I took a road trip to get out of the Wisconsin winter in January of 1979 and after driving less than 200 miles got snowed in for a few days in Moline, Illinois. Moline is my home town and my cousin Beth knew the bar scene and told me where there was some pool action while I was home. Despite the difficulties of leaving the house in this weather I checked out a couple of her recommendations and found very little at a bar that she was confident about.
I had asked multiple guys to play but they held very little genuine interest and just as I was about to leave one guy said that he would play a race to 2 games for $20. This led to other guys finding some excitement and we were soon engaged in a $20 per game challenge the table scenario for a few hours. I was ahead about two hundred dollars when the action dried up and in came an unmarried single guy that worked two full time factory jobs which both paid great.
He also considered himself to be good at pool playing and was enthusiastic about playing me. Ego is a funny thing and while I had won from the others this guy knew that he would be the center of attention and when he won it would look pretty heroic.
He wanted to play 9-Ball with $20 on the Five Ball and $20 on the 9-Ball and respot. Respot means if a money ball is made out of turn on a combination shot you win the $20 but it returns to the table and the game continues. This enables one rack of bar table 9-Ball to have more than just $40 total riding on it.
While my opponent was truly better than an average amateur player he was way over his head with someone dedicated to full time pool playing, but my youthful appearance and gentle bedside manner produced a comfortable feeling that we were likely about equal and I was probably playing a bit over my head.
One game I won $100 due to the respot rule and when the bar closed I had miraculously won $720, when earlier it had appeared after a couple of hours as a dry hole and I was preparing to leave.
The guy that lost asked me to play again tomorrow afternoon, this is a frequent occurrence when you win versus a guy with some ego at the end of a session. They will say, “meet me tomorrow” but they almost always forget to show up the next day at a rate of 95%. I know the percentage because I always show up and am always disappointed over their personal irresponsibility. (Incidentally I have also learned that of the times they do show up they can often beat you a fair amount of those times.)
This guy did show up and he had created a secret plan. He had brought a pocketful of cash and today he was going to up the stakes on “college boy” and play $50 per game and no respot or cash on the 5 ball, only the 9-Ball. Bar table 9-Ball is a fast game and the 9-Ball goes in on the Break or gets near a pocket often enough that it is pretty easy to win games along the way. This provides an element of confidence for adversaries as they can often win some games despite not possessing tremendous skills.
The games went more my way, but he was winning a share of the games too. He had $50 bills and we traded them back and forth when after a couple of hours his $50 bills were depleted, leaving him with only $100’s. He then requested that we play $100 per game and I knew that he was willing to lose but if he won a few of these games and got near even he would be willing to quit and escape feeling that he had hung right in there. These were very important games if I was going to take down a good score. The games resumed and the day ended a couple of hours later and I was ahead $1500 despite the fact that he had many more $100 bills remaining. I was both delighted but hated to see him decide that he had enough when he still possessed ample funding. I never blame a man for quitting when he runs out of money, but hate to see a guy quit when he has the financial capability to continue.
It is hard to find money games and luck is frequently required to get to the right guy. Amazingly I had been ready to give up on getting a little pool game at this place and by coincidence it turned into a terrific start to my winter escape plan.
Once the roads opened up it was time for Texas and I arrived in Houston hopeful for finding some good action. I had a friend that lived alone in a small new apartment where I could operate from and after some rest, it was time to go to work. The first order of business was always to look up Billiards in the phone book and learn about a few possible pool rooms.
Houston is a major city and when I looked up the locations of poolrooms it was truly astounding for how many entries there were of just poolrooms. Undoubtedly there would also be many bars that contained pool action too.
I wrote down all of the poolrooms address’s and that consumed a page and a half of single lines, approximately 40 locations. Each day I would perform a recon covering 3-5 of these places because I wanted to establish a plan beyond just going out and exposing myself to action rather than going about things a little smarter and working my way through Houston.
In past times I had burned up good action due to having played and beaten a couple of the known better players in a town prior to winning against at least some of the lesser skilled guys first. Even the times that I lost against the superior players in an area it hurt me about as bad as if I had won, the lesser players lost confidence for playing me because they for sure would not have even played the guy that beat me. I planned to be here for a while and did not want to waste a “target rich” environment from crashing through carelessly and lazily.
Pool was big in Texas and despite being there at the end of the oil boom the pool action was the best that I had ever found. Later on many of the local journeymen players assured me that I had missed out on the times when it had been much better. That was hard to imagine, but they were certain.
