Maybe it all started when I got kicked out of the women’s powder room at the Masonic Lodge. I was, I don’t know, four or six–old enough to be lovestruck over my oldest sister’s friends and young enough to be more or less invisible to them. I’d play quietly in the corner and sneak looks as these young women applied fresh lipstick, as they adjusted their bras just so and rolled pale stockings into the dark region between their pale legs. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even have to look–I’d just close my eyes and breathe in their perfume, a scent as beautiful as their orchid corsages.
“Hey–what’s he doing in here?” one woman I was in love with said, whereupon I was scooted out of the women’s powder room forever.
The door shut behind me with a little whoosh of perfumed air, and I slowly scuffed my way downstairs to the poolroom, which right then happened to be empty I was just above eye level with the huge mahogany pool table, and I rolled a few balls around the green baize–angrily at first and then with building interest. The solid weight of the table, the sea of green cloth, the click of the brightly colored balls, the soft thunk of the rails, the surprising angles–all of it was mesmerizing. This was, I realized, a beautiful game. Or maybe it started about thirty years later, in Syracuse, New York. I moved there to go to graduate school, and I met a smart, beautiful woman, also in graduate school, and we fell in love fast. We were both passionate about our work, and that passion seemed to carry over into the time we spent together. She’d stop by my office between classes, and we’d lock the door and turn out the lights and kiss for a while in the dark. And we’d go cross-country skiing out at Green Lakes, then come back to my apartment and make love, and afterward we’d have cozy dinners and Belgian beers in front of my fireplace, right beside my pool table–my first–a beautiful 1920s model made of solid birch, with walnut rails and mother-of-pearl points.
And in Syracuse, I became friends with one of the great legends of pool, Arthur “Babe” Cranfield, the 1964 World Professional Pocket Billiard Champion, who was seventy-nine when I met him at Cap’s Cue Club for my first lesson.
Babe Cranfield is frail and slight, and in his checked polyester slacks and yellow polo shirt, he looks like an old duffer from a country club, except that the cuffs of his polyester slacks are rolled and his yellow shirt is faded. His right eye tears from a childhood baseball injury; his father had thought he was spending too much time in the poolroom, so Babe took up baseball and was nearly blinded by a line drive. He soon went back to pool, at which he was a prodigy.
Before we started the lesson, we both watched a shooter doing a tricky shot at a nearby table. The shooter did the same shot over and over, and he didn’t miss.
“Wow!” I said.
Babe said, loud enough for the shooter to hear, “He’s not shit.”
The shooter ignored Babe, and Babe turned his back on the shooter.
“Look at him,” Babe commanded.
“What’s he doing?”
“A hard shot?” I said, knowing already that my answer would be wrong.
“No, no, no!” Babe said. “He’s just showing off. He’s just practicing what he knows. Let me ask you something. You want to be a champion?”
My stomach clenched at this question. To answer it honestly–Yes, of course I want to be a champion–seemed, given my current abilities, absurd.
I said, hesitantly, yes.
There were tears coming from Babe’s right eye, as if whatever he was about to say had come at great cost. Then he leaned close and whispered, “If you want to be a champion, practice your weaknesses.”
A lot of guys seem to think that the ability to shoot pool is not something you learn but something you’re born with. You simply are or are not a good pool player, and to not be a good pool player is to have been born deficient. And since most guys don’t want to be deficient, they will play a game of pool-shooting too hard, missing horribly–and when they get lucky and pocket a ball, they’ll think, Hmm, pretty good.
I was one of those guys. I actually fancied myself something of a pool shark when I first got to Syracuse. I could win beers in bars, relieve drunks of their money, hold court on a seven-foot coin-op.
All of which was not shit at Cap’s Cue Club, a dingy poolroom filled with great players. I soon learned that I was no pool shark–I was no player. This knowledge came to me not through getting hustled or getting in any way beaten. It was worse than that. The players at Cap’s Cue Club weren’t just unimpressed with my game, they were bored with my game. For these players–skulking at the front counter, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, their hands blue with chalk dust-the prospect of playing me was more boring than, say, staring at Formica. I couldn’t run a rack of balls, which, to a player, is the equivalent of crawling. I couldn’t do a stop shot, a follow shot, a draw shot–or not with any consistency, and players are nothing if not consistent. I had no stroke, which meant that the cue ball would sometimes do as it was intended and sometimes, usually when a player was glancing my way, it would not.
In the Sunday-night handicapped tournaments at Cap’s Cue Club, the ratings go from double-A all the way down to D. I was rated a D. There is nothing lower than a D, and several of the other D’s could beat me.
