I won a thing not too long ago.
I would not have written this but a few of you are curious and there’s no press release or magazine blurb that would fit it all. It’s also great bathroom reading. This is for all of you who laugh at, and delight in, the fucking next-level insanity that is my life.
This is what I fucking talk about when I fucking talk about winning.
In 2013, I played my best pool.
I have finished higher, won more money, and garnered more notoriety in other years, but 2013 is my best year because that was the year I put everything into pool. Never before in my life have I (and I promise you, never again) stretched every dollar, pulled every muscle, strained every brain cell toward the game as I did that year. When I reached the end of my rope, I simply split it in half lengthwise, tied the halves together, and moved on. I refused to quit.
The time came when that rope had been split and tied so many times it could no longer hold together and that was right before the 2013 U.S. Amateur Championships. I was out of money and health and I lost. I left immediately after losing, as I did six or seven years ago when I first finished second. Same as then, I flew from the east coast to the west coast on the reddest of redeyes and went straight to work. I could not afford additional luggage fees so I left the trophy behind. I was seriously ill but I tried not to think about it and pushed forward with life.
Not long after, someone who called himself “overlord” set up a challenge match between a former professional player and me. I had so much fluid in my lungs at this point I had to sleep sitting up. I took a day, unpaid, off work to play this match. I should have dropped out but I believed professionalism meant going forward at all costs.
I had not been expected to win, not by a fucking long shot, and I solidly fulfilled that expectation. Aside from “overlord” paying for my practice time because he wanted a good match, I received no compensation. I put up with my opponent and her supporters’ shenanigans at the match and I felt it was unfair at the time, but there was nothing to be done. Jay Helfert told me after the loss, “If you’re going to be a lamb led to the slaughter, get paid for it next time.”
It was all right.
I had done my best.
I could now rest.
I will never forget coughing up blood while “overlord” lectured me at length, about pool, by text message. I did not understand this. I had played the match (which was meant to kickstart his kingdom in pool streaming) and almost killed myself playing it. I had done my fucking job. I had done enough. What the fuck was this shit?
According to “overlord”, “real pool is extended matches playing for money”—which is what I am known for doing and what I had just done—yet I was still not a “real” pool player. He also kept referring to me as “kitty” or “cat” which was supremely awkward. In the middle of this ridiculous exchange, I had an epiphany: I could do my fucking best and sacrifice everything and still be harangued for the pettiest, weirdest, dumbest, most irrelevant shit. I wanted to be respected as a pool player but no matter what I did, that would never happen.
I went to the pool hall and left for him the money he had paid for my table time. This was the last money I had, but I had to ensure we were even-fucking-steven. God forbid he think I owe him anything—anything—else.
Then I gave up.
In 2014, I had to work during my recovery and I could not play pool, which meant all I could do was think—which I try not to do too often because if I look too closely at things they sometimes scare the shit out of me.
In hindsight, this was good.
Actually, it was great.
I had used pool as a drug to escape the unsettling realities of my life. I had looked at the world through eight-ball colored glasses and now that they were gone, I could see just how absolute shit my life was. I was overworked and underpaid in an incredibly hostile environment with openly racist and abusive bosses I tolerated because, in the end, it paid for pool. The little wins here and there were tidy little fixes that justified staying. Like any addict, I immediately followed this moment of clarity by trying to shove it under a rock, but I had hit bottom and there were no rocks left.
My work situation continued to deteriorate further through the year. I gave them all I had but it was never enough. When they asked me to jump, I jumped. When they asked me to jump higher, I jumped higher. When they asked me to levitate and I said I could not—they angrily questioned my competence and made thinly veiled threats to fire me. They implied almost every day that my illness was a sham. I needed the health insurance, and so, I bore it all.
I still played pool in 2014, but significantly less than in previous years. I decided not to travel further than 300 miles (one-way) for events. I decided a team tournament, three individual tournaments, and a possible fourth tournament mattered to me. I won the last of these three tournaments, which was the U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier, and this solidified the fourth tournament, which was the U.S. Amateur Championship itself.
On Halloween, I participated in a 5k fun run. Although I had not trained, I did have a bet (chicken piccata dinner) to finish in under eight minutes per mile and I accomplished this, finishing in 23 minutes and 54 seconds. I received a second-place medal, a $60 gift certificate, and throat-punching bronchitis before I had left the stage.
