Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Pool Thing: A Homemade Aiming Device

shot lined up with the cornerBefore I start yappin’ about the trouble I have seeing the pool balls, I want to make one thing clear – it has nothing to do with my age. Truth is whatever went wrong with my eyes went wrong 40 years ago.

I started hanging out in the pool room, Teasdale’s Billiard Academy in Dover, NJ, when I was about 12 years old. Far from being a natural, my progress as a player was slow. Then, when I was around 14, old Tizz showed me a book he had picked up from his supplier. It was Mosconi’s little red book. Well, I bought it, and read it, reread it, and reread it again. When I should have been doing schoolwork, I was studying the book. For me, even more important than the knowledge the words delivered were the secrets revealed by the pictures. For hours, I’d pose in front of this long mirror my parents had in the dining room. I tried to duplicate exactly the position Willie had adopted for one of the pictures. Eventually, I got it down, all of it – the stance, the stroke, the position and angle of his head, the attitude of his eyes. And my game improved at a startling rate.

By the time I was 16, I was consistently running 40 or 50 balls, spotting working stiffs 15 or 20 to 50 points, and beating them mercilessly. For you younger readers, let me tell you – back then, straight pool was the game of choice, at least up north. If you came into our pool room and found 12 tables occupied, they’d all be hosting a game of straight pool. Personally, I liked straight pool, or “points” as we often called it, because, first, you could measure your progress as a player simply by keeping track of how many balls you ran, and, second, unlike 8-ball or 9-ball where you can lose because of an unlucky break, there wasn’t much chance that a lesser player was going to pull a 50 ball run out of his back-side.

Anyway, I was playing pretty good. Then a couple things happened. Me and Tizz had a falling out for one thing. I used to open up with him 6 days a week. I’d help him take the covers off the tables and roll them up. In exchange, he’d let me practice for free for a half hour. I did this for a couple years. One day, I had been practicing for about 15 minutes when someone came in who wanted to play, so I quit practicing and went on time. Well, the next day, remembering that I hadn’t used my full half hour the previous day, I practiced for 45 minutes. When I was finished and brought the balls up to the counter, Tizz says, “Don’t think I wasn’t keeping track of the fucking time, you fucking thief.” I was crushed. In the years I’d been helping him, he had never so much as said a cross word. Now, all of a sudden he was all over me. I called him a few choice names and walked out. I felt betrayed. Getting yelled and screamed at was something I had to put with on a daily basis at home, but I thought of the pool room as a safe zone. It wasn’t any more. I quit going. In the months following, guys told me he had been asking about me and he wanted me to drop by so we could clear up the “misunderstanding,” but I never went. And, of course, my game suffered. There was a Spanish pool room up town where I played once in a while, but winning money there could be unhealthy. So, I just quit playing.

A couple years passed, then I heard Tizzie was selling the pool room, so I dropped by one day. I tried playing but couldn’t make a simple shot. At the time, and even now, I attributed my inability to see the balls on the glasses I had started wearing during my lay off. I never believed that I really needed glasses, but the high school doctor had sent home a slip after giving me one of those dumb-ass eye exams and, yaduh yaduh yaduh, within weeks I was wearing specs.

I know, lots of guys wear glasses and play great pool. Unfortunately, they didn’t help me a bit and, in fact, somehow thoroughly screwed me up. My best guess is they loused up my depth perception and maybe my peripheral vision, too. What I do know is I went from being able to spot the contact point on an object ball that was a half mile away to not being able to line up a hanger.

I tried to stage a come back but gave up in frustration after a few months. Then, a period of about 37 years went by, I moved down here to the sunshine state, and for one reason or another decided to take up the game again. Well, my pool vision had not improved over the years and I quickly discovered that the mysterious malady that had struck way-back-when persisted. I still couldn’t sight in the balls and, as a result, couldn’t play worth a crap.

But, this time I didn’t quit. I decided to work on my game and try to get my eye back. Toward that end, I made an aiming device that I use when I practice. If you are having similar problems, maybe you would like to try it.

I haven’t named the device, but when I misplace it I ask my wife if she’s seen my “pool thing,” and she usually knows what I’m talking about. So, let’s call it that – the pool thing. It’s made from an old cost wheel, a souvenir of my days as a double-knit maven for McGregor-Doniger. Any similar device will do. I’ve seen circular slide rules and I recently found something similar in a second-hand shop that was made to calculate “Radiacs,” whatever the hell they are.

Circular Slide Rule or CalculatorAnyway, typically, these things are made up of two or three plastic discs centered over each other and held together with a metal grommet. What I do is carefully cut around the grommet with a razor knife, being careful not to make the resulting hole any larger than necessary. Next, sand the edges of the holes, smoothing out all the nicks and notches made by the knife. When this is complete, what I have are two or three discs with holes at their center. The one I find most useful is about 3 ½ inches in diameter. I’ve made a few lines across it with a Sharpie – one exactly through the center, and two parallel with it that approximate the width of a ball. These lines, of course, are to help me sight in the object ball when I place it on the disc. The balls, you’ll discover, rest nicely in the grommet hole.

