By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 1986]
Pool is a game of the night (which is a noble way of saying that its best players sleep late). In all the contemporary songs that sing of pool or pool playing or poolrooms, there’s usually a reference to nighttime too, and that’s accurate. Night brings out the action seekers. Night is when the best get down to business.
Now billiards, which few people play and even fewer sing about, is frequently played by fine gentleman at high noon. Billiards is thus the cue games’ answer to the day shift; in most rooms, the day players are gone well before the pool moneymen begin to snarl. And only rarely do the games switch shifts.
But my approach to pool has been a little different. And, for seven years (1967-’74), pool at lunch was a constant in my life, the finest fringe benefit any fulltime employer could offer me.
The site of this diversion evokes no wistful memories, except that it was the last inhabitable place anywhere near downtown that Chicago has had. It was owned and operated unabashedly by members of the Outfit, who were on hand daily; the cloth was the wrong color (gold), and the tables, aptly named for the late Harold Worst, were the wrong size (four by eight feet). The room’s only extravagance was to make its debut with two-piece house cues, also named for Worst, and that entire inventory took a hike with the room’s first two weeks.
Still, the Golden 8-Ball saw almost no hassles (who in his right mind would perturb the Mob?), and somehow there was enough there to allow the purist in me and others to look the other way. We could play pool at lunch.
The noontime crowd was as atypical as the room itself, and mostly of the white-collar variety: staffers from nearby Playboy, studio musicians, advertising creatives. You could pick out the admakers at once. One group was so uptight that they paired off for each day’s play at opposite ends of the table, each combatant armed with half of the 16 balls. They would shove those balls manically over the table at each other for five or 10 minutes, whatever was necessary that given day, a microcosm soccer game gone berserk, winding themselves down. Then they’d play sincere pool, for maybe two hours. And then they’d go to lunch. Why this wanton flaunting of corporate dictum? Because their boss was the most avid poolist of them all. He took no gruff from any source. And he wanted his pool at lunch.
I was segregated from that crowd in not one, but two ways: I was vastly superior at the game, and they were well ahead of me in their careers. Advertising divides itself pretty cleanly between trade/industrial work, which is all about print and largely unglamorous, and the consumer side, which is heavily into TV and the megabucks. One crosses that bridge about as easily as a Hatfield becomes a McCoy. So, there I was, king of the hill, but slightly ahead of the amoeba at the same time.
Yet there was a glimmer of hope, too. I had been waiting for years to find an executive who didn’t look down his nose at the game, and I decided to invest a little more patience in a chance to cotton up to the Big Guy, to give him maybe a few helpful pointers and, maybe, broach the topic of a job interview at the same time. What I overlooked was that he wasn’t much of a listener, not to me or anybody else. So, when I did get my opening with him, he ignored my tips and even left his evil-smelling cigar trail all over the rail. I sent an object ball accurately down that rail, where it bounded off his cigar and into oblivion. He said, “Hmmph,” and stepped up unconcernedly for his turn. Understandably affronted, I decimated him, 100-30 and 100-20, and thereby delayed my entry into his agency by at least two years. In some ways, I still think it was well worth it.
Still, the game was a bond of sorts between his crowd and me; we all got off on it regardless of what level we were playing on. Dead stroke to those guys might mean a run of six or eight or 10, and they lauded one another’s play in strange terms like, “Nice concept.” But they showed up daily bearing their private icebergs of tension and frustration, and returned to work with their emotional climates balmy, their creative problems largely solved without their having invested one conscious thought in them for two hours plus. It’s the damnedest game.
And my existence, equally happy, was the inverse of theirs. I struggled with my career seven hours a day, but from noon until two, I reigned supreme, Solomon-like in my wisdom, Herculean in my execution, and all the other gods whose initials spell “SHAZAM.” One day I took no prisoners and ran 52 and 49 back-to-back to pulverize one of the ad guys, 101-1.
I got lost in dead stroke at that place more than once, that joyous cerebral explosion when the universe falls away and you become one with the game, you an extension of it and the other way around, as surely as any Zen archer. Any ball with an open path to a hole was fair game no matter where the cue ball stopped. Thus entranced, I beat a very good player out of $60 once, just taking the game completely away from him. My return from lunch was clocked at an iconoclastic 3:40, but time and decorum had ceased to exist. I didn’t walk back, but rather soared, thinking, “What could they possibly do to me that would bother me now?”
They fired me.
But I was right. I didn’t care. I had played pool at lunch.