Not long after we got together, my girlfriend told me she still had a lingering relationship with a man in Los Angeles, but it was a relationship mainly of inertia, she said. In truth, she made this man she once loved sound like an old dog she couldn’t quite bring herself to shoot. But she didn’t mention him often, and when she did, her voice took on a tone of bitterness at worst and pity at best.
One night, my girlfriend and I were snuggled in bed and talking about our future together, and we got onto the subject of names we might choose for a baby We snuggled a little closer and talked some more, and as I was drifting off to sleep, she started crying into my shoulder. “He never even talked to me about our relationship”, she said.
I was suddenly awake, but I didn’t know how to react. How are you supposed to react when a woman sees you not for what you are but for what another man isn’t? At that moment, though, it seemed convenient, and even noble, to be what he was not. Still, I didn’t know what to tell her, so I told her the truth. “I love you,” I said.
She held me tightly and said, “I love you, too.” Then she said, “You’re different.”
The next morning, after she’d left, I found on my bathroom mirror a fresh, red lipstick kiss.
Every day at noon, I’d watch Babe shoot straight pool, and what I learned from watching him was cue-ball control. His days of three- and four-hundred-ball runs were long gone, but it wasn’t unusual for him to run a hundred balls, shooting difficult shots when he had to–kisses, combinations, masses, banks–but usually positioning the cue ball so that his next shot was easy His game had the logic and beauty and complexity of a chess match, and if you closed your eyes and just listened, it sounded like a chess match: click, click, click…. In practice, Babe once had a high run of 768. My high run stood at 16.
But my pool game was improving, and I got it into my head that I’d be an A-rated player by the time I left Syracuse. I was beginning to pocket balls consistently, and every now and then I’d even manage to run out in nine ball and shoot eighteen or twenty balls in straight pool. I wasn’t a very good player yet, but I was less of a bad player.
My game improved dramatically, though, when I broke up with my girlfriend. She hadn’t been able to end that other relationship, so eventually I had to end ours. Which, of course, left me wishing I’d ended it sooner, wishing I’d never gotten involved with her in the first place, and wishing more than anything that we could get back together. But our lives had become so intermingled that everything in my life reminded me of her, so I’d go down to Cap’s Cue Club in an effort to get away from both of us.
And it worked. I developed a seriousness–a sudden dark concentration. Pool was still a beautiful, mysterious game, and I still loved to play it, but the beauty now was in understanding the mystery instead of just being amazed by it. The world was reduced to four and a half by nine feet. There were fifteen balls. Everything you needed was right there on the table. The rest was up to you.
By the time my girlfriend and I got back together, I was rated a C.
She’d ended that other relationship, she said, and we were for a while very happy, and I happily spent more time with her than I did at Cap’s Cue Club. But even though I spent less time at it, my game continued to improve. My dark concentration had been replaced by a calm focus. And by the time we broke up again, when she told me she’d only conditionally ended that other relationship and I boxed up her nightgown, her toothbrush, her CDs, and all the rest of her stuff from my apartment and handed them to her with the sincere wish that she stay the fuck out of my life, I was rated a C-plus.
And this was when I got very serious about my game. Even the players at Cap’s Cue Club noticed, and a few of them would play me once in a while. Sometimes, I’d come home from the poolroom and find pleading notes that my girlfriend–my ex-girlfriend–had left on my doorstep. One time, I found flowers. Another time, I found her. She assured me that the other relationship was over, it was done, it was dead. Common sense told me to run from her, but I couldn’t shake the notion that the only roadblock in our relationship had come down–the road was open. I was rated a B.
My high run was now forty, which was respectable, if not stellar, pool. But my learning curve had gone flat. I’d become a B, and I stayed a B.
One day while I was watching him shoot, Babe started ranting to me about Minnesota Fats–one of Babe’s favorite rants. “That bum couldn’t run fifty balls,” Babe said, and fired off a perfect wing shot. All serious pool players know that Minnesota Fats was little more than a middling player who happened to be a spectacular self-promoter. But if running fewer than fifty balls constituted a bum …
I was nearly done with graduate school. I had a teaching job lined up in the fall, and my girlfriend would be gone for a good part of the summer, finishing up her fieldwork. I knew that if there was ever a time to get my game up to A level, this was it.
Babe had just been inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame, and I thought about asking him to train me. I knew he’d probably agree to do it, but in pool, as in golf and tennis, the best players are not always the best teachers. Babe’s stroke was unorthodox, and his teaching methods included whanging his ancient Herman Rambow cue against the rail and saying, “No, no, no!”