The daily recon would involve arriving at a location and then going in and renting a table to do some solitary serious training. While I was there I would engage the employees, be cheerful, and purchase a soft drink, and give a cash tip. I did not push conversation because I wanted to practice and focus seriously for improving. However by displaying a serious dedication to pool, people would voluntarily open up a bit easier and my general position when asked, was that I did not feel that I was really that good yet and certainly not good enough to play someone else that is serious.
This easy going approach seemed to inspire them to assure me that I could beat at least some of the people around and they would then share some valuable insights voluntarily without much urging on my part. I would learn things such as, on Wednesday they had an evening tournament with a small entry fee, race to 2 games, and $100 for first place. Then on Saturday there would be a Ring Game that would be open to everyone and 5-6 handed with $2 on the 5-Ball and $5 on the 9-Ball.
Some of the addresses that I searched were more of a kiddie place with a bar table and video games, these places were crossed off of my list. Then some places had a few better players and I learned about the weekly tournament formats and times. The better places I would stop through on a few occasions to practice and then kind of become known as a customer through a few visits.
After doing this for only a few weeks and creating notes from the information that I had discovered, my opportunities were significant. I had a list of weekly tournaments throughout Houston in poolrooms and bars. I knew the two 24 hour poolrooms and had checked them out, but did not spend time there practicing because the more knowledgeable billiard crowd hung there. I would save those places for later use. I then began going to the small weekly tournaments of which there were many and participating in these poorly organized events created opportunities. They were often played on 7’ bar tables that were in less than great condition. The matches were short and I could win 2 or 3 of these tournaments every week from Sunday – Thursday.
The times when I lost were valuable too, because the group of people participating were players, and while not all being great in skill, enjoyed competing and small money games could be had if you were able to fit in with them. I tried not to go every week to the same tournaments and especially if I had won the week before. The tournaments were so plentiful that I could play in 10-14 different various nightly tournaments throughout the weeks. By participating infrequently at any one location it kept me going without becoming restricted from participating and burning out a solid revenue stream, which is a real problem for continuous winners. The prize money would add up to be $200-$300 per week plus some side games would crop up that you could win small sums in too.
I was well liked (I noticed that I was more affable than I remembered while trying to encourage action) and the match formats were such that I lost often too, despite trying hard. If you give a gratuity to the bartender or owner in these places it truly does carry some weight because so many customers never tip. Hence, I had a little more loyalty from management and I frequently bought an occasional extra drink for the people who were often there. This investment had created a friendly atmosphere and paid dividends in multiple ways. I learned of other places to play, and who to play for how much, and who to avoid as they were trouble, and much more.
Downtown Houston on Friday afternoons was Sugar’s, a high class and immaculately clean, Strip Club with the most attractive girls. The many nearby high rise office employees that generated a good salary wearing suits would attend on Fridays. They were in a good mood and because this place was fancy the prices were triple anywhere else for everything- drinks, food, even pool cost a dollar a game when it was 25 cents everywhere else.
Everything was popping at Sugar’s on Friday afternoons into the early evenings and if I attended there was no chance to lose money, it was a steady source of $80-$150 dollars weekly. Once again playing on a bar table forced me to lose games completely unintentionally which then did make it appear that we were all similarly skilled and competitive, but I could win far more than I lost. The worst part was the line of challengers that played so poorly that I would have to wait for to play their games in order for me to return to the table.
The men all had good paying jobs and were paying almost $5 per drink anyway, so playing a few pool games for $5 was insignificant to them and because of the line of players, nobody could ever really get fleeced properly.
I could hold the table through 5 or 6 games and then lose and have to wait an hour to return, then perhaps win 1 game and lose again, ugh, that would really cut my hourly rate waiting yet again, but that was the deal to access the easy money. Sometimes I would have a good series of victories and was enjoying myself quite a bit, even wishing that I could reproduce myself on the other tables simultaneously.
Sometimes after a player lost to me and they were paying me while realizing they were unwilling to wait to play another game, they would say, “yes I would really like to play you again but the wait is too long and I have to take my wife out for dinner”. This really bothered me because the sentiment did not totally seem gratuitous and it felt that they would enjoy playing me some more, but I could not help them out. I pondered this dilemma as it is not that easy to find money pool games during the weekdays and it is shame for me to not liberate some of their income if they did not mind.
I decided to view this type of conclusion as a sales opportunity, and would reply to their statement about playing me again in an easy manner by saying, “yes, me too, you are a good challenge for me also…how about if I give you my phone number?” (pre cell phone era, only home phones then). They would always respond with a yes and I would proceed to write down my number for them and just as I was handing it to them I would say, “why don’t you give me yours too”, and then I would look down at my paper with pen poised. They felt a little compelled to provide their name and number and I would ask them what days are better for you while throwing in that I have to work late a couple of nights to sound not completely available either.
