Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Return to Pool

First I was a League Player

About 20 years ago, I got into my first pool league. It was in Winston-Salem NC and consisted of 3 person teams playing some form of 9 ball, with handicaps to make it fair. I don’t remember the name of the pool room but I recall it was a “private club” where I had to pay an annual fee in order to drink there.  (Ah, government!)

I can't really remember why I joined a pool league. I think I was in there having a beer and shooting by myself when the league operator walked up, introduced himself and invited me. Since I was new in town, it seemed like a good way to meet some new people.

The team that I was on was with 2 people, a guy and a girl, and none of us knew either of the others. By the end of the session, which lasted about 9 months, we were fairly decent friends and really good teammates.

Darren was a twenty-something musician who drank Natural Light beer and chain smoked Marlboro menthols. He was a decent player but he could choke under pressure so we always let him play his matches first.

Natalie was around thirty, attractive, with eyes that had seen too many sunrises (after staying up all night), too many boyfriends (she introduced us to a different one each week), and too many Michelob’s after her match, every week. She would play second and then start in on the post-game celebration, usually reaching the first Stage of Drunkenness (that’s Witty and Charming; for those of you who haven’t read any Dan Jenkins novels - Google 10 stages of drunkenness), pretty quickly.

I was mid-thirties, unattached, and returning to the game after not playing for close to twenty years.  Turned out I could still play a little, was pretty steady, occasionally very good, and loved to play with the match on the line. I batted cleanup and, because I was older, was elected captain. (Neither of the other two wanted to do it.)

By the last week of league, we had managed to get into 3rd place and were playing the 2nd place team. If we won by shut out, we’d leapfrog them into 2nd and each of us would win $150 more in the payout. The good news was, we couldn’t do worse than 3rd so we had nothing to lose. (I used this to calm my teammates down; poor Darren went through a pack of smokes just warming up.)

Darren got up in the first match and played their best player, getting the called 7 and 8 for his spot. In the race to six, he couldn’t seem to do anything wrong and won 6-1; seemed like he came to the table each time with a simple shot or combo on the winning ball and made every one of them.  He lit up two cigarettes in celebration.

Natalie stepped up and played a girl, even, in a tense battle which she won on the hill by making a table length bank on the 8 ball and got perfect shape on the nine.  When I asked her what was going through her head when she shot the 8, she said, “Just make the damn thing. I need a drink!”

The Zone

I stepped up to play their weakest player spotting 2 games on the wire and the wild 7 and 8. This is a tough spot to outrun but I was loose in the knowledge that we couldn’t lose position, so it was a chance to jump up.

As they were behind, the other team had the first break and my opponent was kind enough to snap in a winning ball, twice in a row putting me down 4-0 in the race to 6. All I could do was laugh as it was completely beyond my control. If the guy was going to go unconscious on me, all I could do was rack and watch.

Feeling cocky, he took a wild swing at the next break and the cue ball jumped off the table after contact giving me ball in hand for my opening shot. Good thing, as he’d made the 7 ball on a fluke kiss and I would have been down another game.

I picked up the cue ball and could immediately see the pattern for the runout. Not only could I see that, it was the only thing I could see as the rest of the world had, sort of, disappeared. I didn’t know it, but I’d just entered The Zone for the first time in my pool career.  I quickly ran out the rack and trailed 4-1.

My opponent racked and I broke, making 3 balls. I quickly ran out that rack to get to 4-2.  He racked again, I broke and the 9 went in to get to 4-3. He racked for a third time and I broke, made a ball, and had an easy 1-9 combo to get to 4-4.

I walked over and took a sip of my beer as he racked again. Darren was in the john and Natalie was drinking her second beer and chatting with her date so no one said anything to me.  I’m not even sure I saw them, to tell you the truth.

By this time because of the length of Natalie’s match, every other match had finished and people began to crowd around the table to watch; about 50 people in all. They were waiting for payouts, mainly, but pretty soon were all watching us play.  (I didn’t see them when it was happening. They all came up to tell me afterwards. Part of being in the zone, is you don’t see anything except what you’re doing.)

I stepped up to the next rack and made two balls. I worked my way through the rack fairly easily but got horrible position on the 7 for the pocket I’d planned but perfect shape for a table length combo on the 9. Normally, that’s a pretty low percentage shot for me. This time I didn’t even think about it, just shot it in to get to 5-4.

As my opponent racked, with me on the hill, all I could see 
was a 4x9 foot stretch of green cloth with pool balls on it. It was one of the most bizarre feelings I’ve ever had; almost as if I was floating above the table. An out of the body experience, downright spiritual in its feel.

The Zone ends

I broke the balls, making the 2 and 4 balls.  I quickly worked my way through the rack. After making the 7 ball, the cue was coming up table into perfect position for the 8 and 9 which were close together near the spot. It had almost stopped rolling when Darren jumped out of his seat, walked toward me and said, “Timeout.”

I stopped chalking my cue and looked up, surprised to find that there was anyone else there.  Darren dropped his voice and said, “How are you going to play this?”

I looked at the table. All that was left were 2 stop shots, about as easy as it could ever be.  I took a deep breath because I was pissed that his interruption had completely taken me out of that wonderful place I’d been for the last thirty minutes or so. (It felt like 30 seconds.)

