More than a Game: The legacy of the VFW Pool Tournament

Sarah Daniels - 3/8/2024

LANSING, Mich. – In 1968, a friendly challenge to a game of pool was thrown out between VFW members from different parts of Michigan. Now, 56 years later, the VFW Michigan Pool League has attracted hundreds of veterans who compete annually in the longest running statewide tournament in Michigan and is the only state league in the VFW nationally.

 

Pool League Director Don Smith credits the league’s long history to the spirit of competition embedded in military and veteran culture, and the camaraderie surrounding the league reminiscent of bonds formed during military service.

 

"For people that enjoy the game, the competition factor unifies us,” Smith said. "It’s all about the camaraderie, brotherhood, and sisterhood. No matter what generation of warrior we are, we are all raised our right hand, fought for the same cause. This brings us together, and pool is what brings us together now.”

This year marks Smith’s 27thyear involved in the league and views the tournament as more than just a game. It is also an outlet for veterans who struggle with mental health and looking for community. 

"It is a relief,” he said.  "When I play pool, I’m able to block out the outside noise, focus on the shot, trust myself and take risks. In life you have to stay focused and keep moving forward, blocking out the negative things. Also, in team events, you learn how to play with others and function effectively together.

"I associate pool a lot with life,” Smith continued. "Sometimes every shot is not there. Sometimes you need to create your own shot, play defense, be humble, and need to be a good loser to be a good winner.”

Smith’s personal passion for bringing veterans together for the tournament stems from his own experiences learning pool from his Vietnam veteran father at age 12, and later competing alongside him in the tournament after returning from the Gulf War.

"My dad practiced playing pool every Sunday at the local VFW, and took me along,” Smith said. "It wasn’t until many years later, when my dad visited me at my duty station in Virginia that I finally beat him.”

One of Smith’s most proud memories of the tournament came in 2004, when he and his father were the first father-son team to win the doubles championship. Many losses and exciting victories have come for Smith over the years, but this moment was among the fondest.

"My dad and I fought like dogs when we played pool together,” he said. "That day in April 2004 we came together. We were in sync, we had so much fun. We won, and still talk about it 20 years later.”

Today, a culture has formed around the tournament, with its own traditions and structure to honor the long history of the event and welcome all newcomers who want to compete.

The tournament will have an opening ceremony, where the national anthem will play, and the pledge of allegiance spoken. Taps will also be played in remembrance of the past veterans that were involved in the league no longer with them. In their memory, a family member is invited to shoot an honorary 8-ball into a pocket.

"It's important to recognize the members we lost, for not only their service, but also their passion for this league and what they meant to the other members who played beside them,” Smith said.

Smith desires to continue the legacy of the veteran players who came before him and deeply impacted his life, among them are Fred Kemp and Mike Bunting.

"It’s a pleasure and an honor,” Smith said. "Some call me Fred Jr., and it sure is a hell of a compliment, he was a great man. If I leave a legacy, I want to continue this tournament.”

This year’s tournament will be held April 25-27 at VFW Post 3055 (1395 W Monroe Rd. St Louis, MI 48880). All VFW members are welcome and eligible to compete.

"In this tournament, we all win in the end,” Smith said. "We spend three days of our lives together as brothers and sisters. There is no money involved, all bragging rights.”

To learn more about the tournament and to register, visit the Pool League page on vfwmi.org.

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