When I arrive at Broad Street Café on poker and carrom night, I find Billy Stevens doing the same thing he's been doing for the last 20 years: teaching people how to play carrom. "There's an invisible line running from the center of the pocket to the center of the disc and out the other side," he tells his student, a female poker player who has just been eliminated from her table and wandered over to see what people were doing on the other side of the bar. "Now get your nail right up next to the disc," he instructs. "Now flick it."
The shot goes wide; it doesn't hit anything. But that's OK. "We have a special rule for first-timers," Stevens says. "If you don't hit anything, you get to shoot again. Good for one day only."
The second try also goes wide—but it's closer, and Stevens gets excited. "Good! You just hit it a little too hard that time. But that was a great shot."
The next player lines up his shot and effortlessly hits his target into the pocket. Stevens is impressed. "You're either from Sri Lanka or southern India. You've got to be. I can tell from the way you shoot."
Originating centuries ago in Asia, carrom is a unique fusion of eight-ball and shuffleboard that incorporates rules and techniques from both games. Using a thick disc called a "striker," two teams of two players each try to sink their nine carrom men before their opponents can do the same. A 19th disc, called the queen, is colored red, and must be sunk before you sink the last of your carrom men, or you lose instantly, like sinking the eight-ball too early in pool.
Stevens may well be America's foremost carrom player. And although he humbly insists it was a fluke—"I didn't play against any good players until the quarterfinals"—he was once the 8th-ranked carrom player in the world.
"For me, it all started in Sri Lanka. In 1986 I was in Sri Lanka, and I had some time off, and I was invited to stay at a home for handicapped kids, and they all played carrom all day long. They taught me how to do it, and in a week, I could play. I got really into it. I thought, everyone I know would love this game. So when I got back I bought a board at an Indian grocery store in Chicago."
From there, he began attending international carrom tournaments, which feature the best players from India, Sri Lanka, Europe and elsewhere. He also began promoting carrom nationwide, founding the U.S. Carrom Association as well as a number of local carrom groups nationwide.
Through it all he has been motivated by a belief that carrom could easily be the next gaming craze, that it is the perfect game for a nation already enraptured by pool. "It's a natural fit with pool players and a natural fit for pool rooms. It uses the geometry [of pool], but the physics is totally different, and the strategy is totally different.
"The only problem is nobody knows how to play," he says. "So you can put the carrom boards all you want in pool halls, but if nobody there knows how to play, it'll just become another table. People will just put their beers on it."
This is where Stevens, the Johnny Appleseed of carrom in America, comes in. In 1996 Stevens was profiled with a full-page article in Sports Illustrated, highlighting America's first international carrom tournament, which Stevens was instrumental in bringing about. That same year, he also founded Billiboards, the company he still runs, which specializes in importing carrom boards and accessories from India for an American audience.
But despite his successes, 1996 also marked something of a down year in Stevens' passion for carrom. "We had Sports Illustrated, we had the tournament. But afterwards nothing happened—it didn't get picked up—and I got discouraged."
Starting local carrom nights in bars throughout the South began to feel a bit like a step backward. He began to wonder whether carrom would ever catch on and eventually took what he describes as a six-year "break" from actively promoting it.
It took a phone call from a nationally distributed pool magazine called Professor Q-Ball's National Pool and 3-Cushion News to make Stevens a believer again. "Professor Q-Ball called me up and said, 'My name is Professor Q-Ball ... I found you on the Internet. What the hell is carrom?' I was living only 70 miles away, so I drove to meet him, and I took a board. [He] was blown away. 'Oh man! This game's great! Every pool player would like to play this game. This should be in every pool room!'
"It was everything I'd been thinking since I started playing this game in 1986," he says. "If this game was out there, and everybody knew how to play—you couldn't make enough carrom boards."
Stevens knew that this time the strategy in promoting carrom had to be different. "The people aren't going to come to carrom," he told me. "So I have to bring carrom to the people."
For years, he and Professor Q-Ball brainstormed ways to promote the game, and earlier this year things fell into their lap. Professor Q-Ball secured Stevens some free space at a big pool tournament in Louisville, Ky., in January, and his small display drew big crowds and a lot of interest. That bought Stevens invitations to even bigger tournaments and billiards conventions, including one managed by one of America's biggest billiards organizations this month in Baltimore.
Everywhere he goes, he finds people fascinated by the game. At one tournament, America's third-ranked female billiards player spent half the weekend playing the game, enjoying herself immensely. At another, the man considered to be perhaps the best pool player in the world stood applauding the skills of 15 Indian players Stevens brought in for an exhibition.
Stevens also has been interacting more with the Indian-American community, where the game is already quite popular. He is beginning to look at carrom not just as a fun game he enjoys to play, but also as a possible means for cultural exchange between East and West, in bars and billiard halls but also in places like corporate break rooms or senior citizen centers.
"I look at this game, and I know it can become a craze," he says. "It just has to reach critical mass. It has to get to the tipping point and then it will take off."
After watching a few games of carrom, and more importantly watching people who wandered over from Poker Night and stayed at the carrom table for an hour or more, I could believe it. Outside in the parking lot, I met a man who'd done just that the week before.
"You're here to write about carrom?" he asked me. "I played that game last week. It was fun." We talked for a bit, and then I walked over to my car and he walked back inside. Through the window, I saw that he'd sat down at the carrom table, had the striking disc in his hands, and was getting ready to play.
You can play carrom and poker every Thursday night at the Broad Street Café, 1116 Broad St. in Durham.