MY partner, Tom and I are playing pool against a couple of crusties – a nickname for England’s mud stained travellers. We’re on a winning streak and the stakes are getting higher. The crusty strokes his matted dog, takes a swig from a pint of cloudy cider and mistakenly pots the white ball. Tom sweeps back the black fringe that falls like a curtain across his face and pots the black ball with a resounding thud. We shake hands, grimly, across the table and the crusty peels twenty quid from his pocket with the reluctance of someone tearing off a scab.
When we were students, Tom and I made a good pair of pool hustlers. My lanky, lisping and upper class friend and I would lull our opponents into a false sense of complacency before cleaning up the table.
We left tattooed bikers, heavy metal enthusiasts and impressively pot bellied men a few pounds shorter.
As well as supplementing my meagre student grant, the game of pool was a way to avoid propping up the bar, which I found boring beyond belief and an alternative to the dance floor, a space full of potential embarrassment.
But mostly pool offered a chance to break out of the confines of middle class student life and meet some different folk. There’s a saying that if you are good at pool, you can’t come from a good family and around the pool table I met a motley assortment of people from a variety of backgrounds.
The basic thing about pool is that it is a sport which, like darts, is part of the pub culture and therefore involves, allows and even encourages hard drinking in its participants. It is the sport for pub crawlers, the kind of adults who, when they were kids, always had a doctor’s note on sports day.
Pool, or pocket or pool billiards, is pretty straightforward. Let’s face it; any game that is accompanied by heavy drinking is best kept fairly simple. In the memoir about her hard scrabble childhood, The Liars' Club, Mary Karr writes “A pool game mixes ritual with geometry.”
The ritual starts with chalking your pool cue with a blue chalk. This is best done with deliberation and much ostentatious blowing of chalk off the end of your cue, creating a blue cloud of dust. The mildly irritating squeaky sound as the chalk cube rotates onto the tip of your cue signals that the game is on. The nest stage of the ritual is packing the balls inside a black plastic triangle, alternating between stripes and spots.
Then one player “breaks”, or hits the white ball into this stack and the balls that scatter across the table.
For die-hard pool players the sound of the white ball cracking open a set is as pleasing as the sound of champagne cork popping.
A break determines the course of a game. What you hope for is to pot a ball into one of the six pockets, or at least to get a good dispersion of balls.
A good pool player has a steady hand, even in the face of copious amounts of whiskey. You are advised to hold the cue in your hand like a bird ... don't crush it to death, but also don't let it go. Success in the game is largely determined by your ability to transition smoothly from the backstroke to the forward stroke. “Stroke it, don't poke. It”, elders of the game advise.
Recently I’ve been rediscovering my adolescence: My neighbour, Charlie, has a pool table in his home and it has been occasion for some legendary competitions. I’ve left behind the whiskey but I’ve reignited my enjoyment of the game of pool.
Charlie, on the other hand, has kept the whiskey. Charlie hails from Yorkshire but married a South African, Karen, and immigrated to South Africa many years ago, bringing the tradition of pool with him. Where other folk have a dining room, Charlie has a pool room that provides endless hours of entertainment to everyone who visits Charlie and Karen’s warm and welcoming home. With a glass of whiskey in his hand, Charlie, in his distinct Yorkshire drawl, recounts evenings that have gone on into the early hours of the morning as friends and neighbours have insisted on “just one more game.”
One of the great things about pool is that you can play it all your life. But if you want to be a winner, you best start early. Philippino Efre “Bata” Reyes, nicknamed the magician, is considered the world’s greatest pool players. When he moved to Manila with his family at the age of five, he helped out at his uncle’s pool hall. Because he was not tall enough to reach the pool table, Reyes would stand on soft drink crates to take his shot. Then at night, when all the customers left, Reyes would sleep on the pool table. But those days of poverty are behind him. It’s claimed that Reyes earned a cool US$80,000 in a single week from pool hustling.
In a complex world, there’s something soothing about redacting your attention to a 10 x 5 foot green felt square felt table. Let the kids run around after their invisible Pokémon. I prefer to play games that are more tangible, require a modicum of skill and maybe, even, hold forth the possibility of earning a few quid.