Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Grinch

"Be careful Kris, those heels do hurt!" Chris joked. My opponent for the night, Maureen, was wearing shoes that could conceivably be used to murder someone. A tall, older blonde, she seemed pleasant enough as we walked to table six to start our match. A little cold, but - so far - she hadn't done anything to warrant the warning I'd received a week earlier.

She was just getting warmed up.

The first game didn't go her way, and she stamped her feet, slammed her cue down, and cursed my good luck. Her luck wasn't an issue, because - as any Grinch1 will tell you - her luck was actually skill, or karmic justice. She was getting hot early, which usually that spells doom for anyone - and it did, she lost eight-ball 1-3. I didn't play great, and I was still winning. She wasn't as good as she thought she was, which can also lead to disastrous results(I speak from personal experience here, pool is game where it (usually) pays to be humble).

Nine-ball went more her way. After dropping the first game to me(in which she tried a hard bank on the nine and left hanging for me - more 'luck'), I made the nine on the break - but scratched. This prompted her to say "You are one lucky dude". Apparently missing out on a one-shot victory qualified me for charmed status. What a grinch.

I made a mistake that game and she won. The next, she fluked in a two-nine combo.

That wasn't luck, though. If it was luck, maybe she would have smiled at her good fortune, offered an apology of sorts for it(which 99% of players do). But it wasn't luck. It was deserved retribution from the Pool Gods, obviously, because her stoned expression as the nine bounced around three rails before going in an unintended pocket told me that she had actually planned the entire shot. Why she couldn't plan extraordinary shots in advance every time she was at the table...well, that's one of life's great unexplainable mysteries. Probably has something to do with her being such a grinch.

But ANYWAY, she won nine-ball 4-2, largely because I let her attitude affect me and I played poorly. So we went to a tiebreaker, and in the interest of fair disclosure, I did win the flip, which is a bit lucky.

I picked eight-ball. And I ran out my second time at the table. And that, Grinch, is not luck. That's me kicking your ass.

Mean Maureen, as my teammates and I later dubbed her, packed up and left in less than five seconds. In my two seasons at Amsterdam, that was a first. Even if I won 7-0 or lost 0-7, we would chat a little. Make some small talk, wish each other luck in the future - you know, act like sociable, well-adjusted human beings.

Not grinches.

"Well, thanks a lot for that," I told Chris after reporting the match result. "That was load of merry-fucking sunshine."

Chris slowly shook his head. "If you're going to play competitive pool, you've got to get used to all types. And she's not the worst...but yeah she doesn't like losing."

I laughed. There's worse? I can't wait.

1Grinch = Bitch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Warning

The roof of my mouth felt like someone had scraped it with steel wool. The back of my throat was pretty much the same. Slowly swallowing my water1 down, I felt a little better. A cold is coming, I thought, and there's nothing I can do about it. I watched highlights from Monday Night Football, caught glimpses of the redheaded waitress, made small talk with Henry - anything to bat that thought away.

My opponent for the night seemed healthy enough; he resembled a squat version of Mark Ruffalo(I should really start taking actual notes during matches, because his name escapes me; I could go look it up on the league website, but that feels like cheating). I won the flip(I think) and broke(probably).

The week before, I'd been distracted, and played pretty good. I gave games away, and only won 6-5. Tonight, I played worse(but not by much) against a better opponent(significantly).

Pool's a funny game, though, and I won 7-1.

Last week, I missed three game balls, and they turned into losses. I started off this match by missing two eight balls, but, I wasn't punished. Mr. Ruffalo2 either hadn't run out his group yet, or he missed the shot I left. I made one tough shot to win, and Mark scratched before another. The last game, thankfully, I closed out legitimately.

If my opponent is on his game or gets a little luck of his own, I could have easily lost eight-ball 1-3 or 0-3. Instead, I won it 3-0.

Funny game.

I went up 2-0 quickly in nine-ball. I was starting to play better, getting my rhythm, and the thought of another 7-0 victory crossed my mind. Then, in the third game, Ruffalo(fresh off his cameo in Where The Wild Things Are, at least in my mind) missed but left me hooked. The four-nine combo was dead in the side pocket. I took the intentional foul, pocketing the nine ball. I spotted it and, smiling, remarked to my opponent that I couldn't just leave the easy win on the table.

He gave me a forced smile in return(which I would have done too, down 0 to 5). Then, he made the four ball, and drilled the five-nine combo. An incredibly difficult shot, exponentially tougher than many shots he'd missed earlier. Funny game.

"So, two to one then," I said cheerfully, racking the balls. Of course I was cheerful, the worst I could do was 6-4, which seemed incredibly unlikely.

"Well, maybe three," he said.

I was confused.


"Didn't you say two more games? I'm saying I'm hoping I can make it three."

