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The Friendly Game of Pool
by Ace Toscano
Call me Cimino.
First off, I don't have many friends. In truth, as of this moment, my buddy list is about three names long.
Enemies I have plenty of. They're my strong suit - I make a few more every day. For some reason, people naturally dislike me. My old man might be able to tell you why. He had it in for me from the day I was born. Unfortunately, he's not likely to shed much light on the issue - he's dead.
When I came to Florida, back in 2000, I carried with me vague hopes of dedicating myself and all my free time to the game of golf. I was kidding myself there. With no relatives or acquaintances to play with, and an aversion to playing with complete strangers, the golf plan was destined to fail. And it did.
One pastime I had never considered, even briefly, was playing pool. It kind of snuck up on me. Granted, once upon a time playing pool had been my whole life - more important than school, more important than food, more important than women - but forty years ago I had given the game up in disgust and had all but sworn never to play again.
You see, as a teenager I'd been a straight-pool shooting phenom. Back then, running forty or fifty balls had been as easy as rolling off a log. But, something went wrong. By the time I was twenty, I had been struck by mysterious vision problems that made it impossible for me to zero in on the balls. I've always thought it had something to do with the fact that during a prolonged break from the game I started wearing glasses. Anyway, like that (snap your fingers), I went from being a sharpshooter to a guy who couldn't make a friggin' shot.
"One day you're a hero, next day you're a zero -
Say, what team is Chris Chamblis on?"
Guys who once pissed all over themselves at the thought of playing me were suddenly beating me to a pulp. I felt small and insignificant, like a loser, and I couldn't take that, so I just quit playing.
Yet, my love for the game was not extinguished. After all, as pitiful as it might sound, pool had been the only thing in my otherwise meaningless life that I had ever been good at.
So, after discovering a couple old four by eight tables in the clubhouse of the fogy farm where I was living, I fought off my initial reluctance and decided to give playing a try. What the hell, I figured, I had nothing to lose.
I realized right away that things hadn't improved during my forty year layoff. My pool vision was as screwed up as ever. I couldn't get the balls pointed at the holes. And, to make things worse, my stroke wobbled like Bubba's pickup. One thing had changed, though - playing bad didn't bother me so much.
I started practicing every day, one session in the morning, another in the afternoon. Needing a decent weapon, I emailed my uncle and reclaimed a cue, an old Palmer, I had given him years before. It was nicked up pretty good, and looked like someone had been using it to stake tomatoes, but I worked it back into shape.
After a few months of playing alone, I decided I needed some action so I headed out to the local pool room.
Now, when I was a kid, if someone like me - an older guy with a cue in his hand and a wallet in his pocket - had wandered into the pool room, he would've been sized-up and offered a game by the time the door swung shut. So, when I walked into Michelangelo's Pool Room I was expecting the local hot shots to jump all over me. I had even resigned myself to losing a few bucks.
But, things didn't play out that way. I entered the pool room, picked up some balls, and proceeded to my table unmolested. As I went about my business, putting my cue together, scattering the balls around, and getting a feel for the table, I surveyed the room. Four old-timers who obviously were not serious players were playing partner eight-ball in the far corner. Three men with their own cues and fancy cases were involved in an nine-ball ring game during which beads didn't slide and money never changed hands. And, another guy who appeared to be a pretty decent shot was practicing alone on the table beside me. When no one approached I figured it was up to me to make the first move, so I asked the guy on table one if he wanted to play a game of straight pool to fifty for $10 and the time. He almost shit himself. He d-d-d-didn't play s-s-s-straight pool. He c-c-c-couldn't play me for money. Apparently, after observing my fifteen minute display of cue artistry, during which I hadn't run more than three freakin' balls, he had astutely determined that I was too g-g-g-good for him.
And that, I discovered, was the status quo for Pikkahuassa County, Florida, just south of Cortaverde. Unlike the pool rooms where I had grown up, where everybody, regardless of their skill level, was looking to play somebody for something, people frequenting Michelangelo's were, for the most part, afraid to death of gambling.
I also discovered, sadly, that straight pool was as out of fashion as pegged pants and high-roll collars. Of all the players who frequented the pool room, there was only one kid, Marty, who was willing to give me a game. He was actually better than me and could fire in shots that I wouldn't even attempt but his lack of patience and failure to play safe made us a pretty close match. One day, he was on fire and destroyed me in rapid succession by scores of fifty to thirteen and fifty to nine. I hardly had a turn at the table. Next time we played, he asked if I wanted to play for ten dollars. I, of course, said, "Sure."
