‘Pied Piper of Pool’ Van Eck brings billiards to local boys and girls clubs
February 4, 2017

Tom Van Eck improved the billiards area in several local Boys and Girls Clubs, including Little Village, Valentine, and True Value.

By Patrick Butler

There was a time when youngsters — especially if they were girls — were not exactly encouraged to hang around pool halls. Times have changed, however, especially at the Valentine Boys and Girls Club, 3400 S. Emerald Ave.; Little Village Boys and Girls Club, 2801 S. Ridgeway Ave.; and True Value, at 2950 W. 25th St. thanks in large part to Tom Van Eck.

The semi-retired salesperson and self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of Pool” said he has been playing pool since he was ten and started helping out Chicago-area Boys and Girls Clubs about a year ago after a visit to the Logan Square club, where he spotted three billiard tables in need of repairs.

Not long afterward, he visited the clubs in this community. As in many Chicago-area Boys and Girls clubs, Van Eck found a lot of the equipment “wasn’t in the best condition,” according to Jason Vasquez, volunteer coordinator for the Chicago area’s 23 clubs. Not surprisingly, the billiard tables had fallen into disuse.

Since then, Van Eck has brought in new or repaired equipment for ten clubs, including Valentine, Little Village, and True Value, Vasquez said. By November, interest in the game had rekindled enough to hold a tournament among the three clubs.

“Tom’s presence has been creating more of a buzz at our clubs, especially at Valentine,” Vasquez said.

More than equipment

To Van Eck, the problem was a lot bigger than poor equipment. From what he could see, the game was dying among the younger generation, something he had read about in at least two pool players’ magazines.

“The kids are on the phones, playing video games,” Van Eck said. “Even 11-year-olds have smart phones. When they’re hanging out, they’re just sitting around a table looking down. They’re not praying. They’re playing with their phones.”

Van Eck is pleased that more girls are taking up billiards at the Boys and Girls Clubs. Now, the local clubs are participating in tournament play with one another.

For Van Eck, it was hard to understand. He became good enough at the game to become a serious tournament player. While at the University of Notre Dame, he won the campus championship two years in a row. Later he qualified for the American Pool Players Association championship in Las Vegas.

Van Eck married and took a job as a soft drink salesperson. After retiring in his early 60s, he had extra time on his hands and was looking for some place to volunteer. Van Eck credits his wife, Joan, a librarian at Prospect High School, with encouraging him to promote the game among teens. He became involved with the Boys and Girls clubs during a visit to a suburban club and found “everything in disrepair.”

It was not much better at his later tours of other clubs, he said.

Helping the clubs

Soon he began scrounging up equipment wherever he could find it. He managed to obtain a top-of-the-line Brunswick Gold Crown table and began holding fundraisers. After raising $3,000 during one of his early efforts, he even encouraged a friend, Adam Koch, a lighting salesman, to become involved. Koch raised another $23,000.

Van Eck even invented the iCue training ball with markings showing novices the ideal impact points. He has been selling it at trade shows and tournaments and giving $2 from the sale of each ball to the Boys and Girls Clubs; he manages a website for the balls at www.icueclinic.com.

He continues to play in local leagues, which helps him spread the word about the iCue ball and his efforts to involve more people in his campaign to round up still more new sticks, balls, racks, and tables for Chicago-area Boys and Girls Clubs. Anyone interested in joining him can reach him at twvaneck@hotmail.com.

“I want to encourage participation,” Van Eck said. “Pool is an active game, which both boys and girls can play. It encourages them to talk to one another, stay balanced, and concentrate.”

Age ten is a good time to start a youngster at the pool tables, he said, noting that, unlike many other sports, there is no age when it’s time to quit.

“I see one guy every week who’s playing in his late 70s,” he said. “From eight to eighty-eight, this game is great.”

Overall, Van Eck sees a bright future for the 500-year-old game whose devotees ranged from Abraham Lincoln to Louis XIV. For one thing, more women and girls are taking up “cue sports,” he said. “I would say 25% of our participants these days are girls.”

“Just try it, you’ll like it,” he promised.