"Oh no, no no - I said two to one, two to one!" I said quickly. "I would never say anything like that, I try not to be an asshole."

He laughed. "Oh OK, but it could be two, the way I'm playing."

Relieved that he(apparently) didn't think I was an asshole, I won the next two games, not choking on the last nine like I had the week before. When I shot it, I thought I'd overcut it(again!), and I had(slightly), but the pocket was big enough for it to hit the corner and tumble in.

Despite the bad night, my opponent was cordial, even talkative3. We talked about our seasons, handicaps(we'd been playing even), and teams. Mark had been playing in the league for about three years, and had been a six for most of those, earning the promotion to a seven about a season prior. He said he'd played his best pool the week before, in an extremely close match he'd lost in a tiebreaker. I liked that he could admit he'd played his best in a loss - a real sign of character(or something we all know to say to seem like we have character, but Mark didn't strike me as that cynical).

"But the woman I played, you'll probably have to play her, and let me tell you, she is a cold, cold...cold woman," he said, shaking his head.

We were watching Chris practice straight pool. Effortlessly, he pocketed ball after ball. Seeing Chris play, witnessing what the game looked like when played at such a high level, I briefly felt like Rufallo and I had desecrated our poor table with our unforced errors and bad position play. Chris's smooth, straight stroke, set up with such deliberate tempo and rhythm as he went from shot to shot; it was humbling. Then I remembered our green fees, how much money everyone in the league spent on drinks and food, and I felt better.

"How bad was it? I haven't run into anyone mean yet."

That was true, I hadn't. One guy seemed shady, but likable. He was (of course) a broker. I keep his card next to the condoms in my wallet - seems appropriate, in a strange way.

"Well you know how when your opponent makes a good shot, you say 'hey good shot' or something like that? Nothing. She was just cold, distant, and mean the entire time. And we were playing a close match, both playing great, I was thrilled just to be a part of it, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah, it's great when both of you are really firing. Makes it more exiting."

"Exactly! She just gets more and more pissed, and when we play the tie-breaking game, she gets just a little - a little! - bit out of line on the last nine ball. Slams down her cue, curses to herself, then makes the ball. So she won! And I say, 'hey, good match' and she just blows me off, talks about how mad she was with herself, and storms off!"

"...that's shitty. I mean, if you're playing in a money-tournament, or something like that and there's something actually at stake, I can understand that - but we play in a Tuesday night eight-ball league or Christ's sake, and the only thing at stake is Amsterdam Monopoly Money. That's just shitty."

"Like I sad, she's cold, cold...cold woman."

"You can say bitch, I don't mind."

We both laughed.

I turned to find Alex returning from his match. He'd won 6-5, dominating eight-ball. Which made sense, he'd been playing next to me and every time I looked up, he was on the eight or his next-to-last ball while his opponent had most of his group still on the table. His opponent got a little lucky with a nine on the break in nine-ball, but a win is a win.

Mike beat his guy 5-3, and Henry lost a close match 4-6, giving up a ball. Mike was 13-3 in the last two weeks - I told him he'd probably get bumped up to a five soon.

When I got home, I checked to see when I'd be playing the woman Mark had told me about: she was my next opponent.

Well, I couldn't say I hadn't been warned.

1Despite all the money I spend at Amsterdam, I still feel a little cheap sitting at the bar and only getting a glass of water, like I'm wasting the bartender's time. Usually I order a Diet Coke, and tip a dollar, just to alleviate said guilt. I wonder if I would do this if the bartenders weren't all attractive women.

2Who goes by Chris in real life - damn, we even share a name(almost), and I didn't remember it. I'm terrible.

3I've found that most people, including myself, become more and more talkative after a loss in direction proportion to how much time has passed since the last ball went down.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drama, Drama

My heart didn't seem to be beating, my stomach felt like it was full of nickels, and a cold sweat coated my forehead. I wasn't even at the pool hall yet.

Instead, I was restlessly standing on an L train that wasn't moving nearly fast enough. Through a series of mental cartwheels, I had convinced myself my apartment had been broken into. Fully expecting to arrive in Brooklyn and be greeted by a kicked down door, an empty bedroom, no laptop, books, TV or even clothes1, I nervously twitched and jerked in place. The people on the train must have thought I was really, really constipated.

Let me back up. Earlier(a little before six), I randomly looked at the balance of my checking account(a bored, work day habit) and saw a check had been cashed for a thousand dollars. Which was troubling, because I'd never written a check for a thousand dollars.

More troubling was the complete lack of help I got from my bank's Customer Service line. All the polite(but useless) woman could offer me was to wait until the checked cleared, then dispute it. She couldn't tell me who the check was written to or where it was cashed.

