjoy themselves. Couples come in all the time to eat, drink, watch the games, and have a good time.”

Aruny feels that the people she plays pool with are like an extension of her family. Aruny said that she’d love for that family to continue to grow as the years unfold.

“You just feel like you belong when you’re in this community. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first day or you’ve been here for 15 years. You walk in and it’s like you’ve known everybody the whole time,” said Aruny. “If you’re looking for a bigger family, you’re not going to find a better group of people than the people you play pool with.”

Madison’s Greg Nappo has been playing pool for several decades. Nappo, 59, said that he plays the game as a way to relax. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier
Branford Cue & Brew owner Joe DeLuca forms friendships with the people who play pool at his establishment, and he also gets into the action, as well. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier
North Haven’s Steve Gaudio is glad that he joined a pool league six years ago. Gaudio has made many friends and had a blast throughout the years. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier