On World AIDS Day, Gay Pool League Cues Fundraising, Focus for a Brooklynite

Theo Todd, 22, lined up a shot at a New York Gay Pool League match Tuesday. “It’s just me and the ball,” said Todd. “It’s like my medicine.” (The Ink/David Roza)

It was Theo Todd’s first game of pool for the night, and he wasn’t looking too good. Todd still had to shoot four striped balls into the pockets of the playing table while his opponent, Julian Marin, had just one left before he could shoot the black eight ball and win the game. But in an impressive run, Todd proceeded to sink one, two, then three of his striped targets, upping the ante at the sparsely attended match, held in a dimly-lit leather bar in Chelsea.

Todd hit his next target a touch too soft, and as the striped ball came to a stop just outside the pocket, Marin picked up his cue stick to finish the job. But he missed! The players exchanged a few more tense near misses until finally Marin sunk both the green and black balls and won the game.

“Sometimes it just happens,” said Todd, 22, of Park Slope, Brooklyn. “You don’t get discouraged. Confidence comes with time.”

Time to compete is something Todd hasn’t had much of. Just five weeks ago, he became one of the newest members of the New York Gay Pool League (NYGPL), a nonprofit that raises money for New York City AIDS charities. Founded by a few pool players from four bars in 1984, the league now has 75 members and nine teams sponsored by bars and billiard halls across the city. Through player fees, sponsorships and donations, the league has raised over $250,000 for charity, which motivated Todd to join the league.

“The main reason I started playing was I had an uncle who died of AIDS,” said Todd. “When I found out that NYGPL does charity work with AIDS I wanted to help–and they’re good people.”

The players at Tuesday’s match–made up of 11 games between the Eagle Masters and the Colony Crusaders–were as colorful as the pool balls knocking around on the teal playing table. There was Karen Holmes, a soft-spoken massage therapist with 15 years of Crusaders experience, who also works as a pyrotechnician at Starwood, an annual Neo-Pagan music and cultural camping festival that features the biggest bonfire on the east coast. There was Renee Reece, a 58-year-old retired construction worker who serves as coach and matriarchal figure for the Crusaders. And there was Guillermo Rodas, a 48-year-old Eagle Masters player who runs an indoor gardening company and hosts a weekly podcast about music.

But despite their diverse backgrounds, Reece said that most people play pool for essentially the same reason; it gives them something to focus on.

“To me it’s like a discipline,” said Holmes, who was fascinated by the geometry of pool balls moving in linear paths across the rectangular table. “There’s a sacred geometry there,” she said. “It’s amazing the control someone can have on the balls and the space between the balls.”

“You have to draw a line between your eye, the stick, the ball and the hole,” added Rodas. “Now pool is an addiction for me.”

“And it [pool] does give you a measuring stick as you improve,” said Reece.

Nobody knows that last reason better than the rookie Todd. At 22 years old and six foot, seven inches tall, Todd was the youngest and tallest member of the match on Tuesday. While most people call Todd “Tiny,” Reece calls him, “baby-faced killer,” because of his youthful features and precise table shooting. He’s had a lot of practice.

When he was 10 years old, Todd started playing non-competitive pool every few months at another uncle’s house in Beacon, N.Y. As Todd grew older, a Brooklyn pool hall became an escape from his troubled home life.

“I would go to Oceans 8 to play pool and get out my anger and have fun,” said Todd. “That’s why I love the game so much. It saved me, who knows what I would have done?”

Todd’s troubled past strikes a contrast with his cheerful attitude at the playing table. “When I come here I leave all my family issues, all my girlfriend issues behind,” said Todd, who listens to classical music, opera, or rap by R. Kelly or Nas as a way to prepare for a game. “It’s just me and the ball, it’s like my medicine.”

Todd first heard about the Crusaders four years ago through his barber, who recommended he meet Reece, the team captain.

“Theo was very enthusiastic,” said Reece. “And willing to learn. So when he came of age, he sought me out and I was happy to have him on the team. He can really think out a shot and do it safely, where a lot of other people will to try to execute a shot just because it looks good.”

As Reece spoke, Todd used just enough force to send pool ball after pool ball into the pockets. He then bounced the eight ball off a rail towards the pocket behind him, where it came to an aggravating halt, igniting cries of anguish from both teams. “Good shot!” said the Eagle Masters players, who won Tuesday’s match and who won the League title last year.

“Theo’s cool,” said Holmes. “He’s like happy-go-lucky, cherubic, and he’s a good shooter. He just needs more experience.”

When he’s not working or playing pool, Todd spends a lot of time at home caring for his father–a carpenter and painter who once copied the whole Sistine Chapel in black and white but now has Alzheimer’s. “Seeing my dad lose his memory…I let it [the past] go,” said Todd, a practicing Nichiren Buddhist. “I’m all about the present.”

And, apparently, the future. While Todd now works at a shoe store in Brooklyn, he one day hopes be a professional pool player like Efren Reyes, also known as “The Magician” because of his talent for making impossible shots. 

“Thirty years from now I want to be like Reyes,” Todd said. “And he’s in his 60’s.”

That would be a long shot, but, as Holmes said, Todd is a good shooter.