City Paper is not for tourists
And then he heard the car stop. There was nothing more to do. He turned around and looked at the car, blinking….
“Well,” he said. “Hello, boys,” and climbed into the backseat. His little leather case was still in his right hand. He gripped it tightly. It was all he had.
—last lines of “The Hustler,” short story by Walter Tevis.
He always comes in alone, and he always wears the hat, even after shaking off the cold. The hat stays on, a narrow-brimmed fedora, because it’s part of the outfit, like the leather jacket and the creased gray trousers and the shiny green slip-on shoes and, usually, the fresh cigarette tucked behind one ear. It’s sort of a trademark, shadowing his long, hollow face and pitch-black eyes. He looks like a cross between William S. Burroughs and Fast Eddie Felson, the pool shark immortalized in the 1961 film The Hustler.
Late on a weeknight, the crowd at Bedrock Billiards on Columbia Road NW is thinning, but the smoke is not. Tomorrow is a work day, after all, but for Gus Baroutas, work is about to begin. Kind of like Fast Eddie, Gus has spent a good chunk of his 67 years walking into bars with pool tables and walking back out just a little bit richer. His gambling days are over now, but he can’t seem to quit playing.
His opponent always comes in alone, too, and always later. An intense Mexican with a brushy mustache and a dour expression, he greets no one and chats with no one. He only sits and waits for their table. His name is Francisco, Frisco for short. They play almost every night until closing.
When their table is free, Gus darts into the back room, where he keeps his cue in a locker. It’s a beautiful piece of wood, or rather two pieces of wood that screw together. The butt is inlaid with imitation ivory and wrapped with leather. Frisco assembles his slightly less expensive cue. He chalks it with such force that he’s worn a groove around the ferrule. Nine ball is a nerve-shredding game, even when it’s not played for money.
Nine ball is the aficionado’s game of pool and also the gambler’s game, far more intricate in strategy than the ubiquitous eight ball but deceptively simple in its rules. You start with balls one through nine in the rack, arranged in a diamond. You strike the balls in order, starting with the lowest ball left after the break. The player who pots the nine wins the game. So you could nail the first eight and then miss, leaving your opponent an easy shot and the game, which is how Gus loses the first three games tonight. Or you could win by sinking the nine on the break, which is how Frisco wins the fourth game. Luck plays a big role in nine ball, but so does skill. Over many games, the better player usually wins.
There’s only one other shortcut to victory, and that is to sink the nine in a combination shot, where the cue ball first strikes the lowest-numbered ball on the table. In the next game, Gus steps up to an easy six-ball shot to the side—the ball is practically sitting in the jaws of the pocket. He takes careful aim, more careful than necessary on such a basic shot—but then, he’s missed a couple of easy ones tonight. Shots he never used to miss.
When he finally shoots, his stick goes up almost to the ceiling and the cue ball knocks in the six before spinning wildly down the rail to tap in the nine, which was poised near the far right corner. You would almost account it to luck, if you didn’t know Gus.
Gus exchanges his stick for a house cue and waits for Frisco to rack the balls. He looks down at his shiny green shoes, tamping down his brief elation. This is how he used to play.
I met Gus last summer at Buffalo Billiards near Dupont Circle, where he serves as a sort of unofficial house pro. He was giving a lesson to my perky friend Ariadne, a senior at Georgetown. At the time, she barely knew how to hold the cue, and if she sank a ball it rarely dropped in the pocket she intended. She was not a good player, and I beat her quite easily.
That was fun, until Gus ruined it. He showed her how to stand, how to line up a shot, and how to form a bridge with her palm on the table and the cue sliding under her crooked forefinger—the fundamentals of pool. He set up a straight shot for her, and after a couple of preliminary misses she sank the ball right where she meant to. In 30 minutes, as I sat there sipping a beer and only half paying attention, Gus turned my perky but incompetent friend Ariadne into a capable player. Buffalo employees call this getting “Gussified.”
The pool table is one of the last places in America where a man can feel as if he’s got an edge over a woman, but that night marked the beginning of the end for me. Later, in our weekly games at Bedrock, Ariadne would size up a tricky shot and decide, “I need Gus.” Gus would materialize, place his finger on the spot she should hit, and she would make the shot. Before long she was sinking bank shots and long rails on her own, and ultimately, to my horror, beating me. With or without Gus.
Gus now teaches four nights a week, Monday and Wednesday at Buffalo and Thursday and Saturday at Bedrock. His half-hour sessions are booked at least a month in advance, and mostly by women, which is fine by Gus so long as they don’t request a nonsmoking table. When they do that, it means he has to trudge all the way over to the smoking side of the room to snare an ashtray. Gus likes things to come easily, which is why he spent so much of his life playing pool for money. It was what he did best.
Pool has changed, and he can accept that, though he hails from an era when gambling and smoking (and dapper hats) were not only accepted but practically mandatory. In the somewhat bland environment of Buffalo Billiards—where faux-Western signs prohibit “Cattle Rustling” and the restrooms are for “Guys” and “Gals”—Gus cuts a romantic, mysterious figure.
“When we started this business,” says Geoff Dawson, co-owner of Bedrock, Buffalo, and three other upscale pool halls, “we had this image of a perfect character who would walk through the door, and he’d be mysterious and have kinda the aura of the old-time pool player, but not be menacing.”
