“Dude, come on, we’ll mop up,” said Steve Black with his signature smile.
“I’m not so sure.”—my only sensible words.
Steve Black was a burly, friendly local pool hustler and con man whom I’d met at one of the three Lewiston-Auburn poolrooms in the 1990s. He had just begged me to enter a pool tournament in Portland and also to back him, in other words pay his $50 entry fee.
“Dude, I know we’ll mop up,” Steve said, yet again.
I have played a lot of pool in my life starting at 15 years old and eventually hustling during my early 20s, but that was many years ago.
In the last six months, I’d been trying to get back into the game as a rusty middle-aged guy.
If you have never played truly completive pool at a national level, you might think I was a pretty fine pool player. I can run a game of 9 ball on average one out of every seven tries, and I could run out a game 8 ball using only one arm.
A run means not missing.
Nine ball is now the most popular tournament game and is played with nine balls, racked into a diamond, any of which may be stroked into the six pockets; but, in consecutive order starting with the 1 ball and ending with the 9.
Now Steve Black can run a four-pack, four games in a row without missing, at least he’s always telling me this.
Then why am I backing Steve?
But Steve Black has the easy optimistic engaging personality of all good con men, so I agree to the whole crazy package after Steve assures me that there won’t be any of real shooters in Portland and that most players will have to spot us two games. This means, because we are first timers, that we will only have to win seven games as opposed to their nine.
“That’s huge, dude, absolutely huge!”As a t-virgin, what do I know?
My downturn began the night before. My favorite pub at the time, the Brian Boru, was holding a Guinness promotion: “A toast to save the oceans,” and I’ve always liked oceans, so I drove down to the pub.
After saving a few inlets and maybe a bay, I was feeling pretty good, and I stupidly announced to most of the regulars that I was entering a pool tournament against some of the top sticks in the land the next day. Since I was considered quite the pool player around the pub, everyone was eager to see what I could do, and I smiled contentedly, already feeling the hero.
I awoke in the middle of the night drenched in sweat.
And I stayed awake.
At this juncture of my life I had always had sound nerves and was good in the clutch. But there I lay sleepless—the ocean-saving Guinness residue pounding like surf in my head—envisioning multicolored pool balls expanding in size as the jaws of the pockets grew smaller and tighter.
I must have finally fallen back asleep; the telephone woke me at 8.
“Dude, you ready? Wanted to make sure you were up. Wow, do I feel great. I’m gonna crush ‘em, dude, top five finish for sure.”
I, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling great and would have prized another hour of sleep—saving oceans was way more difficult than I had figured. And after all, the tournament wasn’t scheduled to start until noon.
But Steve was blazing, so after a shower and a piece of toast, I pulled on my new Italian loafers with handmade tassels, which I deemed appropriate to sharp pool playing, and got the 1965 Chevrolet with the 396 pointed south toward the amazing day ahead.
The weather at least was perfect: Dark as a Poe poem and raining with wrath. Maybe the clouds were jealous that the oceans were getting all the saving. My delicate Italian loafers, however, were not enthralled.
I loaded Steve, who immediately started sawing away at his stories of pool glory. I felt a bit calmer; the fog and downpour were soothing; Steve droned on: “Dude, I spanked those guys hard. I walked out of there with over nine hundred.”
Then why am I backing Steve?
He asked me how I was feeling, if I was nervous—he had a considerate side.
“No, great,” I said,as I calmly drove past our exit.
We finally found the poolroom, but the lot was full. The wet pavement took another 20 dollars out of my loafers because we had to park on the west bank of the river flowing through the parking lot. After we jump-shot across the Poolroom River, we headed down into Spot Shot Billiards, now renamed Union Station Billiards.
The Spot was double-jammed. All but a few of 32 of the 9-foot tables were teeming with intensely stroked cue sticks.
“There’s Eagle,” said Steve, “there’s Guru, hey, there’s the Kid and Iceman, there’s Lance.”
Lance Richmond a former national champion! Here were pool players with single word nicknames like pop stars.
We signed up and I paid the $50 entry fee for each of us. If Steve won, I got half his earnings.
“Dude, don’t worry, I’m gonna crush these guys, crush ‘em. Got to bed early, totally sober, slept great, monster breakfast, no one can touch me.”
Steve and I warmed up on one of the last free tables, but my right arm was so tense it felt as if it were plowing through mud. Steve, it must be stated, didn’t seem to be as rested as professed; neither one of us doing much as far as submerging the little balls in the dark holes. They seemed to float around them with annoying petulance.
