Cueing up a comeback for pool

Madison-based podcast Cue It Up Network is growing the game of pool with comprehensive, unparalleled coverage and listeners in more than 106 countries.
Neight Mindham playing pool
Photo by Timothy Hughes
Neight Mindham, founder of Cue It Up Network

The U.S. pool world was shocked and delighted on Jan. 18, 2022, when professional player Jayson “Eagle Eye” Shaw set a new world record. The Scottish competitor sunk 714 consecutive balls in Alexandria, Virginia, playing straight pool, also known as 14.1 continuous or 14.1 rack. The first known record of a significant high run in straight pool was set by the great Willie Mosconi, who won the World Straight Pool Championship 19 times between 1941 and 1957.

That record stood for 65 years until John Schmidt broke it in 2019 in Monterey, California, with a run of 626 balls. Shaw set a new record when he completed more than two and a half hours of nonstop shooting without missing a ball. That’s an average of about 12.5 seconds per shot, not including the time spent racking the balls. While Shaw has amassed many pool tournament titles from around the globe, he never expected a world-record performance.

“It’s up there with my best tournament results,” he says. Coming from a man who is a threat to win any tournament he enters, that’s saying a lot. Just nine days prior to his 714-ball run, Shaw set a different record as a seven-time winner of the Turning Stone Classic pool tournament in upstate New York. But Shaw says becoming the new holder of what used to be called the “Willie Mosconi” record is an “amazing achievement to have, and hopefully it stands for years to come.”

After setting the record, Shaw prepared to speak with the news organization he’d chosen for his first interview. It wasn’t ESPN.

Instead, he called in to Madison’s Cue It Up Network.

“They do a lot keeping fans updated on lots of pool-related stuff, so I thought it would be best to get it out there with them,” says Shaw of his decision to talk to Cue It Up first after his world record.

And he’s not the only one. When Emily Frazer, COO of Matchroom Multi Sport — the largest sports promoter in the United Kingdom — wants to reach an American audience, she doesn’t go to ESPN, either. She calls Neight Mindham, who started the Cue It Up Network as a podcast in 2019. Along with promoting eight sports internationally — including the popular and lucrative game of English snooker — Matchroom sets the standard in international pool tournament production and promotion and currently runs many of the sport’s biggest international tournaments, including the World Pool Masters and the famous Mosconi Cup.

The Cue It Up Network has grown into one of the most influential and respected pool and billiard authorities today, with audiences in 106 countries. It’s also helping change the game’s reputation.

Jon Kramer playing pool

Jon Kramer is the founder and president of the Wisconsin Billiards Hall of Fame. (Photo by Timothy Hughes)

Player Turned Podcaster

Mindham loves all things pool. He loves talking about pool, watching pool, teaching pool and, most importantly, doing everything he can to grow the game. He started playing when he was 5 years old and hasn’t stopped since. He played competitively in junior leagues and kept learning the game. While getting a mathematics degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he also found time to qualify for U.S. Collegiate Billiards for three years in a row and won many titles. Mindham has continued to play as much as he can — he’s back to playing professionally — but has also parlayed his knowledge, experience and passion into instructional sessions at The Rock Sports Bar and Grille in Sun Prairie. He was 27 when he recognized that news about the sport was lacking. Some outlets existed, but reporting was sporadic.

“They had great content, but I don’t want to listen to a podcast every three weeks. I want to listen to a podcast two or three times a week.” So instead of complaining, he put his head down and did the work himself , which culminated in the founding of Cue It Up Network.

The final burst of inspiration for the podcast came in 2018 after he attended the Mosconi Cup, an annual, four-day Ryder Cup-style match between the U.S. and Europe. (Wisconsin native and pro player Tyler Styer was one of only five U.S. players to be selected to the team last year.) Mindham came home from that tournament with a desire to play at that top level, and perhaps someday even play in the Mosconi Cup himself. After working on his game, he realized that playing at the global elite level was perhaps not in the cards for him.

“I played pool for about three or four weeks, and then I remembered how much I suck and there’s not really a future for me on the Mosconi Cup [team],” Mindham says. He decided that he would redirect his passion, focus and drive. “If I can’t be on it, I’m going to make sure that everybody else is much more easily able to follow the sport. I tried to create something that would motivate the next generation to be able to maintain that level of passion,” he says.

Neight Mindham playing pool

Neight Mindham (Photo by Timothy Hughes)

Creating a Platform

In the last few decades, only a handful of diehard podcasters and websites have kept the news of the game alive, but none as consistent as Cue It Up. Although pool tables are ubiquitous features in bars and hotels, and millions of Americans play recreationally, the game’s best players are rarely part of the national conversation.

The Cue It Up Network is bringing U.S. and international pool news back into the mainstream. In the last three years, Cue It Up has grown from just Mindham and co-host Robert Hovick dividing their time between Wisconsin and national pool events, to a team of reporters covering international players and tournaments. With the addition of new co-hosts — including Billiards Digest Magazine Publisher Mike Panozzo; longtime top European pool player Jim Telfer; U.S. pool player and founder of MN Pool Boot Camp Demetrius Jelatis; and Molina Mike, the ultimate pool and tournament insider — Cue It Up has expanded into a broad range of topics and professional analyses.

Mindham and his co-hosts offer analyses and insights along with some of the sport’s experts, and conduct interviews with star players. Pre- and post-tournament analysis, individual player results and match predictions are presented with a thoroughness not seen since ESPN televised pool.

