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“It ain’t no fun if you don’t get to make some shots,” Strickland says.
February 19, 2014 3:26 PM   Subscribe

More than 50 million Americans play pool on a regular basis, according to L. Jon Wertheim’s Running the Table. Yet this is maybe the worst shape the sport has ever been in. More detrimental than just dwindling tournament fields, it’s the shuttering of pool halls, the disappearance of pool on television, the absence of any endorsement deals for top players. It isn’t at all clear how such a beloved game can be in such dire straits. But it is. Can't Knock The Hustle: Earl Strickland, Scooter Goodman, and the struggle for the soul of pool.
posted by Ghostride The Whip (49 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is no way 50 million Americans play pool regularly, maybe 50, and even that seems high.
posted by Keith Talent at 3:32 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


In Toronto, pool/billiards seems to be alive and well, mainly at halfway decent, slightly upscale pool rooms (like so). They usually have a good after-work crowd, and league-play on week-nights.

The skeevy pool-hall dives of the 50's and 60's seem to have gone away. Can't say I'm mourning their loss.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:35 PM on February 19


There is no way 50 million Americans play pool regularly, maybe 50, and even that seems high.

You don't go to bars, I guess.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:40 PM on February 19 [14 favorites]


Here in in the golden suburbs we've all got tables in our basements but nobody shoots socially. It's just something to do when you're on the phone, working.
posted by surplus at 3:42 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


In NJ poolhalls got hurt fairly badly by the laws banning indoor smoking. Just the wrong kind of crowd overlap.
posted by Ferreous at 3:43 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


People are willing to watch poker on TV, and yet not pool. I guess I'm biased because I play poker and not pool, but I actually have watched the odd pool game on some random sports channel, and it doesn't hold my attention like a poker tournament on TV will.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:50 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Pool is sort-of a solved game unfortunately. At the highest level there's just not enough luck. It's really fun to play but watching it is a snooze fest. Perfect game, perfect game, slight miss! Perfect game, etc.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:51 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]


Poker has far more, almost infinite variation. And every shmoe thinks they can play it. Though its popularity is falling fast too (tears).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:52 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]



There is no way 50 million Americans play pool regularly, maybe 50, and even that seems high.

You don't go to bars, I guess.
posted by Atom Eyes


No, I go to plenty of bars. But even grade five estimation skills lead to the conclusion that this number is wildly inaccurate. 50 million people playing pool regularly means one in six people is a regular pool player? Probably not.
posted by Keith Talent at 3:52 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


Poker was on TV for a long time before it got insanely popular. And it was about as boring as pool. The person that decided to reveal the hole cards deserves some kind of medal. Pool needs something similar. While you're at it, work on darts please.
posted by phaedon at 3:52 PM on February 19


People are willing to watch poker on TV, and yet not pool.

If the players could put money down on games, I bet the viewership would go up.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:53 PM on February 19


In NJ poolhalls got hurt fairly badly by the laws banning indoor smoking. Just the wrong kind of crowd overlap.

I would agree with the correlation here, but i think it's mostly because the implementation of indoor smoking bans was handled in the wrong way. it should have been something you could apply for a license on like serving hard liquor. Super unpopular opinion, but oh well.

That said, a lot of bars in my city have pool tables. A lot of people in their early-mid 20s play pool constantly at them. A lot of places have shitty, slightly off level and often partially broken tables. No one cares, and there's some serious sharks still.

Do i believe one in six people play pool? no. Is it dead? definitely not. Otherwise i'd have no one to play pool with.
posted by emptythought at 3:57 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


It's because your balls are too big in America. You need nice delicate British sized balls.
posted by dng at 4:04 PM on February 19 [12 favorites]


I dunno about pool halls. I don't think I've ever been in one in my life. When I was younger and played a lot of pool, it was in taverns.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:04 PM on February 19


Unfortunately, I know two pool halls in this area, and both were associated w violence; one a friends roomie took a bad cue-beatdown, the other had a shooting.

Unaware of any violence at my local California poker club.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 4:23 PM on February 19


Maybe, just maybe, it's okay to --- gasp! --- just play a game for the fun of it? No tournaments, no 'pro circuit', no prize money or sponsorships: just regular people having fun.

