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