San Diego's relatively isolated geographical situation, Wallace says, prevents it from becoming a high-action pool town. "That's the biggest difference between the western and eastern half of the country. Back East, you could be standing in your local pool room at 2:00 p.m. and say, 'Hey, let's go on a road trip. I've got $1000; how much do you have?' 'I've got $1000.' A couple of good players hop into someone's Buick, start speeding down the highway. An hour and a half down the road is another town with a bunch of players you've never seen before. Forty minutes after that, there's another town. They're just one after another. In the course of a single weekend, you might hit and play in six or seven different towns. Out here in the West, you just can't do that. You have to drive major distances between city centers. I think that's the number-one thing that shuts down action in the western half of the country."
That time it takes to drive between western cities robs a gambling road player of the element of surprise. "Word travels incredibly fast in the pool scene. If I left San Diego and swung into Phoenix right now and spent two weeks there, everyone down in Tucson would know before I got there."
How does word travel?
"Mostly by phone," Wallace answers. "The railbirds -- those are the guys who hang out in pool halls doing a lot of watching. The railbirds will call up a friend in the next town and say, 'I saw a great game last night. You know Joe who hangs out in my pool hall?' 'Yeah, great player.' 'Well, Joe lost to this guy in town from San Diego.' "
Pool, played at its highest levels, crosses racial lines. But in the pool-hall scene, there is some racial division, often associated with the particular form of billiards favored by certain ethnic groups. "In the black community," Wallace explains, "bank pool is the most popular game there is. In bank pool, you have to make a bank shot on every shot. Among other pool communities, Asian and Caucasian, bank pool is not a popular game.
"Among Asians," he continues, "they lean toward one-pocket. One-pocket is you get one pocket, and I get one pocket. And you've got to put any 8 out of 15 balls in your one pocket before I put 8 out of 15 in mine. The Asian community really likes one-pocket, especially the Filipino crowd. And some of the best pool in the world is coming out of the Philippines right now.
"The Vietnamese," Wallace says as he steers Morse's car down Interstate 5 past the airport, "prefer a game called three-cushion, which is played on a billiard table. Billiard tables are the ones with no pockets, and you're shooting for caroms. It's also popular in Mexico and throughout Europe, though pool is starting to take over in Europe."
How is it played?
"This is complicated," Wallace answers. "You have three balls on the billiards table: a white, a yellow, and a red. Your cue ball is yellow; my cue ball is white. You always shoot with the yellow; I always shoot with the white. I have to make my cue ball contact one object ball and three cushions, in any order, before contacting a second object ball. If you do that, you score one point and keep shooting."
We reach Gaslamp Billiards on Fourth Avenue around 10:00 p.m. Only a few games are being played on the 20 or so tables on the ground floor. But from a stairwell to the left of the entrance comes the click-clack of colliding pool balls. The stairs lead to two second-floor rooms. The north room contains a dozen or so wooden tables with leather pockets. "These are called house tables," Wallace says, "because they look like a piece of furniture you'd have in your house. They're made by Redco. They're nice tables, but players don't like them because of the narrow rails."
He leads me to the south room, which is stocked with another dozen or so dull black fiberglass tables. They're not pretty, but they're the tables we came here for. "These tables in here are made by Brunswick. The style is called Gold Crown, and it's their top-of-the-line table. They haven't changed this style for 40 years. Brunswick came out with it as an industrial table for your regular room that just wants to buy a table that is going to last for 40 years with heavy usage. They built it so robust that the pool-table mechanics started to realize that they could set up this table perfectly, and it is more likely to stay perfect. So, the players started appreciating it more."
After Wallace quickly dispatches me in ten straight games of nine-ball pool, we head for College Billiards. On the way, Wallace and Morse chat about a local road player, Shane "Sam" Manaole, who recently had to cut short a road trip after losing $5000 to Ronnie Wiseman, a well-known player, in Wiseman's hometown of Detroit. "He had to pawn his watch," Morse says.
When we reach College Billiards, a grittier room than either Society or Gaslamp -- one local player had his throat slit just outside a few years ago -- Manaole himself is sitting at a table near the bar with another player named Joey Netter.
While Wallace chats with the barkeeper, Morse and I sit down with Manaole and Netter, who are discussing one-pocket pool. "It's the chess of pool," Manaole says, "because you have to put your opponent in trouble to gain an advantage. It's not a game where you can just go out there and bang away. You have to think about every shot. And you're always in the game. If things aren't going your way in nine-ball, you're probably going to lose. In one-pocket, things can go way against you, but you can fight out of it with strategy. Every shot is not a shot to pocket a ball. You're trying to gain a positional advantage."