We played semi-regularly after that, sometimes nine-ball, but usually straight pool to fifty for ten dollars a game. Sometimes he didn't want to go for ten, so we'd play for five, whatever he could afford. Every time he stepped up to the table I fully expected him to put another hurting on me, but, that never happened. Maybe he tightened up for the money, maybe I elevated my game a notch, but, for whatever reason, I don't think he ever beat me again. Not once.
I know what you're thinking - I should've let him win once in a while. But, one thing you should understand about me is that I've always played all out. There's no hustle in me - no holding back, no missing shots on purpose. I recently watched Bobby Boozer dump a match in a local "A" tournament because he was trying to separate some high school kid, who just happened to be watching, from his milk money. It's no wonder he once accused me of robbing Marty. He naturally figured my mind worked like his. But, it doesn't.
I suspect that somewhere along the line someone took Marty aside and told him that he didn't have a chance of beating me and that I was hustling him, blah blah blah, because all of a sudden he stopped coming around. It's not unusual around here to get your game knocked by some jealous ass-sucking weasel.
In the midst of all this, Tuscaloosa Pete came to town.
When I could, I tried to make it to Michelangelo's Wednesday night nine-ball tournaments. They drew a good crowd, players and spectators. This one week, a new face appeared. It was Pete. As he warmed up, I observed his stroke, the way he stood at the table - I don't think I've ever seen a more rock solid stance - the way he moved the rock, and knew instantly that this dude could play.
As I recall, he was rather subdued that night, nothing at all like the loud, offensive figure he would later reveal himself to be. Otherwise, I might never have approached him and, certainly, wouldn't have subsequently allowed myself to like him.
Since, at the time, I was still trying to solve my vision problems and Pete had ceremoniously donned a pair of glasses before he began playing, I walked over to him and asked if his glasses had been designed specifically for shooting pool. He was more than willing to share the details. (I was later to learn that Pete was a detail oriented person.) He explained that his doctor back in Tuscaloosa had made the glasses using a pair of skeet-shooter's adjustable frames which made it possible to raise and lower the rims off his bulbous nose as circumstances required.
After that Pete started showing up in the afternoon and, since we sort of knew each other, we began passing the time together playing straight pool. There was no gambling involved; he was way out of my league and, as far as I could see, way out of everybody's league.
If Bobby Boozer, generally known as the best nine-ball player in Pikkahuassa County, wanted to learn about hustling pool, he would have done well to forget what he had picked up from the Paul Newman movies and study instead the moves of Tuscaloosa Pete. Pete was one slick pool-hustling dude. He not only knew all the angles, he was extremely patient, sometimes setting traps that wouldn't spring shut for weeks, or even months.
First thing he did was take control of the pool room. He didn't buy it, though that seemed to be on the table briefly. He just bought off the staff. Rumor was, and I believe he started it himself, that Pete was a millionaire. Some people thought he was full of shit, but I took him at his word. Either way, there's no way of denying that when he was around the money flowed, as did the beer. Tattooed barmaids, easier to condition than starving white rats, made spectacles of themselves, fawning all over him in order to wangle their tips.
In a strategic move, Pete dropped $300 to Freddy DeLieu, one of the local fellows. It was sweet the way he did it, establishing himself not only as a loser, but as a choke artist to boot. He had elevated losing on purpose to an art form. Midway through the first set, he started huffing and puffing like he was having an anxiety attack. Then he started fanning himself and mopping his brow as if he was sweating like a pig. It was all a big put-on and careful observation revealed that he wasn't even damp.
Word spread quickly, and before you know it players from all over were showing up looking for some of Pete's action. Pool playing choke artists with a lot of dough are quite a lure down here in Florida, especially in Pikkahuassa County. But, Pete was no fool. He wasn't interested in playing with someone who had to drive over to the ATM every time he lost another twenty dollars. He wanted to play for the big money.
