Ever since he was a kid, you could find Greg Johnson near a pool table.
The 41-year-old lifelong Orillian first started in the world of billiards as an eight-year-old, when his dad started bringing him to his friend’s snooker hall around the corner from the Orillia Opera House.
“My dad got me into it at a very young age, and one of his very good friends was a top snooker player in Canada,” Johnson told OrilliaMatters. “My dad started taking me up on weekends to the snooker club, and I got to watch all the older guys play.
“From there, I just fell in love with the game and the atmosphere that was around it – watching the guys do crossword puzzles, play cards, play snooker, everything about it stuck with me," he explained.
His father, grandfather, uncle, and other relatives were all avid pool players, and Johnson ultimately grew up to play the game at a high level, including competing at world championships in Las Vegas.
“We went down and got 65th out of 720 teams with a world championship team in 2019. I’ve played in Canadian Open championships with teams and gotten fifth in the country,” he said.
“Just recently, last weekend, (my girlfriend and I) played in a CPA qualifier to go to the Jack and Jill World Championship in Las Vegas, so we managed to qualify and win that," he noted with pride.
If you asked about Johnson’s favourite memories playing pool, however, he might tell you about Rack ‘em Jack, the local pool hall he ran over the past eight years – that is, until development plans for a condo forced him to shutter the business a few weeks ago.
“You're always proud to have your own business when it turns out to be successful and carry a good reputation, as mine did. It really meant a lot. It's quite heartbreaking,” Johnson said.
After graduating from Twin Lakes and spending 16 years working at Battalias, a former produce wholesale company in Orillia, Johnson opened the Mississaga Street West pool hall in 2014.
Over the coming years the business thrived, hosting several league nights a week, drawing in newcomers and world championship talent alike, surviving the pandemic, and providing a safe atmosphere for people to go for an enjoyable night out.
Johnson said that one of his main goals was to combat the seedy stigma surrounding pool halls and make sure everyone felt welcome coming into Rack ‘em Jack.
“Pool halls don't always have the greatest image … they don't generally carry a good reputation,” he said. “But I opened the place to set a precedent, basically, and I really respect the game, everything about it, and I just wanted to make sure it was a safe environment for all kinds – family, friends, you name it – and keep it clean.”
He said his pool hall drew in people who enjoyed getting out for a night of socializing, while also providing a good spot for less social people to enjoy some time out.
“We have not only people that are very social in there … but there's also the other end of people that don't want to go to bars; they don't want to go to big crowds,” Johnson said.
“I think we've got a following of people that, you know, for stress reasons, anxiety, whatever it may be – they can go in there and shoot by themselves, clear their head for a couple hours and just reset.”
From there, a thriving community of pool players developed. Johnson said he would see the more skilled players help out the less experienced ones, and that he saw his customers’ skill levels grow collectively over the past eight years.
“Honestly, all the players have played in my hall and my leagues, from start to finish, the first year it was open till now, the level of play has just risen just immensely. What's shocking is that it's happened as a collective group, not just individuals – it's amazing,” Johnson said.
“There's not too many places over the years, that I've seen, that have quite the community of pool players like we have there, the camaraderie, and just flat out new people coming into the hall, and then the regulars that will just go right up and try to help them if they're wanting to learn.”
Johnson has seen numerous patrons go on to compete at high levels, including this year’s upcoming world championships in Las Vegas.
“I don't think there's one player that I can say that hasn't improved in some fashion, which is, I think, rare,” he said. “It's very, very cool … to be able to reap the benefits of these qualifications that these teams and individuals are having now, and to be able to say you've made it to a world championship.”
Although his business is closed for now, Johnson will undoubtedly continue on in the pool community. He and his girlfriend are heading off to Las Vegas in August to compete in the world championships, as are a number of Rack ‘em Jack patrons.
After the stress of the pandemic, and unfruitful attempts to find a new venue for his business in recent months, Johnson said he plans to take some time off to reset – but you can expect him to be back at some point in the future.
“I think I'm gonna take a breather for a little bit, clear my head, and see where I go from there. I'm still pretty young, so I don't mind working or nothing like that,” he said. “I didn't want to close, so I'm hoping that something pops up, even if it's two, three years down the road … I'll do it again, and likely with the exact same name.”
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