Yeah, I know: a foolish notion.
posted by easily confused at 4:23 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]


So you mean they've got trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool?
posted by Curious Artificer at 4:27 PM on February 19 [11 favorites]


Thanks for the earworm, Curious Artificer!!
posted by Melismata at 4:29 PM on February 19


I've got a couple of pool halls by me in the exurbs of NYC and they don't lack for any action, often being open (and full) until 2 AM or later most nights. There's still some action at the bars, several of which participate in a league but I don't see that many NEW players (by which I mean younger). I'm sure there's variety of reasons for this: the one that pops into my mind first is the rise of online multiplayer console gaming. There's no reason to go out and play a game with your friends when you can do that at home. Hell, considering the cost of table time & travel expenses, playing video games at home is probably cheaper in the long run.
posted by KingEdRa at 4:29 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I think that might have been too obvious. I should have gone with my first thought, "sounds like there's trouble in River City."
posted by Curious Artificer at 4:30 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


> "So you mean they've got trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool?"

I blame the problem on libertine men and scarlet women and ragtime.
posted by kyrademon at 4:32 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]


Followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos.
posted by Melismata at 4:34 PM on February 19


There are still a few shady pool halls around Dallas. There is one right by my office that's always full of seedy looking characters. I dunno it seems they tried the mega-pool hall clean family fun route in a few places and it failed miserably. I kind of feel the same thing is happening to bowling and especially darts, but that has always been in seedy bars that I remember.
posted by Benway at 4:46 PM on February 19


Previously on MetaFilter, in which the disappearance of pool hustlers is blamed on televised tournaments.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:48 PM on February 19


I work in a bar that has five antiqued Bruswick pool tables as well as a snooker table. We recently swapped two out to another located to put in shuffle board, but the variety has been good. Anyway, people love them. It's definitely a social medium, though. I rarely have people coming in that will play by themselves. The snooker table also doesn't get much use save for a couple of older guys, but they're always eager to show and teach the game, which is much different than pool and much more entertaining. One of the larger crowds I get out in our pool hall, however, are younger Hispanic men. As my Spanish is severely lacking I can't quite suss out why they chose use as a place to socialize, I'm glad to see they enjoy the tables. They also play a game on the tables that I haven't been able to figure out, with them placing the balls around the edge of the tables and knocking them in.
posted by ZaneJ. at 4:53 PM on February 19


In NJ poolhalls got hurt fairly badly by the laws banning indoor smoking. Just the wrong kind of crowd overlap.

Bars in general seem to be doing fine with smoking bans, so I don't think it's quite that simple. The only dedicated pool hall I've ever been to was a painfully hipster place and the (at that point newly enacted) smoking ban wasn't hurting it at all, but that is doubtless not representative of pool halls in general.

I definitely don't buy the fifty million figure, unless they are counting everyone who has shot a game of basement or bar pool in the last decade?
posted by Dip Flash at 4:54 PM on February 19


It's pronounced "Snūker"
posted by humboldt32 at 5:02 PM on February 19


I used to loooooove pool, especially in high school, college, and the years immediately after college -- roughly 1979 through 1987, or so; a good run. Then I discovered poker, which offered much better action and much weaker players, so putting more time into my poker game made all kinds of sense. This was long before lipstick cameras, television, and the internet made poker explode into A Thing. ::sigh:: Good times, good times.

I still love pool, especially snooker, even though my skills have deteriorated from the combination of age and neglect. But I won't play pool for serious money. If I want action, I go looking for a poker game, not a pool game. Also...you can play poker online, from the comfort of your home.*

*Well...you could. You still can, kind of, but it sure ain't the same. God, I miss 2005. Damn you, UIGEA.
posted by mosk at 5:20 PM on February 19


Some of the issue is that pool tables, cues, billiard balls, and so forth cost a fair amount of money, require both maintenance and monitoring (and so have significant ongoing as well as initial costs), and take up considerable space. If you're running a bar, you need to justify the pool table as a sufficient revenue stream to make up for that, and something that's better money than, say, more tables or video "trivia" and other such pseudo-gambling devices.

If you own a home or a pool hall, you need to consider if it's the best use of the space and you need a dedicated group of pool players. It's not just that pool has lost cachet, it's that pool hasn't stayed financially competitive on most of the environments in which it once flourished, which creates a knock-on effect as each generation has fewer and fewer people in it who see playing pool as a good night's entertainment or sport.
posted by kewb at 5:21 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Man what a shame, the same thing happened to the professional yak shaving circuit back in the 17th century.
posted by mr.ersatz at 5:39 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


He pops in the next three shots like he were punching the clock at the end of a long shift.

Isn't Grantland edited?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:17 PM on February 19


That said, a lot of bars in my city have pool tables. A lot of people in their early-mid 20s play pool constantly at them.

It is always the same 5 guys. Everywhere.
posted by srboisvert at 6:38 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]


Oh my god, people. Poker is so eye-crossingly boring to look at. What is wrong with people. But I think I have zero interest in poker. Possibly negative interest. And hate gambling. (I tried to RTFA, but ugh...)