The podcast is funded primarily by listeners through the Cue It Up Patreon page, with additional money coming in from lessons, occasional tournament prizes and some industry sponsorship. The financial support has allowed Mindham to focus full time on hosting the podcast and growing the network.

The results of that hard work are starting to show. According to newly minted world record holder Shaw, the Cue It Up podcast “has connected a lot of players together and brought a lot of energy to pool.”

John Kramer

John Kramer (Photo by Timothy Hughes)

Growing the Game

The shady, smoke-filled pool room is long gone.

“When you see pool in movies, it often gets a bad rap — it’s gambling, it’s fighting, it’s dingy places — [but] pool is becoming more upscale,” says Jon Kramer, the founder and president of the Wisconsin Billiards Hall of Fame. “You see a lot of nice pool rooms that are classy, [have] good food, and I think the hall of fame is a real bright spot.”

Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to create its own billiards hall of fame, and now other states use it as a model. The Wisconsin Billiards Hall of Fame inducts players, provides pool tournament directories, shares game history and creates photo galleries of notable Wisconsinites. Kramer founded the nonprofit in 2017 and says it currently has more than 800 members. “People really care about the sport here, and they want to support each other,” says Kramer, who lives in Madison.

If you walk into a pool room today, you’ll likely find serious players talking up a storm. Not necessarily about the latest “hustle,” but about the subtleties of the game. The internet makes it more difficult for the traveling “hustler” and their ability to remain anonymous. It has also allowed pool’s “secrets” to be shared and discussed openly. The solid flow of information, as well as new technology and research, have helped create a more knowledgeable and competitive player base.

The Cue It Up Network and WIBHOF are just two Wisconsin groups contributing to the turnaround of the sport’s image. Mindham is committed to helping evolve the game.

“I’m trying to represent the game in a professional light … to change a mind here and there and just keep doing the legwork to try and get it back to the reputation that it needs to have. That’s kind of my core mission,” Mindham says.

Kramer says he tunes in to Cue It Up Network to stay informed about larger pool events outside of Wisconsin. He doesn’t catch every national event, but Cue It Up does. “You can tune in to those guys, and you know they’ll be talking about it,” Kramer says.

A Quick Pool 101: For those unfamiliar, here are a few key things to know about the growing sport of pool in Wisconsin.

Pool and/or Billiards
“Pool” was originally called pocket billiards. Pool is played on a table with six pockets. “Billiards” is a typical umbrella term for all varieties of cue games but it generally refers to carom games played on a table with no pockets. Carom games include the many different variations played on a billiards table. With no pockets to shoot the balls into, points are scored by hitting the balls together in myriad ways, sometimes in combination with hitting the rails, depending on the game.

Wisconsin Billiards Hall of Fame
Jon Kramer founded the Wisconsin Billiards Hall of Fame “to honor people from our state that have had a profound impact on our sport, whether it was through accomplishments or giving back to the pool players.” The success of WIBHOF has inspired other states to create their own halls of fame, with Kramer’s help. Folks from Minnesota have expressed interest, and in 2019, Arizona launched its own hall of fame following Kramer’s model. The Wisconsin nonprofit’s annual banquet and induction ceremony
is one of the state’s biggest pool-related events. “Every year I get to call and tell them that they’re going to be in the hall of fame, and they’re brought to tears,” he says of the inductees. “It’s a meaningful thing that we have created.” The pool tournament that follows the banquet may not have the highest top-prize payout, but it does carry a level of prestige that attracts players from all over the state to compete in one of the year’s toughest fields for the top prize, title and, of course, bragging rights. “It’s an event like our tournament that people want to be a part of and win,” Kramer says. “We draw big numbers for it even though we don’t necessarily have the biggest payouts.” This year’s Hall of Fame banquet and tournament will be held Oct. 7-9 in Beloit.

Straight pool, or 14.1 continuous
This is often referred to as “the game of champions.” It begins with a full rack of 15 balls, and a player shoots them in until only one is left. Then the pocketed balls are re-racked, and the player continues to shoot the last ball, which is kept in place. The player uses the cue ball on that shot to break open the rack of balls while pocketing the last ball. With no misses or scratches, the player may continue to pocket balls indefinitely. Players typically win by being the first to pocket 100 or 150 balls.

Tools of the Trade
New technology can easily be spotted in many pool rooms. Black carbon fiber pool cue shafts are steadily replacing the old, all-wood style. They are warp- and dent-resistant and usually contribute to a straighter hit on the ball. A serious pool player may carry three pool cues built and engineered for a specific purpose: a regular playing cue for normal shots, a special cue made just for jumping balls and another cue made for breaking open the balls at the start of the game. Many serious players will also carry an extra shaft for the playing cue in case something goes wrong with the cue tip during play.

Notable Local Poolrooms

The Rock Sports Bar and Grille: This Sun Prairie spot with eight 7-foot tables is co-owned by Maria Juana, currently ranked top 20 among U.S. women. | The Brass Ring: You’ll find eight 9-foot tables at this Madison establishment on East Washington Avenue. | The Carom Room: This Beloit poolroom features 7-foot, 9-foot and 10-foot tables. It’s owned by Dave Coles Jr., currently ranked top 50 among U.S. men. | For Leisurely Games: You can find multiple pool tables at The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.’s downtown location, Pitcher’s Pub near the Beltline, Pooley’s Sports Bar and Event Center on High Crossing Boulevard, Whiskey Jack’s Saloon on State Street, Dutch Mill Sports Club on the south-east side and The Sett inside the Wisconsin Union South.

Bob Miller is an amateur pool player, professional chef and semi-pro butcher.

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