After considering all the evidence for approximately ten seconds, I came to two conclusions:

1)A mix-up involving my ex-wife, even though her name shouldn't be associated with my bank account anymore but turns out it still is, or

2)Someone broke into my place, and in addition to robbing me, they found my checkbook and were emptying my bank account for good measure.

After e-mailing my ex-wife and waiting five minutes for a response, I went with option two. I briefly considered trying to play through my 7pm match, blocking out the thought of possible burglary.

That didn't seem like a great idea, so there I was, waiting for my stop, wondering what I would do if confronted with a crime scene.

Exiting the subway, my phone buzzed. My ex-wife had replied, and sure enough, the strange deduction had been her. The full details were explained later, and made total sense, but at the time, it just seemed like she was robbing me(and to be completely honest, some people still think she was). By the end of the week, I had all of my money back. Now, I should point out, it's my own fault for not making sure that her name was off the account(which has been taken care of).

Still, it made for a very stressful dash back into Manhattan for my match. I barely made it on time. My heart refused to recognize that danger had passed and continued to pound in my chest as my opponent and I flipped a coin for the break.

The match was a blur. I won 6-5, I know that much. I gave away two games of nine-ball, partly from having my mind on my ex-wife and partly from having my mind on the date I was supposed to have at 8:45. I knew playing at seven it would be cutting it awfully close to meet someone at 8:45, but we were meeting in the heart of Union Square, a quick walk from the pool hall.

I think I played well. While walking up to tell Chris the match results, my opponent mentioned that it was the first time he ever remembered never getting a shot during a game.

"What do you mean?"

"You ran out the last game of eight-ball."

"...really? Wow, I don't remember doing that..."

And I didn't. I do remember running a rack of nine-ball only to piss at a relatively hard cut on the nine, sending it skidding off the side pocket(which means I didn't run a rack of nine-ball). I remember my stroke felt pretty good after my head stopped buzzing. And I remembered feeling relieved when I realized during the last game that a)I was going to win the match regardless of whether or not I own this game and b)I would definitely make my date. Everything was over at 8:40.

During the last game I also made a good run only to miss the nine. I took the match win - a little pissed at myself - rushed out of Amsterdam and briskly walked two blocks to where I was meeting my date.

Waiting on the street corner, she looked a lot like my ex-wife: tall, black, a smile from New York to Japan, and sexy as hell. The night wasn't done being interesting.

1The fact that I had my cue stick and iPod with me was strangely comforting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Accent That Kills

Jason Voorhees stared me down as I walked into the pool hall, slowly and mechanically swinging his machete. It was a little unsettling.

You couldn't miss that it was almost Halloween at Amsterdam; besides the animatronic villain(hero?) of the Friday The 13th movies, the usual decorations were up: orange and black streamers, bats, skeletons, and flyers for the Halloween Party. Will the redheaded waitress be there?, I briefly wondered. No matter, it was match time.

I had missed the previous week because of work. With no real match or practice time, I had vacated the zone I had found two weeks earlier and moved into a state of sludgy, choppy, ugly play.

The night before I had played some with Mi2, hoping to break out of it. It didn't work. Missed shots, bad position play, and unnerving feeling of something being "off - like a gear slightly out of place - made me more and more frustrated. 

Watching the Redskins getting killed by the Eagles didn't help. Looking up from a missed shot to see Jason Campbell getting sacked(again!) was making me reconsider my no drinking during practice policy. Besides the bad pool and the bad football, I also had a lunch bet riding on the Redskins. A coworker of mine is from Philadelphia, and in a foolish showing of hometown spirit, I bet her lunch that the Skins would beat the Eagles. I wonder what place will she pick for her victory lunch...

For once at match time, everyone was present and on time. To celebrate, Chris informed us that because of a party Amsterdam was hosting our already late nine o'clock start time was going to be pushed back even farther. To keep us from rioting, he offered us a all drink tickets. Free alcohol - a surefire way to a league player's heart.

Using up some of the only luck I would have that night, my match was called within ten minutes of Chris's announcement. My opponent was a nice looking fellow named Ben.

We made our way to the same table I had played on two weeks before, table twenty-three. For some reason I said the same thing I had then: "Man, I haven't played on this table in a while."

Amsterdam was louder than usual, the buzz from the party making it hard to hear Ben as we made small talk. Maybe he didn't even hear my meaningless white lie, I thought, as Ben excused himself to use the bathroom before we started.

Despite the crowd noise, I thought I could hear an accent in Ben's voice. When he came back and we flipped the coin, I heard it clearly: a sharp, charming British accent.

Big Ben had me down two games quick. Despite playing a little better than I had been lately, it wasn't good enough against him(ranked a 9 to my 7). I had a bit of bad luck in the second rack, getting snookered behind my own ball when Ben missed, denying me an easy runout. Still, I had my opportunities and didn't capitalize.