So I called a man whom many consider to be the best pool instructor in the country, former pro Jerry Briesath, a BCA Master Instructor who’s trained hundreds of players, from beginners all the way up to top pros such as Danny Harriman and Jeff Carter. When five-time world champion Nick Varner wanted to give his father some pool lessons, he sent him to Jerry Briesath in Madison, Wisconsin.
Jerry said, “You say you’re about a B-level player right now, huh? Well, what is it you want to do with your game?”
“Oh, not much,” I said. “I’d just like to be able to beat Efren Reyes, Mike Sigel, and Earl Strickland.”
Jerry got a good laugh at the idea of a B player suddenly able to beat three of the greatest pool players alive.
I was laughing, too, but secretly I was dead serious.
Jerry said, “Some people come for a clay, some people come for as long as a week….”
I thought about my upcoming summer alone and said, “A month. How good do you think I can get in a month?”
“Well,” he said, still laughing a little, “you should definitely get better.”
On the flight to Madison, I got myself worked up into something of a panic. Here I was with my thousand-dollar cue, a Mike Bender five-point made of ebony and bird’s-eye maple with sterling-silver rings–a cue worthy of the player I wanted to become. But what if my best efforts were an utter flop? I was going to Madison with the assumption that I could get my game up to A level (which is, by the way, nowhere near good enough to beat a professional player, only good enough to play one). What if I practiced pool all day every day for a month with the best pool instructor in the country and I was still a B player, a B person–a man consigned to a B life?
Jerry didn’t say I would definitely get better; he said I should definitely get better. And he was laughing when he said it.
I leaned back in my seat and thought about my girlfriend. Her flight had left a few hours before mine, and our goodbye at the airport–one of those clenched hugs and a swift, deep kiss–had been sad but also something of a relief. When I held her like that, I could smell her shampoo–a faint scent of clove and, I don’t know, maybe cherry. I could almost smell it still, but not enough. This time apart, I figured, would be good for us. We’d gotten up that morning at 4:00 A.M. and made love like two people who have forever and who’ll see each other in a month anyway.
A big sign at the airport read, WELCOME TO MADISON, WISCONSIN, THE NO. 1 CITY IN AMERICA. All airports everywhere have signs like this, but as I rode in a taxi from the airport to the hotel, it seemed as if the sign had been right. Every yard seemed to be weedless; every flower seemed to be in perfect bloom. Everybody looked happy and healthy and well fed.
It was sort of creepy. “Is there a bad part of town?” I said to the cabdriver, and she looked at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Well, there are parts that aren’t as good.”
I kept seeing signs that read, MADISON, WISCONSIN, THE NO. 1 CITY IN AMERICA, and when I asked the driver about it, she said, “Money magazine. Last year, they rated us number one.”
“Oh, that’s terrific,” I said. I looked at the rearview mirror and noticed her eyes glaring at me.
Jerry Briesath has a camera pointed at me–a video camera–and he positions a few balls on the pool table and says, “Just shoot this shot the way you normally would.” He says this the way a doctor might say, “Just breathe naturally” while checking you with a stethoscope for lung cancer.
But it’s a simple shot, and I make it and most of the other shots that Jerry sets up–stop shots, draw shots, follow shots–and so I’m feeling pretty confident until we sit down to look at the video.
The Green Room is sort of a pool player’s version of heaven. There are huge skylights overhead; there are twenty gorgeous new Brunswick Gold Crowns; there are two Verhoeven billiard tables with heated slates; and overlooking all of this is a big bar with lots of dark wood and polished brass and a good-looking waitress named Natalie.
None of which shows up on the video. What Jerry has chosen is a tight focus–not on the pool table or the pockets or the balls but on my arm. And what the video shows, again and again, is an impatient, spasmodic jab–the motion of a timid kid poking a frog with a stick.
The video seems endless, but Jerry finally stops the tape and says, “Do you know what a good stroke is?”
I’ve been shooting pool long enough to know that I’m supposed to know the answer to this. “Follow-through?” I say.
“Well, that’s part of it,” Jerry says, “but not all of it.” He is sixty but looks ten years younger; he’s tall and dark-haired, and with his thin, old-fashioned mustache, he reminds me of William Powell. It seems obvious that he likes the line he’s about to deliver. “A good stroke,” Jerry says, “is a beautiful throwing motion.” He does a graceful golf swing with an imaginary club. “A beautiful throwing motion,” he says. He winds up and pitches an imaginary baseball. “A beautiful throwing motion.” Jerry pitches another imaginary baseball, but this time with the jerky urgency that’s clearly an analogue to my pool stroke. “Not a beautiful throwing motion,” he says, and lets out a high, cartoonish laugh. “Pool is one of those games where if you don’t look good while you’re doing it, you’re not good.”
