Greg Sullivan Talks About Derby City

The 16th edition of the Derby City Classic will kick off on Friday, January 24th. As this tournament has become an institution we felt it fitting to give the founder a call and get the history of this event for you to enjoy. So we called Greg Sullivan and he gave us all the information any history freak could want.

AZB: How did you first come up with the idea to have a tournament?
GS: Well, the first year it was me and Ed Hagan who decided to partner up and make an event. I took it over the second year. We had been talking about doing a tournament actually for several years before Derby City ever came about. Eddie was the one who found the location for the event, the Executive West Hotel. Eddie did practically everything that first year, though my ideas were in there like the buy-back format. But as it turned out we lost quite a bit of money the first year, about $52,000, and we knew we had to make some changes.

AZB: Is is true that you were seeking to recreate the Johnson City events?
GS: That had a lot to do with it. In fact, I still have my Johnson City tickets around here somewhere. It was 1966 or 67. And I really enjoyed it. But I went to many, many tournaments all over the place. I went to more tournaments than anybody.

I found there were things that I liked and things that I didn’t like about tournaments. I decided that I wanted to put on the type of tournament that I liked as I knew I was not alone in my tastes. The things that would go on were awful. You would get a tournament flyer and it would tell you how much added money there was and down on the bottom in small type it would say: “based on a full field” and then you would drive all the way there and find out not enough guys showed up so the added money was not there either.

Did you ever go to the Lexington All-Stars tournament?
AZB: Sure.
GS: Well, that was the first event I ever took my tables to, in 1987.  But before that I would play in the tournament. Now, there were a lot of good players around then in Louisville. But I would be the only one to make the little drive down to Lexington to play. It was just that way. The mentality was “you don’t want to be a sucker.” I thought it was great, I would be up there playing Earl Strickland and my buddies would be laughing at me wondering what in the hell I was doing playing Earl. They knew I had no chance so they felt I was being suckered.

But that never made any sense to me. Playing the greats is a way to measure yourself, a way to improve. I think everybody should play. So I decided that when I set up a tournament I would do it so that you were a sucker if you didn’t play. The one thing every tournament has to have is a lot of bodies. You need a lot of people to have the numbers work at all. So when I set up Derby City I set it up so that it cost you more to come to watch than it does to come to play. So you’re a sucker if you don’t come play. I wanted to turn my spectators into players.

And fan tickets are a real pain. You have to guard the door against those who try to sneak in, and people sneak in anyway. I just wanted everyone to have a player badge and come take their one shot and then they can come watch the rest of the week if they don’t want to continue playing. So I lose the big gate money but I get folks to be a real part of the event and to me that is more important.

Tournaments can be successful for a lot of different reasons. But you have to have large numbers of people to make the Hotel or the Casino or wherever your host site is happy. If they are not happy you don’t come back.

I also looked at some other things like the success of the UFC. I happen to like the UFC stuff and what they are is an evolution of other sports. Used to be you had boxers and wrestlers and karate guys and judo guys and then the Gracie Brothers came in and whipped all of them. So now everyone cross-trains and they are the baddest fighters that have ever been. Cross-training is huge. You gotta learn it all. And pool is sorta the same thing. We have a lot of good bank players in my area. Then there’s One Pocket players and 9-Ball players and 8-Ball players. But the thing is if you learned just one bank shot it makes you a better all-around player in any game. If you learn on submission or one safety, you are a better all-around player. Plus, by having a tournament where you bring in various specialists of the games then you get more people. At DCC you can play 10-Ball 14.1, 9-Ball, One Pocket, Banks, whatever.

And I think the DCC has done the pool world a favor by exposing folks to Bank Pool. Efren will tell you he couldn’t bank a lick until he started coming to Derby and had to learn those shots. (Editors note: Remember that this is relative. Efren’s idea of not banking worth a lick is very, very different from the amateur version of not banking worth a lick.) All the Filipinos were like that and now they bank among the best in the world. And they are better all-around players.

Derby was never set up to be a strictly professional event. It was set up to give folks a reason to participate by playing. Think about it. I put the professionals in a pretty bad situation, really. I put them in a short race to three where they can’t protect themselves against lesser players. But I also set the added money up where it would be there no matter how many players sign up. No reductions. I always figured that if no one showed up then I would win it cause I would be the only one playing.

So I set this up so that weaker players would be encouraged to take a shot. Don’t be embarrassed, in fact be embarrassed if you don’t take a shot! The main thing for me with Derby City is I want everyone to leave with a story. How they rubbed shoulders with the champs, how they had so much fun, whatever. Everyone leaves with a tale. Even if it is “I made one ball against Efren” that’s a good story for someone. I feel it’s an honor to be able to step up and play those guys and some folks have actually beaten them because it’s a short race.

Now, I won’t lie. Derby City was also designed for gambling. Gambling to me is just another way to keep score. I took a lot of static about this from the magazines and folks about this at first, I really did. But that’s just the way it is. I think gambling is a part of the game and I think players need to wager more among themselves to improve. And if you come to Derby City and want a game you can get a game. May not be the game you want, but you can sure get a game at Derby.

AZB: I have to take you back. After the first year and you counted up and found you had lost over $52,000 how on earth did you step up and do it again?
GS: Well, the second year we did better. I got more intimately involved and put a lot more work into it and that year we only lost $32,000 and then the third year we brought it down to a loss of only $18,000.

AZB: So after the first three years you were over $100,000 in the hole and yet you continued?
GS: Yeah, well the trend was moving in our direction. Plus, as a promoter the advantage I have is I don’t have to make money through the tournament side. I can make money via the event by table sales. It is advertising for me. People know you have to practice on what you play on and that has made me a lot of table sales. So when you consider the buy side that way I wasn’t losing as much. There was no way to track it exactly but I knew we were growing and our name was growing.