My high school friends and I used to go out expressly to play pool... without alcohol, and without wagers beyond who's paying for the parking meter. And I still go out to play sometimes. Only on a weeknight, of course, because it's too full on the weekend. I don't know about pro competitive pool, but the game itself isn't going anywhere fast. Maybe the pro part will cycle back at some point?

I play darts too. Because apparently I like unpopular games.
posted by zennie at 6:56 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I heard so much Steve Miller Band at pool halls when growing up. Pool is always gonna fly like a midnight toker.
posted by planetesimal at 7:20 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


I visited a friend in Astoria and he took me to my first pool hall, we got a couple hours and a few beers and it ended up being a great time and I'd gladly go again. It's nice to have some activity to do while you hang out with someone, I could easily see hanging out there and taking shots during lulls in conversation.

I did notice the same as ZaneJ, that the crowd happened to be like 95% Hispanic, mostly 30+ dudes but a few groups of married couples and one group of teenage girls. I wonder if there's growth in the sport outside the US, or if it happens to be popular in Latin America.
posted by taromsn at 7:54 PM on February 19


I like the way they promote pool as having something to do with physics. It has nothing to do with physics. Nothing.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:09 PM on February 19


I like the way they promote pool as having something to do with physics. It has nothing to do with physics. Nothing.

Wanna guess which class it was in that I learned the behavior of two colliding spherical objects?
posted by LionIndex at 8:39 PM on February 19


Yeah, you can't just plop down a definitive statement like that without a bit more qualification.
posted by planetesimal at 9:00 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


It's really fun to play but watching it is a snooze fest. Perfect game, perfect game, slight miss! Perfect game, etc.

This may be true, but I think part of the reason is that non-players do not even realize the effortless grace and style of the pro players, as well as the strategy and technique that goes into playing for position.

I guess it's the same reason I can't watch more than a couple of minutes of Formula One.

It has nothing to do with physics. Nothing.

Yeah, it has everything to do with physics but you also need to put in the hours on the table if you want to be a decent player. Having once been a physics undergraduate, I can't even count the number of aspiring theoretical physics hotshots (myself included) who got their asses handed to them by some kid who barely managed to finish highschool but has been itching to play since he could hold a cue.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:25 PM on February 19


Meanwhile, The BBC reports that snooker is becoming more and more popular in Germany.
posted by all the versus at 9:29 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


According to my friend (who owned a pool hall in Vancouver for many years) poker WAS the primary reason for the decline in pool, moreso than the ban on indoor smoking, which came in Vancouver long before poker became popular and didn't hurt pool nearly as much as pool owners thought it would. But as poker became more popular, the pool regulars (both those who actually made an income on their playing, and the many more who just need to dump all their disposable income into a game of some sort) moved to it. Without regulars around playing well, the appeal of the pool halls to casual players diminished.
posted by lastobelus at 11:08 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


"Isn't Grantland edited?"

That's an example of the irrealis. It is awkward with "like" in that sentence (as opposed to "as if") and probably because the irrealis these days is associated with a formal register while that use of "like" is more informal. So probably "like he was" or "as if he were", one or the other. YMMV.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:10 AM on February 20


Even the pool tables at the otherwise bright and clean bowling alley where I grew up retained a sense of sleaziness. There's actually a bar with about four to five tables, but I only ever go in to grab a bite to eat, which is what I think a lot of people do. I can't shake it out of my head that if I go to a pool hall, there are just going to be people who want to do completely disagreeable things to me (founded on no evidence or experience whatsoever).
posted by Atreides at 6:35 AM on February 20


Scooter Goodman is no Don Willis. (also Wikipedia and Pool Stories - SLYT w/a little foul language.

The author of the Grantland article is trying a little too hard, imo. Another instance of hyping flash over substance. The serious pool scene is a fascinating subculture with its share of characters, but there is also something sublime about watching a flat-out expert ply his or her craft.

The very first job I ever had was in a pool hall of borderline respectability. It was a dream job for a 15 year old kid. I started as a gopher running errands in exchange for free playing time and ended up getting paid minimum wage to rack balls, clean tables, watch the counter, etc... And while there were folks with names like "Billy the Weasel" who frequented the place, there were also a lot of really good players who were serious about the game. I worked at first for Joey Spaeth and then for Geri Titcomb, successive managers of the place. Both were well known within the pool-playing world and I learned a lot about how to play from them.

That 10,000 hour thingy about expertise, etc...? It's true for playing pool, too. I wish folks who seek to popularize the billiards world would emphasize that aspect of the culture without throwing all the "hustler" horseshit in. Gambling happens but generally it is between two players who know each other's game and who often engage in an elaborate negotiation setting the terms of the contest, a looser ad hoc ritual worth observing in itself. It serves the same function as handicaps in other sports.

