The Tao of Pool
"Before bending over, decide on what shot to shoot, where the object ball must be struck, and what speed and English are needed to make the cueball do what you want it to do." -- Byrne's Standard Book of Pool and BilliardsThe Germans call it Acht Ball, the Spanish Bola Ocho. Nick just hit a perfect shot. The tip clicked right, the white smacked the black, and the pocket waited. So did I. I didnÕt have to watch. You know by the noises: a rapid tick when it rattles around the gape, a schlupp for the in-and-out. And Thuck. Anybody who plays the game knows the sound of the eight ball being sucked down. (I know, this sucking and thucking sounds a bit rude. But in pool, there are whole families of double entendre that just refuse to budge. Allow me to introduce them now: Nice Grip; Nice Stroke; My Balls Are on the Table; Screw It; Sink It; and, last but not least, Nice Rack.) Back to the game. Short of an act of God (though I'd settle for Beelzebub right now), the eight ball is going in. My opponent's features have already organized themselves into an amused frown -- for him, an expression of unalloyed ecstasy. I can only stand by, drawing on a dead cigarette (wet ashtray) and repeating the F-word over and over. Thuck! "That's a buck. Rack 'em."Nick and I play for money -- a dollar a game. The stakes sound insignificant, but we have played literally hundreds of millions of games over the last few years. I am better than he is, but he wins as many games as I do. Go figure. Financially, we are about equal, both in hock to the pool emporiums. ItÕs an expensive habit, like wine collect ing. But it's not about money. "Rack 'em" does a lot more psychic damage than "that's a buck." I admit: I am not an enthusiast, I am win-dependent. I'm an addict, a fiend -- with all the giddy highs and crushing lows my fixation implies. Everybody who knows us knows that Nick and I play too much. Game? has sup planted hello in our conversations. We play during lunch breaks. We play on miniature pool tables during parties. We play to the exclusion of other relationships. When we're not playing, we talk about playing, or not playing, or about for once not talking about playing or not playing. Pool is not the heart and soul of our friendship -- it is the cartilage that holds the thing together. Of course, it's only a game. And Nick and I have a lot more in common than pool. The shared attributes and interests that make us friends, though, also make us natural rivals. We are men. ItÕs unavoidable -- my genes hate his. We buck subtly: his apartment is nicer than mine, I have more articles published than he does. We each inevitably measure our own life beside the other's, and then we measure it all out on the table. Pool is our life barometer. Many would assume NickÕs sinking of the eight ball to mean that he simply played better than I did -- that he hit the balls straight and therefore they went in. Easy. But there is some thing else: a kind of providence that operates somewhere between cause and effect, between luck and skill. It's aided every hero from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker. And itÕs all thatÕs separating Nick and me on the table. George Lucas called it the Force; others have called it mana; many more just "it." Whatever you call it, when you've got it, youÕve got it. And when you ainÕt.Ê... Thuck. After this, Nick'll have it. He'll be strutting, stroking, seeing where the balls will go before he hits them. And IÕll be agonizing over angles, thinking I canÕt miss this. And in the broom closet of my mind there will be a small but insistent voice whispering: his apartment is nicer than yours; your articles haven't been that good lately. ItÕs not so much winning as being a winner. It's not playing well so much as knowing you'll play well. Confidence, sass, balls. Luck. It's a constant process of tacit negotiation between God and you: "Shoot well, I'll give you some nice easy leaves, maybe even fuck the other guy up for you." "Okay, give me some nice leaves, and I'll score, and even on the ones I miss I'll fuck the other guy up somehow." "No, I'll fuck the other guy up somehow."And then there's me, the other guy: I line up the shot, I stand with my feet splayed, my back bent, chin up, eye on the ball (apparently, everyone has a "dominant" eye, but I think both of mine are passive). I pull the cue back slowly and slide it forward smoothly. I make contact -- thwack -- and watch as the cue ball squirts away from the tip, misses its mark by a foot, and caroms off a band of balls (mine) huddled conspiratorially on the cushion. Finally, I watch helplessly as the errant cue ball kisses the black: plop. Rack 'em. And that horrible half-grin of my opponent. It's not just pool where these rules apply. There's a subsection in ByrneÕs Standard Book of Pool and Billiards titled: "An Apparently Hopeless Bunch of Balls." I think this sums up not only my game but my life right now. I have reached what is known in the pool world as a "plateau," with an implied drop, perhaps, on the other side. Come on: it's a game. There are those who would call my lamentations over-the-top, who would insist that skill and applica tion are all. There are migraine-inspiring books, hundreds of them, that reduce the game to a science. There are diagrams, charts, geo metric configurations resembling World War II battle plans. There is advice like: "You can double the long rail, contacting it first at B, you can play a plus system by shooting into Q, or you can try a hold-up ticky off the red. There is also a good two-rails-first snap-back shot." Got that? No, as I face Nick for the 11th time in an evening (down five bucks, holding my manhood cheap), there is only one mathematical certainty: each swill of beer will increase in direct proportion to the dreadfulness of the shot preceding it. So naturally, I drink too much when I play. I get woozy, but still I go for the bravado that the booze buzz can provide. And then I smoke too much. The ashtray piles high with stinky butts -- a monument to ill health -- and when the waitress comes to empty it, itÕs like a confession, a fresh start. I light up. With each new rack, too, I am reborn. As I approach the table, I can feel that things might not be so rotten after all. I hit a good shot. Then another, then another. IÕm really a pretty good player. NickÕs frown starts to look less amused. He chokes. He doesn't know it, but every look of discomfort that flickers across his face recharges my batteries a little more. I sink another -- it's as if I could do it with my eyes closed. And then the black ...Thuck! Perfect. No matter how many exquisite shots on the black we make, Nick and I both know we will never join the likes of Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Moore, and Dallas West and be inducted into the Billiard Congress of AmericaÕs Hall of Fame. We know this. Even so, Nick's got a pretty nice apartment, and I've had quite a few articles published. Like this one. Game?