AZB: Why is your tourney format so different from all others, with the buy-back?
GS: I couldn’t possibly do the DCC as a standard ladder event. I mean, you can’t have guys driving hundred of miles to play in an event and have them lose one match and it is over.  Plus, there are a lot of folks who just play one match and then quit if they lose. Half the payers do not buy-back. They just become spectators. We had problems with this system at first. But we improved the software, kept working to improve the whole process every year and we have gotten to the point now where it works pretty darned well.

AZB: You actually began at the Executive West hotel.
GS: Yeah, that was our first home. But I wasn’t smart enough to include in our contract all of the things we had to have. They could raise room rates on me and I had no guarantee of a certain amount of space to use for the event. I needed everything they had and for awhile I got that, but then when changes were made I had no recourse with them. So when they redesigned the bar area and some other areas I was using, that is how they got out of the contract. I had to move to get the space I had to have to exist.

And I learned a lot about hotels. They know how to do one thing. They know how to check you in. But they do not know what to do with you after that. Especially a huge crowd of 24-hour a day people. And they are not prepared for that at all. You have to keep folks safe and they couldn’t do that. I spent thousands of dollars providing my own security for my fans and players. There was a lot of money in motion at Derby and I didn’t went anyone getting hurt.

Remember, we were the biggest event they had. For all those ten years we were at the Executive West we were their number one group because we filled the place for anywhere from 9 to 11 days. The Kentucky Derby is only 3 days and we go more than three times that much. So I thought we were pretty safe because we made them a lot of money. But lo and behold they changed their name and remodeled because they decided they wanted a higher class of clientele than they had been attracting. So they spent $25 million remodeling and took away the space we needed. They turned our action area into a steakhouse.

But we had already outgrown them anyway. We even had to take space across the street in the Executive East and they wound up just tearing that down. I could have really grown that event for them. I want Derby City to be a vacation event. I know folks can’t go to all events so I want them to come to the Derby. I want them to be able to watch and play whatever they want to watch and play and I do not want them to be able to see everything in one trip. I want to give them a reason to come back. If you don’t miss something at Derby then I haven’t done my job.

I want people to be able to get their pool ‘hit’. That’s why we have all the mini-tournaments and side rooms, so you can enjoy yourself and immerse yourself in pool for a whole week or more. It takes a wide melange of folks to make this thing work and we try to appeal to all of them. And we keep growing. Now we do the Hall of Fame dinner and that has become very popular.

We were very fortunate to be able to hook up with the Harrah’s property across the river. Many of our fans had already been going to gamble there during Derby week so they knew where it was. And the one advantage a Casino has over a Hotel is that a Casino knows how to take care of 24-hour people. They know how to feed them and they know how to protect them.

Casinos have changed a lot. Used to be all they cared about was the drop, how much was wagered. And there were not that many competitors. The only place you could gamble was Vegas or Atlantic City. But now there are Casinos everywhere and they are competing with one another for bodies. And we bring bodies. I wish that Harrah’s had more rooms, we need more, but it is certainly the best thing we have available in our area.

The first year we really surprised them They did not expect the crowds we brought and they ran out of food. And we were smaller that year simply because there were not enough rooms around there to satisfy the demand. But every year at Harrah’s we have attracted more folks and we have grown every year.

AZB: We know you have plans for events at other Harrah’s that are not carbon-copies of what you are doing now.
GS: Yeah, I really want to go places where I have the room to do everything I want to do. I want the room to put in a bunch of 7-footers. I want to do amateur side-by-sides with the league folks. But I need a lot more room.

AZB: What other thoughts are buzzing around your head these days?
GS: Mostly the 10-foot table. From the experience we have had so far pool is just better when it is on a ten-footer. But I understand the footprint of a ten-footer is impressive. So I do not envision pool halls full of ten-foot tables. But I think the serious rooms would certainly consider owning one or maybe two of them.

And the Bigfoot Challenge at Derby has been hugely popular. That is what Accu-Stats will be streaming the first four days this year, the Bigfoot. It allows for a tournament of a manageable size to be held with 16 of the best players. And that way you get the cream of the crop. I’m not sure there are 16 “pros” in America. (Editors note: It depends on how you define the term professional.) So we get the best ones to play on the big track and everybody is happy. By having the 16 top guys out there you have separated the pros from the amateurs for one event and that is huge. Always a great match-up!  And when these guys play on the big table it is just like when the pro golfers tee off from the tips. They can do that because they are good enough to handle it and it is the same way with the big table.  And the same thing would happen in the pool rooms. The best players want to test themselves on the ten-footer.

And that holds some promise for us. Once the Chinese and Taiwanese gain an appetite for the Bigfoot table then we can do real well as they want to have the same table that the pros play on. It could be a very good market for us. And the ten-footer is great for exclusive pro events that have fields limited to 16 or even 32 players. With that kind of top event you only need 4 tables for the tournament, so the logistics of using them are viable.

AZB: So are you planning any more ten-foot tournaments?
GS: Well I will say that any pro events I have in the future will be on the 10-footers. It only makes sense. It is the table the pros should be playing on. It is just so much more entertaining for the spectators.

AZB: We haven’t talked much about the Master of the Table.
GS: And that is probably one of the biggest features. The players in the three major disciplines are competing for two titles. First is the one for that discipline. But then we have the Master of the Table Championship and that is won by the player who is most consistent and finishes with the most points as they are awarded for each discipline. And a lot of people don’t know this, but that is where the buy-back money is used. It is that money that makes up the prize fund for the Master of the Table.

The Derby City Classic continues this year at the Harrahs Casino and Hotel in Elizabeth, IN. Go to and make your reservations before every room is taken.