FELL IN LOVE WITH POOL AT THE age of thirteen. My family lived in a suburb of Cincinnati, and in the summers I would earn spending money by mowing the lawns of the old folks in the neighborhood. One of my customers was Mr. Hopkins, who lived in a house that looked like a riverboat docked at the end of the street. Unlike most of my clients, Mr. Hopkins only wanted his yard cut every other week. At first I thought he was cheap, but 1 learned later that he wanted as little noise as possible around the house so as not to disturb his wife, who was chronically ill.
Mr. Hopkins’s problems didn’t mean much to me, except that since I only mowed his lawn every other week, the grass was tall enough to choke the engine and required five hours of heavy pushing to do the job, which earned me four dollars. I would mutter vile curses under my breath as I worked my way up and down row after row of grass.
Near the end of that summer Mr. Hopkins offered to sharpen the blade on our mower, which had been dulled considerably by his jungle of a yard. Exhausted and grouchy after a day of mowing. I was in no mood to watch the old man putter in his workshop. But my father insisted I be polite. We took the blade off the mower and followed Mr. Hopkins down a spiral staircase into the basement of his riverboat house.
It was my father who noticed the pool table, or what he thought looked like pieces of a pool table, stacked in a dusty corner of the basement. There were three large slabs of black slate leaning against the wall, six three-foot-long hunks of wood stacked like logs, two eight-foot panels, and two awkward looking leg-like units, painted fire-engine red, leaning against a ratty couch. Mr. Hopkins confirmed that it was an old pool table. And seeing my father’s eyes light up, he told us to take it home.
Working to restore the table became a project for father and son, and as my dad’s enthusiasm was communicated to me a special bond began to grow between us. We purchased paint remover, putty knives, steel wool, and sandpaper and began removing layers of red paint from the old wood. As the grain emerged, my father explained to me the value of solid oak and mahogany. We scraped and sanded and varnished the rich brown wood until, after many weeks of work, we were ready to assemble the pieces. My father hired a professional supplier to assist with the final, critical details. After installing new rubber in the rails, fitting the spots with mother-of-pearl inlay, replacing the brass accents, nesting it with new leather pockets, laying down a vibrant green felt cloth, and leveling it, we had an original, one-of-a-kind, antique pool table. The supplier offered to buy it and even wrote out a check for two thousand dollars, an offer we later learned was shamelessly low. But my father saw my worried expression, laughed, and handed back the check (though many years later he admitted that for a moment he was tempted). I loved my father so much that day.
Twenty years have passed and I’ve played on many other tables in many other towns, but that first table is still a strong link between my father and me. On that table the mysteries and beauties of billiards first revealed themselves to me as 1 learned to play under my father’s guidance. As we played endless games of eight ball we would talk about his own youthful love of the game, and for the first time I began to see my father as a separate human being with a life, a history, that stood apart from the history we shared as father and son. And when I come home now for Christmas, the only question is who will be first to suggest that we go down in the basement and shool a game of pool.
B search for Dallas’s great pool halls-my quest for the Holy Rail-I decided to buy a new pool cue. Fate guided me to Bowling and Billiard Supplies on Ross Avenue, where an elderly gentleman named John Hunter helped me select a cue I promptly dubbed Excalibur. This wizard-like man became my Merlin, preparing me for the quest with a wealth of historical facts, colorful quotes, and advice that helped me understand the initial suspicion I encountered when I entered the local pool halls carrying Excalibur, a pad of paper, and pen. and started asking questions. I quickly learned that pool room owners distrust the press and blame Hollywood for creating a bad image of pool. Case in point: in the 1962 movie version of The Music Man, professor Harold Hill, a fast-talking con man played by Robert Preston, warns the citizens of River City that the presence of a pool hall in their fair city will surely breed trouble and corrupt innocent children. What the good people of River City are unaware of, and what the movie-going public often forgets, is that pool is not the real problem. The true dangers to society, the movie suggests, are fast-talking, moralizing hypocrites and our own gullibility. However, the lingering memory from this movie remains:
“TROUBLE! With a Capital T And that rhymes with P And that stands for POOL!”
But while Hollywood has done its part to misrepresent pool and give it a low-class stigma, a movie like 1986’s The Color of Money did much to spawn a renewed interest in the sport. The classic pool movie, of course, is The Hustler (1961), in which Paul Newman plays a brash, gifted pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson. In the film’s most memorable scene, Eddie tries to explain to his girlfriend what pool means to him. What is revealed, to the girl and the audience, is that in this uneducated pool player there lives a dedication of purpose, a spiritual intensity, and an artistic commitment few of us experience in life.
