Written by Ted Lerner
Billiards Digest Feature Writer
Photos by JP Parmentier
He’s the gallant Greek with the attention-grabbing six syllable last name. On the pool table, his confident swagger and aggressive style, combined with an eye-popping power stroke and fearless attitude intimidates opponents, and has fans turning heads to watch. Off the table, his low key but pleasant personality has been winning friends around the globe. Greece’s Nicos “Nick” Ekonomopoulos has only been on the international pool circuit for three years now, and while he has yet to win a major individual title, outside of a few Euro Tour wins, in his short time in the spotlight, he has more than proved his mettle, including two spectacular performances for the winning Team Europe in the Mosconi Cup in 2012 and 2014. Just prior to the 2014 Mosconi, Ekonomopoulos also grabbed third place in the 2014 US Open and second place in the 2014 World Pool Masters. The 33-year-old clearly has all the tools for big time success and his quickly rising game and profile are drawing the attention of the best in pool.
“He’s a crowd pleaser because of the way he plays the game,” said fellow Mosconi teammate and good friend Darren Appleton. “The fans really like Nikos. And he gives it 110 percent when he plays. He’s a very bulldog type of player, very gritty, very fierce on the table. He looks like he wants to kill somebody when he’s playing, but in a nice way. The last couple of years he’s definitely one of the top five or six players in Europe. And definitely a top 16 player in the world right now.”
“His strong points are really strong, and he has huge potential,” said seven time winning Mosconi Cup captain Johan Ruijsink. “He’s also a very nice guy that loves life and is intense in almost everything he does.”
With his sudden appearance on the big time pool scene, it would be easy to suggest that Ekonomopoulos came out of nowhere. This is only somewhat true. Until he made his international debut at the 2012 World 9-ball Championship in Qatar, Ekonomopoulos was actually very much a part of the pool scene, albeit in a very Greek sort of way.
The Greek’s journey to the upper echelons of the pool world technically starts in his native Athens where, as a young athletic teenager in the 1990’s, he became enamored with the sport of pool and couldn’t stop playing. But his real journey to pool’s elite really began many years later with a worldwide financial crisis that engulfed his native land, caused massive hardship, and forced the young man into facing up to some daunting adversity.
Ekonomopoulos was born into a middle class Greek family in Athens, the elder of two kids. His parents separated when he was just four years old. He and his younger sister lived with their mother, who worked for Olympic Airlines. His father ran a contracting company and continued to help provide for the family.
Late to international competition, Ekonomopoulos has quickly risen through the European ranks.
Athletically inclined, Ekonomopoulos excelled in soccer, tennis and even dabbled in kickboxing for several years. He was also attracted to pool. Three-cushion was the most popular game in Greece, but pool was fast gaining in popularity. But kids were not allowed inside pool halls. When Ekonomopoulos was 15, pool became an official sport recognized by the government. It didn’t take long before the teenager became hooked.
“There were many pool halls in my area, and we used to go there with friends just to have fun,” Ekonomopoulos said. “Nothing special, just for fun. I played a few times, and I liked it. I tried to play better and better. The place I went to was a pool club, and they had a team. And the owner saw that I play good, and he made me a member there so then I could practice for free. So I started to play more and more and more. I really liked the game, and I saw that I was becoming better. After one month, I want to play every day. I didn’t want to go to school. I want to finish school and just play pool. At first my parents didn’t like it. But I didn’t ask them. I just go every day.” He watched VHS videos and became fascinated with the likes of Filipino great Francisco Bustamante, who was plying his trade in Germany at the time. He also liked Efren Reyes and Earl Strickland.
“They were like legends to us. Bustamante hits the ball very well. His style was fantastic.”
He soon started winning amateur 8-ball tournaments and in one year became Greek Junior champion. He continued to immerse himself in the game, started playing 9-ball. He noticed massive improvements and started racking up Greek national championships in 8-ball, 9-ball and straight pool. In 2000 and 2001 he traveled to Cardiff, Wales, to try and qualify for Matchroom’s World Pool Championship. He failed both times, chalking it up to a lack of self-belief.
“There were some Greek players before me who went to the European championships, and they didn’t do so well,” Ekonomopoulos said. “They lose against Souquet, Ortmann every time. And I thought it was very tough to beat them, that they were God, because they said we have no chance to beat them. So, when I start to play in the qualifiers, I have in my mind that I had no chance.
“Both times, however, he stayed on to watch every match, his first time to see the greats of the game all in one place. The experience spurred him on to want a life in pool. But the wider pool world would have to wait more than 10 years to see the Greek’s many talents in action.
In 2004 he bought a pool hall in Athens and business boomed. He continued to practice and play religiously, mostly in Greece, and he went on to win more than 15 Greek national championships in the various disciplines. But the good life at home kept him from thinking beyond his own world. Times were good in Greece, money flowed, and people lived as only the Greeks could live: to the hilt.
“I have the pool hall and in Greece, before the crisis, everyone thinks we are rich and we have party every day,” Ekonomopoulus said. “This is the way life was before the crisis. I say to myself, ‘You know, the Euro Tour is only $4000 prize money. I don’t want to go.’ Maybe, also, I didn’t believe so much in myself. I didn’t like to travel that much. We had a good life in Greece. We were drinking every day. We were gambling. When I was in another country for three or four days, I was bored there.” But the good times for Nick, his family and friends, and millions of his countrymen would eventually come to a brutally sudden halt. In 2008 and 2009 the worldwide financial crisis swept from America to Europe. Greece was particularly hard hit, and overnight Greeks and their government went from living the high life to being broke and massively in debt. Millions were thrown out of work. The party was, indeed, over.
