Dan Wallace, Hillary Morse. "The seedier room guarantees that there's no b.s. Most people in a room such as College Billiards are fairly savvy about the way things work with gambling and tournaments."
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.
On Cue Billiards, La Mesa. The idea of being a road player is sounding more and more dangerous. Manaole agrees, but says there are ways to mitigate the danger.
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."
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."
Which do you play when you're on the road?
"More people are playing one-pocket," Manaole answers, "because that's where you make all your money. You can make four times as much money in pool playing one-pocket than in nine-ball because so much is riding on one game."
"What's the most you've ever bet on a single set?" Morse asks him.
"Probably $2800," he answers, "and I've played in some $2000 sets. I played a $2400 set. A set is a race to nine games. The first guy to get nine games ahead wins the money. I was playing a guy in Detroit for $600 a game, but I want to play him again for $1000 a game. I want to get a stake horse and..."
"Do you know what a stake horse is?" Morse asks me. I shake my head.
"A stake horse is a person that is betting on you or with you," Manaole explains. "He's your backer. Say I wanted to play Braces here; if you put up the money for me, you'd be my stake horse. If I win, maybe I get half of the money, and the stake horse gets the other half. But if I lose, I have to pay the half back. If I don't have it, I go on the books. There are lots of ways to set it up."
The idea of being a road player is sounding more and more dangerous. Manaole agrees, but says there are ways to mitigate the danger. "You've got to have partners, especially out on the road."
A partner is either another player who rides with you everywhere or a friendly local that supplies you in advance with information about the players in the "action room." "A lot of times," Manaole continues, "when you go into a place, you already know who can play, who can't play. I've already got an idea of who is below my level, and who is above. And you learn to spot a guy. Because before I go there someone tells me, 'Okay, Tony Roberto plays out of New York, this other guy plays out of New York, that other guy plays out of Houston...' and all you do is get all these names. Then you ask, 'What can I give this guy?' 'Well, you can't give anything to this guy. But you can give that guy the eight ball, this other guy the seven ball.' So you know who to play, who not to play, and what kind of handicap you can give them."
Our last stop for the evening is at McGregor's, a pub in a strip mall across I-15 from Qualcomm Stadium. On the way there, Wallace explains the method he used when he was on the road. "When I first went on the road," he says, "a guy named Roger 'The Rocket' Griffis, who at one time was one of the best nine-ball players in the country, told me, 'Look, don't mess with the bars. Go to the big-time pool rooms. Walk right up to the house man and tell him flat out, "Hey, I'm looking for action, and I want to bet something good."' He said, 'You'll avoid so much trouble that way. No drunks. No idiots. You're only playing the real pool players -- guys who say, "I've got my thousand, you've got yours, let's put them both up on top of the light and let's play."' And what I found was I got more respect from the house man when I asked him that than the guy who comes in and tries to scuffle around and take advantage of the regulars."
The pool at McGregor's is played on four coin-operated pool tables known by serious players as "bar boxes." But Wallace and Morse aren't here to play. They walk to a table against a far wall. At the table sits Tina Pawloski, who Morse tells me is one of the best female players in San Diego and a former participant on the women's pro tour. A petite woman of 28, with streaked brown hair and brown eyes, Pawloski says she quit the pro tour because she couldn't pay the bills doing it. "The prize money is just not high enough to pay for expenses."
Pawloski also spent some time as a road player. She says she would get games "by flirting a little with the locals -- you know, leaning into them a little bit, asking who might be interested in betting a little money, that sort of thing."
But feminine wiles didn't always protect Pawloski. "I played some rooms where you had to win the money twice, as the saying goes. That means after you win it playing pool, you have to win it again by getting to your car and getting out of there before someone takes it from you."
When Morse mentions what happened to Manaole in Detroit, Pawloski responds, "That was a big mistake. Sam had no business playing Ronnie Wiseman, especially in Detroit. It's a no-win situation. Even if Sam had beaten him, word would have spread that he had beaten Ronnie Wiseman, and nobody would have played him for the rest of the road trip. He would have knocked his own action."