By the time the U.S. Amateur Championship rolled around, I was in bad condition. I would say history repeated itself but not quite. Instead of second place, I went two and out.
Once home, I added strep throat to my bronchitis. Doctors told me the chance of having both at the same time was less than a one-in-a-million. This was not the helpful type of luck. I was out of sick days and vacation days but could not be at work because of possible contagion. I sat at home and bled from my lungs and my wallet. Eventually, I had yet another infection, this time caused by the very same antibiotics I took to fix the bronchitis and strep throat.
It was a very long winter.
In 2015, my life went from minor crumbles to full-on avalanche. My bosses at work thought I was out traipsing through fields of daisies rather than bleeding internally. I sent them doctor’s notes and copies of my prescriptions and they still implied I was faking illness to anyone, whether they asked or not. The department head said in a staff meeting Asians were a terrible race, even as I sat right next to her (and I was the only Asian person in the department). Coworkers said the same kind of things.
I applied to other jobs but no one bothered to call back because I did not list my bosses as references as they were a vindictive bunch. Despite what they said of me, and their threats, it was absolutely in their best interest to keep me because I was paid very cheaply, had incredible institutional knowledge, and did my work extremely well.
I decided two tournaments and a possible third mattered to me. After years of being beaten down by my work and its people, I had lost all mental fortitude. Prolonged abuse in any situation will do that to you. I lost the second tournament, the U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier, so there would not be a third. Irritated as I was, I actually knew this was for the best. I was not capable of winning and pool could no longer be a priority. Staying alive and getting the fuck out of Shawshank came first.
At the beginning of 2016, every day, both physically and mentally, was a struggle. I dragged through the motions of work, eat, sleep, work some more. I shut down everything that did not have to do with survival. Just before I had to go on medical leave, I got an interview. When I returned, I had a new job and I was (gleefully) told a big part of my being hired was because my salary was so low (“You were a bargain!”). Whatever, fine. Just get me the fuck out of here.
There were difficulties at this new job but they were nothing like those at my old job. I was able to get the medical care I needed and although some people treated me in a less-than-stellar manner, there was financial appreciation for my work. I could afford to play pool but no longer had the desire. I spent a lot of time trying to rebuild and revive the best parts of myself, all of which had been destroyed by a decade of living a shit life with shit people.
Still, I decided—out of habit more than anything else—two tournaments and a possible third mattered to me. I thought I was healed up and ready, but I was not. I still was not strong enough to stand up for myself when things were not right. Doing that is even harder when the person you have to stand up to is someone you thought was a friend. I lost the second tournament, the U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier, so there would not be a third.
In 2017, I decided pool could go fuck itself.
I had my Rumspringa and ran wild.
Without table time and tournament costs, I finally had disposable income and holy shit did I dispose of it. I flew home (no more Greyhound, I’m a baller now!) often and spent as much time as I could with my family. I went on vacation, twice. I went to Disneyland, twice. I got a bonus. I threw money into retirement accounts. I ate ramen only when nostalgia hit. I bought a dress. Well, I had to buy a dress because I got to be a bridesmaid (I don’t know what she was thinking, either). I went to Vegas for fun. I drank a lot. I took full advantage of my brother’s Netflix account. I unpacked shit I had left in boxes for years because I was off playing pool. I rearranged the furniture. I tossed out shitty furniture, bought better furniture, and rearranged the furniture again. I got a raise. My cat ate well and got really fat. I bought a laser pointer. I put the cat on a low-carb diet. I ate well and got fatter. I ran the occasional road race to balance things out. I paid for a gym membership and used it approximately 0.75 times per month. I went to my cousin’s batshit crazy bachelorette party in New York and somehow made it back without needing a liver transplant. When people at work pissed me the fuck off, I told them. I stood my fucking ground. I made friends. I made more friends. I made friends with people who were supportive and positive. I cut shitty friends off like the malignant tumors they were. My cat did not make friends. My cat fought a big raccoon and won. I went out every weekend and almost every night. People said shitty things to me and I laughed at them. There’s more but 2017 isn’t over yet.
Still, I figured I could squeeze in just two tournaments. Many of my friends were going to the first tournament so I did, too. I did not do well at that tournament. The second tournament was—you guessed it—the U.S. Amateur Championship qualifier.