“I’ve just run 5 racks and have two stop shots to run out the set, and you want to know how I’m going to play this?” I whispered in a barely controlled fury. “I’m going to make them and then I’m going to kick your ass if you don’t sit the f**k down, right now.”

Darren went paler than usual, said, “Sorry” and went back to his seat to light up a smoke. (He, clearly, had never seen anyone in the state I'd been in and had no idea what he should do. Given the circumstances, I could just as easily have made the same mistake. I apologized to him later.)

I took a couple of deep breaths as I walked slowly around the table, chalking my cue, pretending that I did this sort of thing all the time. I looked at the angles of the 3 balls on the table, one white, one black, one white with a yellow stripe. My heart was nearly back to normal and I felt like I could shoot. I shot both shots with the same speed that I’d used to shoot all the other ones (except I had to think about it, this time) and split the pocket with both shots. The crowd applauded, really loudly. 

(I hadn’t realized everyone was watching yet. The noise really snapped me back to reality.) Several people clapped me on the back or high fived me.  I shook my opponents hand and he said,

“Man, I’ve never seen anything like that. Nice shooting!”

The league operator handed out the prize fund right after that and my teammates and I each got $450 for finishing 2nd. Darren bought beers for the team. Natalie offered herself to me (I passed) and I was bitten by the competitive bug.

New Leagues

Fast forward about 15 years. I live in Richmond VA, now. I ran an 8 ball league for about six years, until last summer when the Side Pocket closed its doors for good. I made many friends, a few enemies, and established a reputation as a pretty good league operator.

My decision to take on a temporary committee role with our church took up a lot of my time for the past year so, I dropped out of the pool scene. I stopped by another pool room to get my cues worked on, played in the VA State 9 Ball tournament, and refereed it. But mostly, my pool time was spent playing on my table at home, whenever I could find a spare hour to practice.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to get back into playing. I sent an email to the operator of the BCA league at Diamonds, about twenty miles from my home, asking him when the next session started. He passed my name along to several team captains and I got a call the next day asking me to join a team for the summer session.  Last night was the first match and it felt great to be back.

Things I love about a pool room

No matter what part of the country you go into, there are some things that happen in every pool room. Without fail.

Swearing. (No one can swear like pool players. Trust me. My dad was a bricklayer.)

Players lying about how long it’s been since they played. (I haven’t picked up a cue in years… wanna play some cheap sets? I need the 7 ball.)

People that are glad to see you. (Hey, I haven’t seen you for a while. You playing any? Let’s play some cheap sets and catch up! Can I get the 7 ball? I haven’t been playing much…)

Couple that with beer, a lot of smokers, an occasional bar fight….damn, I do love a pool room!

Rack ‘em up!


  1. I spent a lot of my misspent youth in pool halls. I miss those days, a little, but ultimately other interests took over. I still find myself with a cue in my hand, on those little saloon tables.

    What table do you have at home? I had one as a teen, but it so often was covered with stuff you had to do housekeeping before racking up. Plus, home tables always seemed to have dead rails.

    And most rooms in suburban homes were not big enough. Unless there was a basement.
    Basements were the best! Crank up the stereo and rack the balls. Ha Ha you probably know the old "should I rack the balls" joke.

    As I type this I am getting a ghost itch between the first two fingers of my left hand. As a lifetime non-smoker the residue of cigarette smoke would transfer from the felt onto my left (bridge) hand and cause it to itch. I would overcome this by using a handkerchief wrapped around the stick. It was surprisingly effective but looked like an affectation. There was a pro or a hustler who did that back in the sixties...I don't remember who...not Mosconi, but I'm thinking of him as I type this.


    1. I think that was either Deacon Crane or Luther Lassiter, TJ. I recall seeing pictures of both men with a white handkerchief prominently showing in their hand.
      I have a 1952, 9-foot Brunswick Anniversary in my game room (basement)that I purchased about 7 years ago on ebay. It started it's life in a pool room in Baltimore and was then refurbished and sold to the owner from whom I bought it. The rails are loaded with cigarette burns and it has a lot of character, and plays great, too.
      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Good post Brian.
    It is always interesting, that little sub-cultures are going on out there that the rest of the world knows nothing about.

    Pool rooms.

    I did not know that they were still out there. But I also live in a small town. I remember one existing where I grew up. A big room of tables for anybody to come and rent a table and play and there was a big door to another room that I guess you had to be a member to go through. I was just a teenage kid though and we went to the place to play pin-ball not shoot pool.

    1. Hi Jim,
      Sub-cultures, for sure. It seems as if every game/hobby/sport has them, too.

      I used to ride my bike about 4 miles in Arlington VA, when I was 10, to play pool in this pool hall where the owner let me sweep the floors for table time. I had to be gone by 5:00 pm cause that's when the riff raff began to come in. The place was a legendary hustler's hangout and there were money games going every night - some, I'm told were upwards of $50,000 and would go on for several days. And that's 1967 money, too!
      The owner's name was Bill Staton but his nickname was Weenie Beenie. Allegedly, he scored $50K in a big money match, and used it to buy a chain of fast food joints in the DC area called Weenie Beenie. From those he claimed to have become a millionaire.
      Thanks for coming by!