Lukas Fracasso-Verner

Lukas Fracasso-Verner, 12, racks up the ball during league play at Yale Billiards. Lukas placed 3rd in the National Championships in Las Vegas recently. (Michael McAndrews, mmcandrews@courant.com / July 28, 2014)

The crowd at Yale Billiards is larger and more diverse than one might expect for a pool hall in Wallingford on a Monday night. The hall is bustling with friendly conversation among the mix of men, women and children of all ages. Under the warm glow of the overhead lamps, the place feels more like a community center rather than a pool hall.

But don't let the friendly atmosphere fool you, Yale Billiards is serious about pool. This small pool hall is home to the 2014 USAPL National Pool Champions, including 12-year-old Lukas Fracasso-Verner.

The Yale Billiards pool team dominated the USA Pool League's (USAPL) National Championship earlier this summer in Las Vegas. The team won first place in the team tournament and brought home honors for the top three places in the singles tournament.

Lukas, who placed third in the singles tournament, started playing pool four years ago. As a 12-year-old, he is the youngest player to place nationally in the USAPL pool championship, according to Mark Estes, a manager at USAPL. There are no age groups in the USAPL so Lukas placed third despite playing opponents more than twice his age.

"My dad got me into it," said Lukas. "He loves it and I really wanted to try it out."

David Verner, Lukas' father, also plays on the Yale Billiards team.

Lukas is from Wallingford and will enter seventh grade this fall. Besides pool, Lukas said he also plays football, basketball, baseball and soccer.

"My friends don't really care about pool," said Lukas. "I just love it. I love to win tournaments and I love the way the stick feels in my hand.''

Lukas even got the chance to play 12 games with his idol, the number one ranked American pool player in the country, Shane "The South Dakota Kid" Van Boeing, who happened to be in Vegas at the time.

"I plan to keep playing when I'm older. I practice five days a week," said Lukas.

"If Lukas isn't in school he's in here," said Robert Hilton, owner of the Yale Billiards pool hall and member of the team.

Hilton and his father-in-law, Terry Taylor, opened Yale Billiards, located on 950 Yale Ave. in Wallingford in 1994. Taylor retired in 1998 and Hilton has been the owner since.

The Yale Billiards team had to beat 12 Connecticut teams in order to make it to the championship in Las Vegas, held July 16 to 20. Forty state champion teams from all over the nation also made it to Vegas. The Yale Billiards team is made up of 10 players with ages varying from 12 to 62. Current members include Robert Hilton, Lukas Fracasso-Verner, David Verner, John Papallo, David Gavrish, Gregory Hanks, Thomas Boynton, Michael Hoyle, Philip Davis and Robert Piersa.

"We beat the best of the best in the state," said Hilton. "Then we beat the state champions and proved we're the best of the best in one big tournament."

According to Hilton, the team took home $6,200 for winning the championship. USAPL also payed for the team's flight to Las Vegas as well as a week-long stay at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.

"It was the best," said Hilton. "Everyone we were playing was so nice, telling us how well we were playing."

Some members of the Yale Billiards USAPL team will return to Las Vegas from Aug. 14 to Aug. 23 to compete in the American Poolplayers Association (APA) National Team Championship.

According Estes, this is the first time in the history of the USAPL that one team has won both the team championship and the top three places in the singles tournament.

The USAPL's website describes their organization as ". . . a social amateur handicapped 8-Ball league designed to accommodate all players from beginner through top amateur level."

Estes said the USAPL, who's parent company is the Billiard Congress of America (BCA), is only five years old but has been growing substantially in membership each year.

The USAPL awarded Lukas $470 for placing third in the singles tournament. Second place went to David Gavrish, who won $700 and Philip Davis won the first place prize of $1,300. Both Davis and Gavrish are 25-years-old.

"I started playing when I was about 17 with my dad," said Davis. "I was taking a martial arts class and right across the street was a pool hall that my dad would bring me to after. He stopped taking me once I started winning more than him."

Davis, who competes in pool tournaments full-time during the summer, said that although there is some money to be made playing pool, it's hard to make it big.

"You have to finish high every time or you don't get anything," said Davis. "The game is so hard and it's beautiful to watch good players but it's difficult because you can be playing beautifully and still walk out of a tournament with nothing."

According to Davis, he has won around $10,000 playing pool since January. He didn't lose a single match during the National Championship in Vegas. When he isn't competing, Davis manages a grocery store.

Davis said that the popularity of playing pool is constantly shifting up and down. He said the sport usually needs a catalyst to boost its mainstream popularity.

"Usually it's a movie that does it," said Davis. "For example, when The Hustler came out people saw the hustling side of pool and everyone got interested again."

"The Hustler," released in 1961, starred big stars — Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason.

The fluctuating popularity of pool is one reason it's so hard to make a living from it, according to David Gavrish, who won second place in singles.

"Pool is great because you don't necessarily have to be an athlete to play or be good, but it will never get to the level of other sports," said Gavrish. "You literally have to be one of the top five players in the world to make any money."

But members of Yale Billiards believe the popularity of pool is now on the upswing, locally and nationally.

"Overall, nationally, league play is going up and tournament play is going up," said Estes.

"We're definitely getting there. We were there in the '90s but it died down around 2007 and 2008," said Hilton. "I think it's coming back now because people are looking for something different to do instead of looking at their phones."

Hilton said a big reason people are hesitant to visit a pool hall and play pool is because of the negative images people associate with pool halls and pool play in general.

"People have this misconception when it comes to pool and pool halls," said Hilton. "They think it's this dark musty room where you can get stabbed or beat up if you don't know anyone but that's the farthest thing from the truth. There's a real family community feel in this place, it's just a bunch of nice people playing pool."