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.