I play pool. It’s one of the things I really like to do, especially when I’m playing well. When I’m playing badly it makes me nuts. Not nuts enough to quit altogether, although I’ve threatened to do so many times, but nuts enough to stop for shorter periods of time. Like a day. Okay, maybe an hour.
I think anything that has that much of your attention is healthy and unhealthy at the same time.
The game of pool has been around since the 1600s and was originally played by royalty. Legend has it that royalty wanted a game to play indoors when the weather didn’t allow for the playing of croquet. Pool was originally played like croquet on a table top. The green cloth on a pool table is meant to mimic the grass of a croquet field.
I’ve been in pool rooms where the tables were about as well kept as a croquet field, come to think of it.
The reasons I like the game so much are many. It’s incredibly exacting; the difference between a good shot and a bad one are sometimes measured in microns. There are times when you’ve hit a shot so perfectly and it still doesn’t go in and you can only wonder what you did to cause that. That’s another reason I love it; causation. When I’m at the table, I’m responsible. My success or failure is all on me and my skills, not my opponent’s ability to defend. I like to be responsible.
Like golfers, pool players have no one to blame but themselves. That doesn’t stop us. Some of the best excuses I’ve ever heard have been in a pool room. Sometimes, to keep our sanity, pool players won’t own up to mistakes. We attribute things to the “pool gods” or bad rolls. There’s even a theory that we’re on a large ball that is traveling at several thousand miles per hour, while spinning at a thousand or so miles an hour and then you hit a ball into another ball and each of them has some spin; it’s a wonder one ever goes into a pocket on purpose!
I always blame myself because I didn’t see anyone else hanging on to my cue.
I also like the varieties of games that can be played on a pool table. There are dozens of different games, all with their own nuances. Eight ball is the one seen in most public places with nine ball a close second. They’re completely different games in that one is about cue ball movement and offense (nine ball) while the other is about patterns and choices (eight ball).
One pocket is often described as chess on a pool table; it’s very popular among players that like to play for money and is one of those games that require a lot of playing time to learn. A knowledgeable player can often win against a more talented player that doesn’t know the game’s subtleties which makes for some interesting matches.
Straight pool, officially known as 14.1, is a game that blends all of the pieces of good play into one contest. It’s also making a comeback after a long hiatus in the pool world. I saw several younger players at my local pool room playing a game to 150 the other night and that made me smile. It was fun watching them work to wrap their head around a pattern of their own choosing instead of connect the dots as happens in a nine ball game. The difference is like trying to paint something by Monet on a blank canvas instead of paint by numbers. Not everyone can do it.
There’s even a game called billiards played on a table with no pockets and three balls. The object is to shoot a cue ball into another ball that then strikes three cushions while traveling around the table before striking the third ball. This scores the shooter a point or billiard. A really good player may do this five or six times in a row. The first time I tried it, I had a no hitter going for almost an hour. It’s a very difficult game and beautiful to watch when played well.
There’s the perception that pool is a game played by seedy individuals in places your mama wouldn’t want you to be. This reputation is earned to some degree, I guess. The financial aspect of running a pool room dictates that you can’t put one in an upscale mall. As a result, they tend to be placed in “lower rent districts” and may attract more of a blue collar clientele. Having spent plenty of time in pool rooms around the country over a forty year span, I can tell you that the folks that play there are just like you and me, however. The demographic may be different than your own. The conversations may be more colorful that what you hear at home. But the concerns they have, the laughs they share, and the celebrations of success are just as genuine as those in any board room in the country.
My local pool room has been around for about twenty years. On many occasions, when a regular has passed away or had some bad luck, a large glass jar appears on the front counter with the person’s picture and a quick note that describes what’s happened. In almost no time at all, the jar is full of money that is used to offset expenses. I’m always impressed by how quickly people will respond in a crisis and how deep they’ll dig into an almost empty pocket to share what they have.
I’m a league player and even run the league that I play in. It’s an eight ball league with anywhere from fifty to one hundred members. It’s one of the most competitive leagues I’ve ever seen with no quarter given to anyone. And in all the years I’ve run or played in it, I’ve seen very good sportsmanship practiced by the members. There are exceptions, of course, as there always are. But these are often managed by the other players in the league and require little direction from me. That speaks well of the game, in my opinion.
My league has players from all occupations and all age groups. I’ve had players from eighteen to eighty five years of age. I’ve had unemployed laborers, plumbers, executives, college professors, lawyers, real estate tycoons, bikers, roofers, tow truck drivers, sales people, and dentists play in my league. That’s a colorful group! And they all interact as you might expect because they have differing beliefs, values, politics, families, diets, and behaviors. But they unite over the game of pool.
We all play the game because we all love it. And hate it.