Max Adams likes to joke that a pool table was his first babysitter.
When his mom managed the Savoy Bar in Fairbanks, she would prop 2-year-old Max on the table to entertain himself while she worked a day shift behind the bar.
“When I’d run out of balls to play with, one of the guys in the bar would just come over and put the balls back up on the table for me,” he said.
In the ensuing 47 years, Adams has become one of Alaska’s most accomplished billiards players. He joined another nine of the state’s top players last week in competing for the Griffin Cup at the Billiard Palace in Anchorage.
The exhibition, launched by local player Roland Stock, was modeled after the Mosconi Cup. Named for pool legend Willie Mosconi, the competition pits a team of American players against European players in a nine-ball team competition with both singles and doubles matches.
“Watching the Mosconi Cup, I wanted to try to bring something similar to Alaska that would create excitement and build interest,” Stock said.
For the Griffin Cup, named after Alaska pool pioneer Mark Griffin, the competition is split between Team Alaska and Team Anchorage. Griffin died in January, but left behind a major legacy in the sport, founding CueSports International and helping develop both a player rating system and creating a pool streaming service. Stock said both Griffin and his ex-wife Sue Griffin were pillars of the pool community in Alaska, including establishing the Billiard Palace.
“They were very instrumental in the billiard community, all the way back in the ‘70s and they were really a driving force as well,” Stock said. “Mark went off and did a lot more things across the country. So it just made a lot of sense to name it The Griffin Cup, just based off what they’ve done for the billiards community and Alaska as a whole.”
Now in its third year, the 2023 Griffin Cup includes some of the best talent in Alaska. Adams regularly enters pro tournaments in the Lower 48. His Team Alaska teammate Richey Orem won the Reno Open in 2006, considered the top single accomplishment by a pool player from the state. Team Anchorage’s Rodel Bulaong and Billy Stephan played together with Team Alaska’s Milan Janulek on a team that won an amateur world title.
Bulaong and Team Alaska’s Seth Guffey of Fairbanks were first to the table Thursday night in a team game to kick off the action. There was plenty of pomp as the teams entered to walk-out music and high-fives. First came Team Alaska to the song “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Then Team Anchorage, which won the first two years, came out to “The Champ is Here” by O Fresh.
Tables with sponsors and VIPs surrounded the playing area as spectators filled in around the edges. Tammy Shuldt, a co-owner of Billiard Palace, sang the national anthem. A bright light illuminated the table at the center of an otherwise dim room as Bulaong and Guffey lagged to determine who would break. Back in the corner, Crystal Moceri and Brandy Barnes commentated for the Facebook livestream of the event.
Adams said as he’s faced pro competition nationwide, there’s more of an emphasis on the mental side of the game.
“It’s more crucial here,” he said. “You know, the pressure of playing in front of a crowd, under the lights, you know, with cameras going, that’s a whole different thing. And that’s something that a lot of players in Alaska don’t get. They don’t get to feel that pressure and this is the showcase where the players here could actually get that.”
The exhibition is also a carrot for upcoming players. The Griffin Cup determines its teams using a blended system that counts points from other tournaments throughout the year and captains’ picks.
“That was the whole goal of it, to create some sort of a spectacle,” Bulaong said. “We were trying to bring the community together and since everyone works toward it the entire year, even the players that aren’t in the top 10-20 are trying to get into it and now they are improving their game. That was part one of the goal.”
Bulaong got into pool from his brother, who worked in a pool hall before a military deployment. His brother returned to Anchorage with a nearly magical prowess.
“He just did crazy things with the balls and controlled (the cue ball) in ridiculous ways,” he said. “I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ So then he went back to deployment and I’ve been trying to get to that level, because it interested me the way just everything worked.”
Guffey said he started getting serious about the game eight years ago when he moved to Fairbanks. He said he generally spends a couple hours a night either practicing or studying YouTube videos for tips on strategy or technique. Janulek is from the Mat-Su, where leagues have thrived with the help of a nonprofit system, regularly sending teams to national tournaments in the Lower 48. He said he prefers 10-ball as a game of more pure skill, but nine-ball is fast-paced and more exciting for spectators.
“You can close your eyes and hit it hard and if it falls you get to shoot again,” he said with a laugh.
Stock said the community is fairly small and nearly everyone knows everyone from leagues, state tournaments or Fur Rondy competitions. The long Alaska winters make for a fertile environment for trying master an indoor activity like billiards. But players say stereotypes about smoky and dingy pool halls filled with questionable characters are not valid.
“Billiards has gotten a really bad name over the last few decades just because of some of the shady things in the back rooms and the smoke,” Stock said. “It’s more of a gentleman’s game now than it used to be.”
Stock said changes are coming to the Griffin Cup. He’s acted as a playing captain for Team Anchorage the first three years. But he plans to step away and have it organized by a committee. He would like to consider a similarly formatted one-day tournament for mid-level players and is considering adding a female player to each team, something that was missing from the first three exhibitions.
While the tournament was scheduled to run four days, playing on Sunday was not necessary as Team Alaska cruised to an 11-4 victory, breaking Team Anchorage’s stranglehold on the event.
“I think we put in some extra practice,” Janulek said before the start of the competition. “I’ve got high hopes.”
(ADN photographer Marc Lester contributed to this report)