The pool-hall scene in San Diego is just beginning to materialize when I arrive at Society Billiards on Garnet in Pacific Beach. It's about 8:00 on a warm Friday night, early for pool. Two local players are with me. One is Hillary Morse, one of the better female players in town and a journalist for Inside Pool magazine. A soft-spoken woman of 26, Morse wears her straight brown hair in a bob. Her wide-set eyes sparkle when she smiles.
Dan Wallace is the other player with me tonight. One of a handful of elite-level pool players in San Diego, he's tall, slender, and well-dressed.
At 29, Wallace is already a veteran of the local and national pool scenes. Since taking up pool as a college student in Scottsdale, Arizona, he has spent time "on the road" playing pool for money against other high-caliber players.
A long center aisle divides Society Billiards into sections of 10 or 12 tables. At the far end of the aisle stands a backlit bar stocked with bottles of expensive liquor. After he orders a drink, Wallace says, "This is a nice bar for a pool room. A lot of places are just beer and wine. The wine is bad, and it comes in little individual bottles. And the beer is usually a choice between Bud and Bud Light."
But, as a "player" -- the term pool aficionados use for top-flight practitioners of the art -- it's in the beer-and-wine "rooms" that Wallace finds his competition. "This is just a hang-out room." He glances around at the crowd of tattooed twentysomethings drinking, laughing, and knocking balls around. "And it's a very nice place to hang out."
"College Billiards," Hillary interjects, "is where the players are."
"That's right," Wallace says, "good players tend to like seedier rooms."
Wallace reads the puzzlement on my face and explains. "The seedier room guarantees that there's no b.s. It's a no-bullshit environment. A player can go in, play hard, pass the money around, and they don't get bothered by people who are impressed by what's going on and crowding around the table. Most people in a room such as College Billiards are fairly savvy about the way things work with gambling and tournaments. They stay out of your way; they stay quiet. College gets a good hang-out crowd, too. But the majority of the people that go in there have a clue."
College Billiards, on El Cajon Boulevard near 54th Street, is Wallace's room of choice, though he says, "I'm not playing as much as I used to."
When the professional tour ended, after tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds pulled their financial backing, Wallace says he lost his motivation to practice. "As long as there's a good tour, I think that's virtually every good player's goal to actually get out there, be a professional, play in the high-class tournaments and the high-class locations -- usually in big-name casinos or resorts, occasionally at a convention center. The problem is, the money's sporadic. There have been chunks of time when the money has definitely been there and also chunks of time when the money hasn't. But the gambling has always been there."
Gambling, Wallace says, is the fall-back occupation for the would-be touring pool player. Pool-hall gambling takes one of two opposite but related forms; playing in your "home room," or going on the road and challenging other players in their home rooms. A third way to make money in pool halls is by playing in tournaments, though many gambling players avoid them. "Because at a big tournament like the U.S. Open," Wallace explains, "those spectators come from all over the country. And you're going to have a spectator from damn near every good action room in the country sitting around watching. So if you're on the road, and you wander into a room looking for action, they're going to inform the local good player how good you are. They're going to knock your action; that's what it's called. Then you can't get the best games."
Wallace adds, "There are a number of guys out there that make a really good living off the game. I mean, just off of gambling and tournament winnings alone, $100,000 to $200,000 a year. But those guys basically live on the road. And, off the cuff, I could probably name 10 of those guys. If you gave me some time, I could probably name 20."
I ask Wallace if he's tempted to find a money game here at Society. He shakes his head. "There are no players in the room."
How do you spot a player?
"By how they comport themselves," he responds. "A real player doesn't move around a lot or do a lot of talking. He'll be really crisp and efficient in how he moves and handles his cue. He'll identify his shot and execute it fairly quickly. I can walk into a place like this and know within two minutes if there are any players in the room."
I'm eager to see Morse and Wallace play, but Wallace doesn't even want to play for fun here. "The tables would bother me," he explains. "You wouldn't notice anything, but they'd bug me. These tables are made by Gandy, which is a pretty good brand..."
After a lengthy lesson on pool table, ball, and cue construction, Wallace suggests we move to Gaslamp Billiards. "They have some good tables upstairs there."
As we leave the hall and walk the four blocks down Garnet to Morse's car, Wallace says, "The San Diego pool scene is, for the most part, like Society Billiards. The scene in this town has gone through fluctuations. There have been a couple of times when there were a whole bunch of good players living here at once, and it suddenly became one of the biggest action towns ever. Then everybody will move away, and we'll go through a dry spell when there's very little action and not a whole lot of good players. It's very transient. Back East, things stay more solid."