So, I aim the lines at a pocket, and shoot balls off the disc and into the pocket from different angles. Though my “pool thing” has not produced any miracles for me, it has helped quite a lot and might help you more. If you’re having trouble seeing the contact point, why not give it a try. What do you have to lose? And if one day we should lock horns and you wind up beating me, that’s okay too. I’m trying to learn how to be a gracious loser.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Get Mad, Get Even

I’m not an “A” player. In fact, as a pool player, I hit my prime at age 16, about 42 years ago. But that’s another story. The point is that even though I can’t compete with the heavy hitters who dominate the local “A” tournaments – Monday night at Capone’s, Wednesdays at Stroker’s, Thursday nights at DJ’s in New Port Richey – I still want to compete. So, what’s open to me? There are a few handicap tournaments in the area, most notably at Capone’s on Wednesday nights. I venture up there every once in a while, but the powers that be have long had me confused with some bald-headed guy who can play and I wind up spotting my opponents 99% of the time. Several times, I’ve been told that the next time I come my rating would be lowered a notch, but it never happens. In fact, I went there a few weeks back. It was the first time I’d been there in a year. 2004 was a shit year for me. Two operations on my colon had me laid up from Spring through New Year. Anyway, when I showed up at Capone’s I discovered that I had been dropped from the computer. So what do they do? They start me off as a “plus one.” The idea of a handicap tournament is encouraging for guys like me; however, when you’re the one who has to win 6 games to your opponent’s 3, they’re no fun at all.

This leads me to the local barroom 8-ball tournament circuit. On the positive side, there’s no spotting anybody anything. But the negatives, for me, are overwhelming. For one thing, I grew up with a disdain of 8-ball. I was a straight pool shooter and couldn’t think of any good reason why I should play a lesser player a game where they could get lucky and beat me. Let’s face it, no chump is ever going to run 50 balls on you. A second negative is an offshoot of the setting – a lot of the guys you’re playing with have had too much to drink. But, the most negative of all the negatives are the crazy rules you have to play by.

Of all the ways you can play 8-ball, I prefer the “call-your-pocket” “ball-in-hand” game. Unfortunately, most of the bars around here opt for the “no safe,” “call-your-shot,” “honest-effort” version. The problem with this game, as you probably know, is that there are no commonly accepted guide-lines for judging an honest effort. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve lost because someone played me safe in the latter stages of the match.

Tuesday last, I was in a tournament at the bowling alleys down on old 54 playing this guy Ned (His name has been changed to protect the guilty – it doesn’t really have an “n” in it.) Anyway, at a critical juncture he cheated me by playing safe. Now, I distinguish between playing safe and trying a shot while being careful not to give away the farm if you miss. Let’s face it, no matter what rules you play by you have to use your head. But, Ned didn’t call a shot and he made no attempt to make a ball. He played an out and out safe. So, of course I got pissed off… again. I mean this kind of crap is par for the course. Later on, he tried to portray the shot as a lucky accident. “Wha’d’ya think, I’m freakin’ stupid?” I said to him. He never answered directly, but I’m pretty sure he does.

So, he cheated me and beat me. I won’t forget that and I’m actually looking forward to an opportunity to repay him in kind. That’s about all I can do.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Down at the Y

Though this is my pool blog, I have no intentions of making it a chronological presentation. In other words, I’m going to skip around a bit. Still, I thought I might start off by describing my initial contact with the game of billiards.

It occurred in the late 1950’s in Dover, New Jersey, at the old red brick YMCA building which sat on the corner of Bergen and Rt. 46, across from the park known locally as the Dover Commons.

I had never put those four letters – Y-M-C-A – together until I was introduced to the Y by a young friend, Marty Sullivan. Marty lived downtown and because of that he amused himself with a variety of activities that were new to me, a lad who spent most of his free time in seclusion fishing or thinking about baseball. He spoke of the Y with such excitement I couldn’t resist his invitation to join him one day after school.

And he was right. The Y was a great place. The people who worked there were friendly and welcoming. It was nice to have a place to go to where you didn’t have to worry about people lifting their noses at you or ordering you to get lost. If you were a member of the Y, you belonged.

We’d go there everyday after school and amuse ourselves by shooting hoops, playing chess or ping pong, and occasionally by taking our turn at the pool table.

To be honest, I wasn’t terribly gifted as an athlete and little Marty (I call him that because at that stage, when we were in grammar school, I was one of the tallest kids in our class and Marty was one of the shortest) would beat me as often as not. Pool was no different. There is no pool gene. I was later to find out that my Uncle Nicky was one of the best players around. Still, I just plain stunk.

I remember one of the older guys telling us one day that the secret to making a shot when the object ball is froze to the rail is to aim straight through the center of the cue ball to the point where the ball and the cushion make contact. I occasionally resort to this technique, even today.

Anyway, I didn’t have the fever for the game I would later develop – at that stage of my life, playing pool was just something to do.