- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

Pool rhymes with cool, and that about fits.It's all about leaning over a green-felt-covered table, holding onto a narrow dowel called a cue stick, positioning its chalk-dusted tip before a white ivory ball, and firing the stick forward with your back hand. The ball shoots forward, hits a triangle of 15 colored balls with a heavy clack not a click and the orbs are sent scattering toward six pockets.

It's all about finesse, putting English on the ball, staying focused on the next shot. Pool is a game that can be played quietly, thoughtfully, even if the pool hall has Britney Spears as background noise.

Pool also can claim to be the most democratic of games, if you look at it from the point of view of billiards enthusiast Eric Fellers of Rockville, who spends time at Buffalo Billiards in the District.

"Anybody can at least hit the balls and try and make them [go] in," he says while seated at a round table at Buffalo Billiards.

The Washington area has dozens of pool halls. Many of them, like Buffalo Billiards, are ridiculously popular. Located in an underground cavern just a short stroll from Dupont Circle, this place has 32 pool tables and an oval bar. Manager Ellen Cox, 32, says it is packed Wednesdays through the weekends. Fridays and Saturdays, she says, sometimes demand a 2 1/2-hour wait.

"It's something to do other than just drink," says Ms. Cox, who admits that she's "not very good" at pool. "It's a good place for dates and company parties."

Look around and check out all the couples. Sometimes you'll see the man standing behind the woman under the guise of helping her guide her shot. Hanging out at Fast Eddie's in Springfield, Judy Sandall of Alexandria looks at billiards as the ultimate date idea, particularly for a first date.

"You see more couples coming," says Ms. Sandall, who has been playing for more than a dozen years. "If you meet someone on the Internet and meet here, this is neutral ground."

Meanwhile, the decor at Buffalo Billiards is what you would assume from the title. The motif speaks macho West, with leather-boot lamps. Elk horns hang on the walls. A statue of a black grizzly stands against one wall. The overhead lamps are shaped like giant half logs. Big fat cigars huddle in boxes beneath a glass case near the front door. Testosterone rules. Lots of betting goes on, and that's when games get serious.

"We tell people they can't bet for money," Ms.Cox says. "If they want somebody to pay their tab, then that's OK, but we don't want to see any money change hands over a game.

"It makes the place, I think, look a little bit seedier, and I don't think it's all that legal to do it out in public like that."

Indeed, it isn't legal.

Sandy-haired, goateed Tim Regan, 40, wearing khaki shorts, runs Fast Eddie's in Springfield and spends a lot of time behind the bar that runs practically the length of one side of the room. He admits that gambling goes on even though it's against the law in Virginia.

"As long as I don't see it " he says, cutting himself off in midsentence. "There's nothing you can do about it."

Still, he posts a long list of rules on the front door that begins with "No Gambling." Other caveats include "Have Fun and Play Nice" and "No Shirts That Display Vulgarities."

Generally, the betting at most pool places runs between $5 and $10 a game. In the District, where suspicions run high, people want to know whom they're playing first. One player, who asked to remain anonymous, says the best places for money are Atomic Billiards and Babe's Billiards Cafe in the District and Champion's in Shirlington.

Fast Eddie's is a more suburban pool hall, a family place, if you will. It sits in a strip mall not far from the infamous Mixing Bowl of Interstate 395. Two other Fast Eddie's thrive in Virginia; the Fairfax hall is affiliated with Springfield, but the one south of Alexandria has broken off with separate management.

It's a clubby kind of place, with brass railings and 15 Brunswick tables. (Brunswick has been making tables since 1845, when Swiss immigrant John Moses Brunswick's Cincinnati Carriage Making Co. crafted one for a meatpacker.) On a Friday night at Fast Eddie,'s you can get a table, and sometimes there are more people at the bar swigging drinks than on the floor, under the rectangular lights, handling cues. It's a more mature crowd, with lots of retirees racking the balls all day and night.

"There are players that will be here at 11 a.m., and they'll play until 2 a.m.," Mr. Regan says. "That's probably about $200." A devout marathon runner and golfer, Mr. Regan admits to playing pool reasonably well, but because he spends 30 to 50 hours a week at this establishment, he would just as soon be out on the links.

