Just when you think you've seen it all...
Author’s note: What follows is my account of a hustle I witnessed a few months ago. At first I thought it was funny (for reasons explained herein), but as I watched I found it deeply saddening as it provides a glimpse into what is wrong with pool today.
A few months ago I watched a hustler in action at California Billiards in Mountain View, California. I was doing my daily practice routine on one of the Gold Crowns in the back, when a friend approached me and told me there was a guy up front who was “stalling” and looking for action. In pool room parlance, when someone intentionally plays below his or her actual skill level, we call this “stalling.” I was tired of hitting balls, so I decided to go up front and watch the show.
When I arrived, the guy whom I shall refer to as “Mr. Stall” was claiming he was pretty new to pool and was just trying to learn. Then he said something that was shockingly stupid: “Anybody want to play some One Pocket for a little money?” LOL! Are you kidding me??!! Did he really just say that?
Hint #1: ONLY a pool hustler would first claim to know nothing about pool, then turn around and ask you to gamble in One Pocket.
Any chance he had of luring a big fish was just completely destroyed. 99.9% of all beginning pool players have never even heard of One Pocket, much less have any interest in playing it. If you are an aspiring pool hustler, and I hope you are not, please please please never ask anyone to play One Pocket! It means you know a whole lot more about pool than you are letting on. Eventually, he managed to get a One Pocket game with a local player for about $20 a game.
A typical One Pocket break
If you are not familiar with One Pocket, you can read about the game here. One Pocket is a deceptively difficult game which requires a player to be skilled in many areas of pool: long distance shots, extreme cuts, combos, caroms, 1-rail 2-rail and 3-rail banks, extreme cue ball control, and most importantly, KNOWLEDGE. The rules of the game are very simple. You are assigned one pocket at the foot of the table and your opponent is assigned the other pocket at the foot of the table. You must make 8 balls in your assigned pocket before your opponent makes 8 balls into his assigned pocket. Hidden within this very simple concept lies a multiverse of complexity. Because the game is so cerebral, it’s easy for a skilled player to hide his or her true capabilities. A highly skilled player can keep the score close when playing a lesser player, then suddenly get “lucky” and win without the lesser player realizing he never really had a chance to win. The game is tailor made for the con artist.
As the One Pocket game progressed, on several occasions “Mr. Stall” attempted a tough bank or high risk combo, “missed” the shot, and left the cue ball out in the open. A rookie mistake, unless of course, he were doing it on purpose. His misses were often accompanied by comments such as, “Awwww… I dogged it again! I guess I’ve been drinking too much beer!”, or “Dang, I never can hit those shots!”
Hint #2: Never judge a player’s ability by whether or not he makes shots. If you want to clock a player’s true speed, watch his fundamentals. Very good players may attempt to deceive you by missing shots…it’s much more difficult for them to hide their mechanics.
Eventually the local player won, or rather, it would be more accurate to say that “Mr. Stall” lost on purpose. The local player immediately began breaking down his stick. Mr. Stall retorted, “Hey, you’re not leaving are you? Let’s play some more, I don’t mind losing money to you.” The local player explained that he had to go to work and was almost late. Now, here’s where the funny (or rather sad) part begins. Mr. Stall’s road partner was sitting next to me. I’ll refer to him as “Mr. Chester” because he reminded me so much of the Looney Tunes character “Chester the Terrier.”
Pardon me while I digress…
"Beat 'em up Spike! Beat 'em up Spike!"
There’s a 1952 Looney Tunes short called “Tree for Two” which stars Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier. As documented in Wikipedia: “Spike is a burly, gray bulldog who wears a red sweater, a brown bowler hat, and a perpetual scowl. Chester is just the opposite, small and jumpy with yellow fur and brown, perky ears… In it, Chester tells his idol Spike that he knows of a cat that they can beat up.” Chester keeps prodding and urging Spike to fight the cat (Sylvester) with statements like, “Come on, you can do it Spike! Beat up the cat!” and “Show ’em who’s da boss!”
And now, back to my story…
It’s obvious that the local player wants to leave, so Mr. Chester gets jumpy and starts throwing out advice for Mr. Stall:
“Hey Mr. Stall, he’s knows you’ve been drinking too much. He doesn’t want to take your money.”
“Hey Mr. Stall, he’s gonna leave. Why don’t you play for more money? Maybe he’ll stay then.”
“Go ahead, bump the bet! How about offer him just one game for a $100? See if he’ll play you then.”
“You gotta bump the bet. Make it worth it. Otherwise, all these other good players here aren’t going to be interested.”
I laughed out loud as my brain instantly recalled the image of Chester the Terrier, hoping and jumping around Spike the Bulldog, trying his best to pick a fight. I was a witness to the personification of a cartoon character.
Hint #3: If a gambler is losing money, but he keeps insisting on raising the bet, there’s about a 98% chance he’s trying to hustle you.
On one hand, I found the whole experience to be entertaining, but on a deeper level, I was saddened by the whole affair – primarily because these guys were very serious with their antics. Some thoughts that saddened me:
- Did these guys REALLY think this approach would work? Did they really think we were that stupid?
- Where did they learn their technique? From a comic book?
- It should have been obvious to anyone watching Mr. Stall’s mechanics that he was actually a VERY good player, regardless of the outcome of the first game
- Where did Mr. Chester get his lines…from a D budget pool movie?
- Why did such a telented player feel the need to hustle?
- What did he expect to gain? A couple hundred bucks?
In the end, no one took the bait, and the hustler left California Billiards $20 poorer. The kicker was that we all knew who he was from the instant he walked in the front door. At one time, he was one of the most feared player/hustlers on the west coast. In his teenage years, no one would play him for money. No one. Now, decades later, he is relegated to a life of visiting pool halls and trying to swindle kids out of their lunch money? This whole affair actually made me ponder: What must it feel like to work really really hard and reach the pinnacle of your sport, only to find it’s tough to make $40k-$50k a year in “legitimate” tournament money, while comparable athletes in other major sports make millions a year for sitting on the bench? As I think back to this incident, it actually makes me sad. It’s a good thing that my journey in pool is motivated solely by my sincere love for the game and not by any aspirations to make money at it.