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 that he buys from a Korean herbalist in Dallas; undergoes sessions of acupuncture; and studies Zen. He often talks of “becoming the game” and breathing deeply to “lower my brain waves” and “letting my unconscious mind take over.” He says he has reached the point where he can put himself into a heightened trancelike state almost at will, that he all but blacks out and is able to play for hours yet not remember a single shot afterward—as in 1997’s Texas State Championship in Austin, where he began by winning 24 consecutive games on the way to defending his title.
Named after Kit Carson, Wiley was born October 18, 1964, in Green City, Missouri, a poor cattle town 125 miles from Kansas City with five churches, no stoplights, and a population of about 650. The youngest of three children born to Jim and June Wiley, a lumberyard owner and a city clerk, respectively, CJ started playing pool at age seven—first on a miniature table, then at a small, smoky pool room owned by a close family friend. Before long, he played every day after school and all day on Saturdays, and by the time he was eleven he was already the best in the area. “There were days when I didn’t lose a single game,” he says. At thirteen he could run all fifteen balls in numerical order and, as a challenge, began playing for small amounts of money, anywhere from a dime to $5 a game. Soon after, unable to find a willing opponent in Green City, he ventured out to nearby Kirksville and then to Columbia, where he’d play for $20 to $50 a game. “I especially enjoyed beating people much older than me,” remembers Wiley. “I think it had something to do with getting respect from them. Maybe because my father, who was an alcoholic, was never really around for me.”
In 1982 Wiley placed second in the Missouri State Championship and won the National High School Championship in Chicago. But it was a year later, during Christmas break in his senior year of high school, that he embarked on a three-week adventure that would change his life: his first road trip to hustle pool. Traveling with a pair of seasoned road players who he says “could sell anybody anything,” he hit Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita, Kansas, and Ponca City, Oklahoma; the trip was such a rip-roaring success that there was no turning back for him. “I learned that there was a life in this,” he says. From age 18 to 25 he worked the road full-time, living out of either a motel, a hotel, or a motor home. (In 1987, so he would have a base, he rented an apartment in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton. Why Dallas? It was pretty, equidistant from the coasts, bubbled with high-stakes pool, and had “the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen.”)
Like all road players, Wiley planned his days as if he were on a cross-country vacation—only instead of setting his sights on, say, the Grand Canyon, he sought hotbeds of pool activity, or spots. In fact, he always carried a little black spot book, in which he had scribbled information extracted from an underground network of other hustlers: It had the names of players he should play, where they played, how well they played (their “speed”), and their betting patterns. “I really enjoyed the freedom of it all, of waking up whenever I wanted, of going wherever I wanted, and controlling my own destiny,” he says.
Which isn’t to say the road wasn’t difficult. Wiley says he has been robbed twice at gunpoint—once around the corner from a pool room in Minneapolis, the other at a bootleg liquor joint with a backroom pool table outside Albemarle, North Carolina—after he won a ton of money. He was punched in Texarkana and served drinks spiked with drugs, he believes, in Queen City and Memphis. Still, he was predatory and merciless. He says he could sense another player’s weakness without even talking to him and got his kicks by crushing opponents to the point of causing their knees to buckle. “I especially loved seeing fear in my opponent’s eyes,” he says, adding that he has not a hint of a guilty conscience about any of his hundreds of conquests: “Listen, all the guys I beat wanted my money just as badly as I wanted theirs. It’s not my fault I was the better player. And besides, a lot of the guys I beat weren’t very nice. I just carried out their karma. God works in mysterious ways.”
It was a life, too, of pure and wildly creative subterfuge. He had his aliases: Besides Mike from Indiana, there was Chris from Missouri and Butch from Tennessee. He had his fake I.D.’s and phony glasses (“Anybody will play someone with glasses,” he says) and at various times posed as a college student, a computer salesman, and a drug dealer. And he had a way to make money, which was to move around a lot, working states from the outside in (that is, playing in the smaller towns first, then the bigger cities), and staying unknown as much as possible. That meant he couldn’t enter any high-profile tournaments or—God forbid—betray his brethren by turning pro. Only once during those years did Wiley take a shot at a major organized event: the 1986 World Series of Tavern Pool in Las Vegas. He was 21 at the time, and when it was over, he had beaten out a whopping 756 players to win first prize: a piddling $7,500, which he had to split with his backers. On a good night of gambling, he knew, he could make nearly three times as much. It convinced him that hustling was still the way to go.
He continued to believe that for five more years, but he ultimately decided there were no challenges left on the road. With some trepidation he finally went straight and joined the now defunct Men’s Professional Billiard Association. “I really didn’t know if I could compete with the best players in the world,” he says. “I mean, these were guys I knew I couldn’t crush mentally.” Of course, in his first pro tournament, the Dufferin Nine-Ball Classic in Toronto, he beat four world-class players in a single day: Earl “the Pearl” Strickland, Efren “the Magician” Reyes, Jim “King James” Rempe, and “Spanish Mike” LeBron. Overall, he finished in fourth place, earned $3,500, and afterward veteran Cecil “Buddy” Hall gushingly labeled him “the best unknown player in the world.” Says Wiley with a grin: “I played my game and it held up. I went in half-cocked and I came out fully cocked.”
That first year, he managed to crack the top ten in the national rankings. He moved to seventh in 1992, fifth in 1994, and fourth in 1995. Then in December 1995, unhappy with the politics of the men’s pro pool tour, he abruptly quit and a month later started a new one, the Professional CueSports Association (PCA). “I just can’t resist doing things that people say I can’t,” he says. That year he captured first place—and a purse of $88,500, a U.S. record—in the ESPN World Open Billiards Championship; he also won the first-ever PCA tour stop, the Dallas Million-Dollar Challenge, and was eventually named player of the year by Pool and Billiard magazine.
Clearly he’s got something—but what? I wanted to see it for myself. So at eleven o’clock on a Monday night, the two of us walked over to a pool room on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a place a little smaller than CJ’s Billiard Palace, a room Wiley owns back home near White Rock Lake. Decked out in a dark pin-striped suit, he began by casually shooting on a table that was dimly lit, though he didn’t come close to missing a ball. When it was time to share his secret, he set up a long, sharp cut shot on the six ball. “Now watch. I’m going to shoot this shot at one o’clock,” he said, bending down in a square, powerful-looking crouch. I watched. He popped his heavy thud of a stroke, and the ball split the right corner pocket.
I didn’t really get it; Wiley knew instantly. “Don’t you see?” he asked with some frustration. “With two round objects, it sets up an optical illusion. You can’t aim for a spot on a round object and hit it with another round object. It’s an impossibility. So what I do is look at the two balls as straight lines that bisect.” The explanation only made my head spin faster.
Wiley set up another shot, putting the eight ball on the head spot and the cue ball near the back rail. The balls were about six feet apart—to my mind, a much more difficult shot than the first one. Yet, surprisingly, he said, “Same shot. Still one o’clock.” And again he knocked it down as if the ball had been magnetically pulled to the center of the pocket.
He sighed dismissively and waved a limp arm in my direction. “Man, this game’s so easy it’s not even funny—once you figure it out,” he said with a sniff. Then, looking straight into my unfocused eyes, he delivered his knee-buckling punch line. “At least it is for me.”