Never play the old guys for money
Good advice. Easy to digest, and difficult to follow when you’re twenty years old and dead solid certain you’re the best guy in the room.
Pool playing has a terrific elegance that reveals itself in the illusion of simplicity. For a great player, the shots line themselves up. The cue drifts with inevitability, and sinking ball after ball appears to be a trivial thing. The great beauty of the game emerges when the ruthless precision and geometry disappear. The best players don’t look like they’re trying very hard at all. When you run into one of those guys, a game can be like a ten minute crawl over broken glass. You’re sweating every shot, and his very casualness is a provocation. When you are one of those guys, it’s ten minutes you wish would never end.
I’ve been on both sides of that.
As is so often the case, it started with a girl. I can’t remember who she was, but I’ve never forgotten her laughing at me. I was sixteen, and a few of us ended up at N & N’s Pool Hall on Carrollton Avenue near Canal. A sketchy place right out of central casting. Tables in the back, day drinkers still around for the night shift on stools in the front, and a couple of bullet holes in the front door. I’d seldom if ever picked up a cue, and I’m sure the unlikelihood that any ID’s would be checked was what drove us to play a few games. The game seemed so easy until I tried it myself, and I was outwardly a good sport in my role as the evening’s comic relief. On the inside it was a different story.
Pool is a public thing, rooted in arrogance: Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy to see who’s the best. Lose, and you step to the back of the line. Win, and you stay on the table while others pay to take their best shot at you, quarters in stacks marking how many are in the queue. Five games in a row. Ten. Twenty. Sometimes enough that there are no stacks left, no more challengers in the room. The river of king-of-the-hill hubris that runs beneath the technical mastery of the game is what makes it so potently addictive.
In college, it was Shanahan’s mostly. I worked nights as a clerk at U.P.S., knocking off at 10pm, and I’d head to Claiborne avenue, past the crowds in the front of the bar to the row of seven or eight tables in the back. Week after week. Hundreds, thousands of games. Running into a buzzsaw over and over again. Little by little, game by game, becoming the buzzsaw. After midnight, sometimes $20 or $40 a game, but the dollars were never a big thing. Winning was. I’m the best guy in the house, and you’re not. That was the thing.
There were other places. The tables at Bruno’s and TJ Quills on Tuesday nights. My friends would hit on the girls; I’d be on the table, focused. Sometimes Gritz Pool Hall off Tchoupitoulas to work on my game with my friend Chuck. The one-quarter table in the tiny room at the old Miss Mae’s. Avenue Pub on Carrollton by the Park. And dozens more. Walking in with fifty cents in my pocket and not bothering to make any more change.
Fat Harry’s on a Saturday night, maybe 11pm. I was in my early 20’s, and I was that guy you really didn’t want to play, supremely confident, as only someone that young can be, that I’d knock you off the table anytime, anywhere, anyhow. A thousand miles away from the sixteen year old kid who didn’t know which end of the cue was which. I met a guy named Joe, who’d’ve been too cliché to cast in a movie. About sixty, he looked like a black Santa Claus with no fingers on his bridge hand at all. Nothing but a thumb.
Whatever. Next victim, as far as I was concerned. Quarters on the table.
Joe broke and ran the table. And then did it again. And more. Twenty minutes later, I’d paid for the privilege of watching him play, losing four consecutive games without taking a single shot. The worst beating of my pool-playing life, before or since. I’d like to say I was at least smart enough not to play the old guy for money. Truth is, I offered, and he refused. For my trouble, I got a much-needed double helping of humble pie, and Joe was kind enough to teach me his ridiculous break, which I still use.
To be really good, you’ve got to play, play, play. But years pass, of course, and priorities change. There’s less time to keep the edge. The competitive fire doesn’t burn quite so brightly, and the drug of winning becomes a bit less potent. But the game itself is still a lovely thing, the rythm still just as satisfying.
These days I contest it with something less than my former skills in the French Quarter Pool League. I’m not that guy anymore, but the competition and the camaraderie are more than worth the time and effort. The colorful people of Quarter make for no end of interesting acquaintances, some of whom have become dear friends. Every once in a while, I’ll catch fire and play for a game or three something like I did twenty years ago, and the little taste keeps me coming back every Wednesday to chase after it again. Because, even if it’s only for a few minutes, for only one game on a four by eight table under the lights, there’s not much better than being the best guy in the room.