A trick-shot pool sorcerer, to be specific, complete with popular videos, live appearances — and a bright future cued up
Florian Kohler jams straight down on the stick near the side pocket, and the cue ball spits to the right. It bounces off the far rail, then the end rail, then to the near rail, where it suddenly bends in a looping curve that, frankly, shouldn’t be allowed under any law of general relativity, the Geneva Convention or the Prime Directive. It spins in a lazy 120-degree arc to tap against an object ball resting at the far corner pocket, and daintily knocks it in.
I ask Kohler if he’s secretly telekinetic and just using pool as a cover. “I wish,” he says flatly over the shopworn table in his suburban west-side home. Fine, then. Some sort of dark sorcery it is. I don’t say that aloud. Angering people who are clearly wizards seems like a bad idea.
Kohler, 28, is a trick-shot artist, part of a singular cadre of ball-twirling magicians that exists somewhere between Paul Newman and Lance Burton. It’s classic ESPN2 fare, a winking offshoot of a declining sport, and Kohler wants to be the guy to get everyone paying attention again.
He’s already well down the road on that one. With combined YouTube and Facebook subscribers of more than 500,000, and videos that bank millions of hits each, Kohler has become a niche sensation in a world that hasn’t seen much growth or attention in recent years. He did that by creatively tearing up the book — there literally is a trick-shot bible that governs much of competition — and by adhering to an immutable law of the YouTube age: Involving attractive ladies in your videos gets more hits than not.
“It was simple,” he said. “If you want to sell anything in the world, you need a girl. Even when it doesn’t make sense.”
The videos use models the way a miniature golf course uses windmills, if the windmills had an evening gown and high heels. In one of his more popular vids, a girl sits in the middle of the table with her feet propped on the rail, knees high. He shoots the ball under her legs. It connects to balls hanging on the pocket, and, thanks once again to sorcery, it spins back to him at the far end. As he shoots it again, the model lays her legs flat and he jumps it over her, into the corner.
You can see that creative itch beg to get scratched as Kohler evolves. Recent videos involve fighters at Mayweather Boxing Club, including teaching Floyd Mayweather’s father and trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., a few shots. He’s working on one shot out in the desert that involves dune buggies.
But for all the bombastic tricks, Kohler isn’t a natural-born showman. He wasn’t even a natural-born pool player. He grew up near Strasbourg, France, 15 minutes across the banks of the Rhine to Germany and about an hour to Switzerland. He got a pool table for his 18th birthday and turned to books and Internet videos to learn. Two years later, he knew all the trick shots that were out there.
He went to school to become a doctor before settling on optometry. He had a job in the field and pool on the side. He was good, though, and the online videos were taking off. He adopted the nom de pool “Venom” and began booking shows around the world. Kohler would have the kind of weekends in which he had to leave work on a Friday and fly from Paris to Boston to Miami to the U.S. Virgin Islands, then take a boat to the British Virgin Islands, do a show, then hike it back the same way to make it back to France to work on Tuesday morning.
This is not exactly a sustainable lifestyle.
So, three years ago, he took a chance. He brushed up on his English and moved to the United States. His parents, as one may imagine, were thrilled. Kohler first moved to Riverside, California, before relocating to Las Vegas. Along the way, he went from being an Internet sensation to winning competitions in artistic pool. The American Poolplayers Association came in with a sponsorship, and Kohler began touring extensively.
He’ll do shows for high society — a recent one involved a private performance at an SLS nightclub for a collection of bankers — and the redneckiest of bars. Anywhere there are pool players and leagues that want to drum up interest. Inevitably, when rowdy pool players want to know where the girls in his video are, he has to pick a tough guy out of the crowd and stick him in a wig as a deputized assistant. It’s where he learned the part of the game about being a showman.
“I’m really not outgoing at all, but it’s a personality you’ve got to build,” he said. “It’s better if you are; pool is very dangerous because you learn to enjoy yourself too much. You can just spend time and get drunk with people every day at your show.”
