When Steve Markle was 14, he begged for a pool table. His dad was leery. Would he really use it? Would it just end up a storage table for laundry and junk?
But NOT getting a pool table was becoming a problem.
"Steve was obsessed," said older brother Bill. "He wanted to go to bars because he knew they had a pool table."
Dad bought a Kmart table.
Steve was in the basement all the time, banging balls. He broke 15 floor tiles, the computer screen, picture frames.
His parents had little idea what was going on down there but weren't too concerned. He was their third child, home and safe.
A year later, at 15, Steve showed his parents his first YouTube video.
"Our jaws dropped," said his dad, Bill, a union electrician. "We had no idea."
At 17, as a junior at Archbishop Ryan, Steve entered his first professional trick-shot competition. This summer, at 19, he finished third in a Las Vegas tournament. He's now ranked 21st in the world. At 20, he worries that the novelty of his youth is wearing off.
"It helps to be young," he said the other day, in his Bensalem basement, his laboratory, where the red cloth on his pool table is ripped and weary. "That's why it kind of hits me hard. I'm starting to get older now. Everyone wanted to see a young kid succeed."
What Markle can do on a pool table doesn't seem fair or earthly possible.
He can hit the cue ball into the six ball, and the six ball will go straight down the rail into the corner pocket, while the cue ball spins a wide arc, like a half moon, and curves back into the same corner pocket, just a split second after the six ball.
He can hit the cue ball hard against a rail at one end of the table, and it will bounce back over two rows of balls, like an infield grounder taking two hops, and then hit a ball into the corner pocket at the other end.
He can hit a cue ball so hard that it will knock three balls into assorted pockets and then bounce back to him in the air, and he'll use the fat end of his cue stick to bunt it into a corner pocket.
His shots happen so fast, you don't understand what you've just seen. He's like a gunslinger. But instead of mowing down six men, he'll drop six balls into assorted pockets with a single shot.
In one video, he shot the cue ball over his chocolate Labrador laying on the table. He hit the cue ball through three spinning racks suspended in air, and it landed on the table and knocked balls into corner pockets. He shot a ball across the table into a sneaker.
He has 15 videos on YouTube and more than 300,000 views.
He's got 15 different cues, all with different functions, several provided by his sponsor, the Florida-based Poison Billiards, and he's even got a sleek three fingered glove he started using in Vegas.
Does pool help with girls?
He's still living at home, in his childhood bedroom, taking classes in criminal justice at Bucks County College. When he's practicing in his basement, shots often miss. He says he needs the crowds, competition, or cameras. He travels the country several weekends a year competing, including last weekend in Chicago.
At tournaments he's met the best trick-shot artists in the world. He's closest in age and friendship to 24-year-old Florian Kohler of France. They use Skype before competitions to practice together. "I'll point my camera down on the table. And he'll do the same thing," Steve said. "He'll face me with a shot and I'll face him with a shot."
Kohler has visited Steve in Bensalem a few times, and he texted the other day: "I wish there was a Wawa in France."
Tournaments can follow different formats. Recently, a new format has emerged, more like a game of H-O-R-S-E. One player attempts a shot of his invention. If he makes it, the opponent must also, and gets two tries.
This requires the player going second to quickly analyze and adjust.
"You have to dissect what he's doing and you have to think about it," Steve said. "That's why in Vegas I had a headache after every round."
Andy Segal, the world's top-ranked player, beat Steve in the semifinal round in Vegas.
Segal felt that Steve tried nearly impossible shots, thinking he had to step up his game if he wanted to win, and in turn Steve didn't make many of his first shots.
Segal added in a phone interview: "After our matches, I've told him, the reason why you didn't make many shots is you were picking shots that were too hard. You could have shot your normal shot and made it and put the pressure on me.
"It was probably crazy of me to tell him that, but I like him. I see him as one of the top players in the future."
The top prize at the two biggest tournaments is $10,000. Even Segal says he can't make a living as a trick-shot artist, but it brings him a very nice supplemental income, especially combining tournaments with exhibitions.
Steve sees himself living such a life - a regular career spiced up by trick-shot tournaments, videos, and exhibitions.
"Basically when I die," Steve says, "I want a pool cue and a Phillies hat next to me."
To view a video of Steve Markle's trick pool shots, go to http://www.philly.com/markle