I could feel I was shooting better though; the gear was slowly falling back into place. Nailing a few tough shots and playing good position, even in a couple of losses, had me sitting high in my chair even has Ben ran out.

Being a bit of an anglophile, I couldn't help but smile when Ben said he was "nominating" a pocket for the eight-ball.

"Oh, you mean call it? Cool," I said with a small grin. Nominating! What a trip.

Good feelings weren't going to stop me from doing down 0-3 in eight-ball, though, and finally in the third game I caught a break when Ben jawed a shot in the corner, and I ran out. I almost ran from the break the next game, but finished it one turn later after Ben missed again.

Ben shot with intimidating accuracy, and he shot quickly. He pranced around the table, breaking two of the cardinal rules of pool: not chalking between each shot, and playing with a house cue. Being a sinner was working out for him, though, he was easily the best player I'd seen in a while. After being down 0-2 to him, I felt like I had climbed a mountain to get the race tied.

Ben was on his way to running out the deciding game when he got funny on his next to last ball, and missed the ensuing hard shot. My stroke (partly) back, I made an easy four-ball run(aided by my handicap) to end it.

The first game of nine-ball, Ben broke and made nothing. I pushed on the one, he missed, and we jostled back and forth until I left him a shot on the two ball and he ran out.

Watching him pocket ball after ball after ball, strangely I felt...good. This was the level of opponent I wanted to play, needed to play. My mistakes were being punished brutally and without mercy(even if it was accompanied by a such a delightful, friendly accent). Against some opponents, I could make mistake after mistake and not worry because I knew they weren't good enough to beat me even if I fucked around for a bit. Against Ben, that lazy, unfocused attitude would only leave me sitting in my chair most of the night.

Knowing this, I played some pretty good pool and won the next two games of nine-ball. In the fourth rack, I made a mistake that swung the match back in his favor. He missed a tough shot on the one ball, but left me hooked. Worse yet, the one-nine combo was dead(though a tad long) in the corner.

I decided to foul and take the combo out of play, hitting the nine-ball first on purpose to knock it out of the way. Unfortunately, I hit it three times as hard as I needed to and the ball darted around the table before jawing in the opposite corner pocket, leaving Ben an even easier combo then the one I had tried to prevent.

"Sorry mate, I have to take it," he said.

Damn English, polite even in victory.

From there, I think had all of two or three shots as Ben won two more racks, and that was it. I lost 5-7.

The rest of my team lost close matches as well: Alex 5-6, Mimi 5-6, and Mike 4-5. Even though we all lost, we didn't take that bad a hit in the standings since none of us got blown out. So while not an ideal night, not a total fuck-up either.

I redeemed my free drink ticket at the bar, going over some of the last shots in my head. Sipping my Stoli-Ras and Cran, I chatted with Mike and his opponent Kevin. Kevin seemed nice enough, if a little awkward. He had a pronounced pause before he spoke, as if the conversation was a broadcast he wasn't quite getting live.

The pool hall seems to be a haven for that type: guys who are friendly, but just a Maybe it's the appeal of the subtle forced socialization pool leagues offer: you always have an icebreaker with a fellow league player since you already have something in common. Or maybe I'm just a judgmental prick.


On the way home, I saw a friend on the train just as she was getting off at her stop. It was strange, having that moment of recognition but not being able to do anything about it. She hadn't seen me, so I briefly smiled at the side of her head. A week earlier, I had confessed to having a small1 crush on her(via e-mail, because I can be a total pussy sometimes). She wanted to stay friends, which wasn't as bad to hear as I thought it would be, and the expected awkwardness, so far, had been minuscule.

Still, it was a strange glimpse. My near perfect-night of pool was pre-confession; my mini-slump post. Unrelated, I knew logically, but my state of mind was more positive on that night of perfection: I was looking forward to the possibilities my soon to be revealed crush could open.

Stupid, I know, but you think strange things on the subway ride home.

1The small part I added after being rejected, because I'm vain.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

One Perfect Night

Somehow, I knew that last nine-ball was going in on the break. The cue ball hit the one square, the rack exploded like a fire-cracker had gone off in the middle of it, and the nine followed the eight into the bottom corner-pocket. Game.

I extended an almost ashamed hand to my opponent(the break? really?).

"Good match, man".

"Do you want to keep playing?" he said, slumped and shrugging. "I mean, we pad sixteen dollars and it's only been forty minutes..."

I glanced at my phone: 9:15. We had started at 8:30. Three games of eight-ball, four games of nine-ball, seven wins - in 45 minutes.

"Sure, why not."

I was still taking it in. I'd never played that well before. The game felt different, not completely, but slightly. Slightly easier. Balls dropped effortlessly into pockets, whitey1 rolled where I wanted him to, and most importantly, I saw the patterns; the criss-crossing lines bouncing off the balls, the rails, dissecting the table into a neatly layed-out puzzle that I could, for one night, perfectly understand. Complete control of one small part of the universe, for forty minutes. It felt good.