I don’t expect everyone to share my passion for the game of pool, though many obviously do. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 44 million Americans play pool, up from 31 million just a year ago. That makes pool one of the fastest growing sports in America today. Pool players have always come from across the socioeconomic spectrum, but in the past, they were mostly men. No longer. More and more women are discovering the allure of the green felt and the cue stick. And why not? Pool, unlike football, hockey, and basketball, does not require great strength, size, or speed. Pool does require steady nerves, intense concentration, and brains, qualities possessed by average-sized folks of both genders. With practice, regardless of gender, athletic skill, or age, you and I can realistically hope to compete, even excel, at pool.
Today, pool rooms in Dallas are no longer hidden away in basements or above hardware stores. In fact, the sport is big business in this city, where two locally based chains-Speed’s and Clicks-are competing to become the McDonald’s and Burger King of billiards. Herewith, a look at some of my favorite shrines to this wonderful game.
If you want to watch the best in Dallas, the best in Texas-no, some of the best pool players in America-show off their skills, then come to Clicks on Abrams. The three championship-quality Brunswick tables up front are where you’ll find the best action. Pull up a stool, grab a cold draft, and marvel as these maestros perform. The caliber of pool you’ll witness is the equivalent of watching Jack Nicklaus putt, John McEnroe serve and volley, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar launch a sky hook. If you are a connoisseur of excellence in sport, if you admire the Euclidean skill required to execute a three-rail leave, or if you just want a clean place to shoot a recreational game of pool with your wife or best friend, then visit this Clicks location.
6012 Abrams Road/Northwest Highway Hours: 11 am-2 am Mon-Sat; 12 pm-2 am Sun
Cost: $1.75 before 6 pm; $2.25 per hour/person after 6. Draft: 80 cents Mon-Fri 11 am-6:30 pm; $1.25 after 6:30 Tables: (15) 4-by-8, (4) 4 l/2-by-9
DAVE & BUSTER’S
Prepare to be spoiled when you step into Dave & Buster’s. You’ll be greeted by a lovely lady wearing a ruffled white tuxedo top, red silk bow tie, and a tight black skirt. She hands a tray of polished billiard balls to a rack boy. who escorts you to one of the three sunken alcoves and proceeds to brush the table and prepare a rack before requesting that you neither drink nor smoke within three feet of the table. A bit snobbish, yes, but the tables are exquisite. Custom made by A.E. Schmidt & Company, these 4 l/2-by-9 beauties are solid mahogany and sport mother-of-pearl inlay and leather pockets. The balls roll fast and true-no excuses here, All the accessories are top quality, from custom cues to scoring pads and brass and glass lighting. The ambience is stately. If you appreciate the aesthetics of a fine pocket billiard table, Dave & Buster’s is the place for you. Beware-you’ll never want to play on a coin-operated table again.
Hours: 11 am-1 am Mon-Thur; 11 am-2 am Fri & Sat; 11:30 am-midnight Sun
Cost: $3 per hour/person. Draft: $1.75 Tables: (12) 4 l/2-by-9, (1) Snooker
This Greenville Avenue pool room has been recently remodeled. You’ll find new padded carpet, fresh paint, racked balls waiting on the tables, clean bathrooms, and behind the bar, a Victorian bathtub packed with shaved ice and longnecks. Separate lounges for shuffleboard and pinball assure you won’t be disturbed by bells and whistles while attempting to execute a tricky combination shot. Shooters is comfortable for couples as well as the serious player. If you haven’t been lately, check it out on Monday night, when the pool is free.
Hours: 11 am-2 am Mon-Sat, 12 pm-2 am Sun
Cost: $2.50 per hour/person after 3 prn; free seven days a week before 3 pm and Mon 7 pm-2am. Draft $1.50
Tables: (11) 4-by-8, (3) 4 l/2-by-9, (1) 3 l/2-by-7 coin, (1) Snooker
CAROUSEL CUE CLUB
The operative word here is club. Sure, the tables could stand a good brushing, a few need new pockets, and the place generally seems a bit run-down, but it all adds to the nostalgic charm, the club-like feeling associated with boyhood memories. For many kids, the local cue club is the first “adult” organization they join. You’ll find all types here, from adults to kids, and the regulars like it that way. The billiard ball clock, measuring forty-five feet, is the largest outdoor clock in Dallas, and is either horribly tacky or classic Americana depending on your point of view.