Well you guessed it, nobody seemed to call me from this, but I now had the name and number for guys who had previously played me small stakes pool.
Sunday afternoons as I watched NFL football, I did my phone sales initiative. I would call the guys up as if we were great friends and say, “hey this is Mark and we talked the other night about playing a little stick and ball”, explaining that I could be available tonight or would tomorrow work better for them. I found that offering two specific choices was much better than an open ended time frame on a cold call, “when do you want to shoot some pool” which always seemed to attract an answer of “I will have to get back with you”. The majority of the time they turned down playing again and probably less than 10% did ever actually play me again, however some did and I would win a little cash. They all remained on my phone list and would receive a periodic call until they insisted that I never call again. They had said they wanted to play but later learned they regretted saying that to me.
THE GOLD CLUB
During this time period I lived on the extreme west side of Houston, off of Hwy. 6 and Westheimer. Just the driving distance to downtown took an hour yet it was all considered Houston proper, everything is big in Texas. Near the apartment on Westheimer was a small roadside bar called The Gold Club that was a little worn but the exact type of place that had often yielded pool games in my past. I stopped by one day on my way home from pool playing elsewhere just to check it out.
The parking lot was gravel and had pick-up trucks with Confederate Flags in the back window. They had two bar tables, dirty concrete floor, juke box, pin ball machine, television, and a wooden bar with cheap beer and liquor. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer and tipped the bartender. I showed no signs of interest in anything but my beer despite taking in what this atmosphere held.
The few customers were clearly blue collar types, perhaps tilted to the lower forms of blue collar workers too. They were mostly crude and unkempt, perhaps oil field roughnecks, but were all at home as regular customers here. This was not really a friendly place to outsiders.
I did notice a small amount of pool activity but it was just guys playing their friends for drinks type stuff, however I felt certain that at the right time a money game could be had here along with a post-pool game altercation or fight.
This place was going to require a delicate manner for college boy to not get injured or ostracized while winning money. This was the type of place that I had learned to avoid when traveling by myself because heavy alcohol consumption and pool gambling frequently becomes problematic and could lead to me landing on the Disabled List if this was other sports.
My biggest problem was that I do not fit in with the clientele at all. These were people that did not know or use proper English when speaking, they could smoothly interject the “F” word as a noun, verb, adjective, conjunction, or adverb, and possibly all in one sentence. I finished my beer and went on pondering the value of further investment in the Gold Club. The convenient location was terrific, but the challenging circumstances of fitting in was a real issue.
Three or four times a week on my way home from other pool playing I stopped for a beer or two. I would also buy a couple of the regular customers a drink as well, while always tipping the bartender. The tipping was important because this was not a regular practice by the customer base and my drink purchases for other people, who I did not know but only recognized, also was an unusual practice. I never played any pool during my visits but merely sat at the bar, often engaging in small talk yet observed the goings on.
My visits were soon then welcomed by the patrons and the bartender because I was a “good guy”. I finally had been involved enough at the bar to infiltrate the small stakes pool games which were mostly games for a drink or $2.
My first day playing I lost a game, won a game, and then lost another, that was enough pool for me, and I retired to the bar, bought myself and a few guys beers and tipped the bartender. Things were now becoming far more comfortable for me here and I knew people’s names. This was the turning point.
I would now stop by a few times a week and sit at the bar, buy a couple of my friends a beer, and when it was time for my second beer I would show interest in a few games of pool. Just 3 or 4 games and then finish my drink, leave a tip, and depart. Soon I was playing in games, and shortly I had guys asking me to play for $5 or $10 a game. I always bought some drinks for my opponents and the regulars, and when I won a little extra money, the bartender always received 10% displaying that I was delighted over my good fortune and wanted to share with my friends.
This was actually my insurance policy and the only way to pull off winning money out of such a hazardous place.
I began to win some decent money but not from the regular customer base, rather transient beer drinkers that work in the oil fields, earn decent pay, and drink hard when off work. The bartender was now receiving 10% of my winnings regularly which would often amount to 10-20 extra dollars once or twice a week. I still bought a few people beers too and had now become a preferred customer amongst everyone.
I soon had so many guys that liked me that they would never allow anything to happen to me should trouble ever come about. Now, things had changed and sometimes I would be at home and the bartender would call me to alert me that there was a guy that wanted to play pool for some cash, because he knew that he would get a decent tip if I made some money. This was a great turn of events because I no longer had to spend so much time hanging out, and my investment in “Gold” had begun show growth.
