Native Son


George SanSouci doesn’t look like very much, certainly not threatening or imposing: A thoroughly smallish five-foot-seven, he has a supremely innocent teenager’s face, a funny, twisted curl to his mouth, and short-cropped dark brown hair. A guy who still, at 27, goes by the somewhat silly-sounding, disarmingly adolescent nickname of “Ginky,” which, as he tells it, is supposedly the first word he ever uttered out of the womb.

But if you listen to the toothpick-sucking, degenerate, gambling hardcores that fill New York City poolrooms, the kid’s a definite player. A downright killer at the table, they say. Maybe the best pool player this city has produced in more than two decades. Someone who, if he’s playing a match, no matter against whom, when, or where, you can bet the fuckin’ house on him and never look back.

Yet recently, during a break from one of his practice sessions for next week’s prestigious U.S. 9-Ball Open in Chesapeake, Virginia, he couldn’tso much as move his neck without suffering a wickedly sharp pain shooting from his shoulders down to the middle of his back. “I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with me,” he said, sipping on an iced coffee, “but I can tell you it’s got me spooked… Because if it doesn’t get any better, I’m gonna have to give up pool for good.”

The problem sprang from nowhere two months ago, strangely during the greatest week of his playing career, when he stunned the national pool scene by winning his first major pro event (in a mere 15 tries) on the third stop of this year’s Camel Pro Billiards series, the Charlotte 10-Ball Open in North Carolina. The fact is, he didn’t sleep well the entire tournament, played in either constant pain or drowsily numbed by painkillers, and even needed to make an emergency visit to a chiropractor. He nevertheless played nearly flawless pool, beat a slew of world-class players (including the legendary Buddy “The Rifleman” Hall in a 9-8 nail-biter in which he dramatically turned around the deciding game by jumping clear over a cluster of interfering balls to cut the 2-ball into the heart of the corner pocket), and took home $15,000 in prize money. “It’s always been that way with me,” said the half-Italian, half-French SanSouci, whose French name translates into “without a care.” “For some reason, when I’m feeling my worst, I’m dangerous. I play some of my best pool under those conditions. I seem to be more focused.”

SanSouci, who’s lived most of his life in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, as he does now, stumbled into pool quite by accident in the late 1980s, soon after Tom Cruise made being a young-stud pool player gloriously, if not obnoxiously, sexy in The Color of Money. Ginky and his cousin Joey were on their way home from a night of downtown club-hopping when they happened upon a new “upscale” poolroom on 21st Street off Sixth Avenue. It was called Chelsea Billiards, a 24-hour place that, despite its glittery multimillion dollar veneer, almost immediately became a wall-to-wall den for Runyonesque scammers of every order including, of course, a devilish group of old-time pool hustlers possessing nicknames such as Lottsapoppa, Stinky Charlie, Rebel Red, Skeeterhawk, Spanish Eddie, Teddy the Greek, Jake the Snake, and the ever-ominous-sounding Blood.

SanSouci began by playing at Chelsea only on weekends, “as just a place to hang out with my cousin after going to the clubs,” but within six months he started showing up virtually every day and mostly by himself, becoming so obsessed with the game that he ultimately quit school halfway through the 11th grade and both his jobs (at the dry cleaners and doughnut shop). “It was exciting, a real adrenaline rush,” he said. “All the gambling. All the hustling. All the money flying around. I just got caught up in the whole atmosphere. And I took to the game very quickly.” Fast enough to play several of even the most seasoned hustlers for small stakes and, incredibly, being able to hold his own. “It wasn’t about the money so much as the competition. I’m a very competitive person, and I wanted to see how I would do against all these much older, very experienced players. After awhile, though, the [hustlers] realized I was going to be a good player. And they started teaching me rather than going up against me, showing me all the moves–both on and off the table. They probably realized that it was in their best interests to be on my good side early.” He paused. “I’ll tell you, Chelsea was both a terrible and great place for a young player to train. I mean, it was so cutthroat in there that it made you hard. You learned to be very cold at the table. There was also so much knowledge in there that it made your game airtight.” He paused again, taking a long drag on his iced coffee. “But,” he added, “it also made you not trust anyone.”

The manager of Chelsea Billiards took a liking to SanSouci, too, and offered him the rare privilege of free table time. And so, late into the night, when the place was near empty, Ginky would quietly, almost secretly, head down to the basement level of the hall carrying an instructional book of some sort under his arm. On one vacant table, he’d lay the book open to an illustration of a practice drill; on another table, he’d shoot that drill over and over again until he finally nailed it flat. There were days he’d never leave the poolroom for a second, not even to eat, and, between practicing and playing, would be at the table for a total of 20 hours. “I had a little talent,” he said, “but a lot of discipline. And I think that’s been my strength as a player. I believe that anyone with my discipline could become a great pool player.” He graduated to watching hundreds of videotapes of professional matches, studying the way the greatest players in the world played position from one ball to the next, the way they played safe, the way they stood and stroked, the way they paced themselves during pre-shot routines.

He eventually honed an “older,” more controlled, unfailingly consistent game–defined by pinpoint cueball control, impeccable “ball” patterns, perfect mechanics, and a strategical genius at playing the percentages. Unlike most young players, who are pure shotmakers with a leaning toward the wild side of self-destruction, Ginky is machinelike, stoic, impregnable. He makes even the most intricate shots look simple. “He’s all but impossible to beat sometimes,” said 32-year-old pro Tony Robles, himself once the best player in New York City. “He’s got that steady rhythm where he never ever rushes himself, whether he’s up or down in the match. Trust me, you have to beat him. He doesn’t beat himself. The kid has no weaknesses.”

“Every time I see him play,” said longtime New Jersey pro and former World Champion Allen Hopkins, “I’m impressed with him, especially with his composure under pressure and his knowledge of the game. I don’t think there’s a player in the world his age or younger who’s a better all-around player. In fact, I don’t think there’s anybody of any age who’s the clear favorite playing him. And if they don’t believe me, let them play him some and find out on their own.”

“The thing I like about him most,” said 42-year-old upstate New York pro Mike Zuglan, a five-time New England Player of the Year, “is that when he puts himself into a tough situation, he always fights his way out rather than gives up or whines about it, like a lot of other players.”

For the last four years, SanSouci has not only been the Player of the Year on the Tri-State Tour, one of the leading regional circuits in the Northeast, but has also completely dominated to the point where, during one stretch, he won a staggering 12 consecutive tournaments. His high run in straight pool is 212 consecutive shots and in 9-ball, eight straight racks. It’s only been in the last three years, however, that he’s played regularly in national pro events (after hooking up with a lawyer named Martin Garfield, who sponsors him by paying all his entry fees and traveling expenses): He’s “cashed” in nearly 80 percent of the events and placed in the top five twice, both in 1997 (tied for fifth in the ESPN World Open 9-Ball and second in the Sands Regency Open).

“That second-place finish especially was a learning experience. Because I simply gave my opponent [Kim Davenport] the match before we even played. At the time, I was so content with my position that I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, the worst I could do is second. They can’t take that away from me.’ And that’s a terrible way to think. In Charlotte, I corrected myself. I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not content with second. Second place is no good.’ It reminds me of something [former No. 1 player] Earl Strickland once said: Finishing second to me feels like finishing 2000th.’ So now I’m playing all the tournaments to win. And unlike before, when I just thought I could beat all these great players, now I know I can.”

Just as long as his pain in the neck stops being such a pain in the neck.