Hours: II am-12 am Mon-Thur; 11 am-1 am Fri-Sat: 12 pm-12 am Sun
Cost: $2.00 per hour/person. Draft: $1.10 Tables: (24) 4 l/2-by-9, (4) 4-by-8 coin
This Deep Ellum saloon is a great place to sip a cold beer, eat a colossal hamburger, kill some time, and shoot a game of pool. Char- line, one of the waitresses, has worked at Adair’s for twelve of its twenty-five years, pouring drafts and working the booths. Write on the walls when the spirit moves you- thousands have left their words of wit and wisdom over the years. With road signs, bumper slickers, and faded photos of friends, this place is full of character. You’ll find salesmen hiding out between calls, at torneys sipping beer, old-timers trading tall tales. You may think you’ve walked into the opening scene from The Hustle
Hours: 9 am-2 am Mon-Sat
Cost: 50 cents a game. Draft: $1.00
Tables: (2) 3 l/4-by-7 coin
A Pool Hall Pioneer Looks Back
POOL WAS OUTLAWED IN TEXAS IN 1918 and remained illegal until as recently as 1963. Legend has it that Pat Neff, a former president of Baylor University and Texas politician, saw to it that pool was outlawed after his nephew was killed in a Waco pool room. But despite the law, pool rooms continued to operate in Texas.
In 1932, John Hunter’s family opened the first billiard room in Dallas-The Green Turf Club. “People used to ask me how we stayed in business,” says Hunter, who now works at Bowling and Billiard Supplies on Ross Avenue. “I’d tell them, ’Public demand and the grace of God.’” But in reality, the police chose not to enforce the law unless repeated complaints or publicity-seeking politicians forced the issue. The Green Turf Club was closed down temporarily in 1934, when the Texas Rangers raided the billiard room and confiscated the tables. Anticipating this possibility, the Hunters arranged with a Fort Worth bank to take a lien on the equipment. The bank thus had an economic interest in recovering its investment, and the Hunters soon opened a new billiard room. The Palace Recreation Club.
To avoid offending the puritan elements, pool rooms were most often located in basements or on the second floor of a building. “You didn’t want people looking in.” Hunter explains, “Kids might go home and tell their mamas that the pool hall had been turned into a hospital. Mama would ask the kid what he meant, and the kid might say he heard someone yell ’Sew his ass up!’” Despite the discretion, pool was never limited to Hollywood-style roughnecks. “All the important people in Dallas played pool at The Palace.” Hunter says. “We had attorneys, jewelers, insurance salesmen, policemen, bankers. Remember, in those days we didn’t have Monday Night Football, discos, and aerobic workout centers. The pool hall was a place for men to gather, share jokes, drink some beers, conduct business, and get away from the wife.” At The Palace, pool cost ten cents a game. Rack boys collected the money and brushed tables and racked balls after every game.
According to Hunter, in 1939 an assistant DA, Harold McCracken, decided to enforce the law. He ordered the Dallas billiard room operators to tear down their tables-or else. “Well, we tore “em down,” Hunter recalls. But it wasn’t long before McCracken retired and went into private practice. With the crusading city attorney out of the way. billiard rooms reopened in Dallas. Soon YMCAs, Masonic Temples, and universities around the state were setting up pool tables, and the game’s popularity continued to grow.
In 1950 a young, ambitious Henry Wade was running for district attorney. John Hunter, leader and organizer of the Dallas Billiards Proprietors Association, paid a visit to Wade. A deal was struck. Hunter says: the association would back Wade for DA; if elected, Wade would leave the pool halls alone. Life for Dallas poo! room operators settled down to business as usual after Wade’s victory- but the old law was still on the books. It took twelve more years before Robert E. Johnson, then a member of the Texas House of Representatives and one of Hunter’s best customers, offered to carry legislation legalizing billiards. Hunter also hired a lawyer named Bob Bullock, now state comptroller, to lobby for the cause in Austin. (Bullock just hap pened to be a law partner of Byron Tunnell, then speaker of the House.) The bill, which allowed local government to license and tax billiard rooms on local option, passed with ease. John Connally signed the law into ef fect in 1963, and billiards was legal in Texas. – S.B.