Steve was cursing his cue: an epoxy-bandaged affair that had been broken once. He bustled off for a better ferrule (the white cylinder behind the tip) and came back with an awkward looking repair. Steve said I looked so pale that he would buy me a bottle of Guinness. Then he realized he had no money, so I bought us two.
The entire monstrous basement room was humming with cracking pool balls and cigarette smoke. Pool players must survive on damn cigarettes. Almost everyone was dangling and puffing like vintage steam engines on an uphill grade. My eyes began to sting, my throat sore.
Finally, we were called over to a section of mat-board which had our names, all six dozen of us, in two long columns. Triangulating out in both directions were the elimination brackets. Winners to the right, losers to the left.
We huddled around. Good pool players are an unbelievably motley group. Here is the oddest of the natural selection process, for pool is an unusual game. Blue blood, perfect teeth, sterling educations, and lots of money will not aid you here. Enormous steroid muscles, height, charisma, wonderful face bones, political pull or wherewithal is of no avail. The game of pool produces thin pimply scarecrows, and potbellied, nasty-spirited lugs.
The only criteria is: who can sink balls endlessly.
“This smooth level cloth where
all is finally true and fair,
my hands here to make me
either a dunce or a god.”
I was byed the first round, meaning I would only play after some of the first matches were completed. Oh great, squawked my nerves.
I sucked on my second Guinness and watched the players find their tables.The opening break of a pool tournament is akin to the start of the Indy 500. An amplified voice says, “Gentlemen, ready, set, start your games,” and then crack, at all the tables the cues wail toward the racked balls.
As I watched the unfolding of a few matches, I realized no one was missing much. A pocked youth with a numbered football jersey, sweat pants, and dirty lumberjack boots was playing graceful, almost perfect pool. I recognized one of the top-seeded players in the country, and it dawned on me that Steve had been so eager to talk me into this tournament, he hadn’t disclosed the vital facts correctly.
Finally my name was called, my opponent’s name, and a table number. Now was now.
Heart thumping, I located the number 10 pool table. As luck would have it, the cloth on 10 is completely different from where I had warmed up. This means that I will have trouble controlling my leaves or cue ball placement until I understand the roll of the cloth.
Pool is really a game of controlling the cue ball. This control is accomplished through impacting the white phenolic with the leather cue tip at the correct location and with the correct force, the chalk providing the adhesion. Sinking a ball in the pocket is imperative, of course, as it allows you to continue shooting, but if the cue ball does not roll to the near ideal area for the next shot, trouble begins. You are now forced into a difficult shot and the possibility of leaving the cue ball in even worse shape has increased exponentially. This is truer in 9 ball than in most other billiard games. Since you have no choice as to what ball you may shoot, you must place yourself, not only so you can pocket the next ball, but so that you have the correct angle to achieve position on the one after that and so on.
If the cloth is very smooth, the cue ball rolls more; if the nap is heavier, less.It takes time to get the feel. Steve, the lucky skunk, has been appointed the table where we warmed up.
My opponent arrives, bent, snarly, gray, carrying a huge case that looks like the newest Pentagon expenditure. He extracts three different cue sticks and screws them together: a break stick, a jump stick, and his regular-shot stick. He then snaps on a magnetized chalk holster, which juts out from his formidable girth, and starts rubbing down his cues with—I am sure—specially impregnated cloth. He frowns over at me: this is one very dour guy.As this is occurring, an obese woman (his wife?) takes my chair so I must stand for the entire match, and she glares at me with a face like a distressed snakeskin cowboy boot.
I unsnap my $19.95 case and extract my only cue, feeling like a sandlot ball player suddenly in the major leagues. My opponent pulls on a black spandex billiard glove and grumbles something about a coin flip. He tosses—I lose.
I rack the nine balls. At this moment, of course, the lads from the pub show up, and quietly line up behind the visitor’s rail. Also in attendance is the pool-god from Lewiston, maybe wondering what the new guy can really do. The stage is fully set.
Grumpy breaks with his special high-tech break stick but, alas, no balls are pocketed. My moment has come.I examine the table with a squinting glare and then begin shooting. I manage the 1 ball, 2, 3, 4, but my leave for the 5 is bad, I’ve been over-rolling as I expected on the smoother cloth, and now I can’t quite see the 5. This means that with a normal stroke I could not contact the spot which would sink the 5. But with full left english (hitting the left side of the cue ball) it might be made. The cue ball would then spin, curve, and throw in (the action of friction between spinning balls) the 5 ball. And—I make it!
