Column: A would-be hustler learns to appreciate the game despite the odds
My Tuesday nights used to be relaxing. I’d open a beer, watch a ballgame, do a crossword if I was feeling adventurous. Then my wife came home with news.
“José runs a pool league on Tuesdays,” she said. “I told him you’re great at pool. Want to check it out?”
There were some good ballgames on that night. But, I thought, maybe it was time for something more challenging. Something new.
There’s nothing more cinematic than walking into a poolroom. When I went to the bar that hosts the league, I heard the balls clacking and saw the players leaning over the emerald-green tables, calling their shots.
“Five in the corner.” Down went the orange ball.
“Ten off the 12.” Clack clack and the 12 fell in.
I found my team captain watching the action from a barstool. Phil, a sleepy-eyed psychology professor at Smith College, thanked me for signing up. I told him I hadn’t played since college, 40 years ago. “I thought I’d just watch —”
My opponent shook my hand. “I’m Doyle.” He racked the balls, drew back his custom-made cue, and bang — sent them flying all over the table. Two balls fell into pockets. Doyle made two more before it was my turn.
The game was eight ball, the most popular form of pool. Picking a stick from a rack on the wall, I chalked the tip. It seemed like the thing a league player would do. I made an easy shot but left the cue ball in the wrong place. The rules say your shot must strike one of your own balls first, and I was literally behind the eight ball. Another rule of eight ball is that you have to call your shot. Good players do so with confidence, but I was guessing. “Ten in the side?”
I banked the cue ball off the 10, which rolled into the pocket. Doyle was impressed. He whistled and said, “Phil, you brought a ringer!”
Phil called it a highlight-reel shot. Unfortunately, that was my whole highlight reel. Still, Phil said, I’d had a good showing, losing a close one. “You’ll get ’em next week.”
But I didn’t. Week after week, I lost. There were sharks in the league who could beat me on their worst day, but the tuna and mackerel ate me up too. I liked the guys on my team: Phil and another professor, Jamie, who could beat everybody except an elderly player who looked like Sigmund Freud (“When I play him, I get a complex”), and Eric, a burly bartender. But I was letting them down.
One night Phil told me I had an easy assignment: thin, bearded Zeke, who knocked in two of my balls but won when I sank the eight ball by mistake.
“Think positive,” said Phil, the psych professor. “We’ll get ’em next week.” But we didn’t. Thanks largely to me, we sank into last place. I started dreading Tuesdays — the consolation handshakes and the long walk home. When my wife asked how it was going, I told her I quit.
Thirty-five million Americans play recreational pool. Many of them are baby boomers like me, who remember when pool was cool. We wanted to be like Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, going up against Minnesota Fats.
To play a sport is to be part of its history, and pool has great history. Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason in the movie, was a real barnstorming hustler who once hit a shot while the pool-hall floor, unable to hold his weight, collapsed under him. Fats made the shot while plunging through the floor to the bar below, where he dusted himself off and ordered a drink.
But as anyone who has tried it knows, pool’s harder than it looks in movies. One advantage today’s players have is that you can learn a lot online. You’ll find experts demonstrating every sort of shot on YouTube. One of the best tactics is easy: By angling your cue downward you can apply backspin, making the cue ball stop or back up.
After watching the experts, I wanted to try out a few new shots. Why not? Even a quitter can rent a table.
It wasn’t glamorous, racking and re-racking balls, practicing alone, but it was interesting. Sixteen balls on a table the size of a queen bed make for more angles than a computer can calculate, but an afternoon of practice gave me new looks at them. Bank shots began making angular sense. I saw why you don’t want to hit the cue ball harder than necessary and how sidespin adds or subtracts to its angle off a rail.
There’s one question the experts haven’t solved: What’s the best way to break? Six hundred years after the game evolved from croquet in 15th-century France, with green cloth on the table to evoke the grass of croquet courts, there’s still no consensus. Some players hit the cue ball with overspin. Some smash it into one side of the racked balls. Some make it hop in the air on contact with the racked balls.
Trying every sort of break I’d seen on YouTube, I wondered if I’d quit too soon. Maybe I should be more like Elaine. One of only two women in the league, Elaine was petite enough to put her at a disadvantage on the break. She couldn’t smash the ball as hard as most of the guys, but she didn’t give up. She’d played me twice and won both times.
Life seems to speed up every year, and the faster it gets, the more quick fixes it offers. But maybe there’s still something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. As Minnesota Fats used to say, “If something’s hard, most folks won’t even try. That’s my edge on them.”
Fast Eddie Felson didn’t quit. He came back 25 years later in "The Color of Money," the sequel to "The Hustler." Paul Newman was 61 at the time — my age now. He yanked a house cue off the rack and took on Tom Cruise. Fast Eddie’s only concession to age was a new pair of eyeglasses. Maybe I could win a game or two with a little more practice and a trip to the optometrist.
So I gave the pool league another week. What did I have to lose but a little more self-esteem? Maybe there are more important things. Competition. Camaraderie. A challenge.
That week I faced José, hottest stick in the league. “Your break,” he said.
I reared back and tried to bash ’em on the nose. To my surprise, the seven ball fell in. That made me solids, aiming for balls one through six, and what do you know — the five and six were perched next to pockets. I bagged those two bunnies and then, by sheer accident, the cue ball rolled to a spot between two more of my solids. I tapped them in, putting backspin on the cue ball. The yellow one ball beckoned from a far corner.
“Ace in the corner,” I said. And knocked it in. José tapped the butt of his cue on the floor — a pool player’s applause. I had a chance to run the table.
The eight ball hugged the rail 80 inches away, a tough shot. Lining it up, giving myself about a 10 percent chance, I decided to stay in the league.
• Kevin Cook’s new book is "Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, with Baseball on the Brink." Read more stories from The Rotarian.