This whole first week, I’m working on my system–that’s what Jerry calls it, my system–which is everything I do from the time I look at the ball until it stops rolling, and it should CHIN LOCK be easy learning what is, in essence, a simple swinging of the arm, but is ADDRESS THE BALL also a matter of unlearning something, unlearning SIGHT IN everything, and the mechanics have become complex, and in the complexity, I keep SLOW BACKSTROKE losing track of what I’m used to doing, namely pocketing balls, and so while STROKE TWICE I’m supposed to be here to improve my pool game, my pool game at present is worse than ever, it is, in fact, DON’T DROP THE ELBOW wretched, and my stroke does not resemble a beautiful PAUSE throwing motion, it is awkward and stiff and forced SIGHT IN and resembles the spasm of a broken robot, and what would have been a simple shot a week SMOOTH RHYTHM ago now seems impossible if I do everything else right, and there is a lot SLOW BACKSTROKE to do right, and I find myself mumbling Jerry’s system like a mantra–his twangy, midwestern STROKE TWICE voice stuck in my head–and my first week of serious pool instruction has PAUSE my arm aching and my back aching, not from any difficulty SIGHT IN AGAIN of movement but from focusing so fucking LOOK AT THE OBJECT BALL much, and in the evenings, I walk away from the poolroom feeling SLOW BACKSTROKE regressive and whipped, sometimes skipping dinner SHOOT and sometimes going FOLLOW THROUGH for a sullen walk along beautiful Lake Mendota, and back at DON’T DROP THE ELBOW the hotel, I call my girlfriend to hear how she’s doing and to take in the pure comfort KEEP THE TIP ON THE CLOTH of her voice, but we keep trading telephone messages, and we just can’t seem to STAY DOWN connect.
By the second week, I’ve worked my way up to stop shots. Stop shots. I’d thought that by now I’d be working on three-rail kicks, pattern play, strategies for breaking up clusters. But no, I’m working on stop shots, and every now and then, I’ll still hear Jerry’s voice, sometimes real and sometimes imagined, telling me to slow down my backstroke and pause before I shoot–bad habits I can’t seem to shake.
There are other people here like me, usually two or three every day, people who love pool and who’ve come here to have Jerry Briesath change their pool games and their lives, although almost nobody will admit it.
One young man from Michigan tells me he’s come here to get better but not too much better–it would screw up his rating in the bar league back home. But later, he admits that he hasn’t told anybody about coming here–not even his girlfriend. He doesn’t want to look foolish if his game, as he puts it, “still sucks.” An old guy on vacation stops in for a lesson. His Winnebago’s out in the parking lot. He says he plays pool at about seventy senior centers around the country every year and wants to improve his game, but not too much, or else nobody at the senior centers will play him.
It makes me want to laugh–in fact, after I hear about the eighth guy say, “I don’t want to get too much better,” I do laugh. But it’s safer, I guess, to believe that you actually could get too much better, that your capacity for transformation is boundless, and that your mediocre pool game is really the result of a shrewd and well-reasoned decision.
Jerry comes over to my table and studies me as I shoot a stop shot.
I shoot, the object ball drops in the pocket, and the cue ball stops as if it had hit glue. Perfect!
Jerry shakes his head gravely and says, “Pause! Pause before you shoot!” He’s said this to me about a million times so far. It seems as if what he’s really getting at is some kind of monstrous character flaw.
Maybe it’s the payoff of endless repetition, or maybe it’s the notion of enjoyment as a component of perfection. Whatever. By the end of the second week, my game, my system, is beginning to take shape.
My focus has shifted from what’s happening out there on the table to what’s happening right here with my arm, my stroke. Whether I’m shooting a draw shot or a shot with lots of English (and English, by the way, is sidespin), I take slow backstrokes, I pause, I follow through after I shoot, and I make sure that the tip of the cue is touching the cloth when I’m finished. Now when I do a follow shot, the cue ball hits the object ball, then rushes forward. When I do a draw shot, the cue ball hits the object ball, pauses for a second, then comes racing backward like a yoyo, on a string. What Jerry has been hammering into my head is beginning to make sense, and I’m beginning to feel it. My stroke is becoming a beautiful throwing motion.
I leave the poolroom feeling dizzy with accomplishment and walk along the State Street Mall–the number-one street in the number-one city in America. There are no cars allowed, only pedestrians and bicyclists and clean white buses that run on time. The bicyclists actually signal when they turn. The pedestrians stop at red lights. There are students and panhandlers and folk musicians and kids with blue hair and tattoos–and they all look so well scrubbed and cute! The State Street Mall, in its trendiness and diversity, reminds me of New York City’s East Village, if the East Village had been built in Switzerland and run by Disney.
