originally published December 4, 2012
While I wish I held a secret life as a street-savvy pool shark, the honest truth is that I haven’t felt that sweet thud of cushiony cue-tip against a gleaming, polished white cue ball in about four years. I used to love pool, and played it almost every day when I was a teenager. I played 8-ball, 9-ball, and when the opportunity presented itself, I spent some time at the king-size snooker tables, stretching to put a little English on a shot that seemed a mile away (and for all my efforts, may as well have been).
But life has successfully intervened and allowed rust to ooze across what little skill I had. The friends I used to play with I hardly see anymore; I no longer work at that place which featured a rec-room with a well-worn slab of green felt on a creaky old table; it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even know where the pool halls in this town are anymore.
But I can still write about it. In fact, I bet I’ll find there’s a lot about billiards that I didn’t know.
Before there was the cue, there was the mace. Because billiards began as a table-top version of golf or croquet, early players (we’re talking roughly 16th century here) would use these little mini-putters, striking the cue ball with the front end of the club part of the mace. When the cue ball would be tucked up against the cushion, they’d make use of the tail-end of the mace instead. ‘Tail’ in French is ‘queue’, which led to the term ‘cue’ once they’d discarded the idiotic idea of miniature golf clubs in favor of the more accurate stick.
The mace was used to push the ball, not to strike it. It wasn’t until 1800 when the modern cue became the game’s standard that people could know that satisfying sploosh of adrenaline that comes from a particularly effective break.
There is an entire sect of billiardry (not a word, but it should be) that wants nothing to do with the sextet of pockets I’ve spent my entire pool-life aiming for. Carom billiards is pocketless pool, and it’s tremendously popular, albeit exclusively among people I’ve never met. Carom tables are heated, usually about 5 degrees Celsius (9˚F) above room temperature, in order to keep moisture out of the cloth and speed up the game.
The object of carom billiards is – though there are numerous variations of course – to strike both the opponent’s cue ball and the other single ball on the table in one shot. Allegedly this game is still played in Commonwealth countries. Canada is a commonwealth country, yet I’ve never seen a carom table. Until they make a movie about this game starring someone as inherently cool as Jackie Gleason, I’m not interested.
A rack can acceptably be called a ‘triangle’, though I’m told that such a designation only tends to happen among amateur players. These are the folks who refer to the cue ball as the ‘plain ball’, the pockets as the ‘holes’, the cue as the ‘stick’ and the 8-ball as the ‘miniature version of that thing that tells the future’.
The green fabric that covers a pool table is not felt, nor is it Astroturf. It’s a material called baize, which used to adorn the doors which typically separated servants’ quarters from the rest of the house. I actually already knew that, because I already wrote an entire article about the stuff back in April.
Chalk, that bluish powder that prevents the cue tip from slipping as it strikes the cue ball, is not actually chalk at all. It’s a proprietary mix of other compounds, depending on what the company in question decides will move the most product, often silica and corundum or aluminum oxide. Some guy named Hal “Spitty-Smitty” Smith launched the trend of moistening the chalk with one’s saliva in order to create a lubricating paste. Is pool still fun when the game gets a little gross and slimy?
Possibly the most interesting form of billiards, at least from a spectator’s standpoint, is speed pool. The International Speed Pool Challenge was held for five years between 2006 and 2010, cancelled perhaps because nobody realized how much more awesome it would be if they coated the cue ball in a flammable material and lit it on fire for the duration of the game.
Seriously, I will offer my services free of charge if anyone with a fledgling sport needs a suggestion on how to bring in more viewers. Warning: most of these suggestions will involve lighting things on fire.
Artistic Pool is another contender for most interesting billiards game to watch. This is broadcast on one of the lesser ESPN networks from time to time, and always makes for a good half hour time-kill until the next exciting rerun of Criminal Minds comes on. There’s nothing artistic about the game, in that no player is attempting to make a statement, or to air their deepest fears through interpretive billiards (though I’d watch that too).
This is trick-shot pool. A slate of 40 pre-determined trick shots are lined up, and the best players move on to the finals. This sounds like a lot of prep-work between each shot. I wonder what they call the people who set up the shots… ball manipulators? What a disturbing job title that would be, though it would be a great ice-breaker at parties.
To put ‘English’ on the ball, meaning to strike the cue ball at some point other than its center in order to generate a spin to better control where the cue ball ends up for your next shot, is a purely North American expression. The English were the first to experiment with this technique, so they get the term named after them, though overseas they just call it ‘sidespin’.
In addition to 8-ball and 9-ball, there is also 10-ball and 7-ball, both with similar rules to 9-ball (the balls must be sunk in order, whoever sinks the top ball – 10 or 7 – wins). There’s even 3-ball, played with a cue ball and three balls. The object of that game is to sink all three balls in as few shots as possible – apparently this one is big among Asian-Americans in San Francisco. No idea why.
There are a lot of other variants of pocket-pool, carom, and even games without cues – something called ‘crud’ involves a cue ball and one ball, and flinging the cue ball around the table with one’s hand. Me, I’d just be happy to pick up a cue again, throw on some George Thoroughgood & The Destroyers, and have a little fun like in the old days.
It just isn’t the same, playing on my phone.