Ekonomopoulos could have hit the streets, like many of his countrymen, to protest and complain that the good life had been stolen by corrupt leaders. Instead, he slowly faced up to the reality that no amount of complaining would bring back the good times. It was time to be a man, to grab the proverbial bull by the horns, to seize opportunity where others only saw gloom and doom. “When the crisis came, things got boring,” Ekonomopoulos said. “I didn’t like the pool hall business anymore, because I was there 15 hours a day. Nobody had money to play, and we were losing money. After more than a year of this, I decided I wanted to do something different in my life. And everybody tell me, ‘Why you don’t go [play in big tournaments]? You play better than them.’ So I decided that I will go for two years. If I can do something, then I will continue. If I don’t do anything in two years, then maybe I can’t do it. So I want to try it out.”
He ventured out in 2011, at 29 years old, traveling around the continent and entering all the Euro Tour events, finishing in the top 20 several times and even placing third in one event. 2012 would be his breakout year. After top-10 finishes in Hungary and Italy, Ekonomopoulos won the Austrian Open.
“I beat many good players, Appleton, [Marcus] Chamat, [Chris] Melling, [Bruno] Muratore, [David] Alcaide,” he said. “I was so happy. When I won, it was the best moment in my life. I was crazy. And after I won, Darren [Appleton] came to me and told me, ‘You have a chance to go to the Mosconi now.’ I asked him, ‘How is this possible?’ And he explained the system to me. And he told me, ‘You must come to Qatar to play in the World 9-Ball Championship.’ I told him, ‘How was this possible, I don’t have spot?’ So, I decided to go to Qatar to play in the qualifiers.
True to his fearless demeanor, Ekonomopoulos didn’t shirk when faced with what are perhaps the toughest qualifiers in pool. He lost a hill-hill final in the first qualifier, then won in his second try. In the 128 player main event, Ekonomopoulos made it to the final 16, where he battled eventual champion Appleton toe to toe for nearly two hours, losing an epic encounter at the wire, 11-8.
His successes led to his first-ever Mosconi Cup selection, and despite the pressure of being a debutante and playing in front of the raucous crowd in London’s York Hall, Ekonomopoulos performed marvelously, winning three of his five matches. In one key early match with Europe trailing, Ekonomopoulos came from behind to beat Shane Van Boening. When asked if he was at all intimidated by the surreal atmosphere in London, Ekonomopoulos offered an answer that spoke of an innate bravado.
“I like the atmosphere so much,” he said. “Of course I feel the pressure, but I like it so much that I enjoy playing every shot. I’m afraid to be in the corner alone, because I’m a lazy kind of character. If you put me on a table in the corner where nobody is watching, I can’t concentrate so well. I concentrate on the TV table more.”
Convinced he was on the right path, Ekonomopoulos finally closed the last chapter of his old life, shutting his Athens pool hall in early 2014. It was move that lifted a tremendous burden off his shoulders. “I’m happy it’s closed, because now I don’t have stress. So it’s one more reason I play better now.”
Indeed, 2014 proved to be the Greek’s best year yet. After his remarkable runs in the U.S. Open (finishing third) and the World Pool Masters (losing to Van Boening in the final), Ekonomopoulos again made the Mosconi Cup squad. He proved to be Europe’s rock, winning four out of five matches, and even taking down Van Boeing in the very last match to secure the Cup. Team captain Ruijsink could only sing the Greek’s praises. “In 2012, Nikos was just a rookie, and he showed his potential,” Ruijsink said. “He had to learn the specific Mosconi Cup tricks, and he showed his 2012 experience in 2014. He improved heavily on the break and showed great focus. I probably rate his table focus in the category of Darren. On top that, he is a great player to practice with. He hammers the difficult balls and shows no fear, which is hugely important. He lifts everyone up and shows that no situation is lost as long as you are at the table. There’s no time to relax when you are playing him.”
Appleton, who can be credited with encouraging Ekonomopoulos to test the professional waters, pointed out that the Greek’s character as a person is one of the things that makes him so special as a player and a friend.
“He’s a good team player, very quiet,” the Englishman said. “But he’s only very quiet when you don’t really know him. If you get to know him, he’s a bubbly character. He likes to drink, he’s a laid back guy. But he’ll watch your back. He’s one of those guys. He’s knocking on the door with a lot of [high finishes], but hasn’t won that big title yet. But if he keeps doing what he’s doing, it’s just a matter of time.”
With his new life fully in gear, Ekonomopoulos plans to stay busy, focusing solely on playing pool the world over. His only regret is that he didn’t realize his potential earlier.
“It was a big mistake that only in the last three years did I play internationally,” he said, “Looking back, I feel stupid about that.” But Ekonomopoulos also takes plenty of satisfaction from knowing he had the fearless foresight and the positive attitude to identify and seize a life-changing opportunity while surrounded by so much misery. The result has left him with a quiet confidence that will undoubtedly see the dashing Greek see plenty more successes in pool in the coming years. “For many Greek people, the crisis is actually a good thing,” Ekonomopoulos said. “Because now they think more. Before we didn’t think. If I needed money, we played $5,000 per game, then the next game we played for $10,000. Now you can’t find $100. So you respect the money, you respect the life, and you try more.
“Now I’m happy about my life. I feel very good about the last three years, because I don’t have the experience of the other players. I haven’t won a big tournament, but I always finish last 16, last eight, last four, last two. I try to believe that one day I will win a big one. Maybe it will never come. But I will try every tournament, every moment. I believe that I can do it.”