Madison seems to exude number-oneness, and I feel, with my new pool game, that I’m a part of it.
The next week, Jerry works with me on bank shots, rail-first shots, frozen-to-rail shots, pattern play, safeties, two- and three-rail kicks, and by the end of the week, he says, “You should get into a low-stakes money game with some body better than you and plan on losing twenty or thirty dollars. You need to practice under pressure.”
So, as soon as I can, I get into a nine-ball game, with a guy named Gary, a fine player with a beautiful stroke. As he’s putting together the flashy McDermott cue he won in a state tournament, he says, “What are you rated?”
I tell him I’m rated a B, and he offers to give me the eight ball, ten bucks a set, race to seven. I figure he’ll make short work of my thirty dollars.
I’m a little nervous at first, but then I settle into my system–sight in, slow backstrokes, pause before I shoot–and soon I’m up a few games, and then I end up winning the set. This has to be some sort of fluke, I think, but we play another set, and I win that one, too.
“I’ll play you the next set even,” Gary says. “Otherwise, I’m done.”
I feel this giddiness as I step up to the table–and miss MY first shot, a simple one I should have made. So I concentrate on my system when I get to the table again–sight in, slow backstrokes, pause before I shoot–and I win the set seven games to four.
Gary says, “That’s all for me.” And as he’s unscrewing his flashy McDermott cue, he says, curtly, “You are not a B.”
When I call my girlfriend that night, the first thing I tell her is “I’m not a B anymore!”
“What?” she says.
I start to tell her about the match, and about Gary, and about how we played the last set even, and she interrupts me and says, without enthusiasm, “That’s great.”
I ask her how things are going, and she says, “Fine.”
I ask her how she’s feeling, and she says, “Tired.”
I ask her from what, and for a long time she doesn’t say anything. Then she says, “I’ve just been feeling different lately.” And when I ask her specifically how she feels different, she says, “Just different.”
A few days later, I play in the weekly tournament at the Green Room. My first match is against a loudmouth from Kentucky who keeps snapping at Natalie the waitress and under his breath calls her a bitch. I have this urge to hit him upside the head with my pool cue, but my pool cue is too good for that. So I take extra-special pleasure when I win the match–easily. I win my next one easily, too, and the next, and the next, and it’s not so much that the matches are easy as that I’m not making things difficult for myself.
My system, it seems, is working, because I end up winning the tournament. It’s only forty dollars, but I’m still excited about it, and the first thing I do when I get back to the hotel is call my girlfriend and say, “What do you mean, `different’?”
She seems moody and says she’s tired and would rather not talk about it right now, and I say, “Talk about what?”
“I just feel different about things,” she says.
“Things,” I say, and wait.
“Different about us,” she says. There is pity in her voice, a pity edged with bitterness, and I get this sickening feeling not just that our relationship is ending but that it’s already ended, and that she’s ended it without bothering to include me in the process. And it’s clear–I can hear it in her voice; it’s a voice I know well–she’s included someone else.
“No, sir,” the desk clerk at the hotel says, “there still aren’t any messages for you.”
I hang up the pay phone and stalk back to my pool table, where I shoot another rack of balls too hard and too fast, and I really don’t give a shit. In the last week, my game has abandoned me completely. Utterly. There is not a letter of the alphabet to categorize me now. It’s my last day in town, thank God, since the Green Room and all of Madison have become sort of hellish. Even Money magazine seems to agree: Its new list has come out, and Madison has been demoted to the seventh-best city in America. I keep ordering coffees from Natalie just to catch the scent of her perfume. I’ve got so much caffeine in me, I’m vibrating. And I keep thinking, different, and shoot, different, and shoot–hard enough to send the balls to the moon.
At a nearby pool table, two hackers are narrating every shot they make, and the whole thing sounds disturbingly like a porno flick.
“Come, come, come!”
“Oh, yeah, Oh, yeah!”
I try a long, difficult cut shot, and the ball is rolling toward the pocket, rolling almost in a perfect line, and I find myself standing up and leaning in the direction I want the ball to go. But the ball jaws in the pocket and doesn’t drop.
Jerry materializes beside my table. “No,” he says. “Do a mature miss.” Jerry pronounces it “ma-toor.”
“What’s a mature miss?” I ask.
“A mature miss,” he says, “is when you stay down and figure out what you did wrong. As long as you keep jumping up like that, you’re just going to keep making the same mistake over and over.” Jerry is just standing there, but he seems to be looming over me.
“Missing is part of the game,” he says. “Learn from your misses.”