Sometimes Pete ran with a grisly old bird, also from Tuscaloosa, Harry Butler. Harry, an ex-boxer, had a reputation for being a tough guy and a ladies' man. Personally, I was getting tired of Pete beating the shit out of me playing straight pool so one day I suggested that he, Harry and I play a little fifty cent pill pool. It was fun for a change. We started out playing a couple times a week, but it soon became a daily ritual. When I realized that even fifty cent pill pool could become an expensive proposition, I tried to beg off, admitting that I really couldn't afford to take a ten dollar hit every single day. But, Pete had a little talk with Michelangelo's manager, Fat Mikey, and, shortly thereafter, the fat lad informed us that from then on playing on Thursdays and Fridays would be on the house. So, I stayed in the game.
For four months, day in and day out, you could find Harry, Pete and I on table number one at Michelangelo's playing pill pool. Soon others started to join us. Bobby Boozer even played with us once or twice.
The lineup changed from day to day, but one thing didn't - I was a consistent loser. Not only were Pete and Harry, as well as everybody else, better than me, but I started to suspect the old dogs were ganging up on me, you know, leaving each other shots and safing me up. I mean, they were friends, so even if they weren't doing it consciously, their subconsciouses surely were out to screw me.
Anyway, losing day in and day out took a toll, so I quit the game. I'd still come by the pool room but I wouldn't play unless Marty showed up for some straight pool, or Pete's protégé, Fat Mikey, played me some twenty dollar nine-ball. Like Marty, he couldn't beat me either, a fact I'm sure bugged the hell out of his mentor.
One day, I stopped in and was just sitting around waiting for something to happen when Fat Mikey asks me if I want to bang the balls around. "No," I said, shaking my head. "Go on," he says mouthing the words "no charge" as if the place was bugged or something. So, I go over to table number one, where I had played pill pool with Pete and Harry practically every day for four months, throw a few balls out on the table and take a couple shots with a house cue. Out of fucking nowhere Pete jumps all over my ass. Who the hell do I think I am playing on his table? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… I was fucking stunned. The way he was frothing at the mouth, I thought the stout little fucker might attack me. And I didn't have a lead pipe handy.
We had never been bosom buddies like him and Harry were, but that day any appearance of friendliness ceased. I mean maybe it was the drugs that had him on edge -- he was always taking pills by the handful supposedly trying to achieve that mythical chemical balance; but that didn't matter to me. He had jumped all over me for nothing in front of a room full of people. He might've been sorry, later, I can't be sure, but, as far as I was concerned, we were done. I mean, I grew up in a house where my old man used to whack the shit out of me for no reason and though that was a long time ago I don't like to be taken back there.
After that, I got off my daily schedule and started dropping in only occasionally. One day I stopped by and Pete was there. He asked me to knock the balls around with him for a while. No, I told him, saying I would rather use my five dollars to get into a bar tournament. C'mon, he said, you won't have to pay. A conciliatory gesture, I figured. So, I played with him a while, listened to him talking about this and that, not really caring, then I left.
Next time I go back Fat Mikey asks me why I walked out without paying the last time I was there. Of course, I know I didn't walk out without paying. "Talk to Pete," I said. I don't know if he ever did or not, or if Pete had developed amnesia or was just trying to fuck with me, but the next time I went in Fat Mikey hit me with it again.
I thought about throwing a fin at the fat little fuck just to shut him up, but there was a principle involved. The dick-head was accusing me of stealing. I don't steal and I don't lie and when people accuse me of either, I can get pretty fucking pissed off. I decided to boycott Michelangelo's, and my digestive system appreciated it.
I bumped into Tuscaloosa Pete a couple months later. He and Harry were back in town. Having read this story on my pool blog, he apologized for ripping into me that day and, though it was a little like a page 9 retraction, I accepted it. He said that's just the way he gets sometime and that he never would have kicked my ass, though he might some day if I ever decided to write about him again. I guess we're okay, now, at least, we're better than we were.
Michelangelo's has long since changed hands, Fat Mikey is doing time up state for messing around with little girls, and Tuscaloosa Pete is reportedly dodging the IRS. I play now and then but without much enthusiasm. This is not pool country.
If you ever wind up in Pikkahuassa County, Florida, and you feel like playing pool, do yourself a big favor and head north to Cortaverde.
[Coming soon, the story of a bar tournament where cheating's rampant and brawls break out over the coin flip.]
Copyright © 2004- by Ace Toscano. All rights reserved.