Forget nerves, forget the sleepless, sweaty night and the damn oceans. Ha! I now have a hard cut on the 6, make this and the game is easily won. I glance over at the pub lads and the pool-god—all watching. I lean over the table, stoke carefully, concentrating madly, and I miss the 6 completely. I feel dizzy and sick.
I want to say, “Wait, wait, let me shoot that over, this is not the script, look, someone gave me the wrong script.”
Grumpy now has ball in hand, meaning he may place the cue ball anywhere on the cloth he wishes. I have table-scratched, failed to hit the lowest ball on the table. Grumpy, chalking from that annoying hip holster, slowly runs out the last four balls. I rack again. But I am broken. I hear it: the ringing of the bell of doom. Grumpy sinks the 9 ball on the break. Down two. I smile a bitter smile. It gets worse....The old boot on my chair smirks, and I stagger away. The lads from the pub look embarrassed. The local pool-god evacuated after I missed the 6 ball—obviously nothing in my pool prowess to concern him.
Steve shows up grinning, eyes bright if a little red, a plastic cup of beer attached to his hand.
“I crushed him, dude, absolutely pulverized him. I mean I spanked him hard and harder.”
He has won his first match. But Steve notes my weakened countenance: “Dude, have another beer, loosen up, you’ll do great on your next one, maybe you’re pushing too hard.”
I look at Steve and sense that maybe he actually likes me, besides as a lender. And I do feel a tad better—hell, I’ll come back, it’s not over yet.
I wait an hour-and-a-half for my next match. The pub lads have retreated and gone back to drinking at their place, which is their job in life. During the wait, I observe the different attitudes at the tables: the stone-faced types that say nothing, show nothing like good poker players; the emotional ones that bubble like old percolating pots; and the whistling carefree ones that almost dance around the table. Of course they’re whistling—they never miss. I tend to be the self-effacing muttering under-the-breath type. “Oh, come on!You didn’t miss that, you couldn’t miss that, a dying baboon could make that shot, you’re not a pool player, you frickin’ idiot.”
My next match is called over the PA and I find table 17. The cloth here is again different, but similar to my practice table, and has the medium-fast roll that I prefer. My opponent, also in the loser bracket, looks like he just got off a Harley chopper after a gang slaying, but turns out to be a nice fellow with a precise and beautiful 9-ball game.
It is a joy to watch him, as he runs a three-pack on me. I win five games before he wins his nine, but I am simply still too tense to play well. I leave myself short a few times and that is all it takes. He also commands shrewd safety play. A safety is a shot that does not attempt to pocket a ball, but instead leaves your opponent a difficult hit on the lowest numbered ball. If you fail to make the hit—as I did embarrassingly with the 6 ball in my first match—the ball in hand rule is applied. If you do it three times in a row you lose the game.
After our match I tell him about my nervousness, and he confides he played poorly his first match, as well. This tournament play is obviously about the ability to stay calm.
Steve arrives red and stunned.
“Dude, I’m mental.I was on the hill, two shots to put him away, and I rattled; it’s that cue, too much squirt.”
Being on the hill is being a game away from winning your match. A rattle is when the object ball, maddeningly, staggers back and forth between the pocket’s jaws but will not fall in. Squirt is the effect of an old shaft that has lost it rigidity deflecting too much off the cue ball. Steve is now in the loser bracket, and I am in the get out of the smoke and get to the pub and feel sorry for myself bracket.
It’s not that I lost; it’s that I lost my nerve. Yet another one of the delightful self-image rearrangements that seem to come with age.
Before leaving, Steve borrows more money for beer and reassures me he’s on his way to the top now, unstoppable. We make a side bet over this, which is me betting against my own money, but then....
At the pub, I have to report to the lads the truth.
One bar owner, Laurence Kelly says, “It’s so damn good to see you humbled.”
At least I’m cheering up someone.I decide to do some mopping up. There is no uncertainty in these shots. Order, drink, order, drink. No miscues, no dubbed strokes, no squirt. Steve calls about an hour later. He’s ready to mop up too.In his last match, he went so far as to throw his cue, a big dent now in the already bandaged near-dead stick along with the embarrassment of completely losing his cool. But, alas, the night is young, and lessons have been learned, and realizations survived, and there is always tomorrow, a little less certain, a little more tired, but always tomorrow.
Eric Green lives on the Maine coast with his wife. He was born in northern New Hampshire, rode freights across the country as a teenager, made his living as a visual artist for 30 years and wrote the award-winning syndicated column, The Penobscot Falcon. His novel LiveCell was published in 2011. His trilogy has now been published: A REPAIR MANUAL FOR NEW ENGLAND MELANCHOLIACS, LIVECELL, HOLED UP