THE GUNSLINGERS OF HOUSTON
Imagine that Houston still had the “Old West” culture abounding. I was on the south end of town near the Astrodome. The road had four lanes of traffic heading in either direction and one day two cars passed me at an extremely high rate of speed considering that I was traveling 45 or 50 mph they were traveling significantly faster. Up ahead the lead car screeched to a halt and put the car in reverse and punched the accelerator, fish tailing backwards as the driver in the chase car jumped out running and shooting a hand gun at that vehicle as I pulled my car way up on the grass to avoid being struck. Once they went past me I sped on out of there along with many of the other cars. This type of thing was not that unusual and would not be my last experience of such an odd occurrence.
THE PLAYERS CLUB
Later on I heard about a pool room nearby the Astrodome. The Astrodome was a world famous landmark stadium but was located in a rougher area of Houston. The pool room was reputed to have some pretty soft action but was considered a dangerous place filled with drug dealers, pimps, hookers, and a few blue collar types. The Players Club was the name of this place and I thought well how bad can it be, I liked the name and will just check it out and if it looks too dicey I will depart without so much as playing pool. Somehow I really wasn’t afraid despite the warnings, this was a public place and it shouldn’t be that bad plus I had previously played in many iffy places.
The Players Club was located in a run down and depressed strip mall with a pothole and broken glass filled asphalt parking lot. I approached the door and next to the door was a large sign that said- Please no guns or knives! This struck me as a little odd, but they did say please.
Walking inside was a large group of perhaps 25 bar tables many in operation and off to the right side was a long bar with many bar stools aligned and a smattering of them were occupied. This looked kind of promising and I walked midway into the room and went to the bar to order something to drink which would reasonably buy me some time to unobtrusively conduct a little surveillance with the goings on.
I ordered a cranberry juice and as the bartender busied himself, I noticed another sign behind the bar that was big and read- Please no guns or knives! I looked down at the worn out carpet and it appeared that someone before me had either spilled their cranberry juice or it was a large pool of a reddish dried blood stain. This was a little concerning but I perched on my bar stool with my back towards the bar to check out the pool playing. There was significant activity and I was trying to discern if these were purely social games or if money was changing hands.
Two bar stools down from me sat a girl too pretty to be in this place and two stools down from her was a guy wearing a long military issue green heavy winter coat with hair long and matted that fell past his shoulders with a baseball cap on his head. He was sitting and drinking while looking straight ahead into the wall behind the bar.
I was intent on the pool playing going on and a bit concerned over the signs and carpet stains, when the girl to my left kind of shrieks, “ahh that guy has a snake” and she quickly departs her stool as he continues looking straight forward. I am now compelled to look his way and I see nothing out of the ordinary given the basic look that he presents anyway, when all of a sudden out of his hair hanging on his back comes the head of a boa constrictor as big as my hand. He has the thing all coiled around his body underneath the coat but based upon the head size it had to be big. I became a little spooked given everything and despite the drug dealers gambling a bit amongst themselves, decided that this place is not for me and I leave.
A week or two later, greed has now overrode good judgement and I went back in the daytime to see if I could win a little cash. I was assuming that daytime would be a safer option. The guys there had a Six Ball Ring Game going for $2 per man with five or six guys playing. When you play Six Ball on a coin table you can get two or three games out of 25 cents because the games go quick and often have short racks which leaves remaining balls to be used without having to pay another quarter to play.
These games are filled with luck and everyone gets to win some games along the way as everyone gets a turn and you collect from everyone else when you pocket the money ball. Everyone is enjoying this match and at first the money went around fairly equally. The price per game escalated a little too. Incidentally, I was the only white guy involved, which was not initially a problem because the undercurrent of feelings by my black constituency was that I would soon be fleeced by their Six Ball skills.
As the afternoon wore on into early evening I was now dominating the games and had won pockets full of small denomination money and everyone else was losing various amounts. The fun they had been having early had now evolved towards contempt and while I had made a good score, I sensed and felt quite uneasy about departing as mild animosity was showing some signs and progressing the wrong way.
I went to the bathroom and checked to see if there was a window to assist in my egress but no luck. I had always had a contingency plan for just such an occurrence but had never deployed it before. I washed my hands and continued the match but was trying to slow down on my winning.
However these guys were so upset they were now missing routine shots and leaving me winning shots that I could not dare miss or it would further infuriate them for being recognized as a deliberate miss.
Isn’t that the way it works, if I could lose a few and appear legitimate they might be able to compose themselves enough to think that maybe I had just had a great streak of fortune, but instead they were so aggravated over their original assessment of me likely losing easily which has now become quite the opposite from what had transpired, they were now virtually incapable of winning.
