Curiosity of the Cue Sport

by Gabrielle Balzell

One of Peoria’s best-kept secrets serves pool players of all ages and skill levels.

To most people, pool is just a game. The sole objective: to drive 15 numbered balls into the pockets of a billiards table. But to Fredric Fechter, founder of CueSport College International in Peoria, pool is so much more—it’s a way of life.

“I call it a discipline,” he says. “We do things for the love of what we’re doing… for the love of teaching or of mastering… That’s what pool is to me.”

It Started With a Gamble…
Having grown up watching patrons shoot pool in his uncle’s tavern in Glasford, Fechter remembers picking up a cue stick for the first time at the age of nine—and losing a quarter in a game of one-pocket. Not long after that first game, he’d become so enthralled with pool that the notorious gambling enterprise would eventually turn into his livelihood and, he says, “save” him—“mind, body and soul.”

Never one to excel in academics, Fechter dropped out of school in the seventh grade and shifted his focus to the only thing that ever really “got [his] motors turning.” He started frequenting the popular poolrooms of the day, sophisticating his stroke and learning from every cueist he observed. By the time coin-operated pool tables began infiltrating taverns in the early ‘60s, Fechter’s technique was polished enough to allow him to start supporting his family on his winnings alone.

Back then, most thought Fechter’s success was the result of an inherited talent—the same thing, he says, people generally assumed of all successful players of the time. “Even among the good players, [it was thought] that pool could not be taught,” he explains. But Fechter was convinced there was more to it than just genetics. “I didn’t buy into that… I was curious to see if [you] could teach somebody to play.”

That curiosity led him to take a great gamble: opening CueSport College, which touts itself as the world’s oldest professional pool school, in 1963. Setting out to prove his hypothesis, Fechter started by coaching his wife and children, and soon, he saw more players seeking his guidance. Apparently, he was on to something, because Fechter saw his students genuinely improving, from their understanding of the fundamentals to rapid changes in their handicap levels. And his business grew.

In a time before organized competition existed, Fechter’s success was instrumental in transitioning pool from a game to a sport. While developing a teaching method that established new principles across the discipline, he promoted world-class open competition and helped usher in the rise of female and youth players. As time went on, Fechter’s coaching was continually sought after, and his clientele expanded to include players from all over the world—prompting the addition of the word “International” to the school’s name. Having proven his theory, he began teaching others how to teach pool, leading to the establishment of the CueSport International Instructors Association in 1975.

Fechter and his instructors have mentored thousands of players, including many of the acclaimed professionals seen on TV today, and Fechter’s nearly 50-year tenure has been marked by numerous honors and awards. Among his tournament wins are the 1965 Peoria All-Around Open, the 1979 Illinois State 9-Ball Open and the 1981 Greater Peoria 14:1 Open. In 1992, he was recognized by the Billiards Congress of America as one of the first BCA Master Instructors in the world, and two years later, CueSport College International was recognized as the first BCA Master Academy. In 2006, the American CueSports Alliance inducted Fechter as an honorary master of its professional instructor/coach program.

Lessons of the Spirit
Fechter’s unique teaching style focuses on the individual, delving deep into the spiritual side of the human psyche. “We put the spirit into pool,” he explains. “It is the spirit where we find perfection… Perfection can be found in our humanness by the unconsciousness. So, we have to know who we are, what we are and where we are—those are the three ‘Ws’ that we teach.”

After researching the teaching methods of instructors in sports ranging from archery to diving, Fechter designed his own program that teaches students to be “competent without being conscious,” something CueSport student and instructor Jay Schmitt has learned firsthand. “Analysis is paralysis,” he explains. “You end up missing because you thought about it too hard.”

The son of one of Fechter’s old pool hall buddies, Schmitt grew up knowing how to use a cue stick, and in 1989, he joined CueSport as one of its instructors. Although a seasoned player himself, when Schmitt asked how he could improve his own game, Fechter suggested something rather unconventional: learn to ‘juggle’… on the billiards table.

“That will help your hand-eye coordination, and… actually help your pool game,” Fechter recalls telling him. “A couple weeks later, he’s got these balls going around the table at like 90 miles an hour!” Now, Schmitt performs billiards juggling at charity events and seminars across the country, and even teaches children how to do it through the Artistic CueSports “Shooting Stars” curriculum, which Fechter developed in 1983 to increase youth involvement in the sport.

Regardless of age or ability, Fechter uses similar drills with all of his students, attempting to reinstate the fundamentals that he says are collapsed by the human mindset. He takes the time to learn and understand the unique thought process behind each pupil’s movements at the pool table; from there, he individualizes training to refine their coordination, stroke, form and other rudiments, teaching them to “stop thinking” and engage all of their senses for each shot. “We taste that shot, we smell it, we hear it,” he explains. “I can tell before the ball gets to the pocket… whether you’ve missed or made it. Because I know what that sound’s going to sound like.”

“Every shot is its own adventure,” Schmitt adds. “It’s a manifestation of all your thoughts… your expectations.”

And it’s this psychological adventure that has kept enrollment up and Fechter dedicated to his discipline. He offers up 2 Corinthians 4:18 as a fitting metaphor for his approach: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

“Pool has that unseen quality that will make you search and search and search for that perfection because it is so infinite,” he continues. “No one’s ever mastered it. You just keep searching…”

Picking Up the Pieces
On November 25, 2011, a devastating fire broke out, destroying the CueSport facility and all of its equipment, as well as decades of irreplaceable pictures and memorabilia. Yet Fechter and Schmitt forged on, unwilling to give up on their passion. And so, with help from family, friends and the billiards community, CueSport College International is back in business. Supporters organized a benefit tournament that helped replace some of what was lost in the blaze, and Schmitt, a construction worker by day, dedicated months to rebuilding the school at its new location, 3221 NE Adams St. in Peoria.

Taking advantage of this second chance, Schmitt, who has taken over primary leadership of the facility, hopes to get more youth involved in the Billiard Education Foundation, which offers scholarships to young cueists, in addition to increasing the public visibility of both the school and the sport. Some ideas under consideration include promoting pool more like boxing by bringing well-known contenders to town for pay-per-view matches, and creating a national youth pool organization, similar to the Artistic CueSports “Shooting Stars” program.

No matter what the future holds, Fechter will be satisfied so long as the school’s legacy lives on, positively impacting the discipline of pool. For a man of many words, he sums it up briefly, saying, “I’m not looking for any rewards, other than the fact that it helps others.” a&s

For more information about CueSport College International, visit cuesportcollege.com or call (309) 697-2774.

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