He's a skilled pool player who was once among the top college players in the country. Not bad for someone who has never had a pool table in his home.

George McBane, associate professor of chemistry, has natural talent for the game. Like Mozart, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, McBane has played billiards since he was a boy. But, it’s not the history of the sport that intrigues him as much as the science behind the game and the excitement of a challenge.

McBane is a physical chemist who describes his work as being “on a fuzzy boundary between chemistry and physics. "He admits to getting hooked on chemistry at an early age. "I got that 'disease' when I was pretty young," McBane said. "I got a Sears and Roebuck chemistry set at age 8 and was hooked.

Soon after, he also became hooked on pool. McBane grew up in Morganton, a small town in North Carolina that sits on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His interest in pool started at age 12 after he attended summer camps on college campuses. “During free time I would play pool,” he said. “Sometimes the college kids would even play with me and teach me a few things.” By age 14, he was playing pool fairly regularly, but his family didn’t own a pool table.

"I started playing at a scuzzy ice cream shop that had three bar tables in the back," he said. "I played there once or twice a week until a friend from high school said, George, why don't we go over to the pool room. "It was a few blocks away and I steadily got better."

As a freshman at North Carolina State, he landed a job in the university game room. He was able to put in a lot of playing time and was soon one of the top 10 players on campus.

In 1981, after his freshman year, McBane decided to invest in a cue. He had one custom-made in Colorado for $350."It was made by Bill Stroud, who is now one of the most influential makers probably one of, he said. "Stroud has had cues displayed at the Smithsonian, so my cue is now probably worth $2,000.

By his senior year, McBane was a regular winner of campus tournaments. He continued to play as a graduate student at Cornell. The Association of College Unions International sponsors a national pocket billiards competition each year. In 1986, McBane won the ACUI campus qualifying tournament and regional competition, making him one of 16 players invited to the national championship where he placed 10th.

In 2001, when he arrived at Grand Valley McBane served as a guest columnist for Bob Jewett in Billiards Digest. His article,'Newton on the Ball: The flaws of the 90-degree rule,' explained how the Newton Diagram (after Sir Isaac) used in molecular collision experiments could be used to help figure out how the cue and object balls would react and behave during their collisions.

That begs the question: does being a chemist help him play the game better?

"Most good pool players know squat about physics and it doesn't hurt them at all,"McBane said. "There are a fair number of players who do know physics and find it interesting to think about it and make little conclusions about what happens on the pool table. Does it help them play better? Marginally."

The key for most players, including McBane, is 'controlling the cue ball for your next shot.' He said depending on which billiard game he’s playing, he maps out at least three shots ahead, if not the whole game. "The goal is to make the object ball and get the cue ball somewhere productive," he said.<

"Most good pool players know squat about physics and it doesn’t hurt them at all..."

McBane is connected to an interest group he found online that plays near Toronto. They hold an occasional informal tournament and the winner is given the title Great White North Non-Gender-Specific Royalty of the Hill. (It used to be called the Great White North King of the Hill tournament until a woman won the competition.) McBane currently holds the title.

As with any sport or competition, one tends to size-up their opponents. McBane said sometimes people are surprised to find out that he plays pool. I'm such a generic, basic, nice guy," McBane said. "It's kind of fun to have a skill in an activity that has McBane said while he loves the game, he doesn’t plan on owning a pool table. "I've never really had room for one," he said. "But even if I did, practicing isn't as much fun as playing. Part of the excitement for me is to walk into a place where I don't know anybody, find a game, and see how I can do."

Page last modified March 17, 2014