Larry Chiborak is either crazy or a genius.
Judging by the sparse media attendance Tuesday afternoon for the Winnipeg businessman's news conference, there are at least a few folks in these parts who think it's the former.
The local media contingent for Chiborak's news conference at a McPhillips Street hotel was comprised, near as I could tell, of me and a French TV crew from CBC. By the time Chiborak was done unveiling the new form of billiards he's developed, showed off some impressive production values and introduced a who's who of the billiards world, I was sure of only one thing:
Chiborak's little news conference Tuesday is going to mark a memorable piece of local history. That's because it's going to mark either:
a) The day pool as we know it changed forever right here in little old Winnipeg.
Or b) The day that Chiborak, a lifelong Winnipegger with some successful previous ventures like Dufferin Games and the Triple B's bar and restaurant chain on his resumé, embarked upon one heck of a spectacular flame-out.
We'll find out which soon enough. All I know is what Chiborak pulled off at his little news conference would be the hockey equivalent of gathering Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux and Jonathan Toews in one room to announce that from now on, they were going to play a new form of hockey that had, say, two pucks.
Because that is, roughly speaking, who Chiborak had with him from the billiards world and what he was roughly proposing to do to it as he announced the first ever Bonus Ball tournament will take place right here in Winnipeg this week, beginning Thursday and running through Sunday at McPhillips Street Station.
Hadn't heard a thing about it? Me neither.
But if you have even a passing interest in pool, you've almost certainly heard of Nick Varner, a legendary world champion in both eight- and nine-ball, a billiards Hall of Famer and owner of the best personal trademark in the world of billiards -- "Walk softly and carry a big stick." Varner would be Lafleur in the pool crowd and he thinks Chiborak is on to something with Bonus Ball and the way it puts pool players on a scoreboard clock just like so many other sports.
"It's really going to make you feel the heat," Varner predicted.
Then there was Johnny (The Scorpion) Archer, who is also in the billiards hall of fame and was also named the billiards player of the decade for the 1990s. He'd be Lemieux. "This is the thing that is going to make us a great sport," said Archer. "With Larry's help and Bonus Ball, I think everyone's going to flourish."
And then there was the homegrown star in Erik Hjorleifson, a Canadian champion and rising billiards star, who learned the game right here in his hometown. He'd be Toews. "I started out playing in pool leagues and junior leagues here in town. And so to be playing against all these U.S .and world champions right here in my hometown," said Hjorleifson, "it's quite an honour.
"I've probably had more experience than anyone in this, so we'll see if it comes out as an edge or not."
And the rest of the eight-man tournament Chiborak has assembled for this week's world premiere of Bonus Ball are no fourth-line checkers either. If you've watched even 10 minutes of billiards on TV in your life you have surely seen Filipino great Francisco Bustamante, who's coming all the way from the Phillipines to compete. John (Mr. 400) Schmidt, Corey Deuel, Rodney Morris, Shane Van Boening -- all world or American nine-ball champions -- will also compete for the inaugural $15,000 purse.
And just for kicks, Chiborak has also brought in the greatest trick shot artist in the world in Mike Massey -- another staple of the American sports channels.
Put it altogether and Chiborak says Winnipeg history has already been made no matter what happens after this. "We've never had this kind of billiards talent in this city before," said Chiborak, who has made developing Bonus Ball a labour of love for the past 15 years. "We've had a guy or two pass through town over the years. But all at once like this? Never."
So why here and why now? Chiborak said with the top talent he's recruited for his new exclusively Bonus Ball league -- the World Professional Billiard League -- the time is right to unveil a competitive circuit that he believes is made-for-TV.
"This game was developed here," says Chiborak, "and so I wanted the premiere event to be right here in Winnipeg."
Chiborak has a film crew taping the event this week and a pilot for TV is going to be put together later. Chiborak believes it is that TV exposure which will ultimately drive the grassroots of billiards to buy his unique equipment -- scoreboards, software, a special set of balls, even special lighted pocket liners. He might be on to something -- it bears remembering that nine-ball didn't become big in pool halls until it first became big on TV in the '80s and '90s.
A few TV networks have already expressed interest and broadcasting veteran Jim Wych has signed on to be the voice of Bonus Ball. Wych is a Canadian snooker great and the voice of billiards all over the world, from ESPN to Sky Sports to Eurosport to TSN.
He thinks Chiborak is doing all the right things. "When you get players like he's got here picking up their cues to play your game, people sit up and take notice," said Wych. "He's doing it right."
A guy from Winnipeg revolutionizes the game of pool? Sounds crazy, I know. But almost every pioneer always does. At first.
The question now is whether Tuesday was the beginning, or the beginning of the end, for Larry Chiborak and Bonus Ball.
Bonus Ball basics
A standard nine-ball rack has four purple balls, four orange balls and one black ball and the balls are racked in a diamond just like nine-ball.
The game borrows elements from all the pool disciplines to form an entirely new game. Like snooker, for instance, balls must be shot in sequence. Like eight ball, the black is critical. Like nine-ball, everyone is shooting the same balls. And like bumper pool, there is a premium on caroms and kickbacks and bank shots.
There are also elements more unique to Bonus Ball. First, the object is to score points not eliminate balls (a bit like snooker again). Second, the entire game is on a score clock and even has overtime. Third, at the competitive level, you are only allowed to pot your balls in three pockets on the table designated as yours -- two corners and one side. Your opponent gets the other three pockets.
Details and ticket information for this week's event are available at playbonusball.com.