The natives continued to become more “restless” and a little escalation of verbal hostilities became apparent along with some “mob mentality”. I did not even acknowledge this, because they were kind of looking to begin a disagreement. I wanted to leave but also did not sense that it would go well.
My nerves and heart rate escalated too as I anticipated trouble and I decided to deploy my previously untried contingency plan by going to the pay phone and calling the police. I informed them that a big bar brawl had broken out at The Players Club and I then went back to my game. Shortly, a couple of uniformed police officers arrived and went to the bar to find out about the call regarding the brawl. The bartender had no idea, but I now had my armed escort out and exited at the same time the police left.
Despite having won money the departure stress had taken away my usual gratification or accomplishment and my joy was not prize based but that I had escaped.
I learned of a small pool room on the extreme north side of Houston where a drug dealer named Buffalo Bill played a decent caliber on the 4’x 8′ tables that played very unforgiving. The deal was that this Buffalo Bill wore his hair the same as the real Buffalo Bill, with it being dark color, long, stringy, and slightly curly.
This guy had quite the drug business and kept his pinky finger nail extremely long and painted black to enable easy sampling of his products. He ran much of his business from around his favorite pool table and he had a gaggle of people surrounding him, many pretty girls, and a private posse of guys, while many other people stopped by throughout the day for short meetings and cash exchanges with him. He was very confident and comfortable in this environment. Bill was a very decent and cheerful sort of guy to play pool with and displayed a calm fairness. My understanding of his ability was such that he plays really good on his table and because of this, he will lose a lot of money to someone better, due to an easy income and the fact that he has rarely lost.
I was anxious to try on Buffalo Bill and put a tax on his revenue stream. I arrived and we made a game playing 9-Ball for $40 per rack. This amount at that time was considered double of what a serious game would be. I was playing pretty good and Bill hung in there but I could feel that this would be my game all the way. Finally after about six hours and having him raise the bet along the way, I was more than $700 ahead. During this time he had also made a few deals and his cash supply was plentiful and undamaged so far, he had displayed thousands of dollars with no signs of willingness to quit the pool match.
My thoughts turned to this possibly being one of my greatest scores ever. This is where an inexperienced road pool player’s mind goes and then shortly thereafter the loss of intense focus erodes just a slight amount and doom occurs. You lose a few games and begin to press because you had been doing so much better just a little earlier and now you are in a dogfight. When you are young, inexperienced, and begin thinking about money, rather than creating a great stroke delivery performance, it quickly leads to absolute disaster. Bill had regained some confidence and his shotmaking improved while now I was displaying full-on symptoms of paralysis. I played poorly, rarely running the rack but mainly running the majority of the balls and faltering on the last couple, until Bill had won all of his money back.
I was shattered and had to quit when he got even because I was so out of form by this point that I knew that I would only continue losing. I told Bill that I had enjoyed the match and really respected his game while offering to play him the next afternoon. He agreed and said, we will begin at 2 p.m.
I recognized that the match was a tough one for me at the time, but very winnable, if I played my game without falling out of timing and feeling paralyzed. I then had some dinner and went to bed a little sick over losing what was on the way to being a wildly financially successful result.
Often times when the opponent gets even they no longer are willing to play recognizing just how vulnerable they had been. This is why you have to play super solid on the road because it is easy for the lesser player to slip away relatively unscathed and you did not make the money that you should have and desperately need to. Once you get your man down you have to have the killer instinct and really finish him off, rather than what I did, which was thinking about the future riches that was within my grasp. The painful and valuable experience later down the road paid great dividends.
I woke up early had some breakfast and went for a good practice session prior to going to play Bill again. My head was clear and my good stroke returned to being consistent and smooth after the work out. I arrived and the pool game commenced, Bill was feeling terrific and confident from a good comeback yesterday, and I also knew that my game was better than his. We battled for a while and I was again ahead $700 when Bill paid off the last rack, he explained that he was out of money. My adrenaline was up, and the focus was in the right place, so that I would insure that I would not victimize myself again. I was going to win a few thousand for sure today.
The idea that he was out of money seemed implausible due to how much he showed me yesterday, but he explained that a shipment had come in and he had invested most of his ready cash in his business’s product. Yesterday he would have lost the majority of what cash that he had, and today he lost all that he had left, but that was the end of the match. I left with a score that normally I would have been quite pleased about, but this time it felt like I lost $2000 due to what he was willing to lose yesterday.
The real problem is that there are not that many guys out there willing to play all out pool matches and when you finally get a guy, you have to crush his soul right away before something goes wrong, which it generally does. Nevertheless Buffalo Bill has remained in my memory for many years.