And without the purpose and pressure of winning, the feeling quickly left. We played two more games for fun, and I lost both.

"That was fast," Chris said as me and my opponent signed the match slip. "I've still got seven o'clock matches going."

"I got a few lucky breaks." The words came out of my mouth as humbly and sincerely as I could manage. My opponent, an emaciated James Franco look alike, was good - and I would probably face him again. He didn't need anymore motivation for vengeance. His first shot - a long cut on the eleven ball he made with perfect speed - made me think I was in for a long night. It was obvious he could play; if not for a tricky layout, he might have run the table that first game. Instead, I got to the table and ran out. Maybe the pressure of knowing any mistakes I made, the Green Goblin would punish, brought out my A+ game. Either way, beating a skilled opponent, and not just beating them but crushing them, made the victory that much sweeter.

Glancing around, I saw Alex still playing. I didn't want to interrupt, but someone had to be told. Too anxious to search for Mike or Henry, I called Mi2.

"Hey, I the book for you - want to meet outside real quick? I'm done with my match!"


Waiting outside, the cold didn't bother me. Maybe it was the eager pacing keeping me warm. Mi2 came down, and I babbled on about my victory. Like a child waiting to tell a proud parent about a straight-A report card, I couldn't keep still; my soles were springs and my arms were rarely at my sides.

Later, everyone else got to tell their stories over pizza. Alex had won 7-4. Mike lost 4-5 on a very frustrating tiebreaker that I had witnessed from afar. Facing down an easy eight-ball in the side pocket, his opponent hit the ball ten times harder then he should have and the cue ball orbited the table and barely, BARELY stopped short of scratching in the corner.

Overall though, we had a good night, climbing from last place into fifth(out of nine teams). My euphoria didn't last much past that evening, though. The realization that I wasn't as good as I had played that night hit me when I practiced the next day. The game was back to being, largely, a mystery. The balls didn't go where they were told, the cue ball didn't snap to attention, and the once clear layouts were incomprehensible.

Oh well, that's life. If it was easy, why would we bother playing?


1Whitey is a pool slang term for the cue ball.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nothing Much Happened

I hate not playing.

Last week, Mi2 subbed for me because I was helping a friend move. So tonight, I was dying to play, to be in a match, to face an opponent, to shrug off some nerves and to enjoy a few laughs. Well, we can't always get what we want.

Playing time was nine, again. I'm beginning to suspect that me or one my of my teammates pissed Chris(the league director) off, because we play nine o'clock matches eight times this fall; roughly half the season.

I had finished work, taken the L train home to Williamsburg, fixed dinner(barbecue chicken and broccoli), washed the dishes, read about Matt Damon in Esquire - still an hour and a half until playing time.

Fuck it, I thought, grabbing my cue and putting a book to read in my bag. I would wait it out at the bar.

I used to be very self-conscious sitting alone at bar(I still am, but used to be too1). I'm not as bad anymore, though, and being a regular at Amsterdam certainly helps.

A little after eight Amsterdam's opened double-doors let me and the Autumn air in, and walking briskly past the front desk the first thing I noticed was the red-headed waitress wasn't behind the bar. Sadly, this is usually my first order of business on league night.

Chris was in sight, though, and I was eager to pester him about my winnings from the previous season(I still hadn't collected them).

"Hey Chris, so this week it's OK to bug you about the prize money right?" I said, smiling(well, my equivalent of a smile, more of a like three-quarters grin).

"Sure you can bug me about it - doesn't mean you'll get it," he deadpanned.

Good humor makes for a great league director. Chris is easy to talk to and he handles all of the players, the demanding bunch that we are, beautifully. 

Telling me he would get me the money before my match started, Chris disappeared into the bowels of the packed pool hall. I sat at the far end of the bar, in front of the TV showing the Caps game. Why hockey was on, let alone Washington Capitals hockey, I had no idea, but I was going to enjoy it. Ovechkin scored his second goal as I was settling in.

I don't drink before a match, so I ordered a Diet Coke. Some players like to have a beer or two before they play, to calm their nerves. Not me - I'm paranoid about having an excuse for losing, as The Hustler's Burt Gordon would say, so I remove the temptation. After my match though, I can be quite the lush: it's a little embarrassing to admit that I've heard the houseman say Ladies and gentleman, Amsterdam Billiards will be closing in ten minutes three o'clock on a Monday morning.

I neglected my book, watching the Caps play to a 4-4 tie in the second period against the Flyers on one television and the Tigers and Twins play their one-game playoff on two others. The man next to me let out a loud cheer when the Twins turned an inning-ending double play. Being from the Washington/Baltimore area, I was envious of his enthusiasm.

