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'The Sporting Life': Pocket Billiards

By John Razook, 2:53PM, Mon. Oct. 16, 2006

'The Sporting Life': Pocket Billiards

   Bar games, pub games, or parlor games – call them what you will, but there is no denying that Americans love sporting action when they drink.
   And I can’t blame them. I’m one of them.
   So pour me another one, barkeep, and rack 'em because this week we’re playing the king-daddy of all bar games: pool.
   Pool, or “pocket billiards,” is a vague subclassification of the broader category of billiards. All such table games are thought to have evolved into indoor games from outdoor stick-and-ball games.
   I learn this from Harry Murdoch, a mean mother of a pool player, on a Saturday night at Click’s on East Oltorf. Click’s is one of many pool halls in town, and my being in this particular one probably has more to do with the fine Vietnamese food down the road at Hai Ky as it does with the pool hall itself.
   Not to take anything away from the fine folks at Click’s. Heck, if I hadn’t dropped in, I wouldn’t have met Harry.
   You know him. His type, anyway. Tall and rangy, walking with a slow and leisurely gait, he walks in the front door after stubbing out a Pall Mall, carrying his own pool cue in a small case.

   His hair is grayish, receding slightly at the temples, and brushed back. His skin is leathery and tan, though it is also carrying the burden of years spent in pool halls that were, before our little experiment with smoking bans, filled with the thick fog of cigarette smoke.
   He walks to the bar and orders a drink. Whiskey and soda. A fine drink for a man of sport, I think. I’ve been sitting along the wall, watching people come and go. On this particular night, it’s been mostly young people, out having a few drinks and shooting a game or two before heading on to the next destination. I’ve been watching and waiting for Harry.    Not Harry himself, of course, as I’ve never met the man, but who he is:
   The Killer.
   The man with an easy self-confidence who looks for a game that will challenge him. The man who seeks other players of true skill, to battle, to wage epic competition that can only be settled on a nine-foot table.
   I’ve been waiting for Harry because I once wanted to be Harry.
   I used to stalk pool halls like an assassin, a merciless punk who shot stick for the thrill of the kill, taking down many an overconfident drunk and usually leaving with more than just a little of his money.
   Not anymore, though. Those days ended long ago, when I got myself into a game I couldn’t get out of. It was eerie, like a scene from The Hustler, only instead of me being the hotshot kid gunning for Minnesota Fats, I became the mark, and I was taken to town by a kid who was probably too young to drive, much less shoot pool in an Oklahoma bar.
   I haven’t played since, or, if I have, it’s been maybe two or three times. And the results weren’t pretty. My game is gone, like Brett Favre.
   I still know a killer when I see one, though, and as soon as Harry walks in the door I know he’s my man. I wait for him to nearly finish his drink as he surveys the room searching for a game before buying two whiskey sodas and approach him.
   “Hey,” I say smiling and offering him one of the glasses. “Looking for a game, huh?”
   “Yup,” he mutters, looking me over quickly, trying to decide if I’m a serious player. “You wanna shoot?”
   “No,” I say. “Not me. I’m no good. I just wanted to talk to you about pool, if that’s okay. Maybe watch you school some of these kids.”
   “Hell, a guy can’t find a serious game anymore, doesn’t seem like,” says Harry.
   Harry and I talk off and on for the next hour or so, as he proceeds to beat one challenger after another. No gambling takes place. Harry says a person can get in serious trouble for betting in a pool hall.
   “Ain’t like it used to be,” he says.
   He tells me that “pool” generally refers to pocket billiard games such as 8-ball, 9-ball, and straight pool. The word “pool” comes from “poolrooms,” where people gambled off track on horse races. They were called “poolrooms” as money was pooled to determine odds on the races. Because such rooms commonly had billiards tables, pool became synonymous with billiards by association, and now “pool” and “pocket billiards” are interchangeable.
   Harry knows his stuff. He toyed with the idea of becoming a pro, he says, before he got it handed to him by a real pro.
   “Luckily I didn’t lose any money,” he says. “I coulda been cleaned out. I just wanted to see, you know, if I had what it took. Guess I didn’t, but I ain’t exactly bad, neither.”
   No, Harry certainly isn’t bad. He could have whipped me like a Baylor Bear even in my best days and I let him know I appreciated his pool-table artistry by buying another round.
   In addition to supplying me with knowledge as to the origins of the game, he relayed the differences in table size. It seems that snooker and English billiards use a 12-foot table. Snooker is the most popular form of billiards played competitively in the British Isles and many other countries, although it is rarely played in the U.S.
   In the States, pool halls generally feature 9-foot tables, while most bars will have 7-foot coin-operated tables. For Americans, 8-ball is the most popular billiard game and is played on the pro scene, where players on the International Pool Tour are the most highly paid in the world.
   Strangely enough, according to Harry, 9-ball is actually the predominant pro game, played here even more often than 8-ball.
   “I’ve always liked 9-ball,” I tell Harry. “An elegant game.”
   “You’re damn right,” he grunted, lining up for a shot to win his game against a large bald man sporting a thin chinstrap beard and what looked like diamond earrings. Harry’s victim never took his sunglasses off, even as he shook Harry’s hand after having the table run on him.
   “That’s some great shooting, old-timer,” he said, turning away from Harry to face the jeers of his friends who had lined up near the table to watch the game.
   “Hell, I ain’t that old,” Harry laughs to me, finishing off his whiskey.
   He slaps me on the back and walks out the door to smoke a cigarette.
   [The Sporting Life suggests you try the tables at Eric's Billiards (4631 Airport Blvd) as well as one of the many Click's here in town.]

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