For example, here is how I learned to play one pocket--a game with similar intricacies to chess in many ways. There was this fellow who was very good at the game. I approached him and asked him to teach me how to play. He was a money player so he wouldn't do it for free, but he did me a kindness by playing me when he wasn't engaged in more serious games. The terms were $2 a game with a spot of 8-5. (In order to win, he had to make 8 in his pocket while I would win if I made 5 in my pocket.) And he let me ask questions about why he did what he did when he did. He made a few bucks and I had a mentor. Worked out fine as I pretty quickly became pretty good at the game and I won back my investment, and more, from my peers. He didn't hustle me, nor I my friends. We each knew the others capabilities--the money just made it interesting.

I don't play nearly as often now as I did then. But when I do play I find it both fun and relaxing as well as intricate and demanding, simultaneously. I'd encourage all people to go out and play. Odds are very good that no one will ever walk up to you and try to hustle you. And if it were to happen, you can always go all Nancy Reagan on their ass and "Just Say No."
posted by CincyBlues at 7:36 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Poker has far more, almost infinite variation. And every shmoe thinks they can play it.
Oh, I can play it. It just costs me waaay more.

I think in most quarters poker, pool, bowling, bar games in general are mostly something to do with your hands while you drink and talk.
Then someone comes in and takes it really, really, really seriously.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:39 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


After reading the article, I'm struck at how much energy is put into the "Gambling, boo!" angle. I think that's why I like poker; there's no ambiguity. We're gambling, there's money on the line, and chips, the way score is kept, are convertible to cash at the end.

I think the article is right about movies like "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money" making a negative impression for the game. Again, poker-player bias here. But when I think of a "poker player", well... a wide range of images comes up. But at least it's not a stretch to imagine a well-dressed math-wiz, or a millionaire high-roller. When I think of a "pool player" the image is a bit seedier, a few neighborhoods downmarket, a bit more low-rent.

Not that there aren't downmarket poker players. It's just that it's harder to imagine the high-end pool hustler with the same facility.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:40 AM on February 20


I used to play pool every day in college. I occasionally got into a money game but mostly it's just an incredibly fun game on its own merits. I saw Earl "the Pearl" play 9-ball once in Raleigh, NC and it was mind-blowing.

(and since we're talking poker)
Years later I got into a regular Friday night poker game with some guys, but after playing bridge a lot in high school I found poker super dull. Especially once Texas Hold 'Em ate up all the quirky other variants. I guess I'm in with the crowd that doesn't get it ... it seems like without the money bit there's not that much to it. I also don't smoke though, and expensive scotch tastes like witch hazel to me ... I'm fascinated by people's interest in watching poker on TV though. As with anything, I guess knowing more about it makes it more interesting. Serious question though - aren't the hats and sunglasses and stuff cheating? I thought trying to figure out your opponents' tells/facial tics/etc. was the whole point ...
posted by freecellwizard at 12:07 PM on February 20


> it seems like without the money bit there's not that much to it.

Bingo! To repeat a truism:

Bridge is a card game on which you can bet (if you choose to).
Poker is a betting game played with cards. It does't work without some sort of wagering component, because it's a game about betting. Sometimes the winning cards aren't even shown, such as when opponents fold and a hand concludes before the showdown. But the money already in the pot still changes hands.

> Serious question though - aren't the hats and sunglasses and stuff cheating? I thought trying to figure out your opponents' tells/facial tics/etc. was the whole point ...

Figuring out what your opponent has ("putting a player on a hand") is comparable to playing position in pool: without developing this skill you'll never get beyond a very fundamental understanding of the game. And developing and applying this skill (and its variations) defines a player's journey and ultimate ability. As for the hats and sunglasses and such -- covering your eyes isn't illegal, but it isn't (necessarily) a huge edge, either. Consider online poker, where your opponent is unseen: Even though you can't see him or her, there is still tremendous skill in reading your opponent(s) hand(s) based on his/their current betting action, previous actions, position relative to the dealer and other players, speed of play, etc. There's a lot more going on beyond the obvious physical tell. I mean sure, physical tells are nice, but they're just one element of what can be a fairly complex game.
posted by mosk at 3:45 PM on February 20


I thought the point of pool was to flirt with people in bars.

You're milling around, commenting on failures and successes, showing your sense of humor (I still believe I'm betting at smack talk than pool proper) and if you're a good loser or a jerk. I played a lot in the mid-90s-- the babydoll dress years-- and still test out a short skirt purchase by doing a mock pool shot-- don't wanna flash anybody.

Of course now anyone around a pool table seems much like the poker players-- stern faced men who only want to play a perfect game. A shame, really.
posted by travertina at 12:21 PM on February 21


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