A good number of bleached-blond twentysomethings also favor Fast Eddie's, but they seem oblivious to the goings-on. Too bad; there's actually some good pool going on. You can tell the serious players. They have thick dark leather cylindrical bags that hold their retractable cues. Three older gentlemen are playing with a statuesque woman with short red hair.

Ms. Sandall, 53, sips on a tall rum and Coke while playing Nine Ball. In Nine Ball, the balls are racked in a diamond of the 1 through 9 balls. Players have to go in sequence of 1 through 9. While carefully surveying the other players' as well as her partner's moves, Ms. Sandall likes to point out the diversity of some of her fellow pool players around the room: Dwayne's a mailman, Emile's an ex-general, and Sammy's a hairdresser. Ms. Sandall is a technical writer for Lockheed Martin.

Wearing a white T-shirt, Ms. Sandall stands up straight and crouches down over the table. It's her turn, and her partner, Austin, watches her delivery carefully. Whoever wins this game wins for the evening. She shoots, and the white ball heads for a pocket. Scratch.

"Thanks, Judy," one of her opponents says.

"I'm sorry, Austin," Ms. Sandall says forlornly. Austin, a short, thin-haired, bespectacled guy in his 80s who doesn't give his last name, just shrugs.

Ms. Sandall, who has been playing for about a dozen years, says playing with three men is much more comfortable than in years before, when she was just a novice with a $75 stick. Even today, she can tell that some men get a little nervous playing with her, as if a woman shooting pool were a "novelty."

"When I started playing, it was awful," she says. "It was definitely a male place. A male-dorm kind of place. To the old crowd, when someone like me comes along, it's like an invasion.

"There are guys who won't play you because they'd rather be beaten by a guy. Some guys say it in jest, but there's a kernel of truth in what they say. It's still a male domain."

Mr. Regan, who notes that about one-third of his league players at Fast Eddie's are women, admits, "it's a guy thing. The same thing with softball. There are some women, but it's predominantly men."

At the far end from the front door at Fast Eddie's, John Shoop, 27, props himself against the wall. In his hand is a purple-colored shooter, some liqueur concoction whose ingredients escape him. He studies his wife, Rachel, 23, who's shooting pool by herself. She's shy and has long brownish hair and a wide, fetching smile. Both work at the Army Times; she's in graphics, and he's in distribution.

"I'm giving her as much advice as I can without her getting upset," Mr. Shoop murmurs.

At Buffalo Billiards, Mr. Fellers chuckles at a similar dilemma when it comes to dates at the pool parlor.

"I went on one last night," he says. "Actually, it was my ex-girlfriend, and she asked me to teach her how to play pool."

"Date pool" changes one's game, he says. "Yeah, you don't shoot very well. Purposefully and accidentally, you just don't focus at all and when you are a competitive pool player, it's almost not fun."

Mr. Fellers usually plays three to four times a week. Not only does it take practice and observation of one's betters to improve the game, but one must have the right equipment. For his birthday, Mr. Fellers plans to buy himself a Meucci cue stick, generally recognized as the top of the line. Such sticks can run from $300 up to $1,200 or so.

"I'm looking to spend around $600 or $700," he says. "That comes with getting your game better. A nicer stick eventually does make a difference. When you see golfers buy that awesome set of clubs, it doesn't help them all when they're beginners, but eventually, yeah, it might.

"If you're not that good, keep the stick cheap."

Mr. Shoop has been playing since the sixth grade, using the family pool table and making up games with his friends. (He wistfully relates that he owns his grandfather's pool cue. Unfortunately, he adds, the cue is warped because he didn't store it properly.)

He brags that he has played most of the pool halls in Northern Virginia and adds that he likes the challenge of hustling people he respects.

"The key to this game is not to play your opponent," Mr. Shoop says. "You play yourself."

Mr. Shoop just started playing golf, and he compares billiards with that game. Several pool aficionados have made the comparison, harking back to Mr. Shoop's idea that pool, like golf, can be played on one's own.

"It evens the playing field," Mr. Regan says. "You're not so much physically involved to be a good pool player."

Mr. Fellers, who fell in love with billiards at age 11 while on vacation in England, sees similarities to golf in that first delicious exposure to the new game.

"When you make that first incredible shot, all of a sudden, you're hooked," he says, chuckling. "Even though you may not make that incredible shot again for a while, you just know you've done it once, so you know it's possible, so you want to keep trying.