Mike and Henry arrived around 8:30. While they ordered their beers(Stella, as always, for Mike, and Corona, as always, for Henry) Chris came over and handed me an envelope thick with 'Amsterdam Bucks'(the place's equivalent of gift certificates and the currency of league prizes). Mike and Henry gave me a quizzical look.

"I sold him a bunch of drugs," I said as vacantly as I could manage. I can't resist stupid little jokes.

When it came time for matches to be called, my opponent was nowhere to be found. Alex, Mike and Henry were paired off and I was left leaning against the wall, waiting, like the odd kid-out at a pick-up game.

Twenty minutes later(twice the grace period for a nine o'clock match) my opponent was still incognito, so it was a forfeit - a 5-0 win for my team. Even with that boost, we ended up 15-13 on the night. Still, it was enough to get us out of the league basement - we'd been in last since the second week of the season.

With nothing else to do, I practiced. A date was going on at the table next to me. Playing, at least from a technical perspective, horribly, the guy and his girl nevertheless had sexy, playful banter down to a science. I felt like high-fiving the guy as he left. Four days later, I would play on that same table, flirting my way through a similar dance - and we'll see what that leads too, at another time.

Alex lost a close match 4-5. Mike won 5-1. Henry had a tough night, losing 1-7, explaining why it was only me, Mike and Alex left at the end of the night. We are all hard on ourselves when we lose. Alex didn't lose by much, but he took it like he was the one who lost 1-7.

The walk to the L train was unsatisfying. After a win, the walk has a little swagger; you're a cue-wielding swashbuckler. After a loss, your walk is defiant, your expression blank - you'll do more than get them next time, you'll destroy them.

After not even playing, you're just another asshole walking home.


1My apologies to the late, great Mitch Hedberg.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The First Match of the Season

"I feel like Buckner walking back into Shea..." - Mike McDermott, Rounders

I hadn't been back to Amsterdam Billiards since the semi-finals of the summer season(this means I was gone only a week). That had not been a great night for me: the score between my team, Cueing Me Softly, and our opponents, The Pocketeers, was tied after everyone was done playing1. Ties need to be broken, so it was one game for the entire match. Between me and their best player.

I lost. And it still burned. Especially since, a week before, we had been in the exact same situation and I'd won.

Two rounds previous, our match had also come down to one tie-breaking game - this one a nine-ball game that was over in about 90 seconds. I won on a two-nine combo after getting my opponent to foul trying to kick at the one ball. We had only gotten to that point because Alex had won three straight games to close out his match to tie the team score. He hit a table-length bank on the last nine ball, and when it sunk into the pocket Mike and I jumped and cheered from the bar.

So my team, we knew what it felt like to be on the right side of this. And I didn't get us there the second time. Still, third place out of forty-one teams wasn't a bad finish for a team that was three-quarters rookies(me, Alex and Mike). We had been inches away from not even making the Top 8 and the money round of the playoffs - another reason to feel good about the past season.

Still, the thought of the last game I played here -- watching my opponent run out on me after I missed a relatively easy cut on a two ball in the side -- was all I could think about as we waited for our matches to be called.

Actually, that's a lie.

I was tired. Really, really fucking tired. We were playing at nine. Start times can vary from 6:30 to 9 -- mostly we will start at 7 or 8:30 -- and the nine o'clock matches are always brutal. It had already been a long day at work, and earlier Alex and I had gone out with co-workers to see a friend off before her month long vacation. A beer and diet coke for me(they should cancel each other out, right?), a couple of vodka and red bulls for Alex, and we weren't in too bad shape, I thought - but after only a couple of turns at the table I was blinking away exhaustion. So, my playoff failure and fatigue were all that were on my mind.

Actually, that's also a lie. There's a waitress at Amsterdam I have a (small)crush on. During the previous season, while I was waiting for that week's opponent to show up(he never did), she had introduced herself to me. She was very pretty, with stunning red hair. I've never been sure if that introduction meant anything, or if she was just being a super-friendly waitress(the guy I was waiting with said jokingly 'Hey, you never asked me my name!', but...still). Never sure because a)I haven't had the balls to ask and b)not really in a place to date anyway, because of a (fairly) recent break-up(when asked about her, I usually say B and leave out A). So my last match, being tired, and the fact that the red-headed waitress was behind the bar were (honestly) all I could think about. That's a lot for someone who has to play pool.

Anyway, after some announcements from Chris the League Director, the matches for the night were called out. When mine was called, I felt a small sense of pride and exhilaration hearing my new handicap2. I had moved up a level from a 6 to a 7, reaching a personal goal. Now, I just had to keep playing at that level. If I played badly, I could be dropped back down.

