When Nick Varner was a senior at Purdue University in 1969, world 14.1 pocket billiards champion Joe Balsis visited the campus for an exhibition.
As the reigning ACUI national collegiate champion, Varner was chosen as Balsis’ opponent in a straight pool match.
“It took place in Purdue’s ballroom,” Varner told this reporter, during an interview between his pool clinics at the Eagles No. 16 this weekend. “We were going to 150, and I thought I was completely outclassed.”
He described how they both had several runs of 40 to 50 balls without missing before Balsis missed at 148, putting Varner behind by a score of 148-92.
The farm boy from Kentucky then stepped to the table and ran 58-and-out for the victory.
“I really admired the way Joe conducted his exhibition, and to beat him was very exciting,” the 63-year old Varner related, in a pleasant southern drawl. “But I guess it rubbed him the wrong way, and he asked me if I ever gambled.”
He then recounted how he proceeded to win “$400 or $500” from Balsis playing one pocket.
“That’s when I got the first inkling that I might have a chance of doin’ somethin’ with my pool game,” he said with a sparkle in eye.
Well, that “something” turned out to be eight world championships, a four-time Pool & Billiard Magazine Player of the Year, and an induction into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame.
Varner concluded his visit to Helena Monday night at the Eagles 16, with a three-hour exhibition of skillful trick shots, entertaining stories and challenges from the large group of local pool players in attendance.
After graduating from Purdue in 1970 with a major in business economics, Varner initially wanted to be a golf pro.
But right around that time, the game of pool took an upswing in popularity. And since he was better with a pool cue than a golf club, he switched venues.
“In about 1975, I started promoting myself for exhibitions,” he related. “I visited about 80 colleges, including Montana State four times.”
At MSU, he met and crafted a friendship with Bill Clutter, who later became an administrator at Olgesby Union, at Florida State University.
Varner opened his own billiard business and retail room, and was able to make a living performing exhibitions and gambling.
Then in the late ‘70s, pool tournaments started picking up, with more money being added and TV sponsorships, which prompted Varner to set his sights on a new goal – winning a world championship.
“That’s what my dad always wanted, too. He taught me the fundamentals, and he believed I could be a world champion,” Varner said.
But the elder Varner was only partially correct. His son went on to become the only man to win world crowns in five different games; 9-ball, 14.1 straight pool, 8-ball, one pocket and bank pool.
His high run at 14.1 is 337 balls, and his lifetime best in 9-ball is 10 consecutive racks without missing.
The Kentuckian’s last title came in 2000, but several years before that, he began thinking ahead to retirement.
“In about 1998, I started my own cue company, and now we market about 200 different cue sticks, and about 100 cases,” he said.
And of course there’s his touring clinics and exhibitions, as part of the “Legends & Champions World 9-Ball Tour.”
According to Varner, most of his students are pool players who have played the game for awhile, and have gained a certain amount of proficiency.
“Mainly they just want to take their game to the next level,” he said.
His primary objective with the clinics and exhibitions is to generate more interest in the sport, and create enthusiasm among those who already play the game.
“Pool is a fun game,” he grinned.
Varner said his ultimate award was being inducted into the BCA’s Hall of Fame in 1992.
“When I went into the Hall of Fame, a lot of those guys that I idolized were still alive. It was an awesome experience,” he reminisced.
“I couldn’t believe that I was joining guys like Willie Mosconi, Minnesota Fats, Luther Lassiter, Joe Balsis, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Caras and Irving Crane, and they were all there that night.”
Another benchmark occurred in Tokyo in 1994, when he was the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
“We’re riding over to a challenge match, and I see a whole bunch of people standing in line about a block long,” Varner recounted. “So I asked, ‘Where are these people going?’ And the guy says, ‘They’re coming to see you.’”
Varner remembered that when he first started out, he “never dreamed” he would accomplish everything he’s done.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve been able to make a comfortable living playing a game, and my hobby is my work,” said the down-to-earth country boy, who was the second player in history to win over $100,000 a year.
“It’s been a hell of a ride.”
But as a family man, Varner made it clear that pool is only part of his life.
“I’ve got three kids. My son is a CPA, and my daughter is a pharmacist, and I’m more proud of that than anything I’ve ever done on the pool table,” he said with satisfaction.
Reporter Curt Synness: 594-2878 or firstname.lastname@example.org