IT HAPPENED IN PITTSBURGH in 1986, back when The Color of Money, a movie about a young pool shark, had just hit theaters and Carson “CJ” Wiley was himself hustling pool on the road—back when, on a moment’s notice, he would drive hundreds of miles to some backwoods dive on a tip that someone with wads of cash gambled big-time there. On that particular night, Wiley wore fake glasses and assumed one of his three aliases, Mike from Indiana. His mark was the owner of a restaurant, a bearded man with receding jet-black hair who led him up a dark staircase to a private pool table on the second floor.
“And the guy is smiling this real goofy smile,” Wiley recalls today, chuckling hard before dragging deeply on a Marlboro Light. “‘It’s just like in the movie,’ he says. ‘You saw the movie, right?’ And I nod my head but don’t really say anything. Then he says, ‘Oh, boy, I love action. I love playing pool for money. I even love betting on other players. You saw the movie, right?’ And I nod again. And we begin by playing some nine ball, and I find out right away that this guy can’t play at all. I mean, not a lick. So after I’m done beating him for a few hundred, he has me play nearly everybody in the building. I end up beating his bartender, his cook, his dishwasher, five locals, and finally, the best player in town—and he staked every one of them. By the time he quit, I had him stuck for about seven thousand dollars. And he says to me, not smiling anymore, ‘You know, kid, you played a lot better at the end than you did at the beginning.’ And I look him square in the eyes and say, ‘Well, you saw the movie, right?’”
Now 33 and retired from his hustling days, Wiley lives in the Lake Highlands neighborhood of Dallas. Almost from the moment he turned pro six years ago, he has been the highest-ranked pool player in Texas as well as one of the ten best players in the world. He’ll demonstrate that on January 31, when—in an extremely rare live telecast of pool—ESPN will air the finals of its Ultimate 9-Ball Challenge, the sport’s biggest annual nine ball event; he hopes to win the three-way competition for the second straight year, outgunning fellow hotshots Roger Griffis and Johnny Archer. “The funny thing is, I’ve never really considered myself a pool player,” he quietly confides to me as he sits in a hotel lounge during a weekend trip to New York. “It has always been just a game I played. I played it mostly as a way to make money and to express myself. But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a choice, that I was sent here on a mission. What that mission is I don’t exactly know yet, but I definitely feel like I’m being driven by a higher power.”
It is a Saturday afternoon, and Wiley, who usually dresses in Italian designer suits and custom-made shirts initialed at the cuffs, is wearing faded jeans, a pale green polo shirt, a gold chain, and a gold, diamond-studded watch with a luminous turquoise face. A lean six-footer, he has dirty-blond hair and pale blue-green eyes that, without warning, can suddenly go cold and stare right through you. “I eventually want to be considered the best player in my era,” he says, speaking in a low, sharp voice with a trace of a Texas twang. “Because if I’m the best player in my era, then I’m the best player ever. The players are just better now.”
Wiley has what other pool players refer to as the Big Game. He has an opening break in nine ball powerful enough to sink six balls and a shotmaking ability so stunning that even the longest shots seem like tap-ins. He’s also part of an elite few who can string together bunches of racks without missing (in nine ball, where the lowest-numbered ball on the table must be struck first before pocketing a ball, he has put together nine racks in a row on a regulation table and a staggering twelve on a bar table). But if Willie Mosconi was the Fred Astaire of pocket billiards, then Wiley is the Gene Kelly—not so much about finesse and seamless grace as muscle and macho fearlessness. Holding his stick more firmly than the rest, making his veiny forearms bulge, he simply rams balls into pockets. “CJ rarely thinks about playing it safe or carefully maneuvering his way around the table,” observes Allen Hopkins, a 46-year-old New Jersey pro who has been one of the best all-around players of the past quarter century. “He just attacks the rack.”
ESPN’s corny sportscasters have tagged Wiley “the Fast Gun of Texas,” but not without reason. In the time it takes others to run a rack, he can run three. A nine ball rack, for instance, often takes him less than a minute. “Think long, think wrong” is his motto. “The conscious mind can really be destructive when you’re playing,” he says. “If I slow down, I tend to start double-thinking and make bad decisions.” He moves around the table so quickly it seems like he’s not thinking at all. For each shot, he takes no more than three practice strokes. “It can be demoralizing to a weaker player,” says California pro George “the Flamethrower” Breedlove. “He starts running out from everywhere and nowhere, one tough shot after the other, and before you ever get to blink, he’s already up five games on you.”
Certainly Wiley doesn’t fit any of the standard pool stereotypes. He has a practitioner’s degree in the self-help technique of neuro-linguistic programming; is a second-degree black belt instructor in Ji Mu Do, a combination of eight martial arts; swallows a daily cocktail of herbs, such as Saint-John’s-wort and ginseng, and a special “cleansing” oolong tea