I was playing another 7, which made me happy because we would be playing even. Keeping track of handicap balls, while (in theory) strategically interesting, can be a pain. I preferred playing even.

My opponent was a very tall, bald bespectacled fellow name Paolo. I couldn't place his accent, but for some reason it made everything he said sound like a compliment. He looked to be in his forties, whereabouts between 40 and 49 I couldn't really place. Ageless in a middle-aged kind of way. I was a little surprised because, looking at the roster of the team we were playing earlier in the day, I noticed we were playing an all-girls team. Apparently, Paolo was a sub.

We were given one of the two tables nearest the front of Amsterdam; the TV tables as they are called3. I screwed together my cue, waiting for Paolo to finish talking to a small, older black woman at the bar. Finally he walked over, gestured to her asked "Do you mind if my ex-wife watches?"

", not at all. Hell, I should get my ex-wife here and we can have a party."

Not sure why I said that, but I was a little overwhelmed by all of the new information I had just consumed and for some reason it seemed important to be tied 1-1 in ex-wives(unless he had another one freshening up in the ladies' room). His ex-wife tried to sit in the chair nearest the table, before the League Director told Paolo she should sit somewhere more befitting a spectator(Alex later told me she tried to sit in the chair by his table).

A little weirded out, I watched Paolo break the first game of eight-ball4.

Nothing went down, so I sat-up, and slowly circled the table. This was it, my first shot of the new season. I'd been practicing, I'd made it up a level, and I wanted to stay there. I surveyed the table. Stripes looked like the better option; no painful clusters of balls to be broken up later, and they had a couple of solids blocked off from the pockets. The only makeable stripe at the moment though, was a (relatively) long shot: 12 ball, left-corner pocket.

A nice, long shot, right off the bat. How confident was I in my stroke? I got down, focusing on the contact point on the 12, and slowly loosened up my arm with my warm-up strokes. Then, the last stroke: pause at the cue ball, back swing - pause again - then smoothly, fluidly stroking forward through the cue ball.

The cue ball hit the 12 with a satisfying click, and the 12 rolled into the heart of the pocket. A good start.

I ran a couple more balls, then played safe. Paolo and I traded safeties for a bit, then he ran some balls, and we went back and for like that for a bit.

Finally, I had an opening and ran my remaining balls and got to the eight - a slight cut into the side-pocket. Not easy, but certainly not that hard.

I missed.

Maybe it was the pressure of my first game with a new handicap, or fatigue, but either way the ball didn't drop.

The eight ended up about an inch off the end rail. Luckily Paolo's only remaining ball, the three, wasn't makeable from where I had left him. He hit a great shot, though, leaving the three right by a corner pocket, and the cue ball at the far end of the table from the eight.

If I missed the eight, he would have an easy run from his three to the eight, and there wasn't really anywhere I could leave him safe either - the three was so close to the corner it was makeable from virtually anywhere on the table.

I briefly considered trying a hard safety, hitting the eight and trying to bring it in-line with the cue ball so it blocked the path to the three. Then I decided to just shoot the table-length bank. The hell with it, I thought, the game will either end here or when Paolo gets his turn at the table. I'm too tired for this shit.

I got down, stroked the shot and the eight rolled beautifully the length of the table and into the corner pocket. First game, first win of the new season. As a 7. With a tiny smile and a little sigh, I took my seat.

The smile didn't stick around long, as Paolo won the next game. He took advantage of my botched safety that left him with the eight straight in instead of snookered behind my last ball.

Latter in the next game, Paolo missed a shot and left me with a relatively easy run out with three of my solids left on the table. The only difficult shot was a force-follow show in the side pocket to bring the cue ball off the side rail and down towards the eight. When I made that shot, Paolo congratulated me. It was his favorite shot(of mine) of the night. Playing against someone who can admire the beauty of the game, even when it works against them, is a real pleasure. I always try and act the same way(and would later).

Paolo gave away the last game of eight-ball, scratching when I had nothing but the eight left. We moved onto nine-ball with me up 3-1.

Paolo quickly won the first game of nine-ball. I regained the upper hand, winning the next two games, the last running out from the four ball after Paolo had scratched.

For the first time, Paolo was visibly irritated. I was punishing him for his mistakes, and he was taking the heat, missing shots he would normally make. It didn't help that I was cruising now. It looked like I would be up 3-1 soon: after playing safe before the six, I sunk the six and the seven, getting position on the only tough shot of the rack, the eight ball. The eight was about a ball's width up the side rail from the left side pocket, with the nine below it on the end rail. I hit the eight perfectly, sending it straight up the table and into the corner-pocket while drawing the cue ball down, off one rail, in position to sink the nine. This will really have him talking to himself, I thought.