But if he had to learn that kind of showmanship, he learned in a hurry. Kohler was recently invited onto Dude Perfect, the popular YouTube collective of hyperkinetic hoops-and-football trick-shot bros. The appearance helped boost Kohler’s national recognition (the segment garnered more than 33 million views), and why wouldn’t it? In one trick, Kohler shot a cue ball off the table and into a putting green cup 15 feet away. Suspicions of sorcery: rekindled.
When he was starting out, shots like that wouldn’t even be considered in his sport. Artistic pool mainly used staid set shots. Kohler stays awake at night thinking up new shots and scratching out crude diagrams on scraps of paper. He keeps stepping up the intensity, difficulty and spectacle. What Kohler did was Dylan going electric for the felt-and-chalk set.
Tom “Dr. Cue” Rossman is a 30-year veteran of the artistic pool scene. Where more buttoned-down players might have scoffed at the Kohler’s popularity, which started outside of the competitive circuit, Rossman saw the future of the sport.
“Florian became the original pioneer for that freestyle stuff,” Rossman said. “I saw him as a starting young guy doing entertainment, and he had his own style. He was unique, but then I saw him like a flower starting to blossom. And I saw him evolve into this competitor. He became established and started giving these other guys competing fits because he was a rogue. I fell in love with it. These young guys saw a guy like Florian making his mark. They attached to Florian. You’re going to see more young guys coming in, and they’re going to slowly push out some of these older guys in their 40s and 50s who are trying to maintain the status quo.”
Competition, though, isn’t at the heart of Kohler’s model. ESPN2 airs Trick Shot Magic once a year, and the APA has its own circuit, but it’s not enough to eat on. Kohler only took home $8,000 for winning last year’s ESPN tourney.
Nor, for the record, is hustling a viable option. It still happens, but it’s harder now. Pool forums regularly out hustlers. In the ’80s and ’90s, the rumor is legendary player Efren Reyes and his backers could haul in $80,00—$90,000 a week. Kohler’s seen some matches involving poker players with $150,000 stacked on the overhead light, but his own turn at hustling was short-lived.
Kohler’s girlfriend was working at a bar where he was playing in a tournament. Some loudmouth came in talking about how he was going to take Kohler’s money and girl. He wanted to play for $500 a game, so Kohler dumped off the tourney he was in to make bank and shut up his antagonist.
“He thinks he’s a pool shark, but he’s barely average,” Kohler said. “I play him one set trying not to kill him too bad, and I win it. Then play another one, I play him one-handed, and I win it. The guy got all pissed off to the point where he pulled out a gun. His friend tried to calm him down. He gave me $25 and walked out the door. Twenty-five dollars, or you get into a fight where you might die? Since then I never did it anymore.”
That side of pool is what makes it compelling, but it’s also a big stumbling block to locking up television sponsors, which is where the big money comes in. But Kohler has another idea to bring artistic pool into the mainstream: a live, interactive show on the Strip. He’s repeatedly turned down offers from America’s Got Talent, he says, because the amount of time it takes to set up shots would drag everything down. He learned that the hard way by going on the French version of the show. To mitigate that, he pictures a comedian or magician working the crowd while he preps the pool table. Audience members could come up and make impossible shots. Maybe a few of those freewheeling poker pros can be enticed to come in and put up big money on a match.
It may sound like an unusual offering, but The Venetian took a swing at The Real Deal! in 2008, an interactive poker game show with Vinnie Favorito hosting and pros like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari playing against amateurs in the audience. So who knows?
But that’s down the road. Shows like that are hard to pull off, even with a four-wall deal. In the meantime, he’ll keep going back to those scraps of paper, practicing sometimes seven hours a day. His hands get covered in blisters, and in the dry Vegas air, he had to buy a baseball glove for his right hand. Helps keep blood off the cue.
Or at least, that’s what he says. Sounds a lot like what a secret sorcerer might say, too.