I managed to muddle through to the final. In the final, I was perpetually on the brink of playing well but never got into gear. I would make spectacular runs only to dog the out ball or the last ball. Mistake followed mistake and I complained about everything. I heard myself say, “If I play this bad, I fucking deserve to lose.”
In past years, the final match has lasted as late as 6:30 or 7:30 in the morning because the director wanted to finish the tournament in one day rather than two. The final matches were often played on shit tables since the better tables were rented out. My opponents and/or their posses had often been rude or pulled shit that I did not know how to deal with, and the tournament director had not been much help.
This year, the final started at a very respectable 7:00 p.m. The room owner, rather than renting it out, saved one of his best tables for the final. My opponent was very skilled, honorable, and easygoing. My friend who came to watch me at this tournament every year—even when my matches lasted past sunrise—was here again to support me.
Good lord what the fuck was my problem?
I took a break, and when I came back, I said to my opponent, “I’m sorry for the all the shit I just did. I was becoming the thing I hate the most. I was becoming a goddamn whiny bitch.” With that, I shut the fuck up and played. I never did find my gear but I ground out the win anyway.
The U.S. Amateur Championship tournament has always been hard for me. It is expensive to fly to the east coast and I have to deal with jetlag and fatigue from life in general. Since I do not drive, I cannot stay at the already-paid-for host hotel, which is quite a distance away from the pool room. In the past, I would pay for my own room at a closer, total roach-shit motel and walk a mile to the pool room with my cues. In heels.
Fuck history rewriting itself.
This time, I would write it.
I arranged to work longer days at my current job to bank the extra hours for time off. I picked up a second job to pay for everything else. The logic seemed sound but I overestimated myself. After working that much, I was often too tired to play pool. I had the money to practice but no time. Whatever I had by the time of the tournament would have to be enough.
I flew to Tampa on Saturday even though the tournament started on Wednesday.
I got an inexpensive but comfortable Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and budgeted to take rideshare instead of taking the bus or walking. I ate cereal and bologna sandwiches for every meal, every day, and never tired of it.
I was all-fucking-in.
On Sunday, I went to the beach for a few hours after which I entered in a tournament and played like stone cold shit. On Monday, I practiced for five hours at the pool room and when their league players came in and I had to give up the table, I went to another pool room and practiced for another three hours. On Tuesday, I practiced for four hours. I made sure I practiced an equal amount on all three types of tables. On Wednesday, I looked at all the women warming up and I felt the most perfect, empty, peace. I had done everything I could and if it wasn’t enough, then the universe could fuck right off.
During my first match, which was very close, the lighting rig on the streaming table next to me crashed down during a game and in all the confusion and profusion of people and glass bits everywhere I decided I didn’t give a shit about the situation and ran out to win. I went through the rest of the matches in a similar haze except for the one eight-ball I dogged. I got over it, and when the opportunity to shoot at it again arose, I made it. In the final match, I made balls and I missed balls. There was a guy who asked me if I was Vietnamese. Really, there was. This is my fucking life, y’all! I had to lose two games after that question before I got my shit together. I made a 6-9 combination and thought to myself, “Well, that was nice.” The end.
People want me to be more excited about winning. They tell me how I should have acted after winning. (I have reached the peak of my existence when guys tell me I might have won, yes, but I did it wrong.) No one hears me when I say the process was the most important thing. Winning requires me to trust myself. That is light-years more valuable than any trophy and let us be honest here: a trophy is not for you. You will always know you won, trophy or not. A trophy is so you can make sure other people know you won. In any case, everyone is different and I’m an incredibly, boringly, ordinary person, and it shows in the way I win.
There was a time when this win would have been the biggest thing in my life but it just isn’t that way now. My life is a jigsaw puzzle composed of many thousands of great moments, and this win is just a single piece—unique, necessary, but not more important than any of the other pieces in the creation of a whole and if I die with a few pieces missing, oh the fuck well.
People who want to tell my story keep emphasizing that I was, or should have been, afraid of losing. I don’t know why they do that. I don’t know why they insist I should have been trembling, wracked with doubt, terrified of repeated failure. I had nothing to lose. I already had everything I wanted. Four years ago, I thought winning this tournament would make my life better, but really, it was making a better life that allowed me to win the tournament.