Then I choked. I guess I should mention that I was briefly taken out of rhythm while I was waiting for a player on table next to ours to take her shot, but that would just be a bullshit excuse. BUT the waiting gave me time to think about the nine, to think about how I should make it, be up 3-1, and how bad it would be to miss it.

I missed it, and Paolo made a tough cut to win the game. Instead of being up 3-1 in nine-ball, it was tied 2-2.

"Do you mind if I take pictures?"

I looked behind me, at Paolo's ex-wife. Was she serious? This is what ex-spouses do, photograph each other doing their hobbies?

"No - not at all."

"Thanks - Paolo can send them to you!", she said smiling.

Great. I'll look forward to that.

I smiled back.

Paolo won the next game, and what had looked like a sure win was now in danger of going to a tiebreaker: if Paolo won nine-ball 4-2, we would be tied 5-5 overall. I was determined to close the match out the next game.

I got to the nine first, but left myself another table-length bank. This one I missed, but I left Paolo a tough shot in corner that he missed. I made a tough cut in the left corner and sat up, relieved. I was guaranteed a match win, winning 6-5, worst-case. A good start to the Fall season.

The hill-hill game was over quick. Paolo kept missing the two ball, but was leaving me safe every time. After kicking at the two twice, I finally missed it the third time, giving Paolo ball-in-hand. The eight-nine was lined up dead in the right corner, albeit a good two-balls width apart. The two ball was about two feet away from the eight. Paolo joked about trying the three-ball combo, then his smile creased a little bit, he squinted at the table, put the cue ball down behind the two and fired away, making the shot. A three ball combo, and it looked perfect.

I was a little upset. Anyone would prefer winning 7-4 to winning 6-6, especially to an early combo shot, but a win is a win.

I shook hands with Paolo, his ex-wife, and joined Alex at the bar.

Alex had lost 5-6 in a tiebreaker. He said he should have won, but both of us always say that when we lose. Our teammate Mike had lost 2-5 - he had come by during my match to tell me, and said he was wiped-out and taking off. He looked tired, and I knew he would rebound next week when we would be finishing at nine instead of starting. Henry, our team captain, had won 4-3. So overall, we were 17-19 on the night. Not great, but not a disaster. We had started out much worse last season.

I walked out of Amsterdam happy, if not entirely satisfied. I could play better. I wanted us to win the championship this year, so I would have to play better. I also realized I had forgotten to use my drink-ticket, and to chat up the red-headed waitress.

Well, that's what next week is for.


1Each team has four players, and each plays one other player from the other team, matching up by handicap(see below). Total score of all of those matches determines the winning team.

2So the league can accommodate all skill levels, a handicap system is used. Players are ranked 2 to 11, 2 being never played before, 11 being a very good amateur player. When players with different handicaps play, the player with the lower handicap gets an advantage. In eight ball, that player can take down the last X balls of his group, X being the difference between his opponent's and his handicap. So if an 8 is playing a 6, the 6 player can take down the last two balls of his group(8-6 = 2). In nine-ball, the lower player has a money-ball(a ball that, in addition to the nine-ball, can be made to win the game). That ball is 9-X, X again being the handicap difference. So in the previous example, a 6 playing an 8 in nine-ball could also make the seven ball to win the game. A team can't have a combined handicap above 30. On my team, I'm a 7, Alex and Henry are a 6, and Mike is a 4.

3You can actually see these tables via web cam.

4A match in our league is a race to three in eight-ball, then a race to four in nine-ball. Total score wins, so a 3-2 win in eight ball plus a 2-4 loss in nine-ball means a total match score of 5-6.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Players

This is the Fall 2009 edition of Cueing Me Soflty:

I'm a web developer for an ad agency in New York City. Originally from the DC area, I moved to the Big Apple a little over two years ago. One day, stoned, I wandered into Amsterdam with my friend Alex to shoot a little. We saw a flyer for league play and decided, why the hell not? Something to do on Tuesday besides drink.

My friend, my co-worker, my partner in crime. He was hired about a year after me and we started hanging out after we discovered we had a lot of common interests(pool, poker, drinking, women, drinking, coding, writing, and drinking). Wow, I really make us sound like a couple of lushes.

Like Alex and me, Mike was a rookie our first season. We all got paired with Henry. A hell of a nice guy, funny, with great taste in music.

Our newest member, a quiet, sweet-dispositioned and sweet shooting girl.

The girl next door - literally. She lives next to the pool hall.

Monday, September 21, 2009

About This Blog

Every week, dozens of pool players of all abilities, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and degrees of mental health descend upon Amsterdam Billiards in Manhattan to play in organized leagues. During the summer of 2009, I played in my first league. It was fun, challenging, frustrating and rewarding. The dash of excitement and drama(not to mention the waitresses) made me feverishly look forward to Tuesday night. I met a lot of cool, interesting people - making friends and rivals(often being the same person).