"Yet unlike golf, it's a little more attainable."

Over in a far corner of Buffalo Billiards, in a haze of smoke, two women circle a pool table like a pair of sharks. They're not looking at each other as they clutch their cue sticks. Kibitzing on a low-slung chair is Tony Diggs, 26, a Northwest resident. Looking like the actor Stephen Dorff with a goatee and a turned-around black hat, he is talking on his cell phone. A metal chain with a cross hangs around his neck.

Mr. Diggs has been playing pool since 1989. He had been playing soccer and basketball, but in 1992, he got hit in the eye with a dart, injuring his retina in two places.

"My eye doctor told me to avoid contact sports even though soccer and basketball aren't really that much contact," he says. "I don't have to worry about getting hit in the head with a cue ball. It could happen, but the chances are very slim, y'know?"

Mr. Diggs got started playing seriously just about four years ago, when several better players at Atomic Billiards told him, "'You have a decent shot, but you don't know what the hell you're doing.'" He speaks quietly and firmly about his game.

"The main thing is if you just sit around and shoot, it's mostly like you see the ball and try to make it," he says. "You're not really thinking about, 'If I make this, what am I doing the next time?' Most of it's cue control."

Billiards, much to the distress of this nation's Francophobes, probably began or at least was refined in France between the 14th and 15th centuries. It sprouted from a lawn game similar to croquet and was brought inside. The tables had green cloth to resemble the grass, and the balls were pushed around the table. (Bat-and-ball games, however, have been traced to 1500 B.C.)

Historians believe the term billiards came from "billart," or stick, or "bille," for ball. The first evidence of a billiard table is from 1470, one owned by King Louis XI of France. (It didn't have pockets, but it did have a hole in the center.)

For a period before her beheading, Mary Queen of Scots had a billiard table in her prison cell. Even Shakespeare referred to the game in "Antony and Cleopatra": "Let's to Billiards."

Billiards came to America with the early Colonists. George Washington was taught to play the game when he was young, although he never had a table installed at Mount Vernon.

President John Quincy Adams was a different story. An infamous pool hustler, Adams put the first pool table in the White House. Supporters of Andrew Jackson, who lost the presidential election to Adams even though he won the popular vote, charged Adams with moral corruption, gambling and misuse of public funds. After all, the table had cost $50.

Jackson removed the table when he succeeded Adams in 1829 (Old Hickory preferred gambling on horses), and a table wasn't put back in the White House until Ulysses S. Grant's presidency in 1869.

In the 20th century, pool was energized by such renowned players as Willie Hoppe, who won his first world title at age 18. Willie Mosconi, who won the world championships 15 times between 1940 to 1957, played thousands of exhibition matches on behalf of Brunswick to spread the word about the sport.

Such legends inspired players to approach the game with more confidence, and players including Mr. Fellers say that they even can see such pros working a room like Buffalo Billiards or Atomic Billiards.

"Even a good player might be able to make a certain shot," Mr. Fellers says, "but a pro can make it much more assuredly with a much higher percentage rate, and also, they know when not to make certain shots more often.

"And the thought process is much faster. And the overall style of the game they shoot like a hustler as opposed to someone who has a little shakiness to their stick. And yet the pro can be extremely friendly and knock balls around and still make them all when they're not trying."

Billiards' popularity faded in the 1950s with the advent of television, but in 1961, the game got a boost from "The Hustler," a movie that portrayed a darker side of the sport. Scenes of Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson up against Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason, as well as stellar performances by Piper Laurie and George C. Scott, sparked interest and led to the opening of more pool halls.

About the same time, the coin-operated pool table was introduced. The game fell into decline during the Vietnam era, only to be revived by Mr. Newman again: He won an Oscar in 1986 as the older Fast Eddie in "The Color of Money," which co-starred Tom Cruise.

"It pumps you up," Mr. Fellers says of "The Color of Money." "But as you start to play for money, in true life, there are some falsities about [the movie] but are some truths about it. Typical Hollywood."

Like what falsities?

"It's not quite so easy for people to just always find a hustle," says Mr. Fellers, who has a light goatee and wears a black Adidas baseball cap. "People aren't always so willing to put up that kind of money. But again, maybe if a person's a hustler, maybe they know how to find a little better than somebody like me does.

"I've been hustled before but not to that kind of level."

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