“We turned around one day, and there was Gus, in that little hat.”
Most nights, his is the only fedora in sight. He seems, to the Buffalo-Bedrock crowd, like the soul of the game come to life. The truth is a little more complicated.
When Gus walked into Bedrock Billiards, shortly after it opened in the spring of 1992, he hadn’t played serious pool since the 1970s. But pool is like smoking, a tenacious addiction that imprints itself on the mind. So perhaps the sound of knocking balls was enough to draw him in.
He quickly befriended the regulars, most of whom are half his age or less. He had a gentlemanly manner, an engaging personality, and a way with stories. Plus, he could play. “He was a throwback to the days of smoky pool halls and dime beers and people playing for food money,” says Scott Wandling, who managed Bedrock at the time.
Bedrock was the first of a new sort of pool hall, at least for Washington: one that served $4 microbrews and charged up to 18 bucks an hour for table time. Before 1992, hack players were pretty much limited to coin-operated bar tables like the one at Dan’s Cafe on 18th Street NW, where the challenge list could fill two columns of an 8-by-11 pad. It was waiting on line at Dan’s, and then getting kicked off the table when he lost, that gave Dawson the idea to start Bedrock Billiards.
To play serious pool, you had to drive out to one of the Champion billiard halls in Silver Spring or Shirlington. They were open all night (and still are), charged next to nothing for table time, and were frequented by friendly Asian fellows who could quickly bankrupt anyone who accepted their offer of a game. The next-to-last time I was in the Silver Spring Champion, at about 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning several years ago, I overheard two people at the next table discussing their recent jail sentences. Their boyfriends looked even scarier.
Though it originated in British country houses in the 16th century—it was a lawn game that moved indoors—pool in America has waged “a constant battle for respectability,” in the words of one historian of the game. For much of the time, pool has been losing. The American poolroom has been an all-male institution since it appeared in the mid-1800s, which is cause enough for suspicion. Prohibition-era poolrooms were often little more than fronts for speak-easies. The gang rape that inspired the film The Accused took place on, of course, a pool table.
But the real reason mainstream America has frowned on pool is its inevitable companion: gambling. When President John Quincy Adams put a table in the White House in the 1820s, his congressional foes accused him of installing “gambling furniture.” Certain top players have been excluded from national championships, writes sociologist Ned Polsky, because of their compulsive gambling. The very name of the game—“pool”—refers to a pot of money being wagered.
Lately, however, pool has become respectable, even upscale. This is not news; one of the first yuppie pool halls, Chelsea Billiards in New York, opened in the late 1980s, boasting polished brass and expensive beers and frequently vacuumed carpets. The Color of Money came out in 1986, starring the unbearable Tom Cruise as an up-and-coming pool shark, and suddenly pool was acceptable again.
Not only that, but pool was now open to women, who were changing and softening the hard man’s game. The New York Times Magazine profiled Ewa Mataya, the reigning women’s champion, in a Feb. 23, 1992, piece headlined “Clean Pool.” By which the reporter, Alessandra Stanley, meant no gambling, no smoking, no guys named “Shorty” hanging around in bleak, seedy dives, hitting balls and drinking until their eyes turned red—and did I mention gambling? No gambling, and no hustling. Just good, clean pool.
The week after the piece came out, three gunmen burst into an East Village poolroom and shot the place up.
“A hustler is not a pool player,” sniffed Mataya, spokesmodel for the new, squeaky-clean pool, to the Times. “He is just a hustler.”
Gus might dispute that. He earned his living as a pool hustler for about two decades, though it wasn’t always hustling and sometimes not much of a living. He wouldn’t have been able to do that if he couldn’t play pool.
But in a way Mataya is right. The playing was almost secondary. More difficult, the art to it really, was being able to turn a place. “We could go into a bar in some hick town where nobody ever gambled, and turn it into a gambling joint,” Gus says.
We’re sitting in the Astor, a carryout restaurant a few doors down from Bedrock on Columbia Road. Gus is chain-smoking and swirling the dregs of a cup of coffee. As always, he’s wearing the hat. His soft, almost mumbulous voice is overwhelmed by the restaurant’s screeching Egyptian music. Gus grew up in “the same Washington that Pat Buchanan grew up in,” as one friend puts it, but he’s adjusted to the multicultural age pretty well.
Hustlers are notoriously sketchy about details, but Gus seems to have entered the poolroom trade sometime after leaving the Army in the late 1950s. He was born in Washington in 1929 to Greek immigrant parents who lived near 3rd and C Streets NW, an old ethnic neighborhood since displaced by the Department of Labor. His father, a butcher in his native Kalamata, ran a small grocery store, and Gus grew up with four sisters. One sister died in her teens and another passed away a few years ago, but his sister Iris lives in Riverdale, and Dorothy lives in Hyattsville.
Gus is short for Constantinos. And although he is, in fact, quite short, he excelled at basketball and football at Central High School, now Cardozo. He also shot a pretty straight game of pool. As a teenager, he gradually picked up the hustler’s trade, playing for money in poolrooms downtown and near 14th Street and Park Road NW. He honed his skills during an Army stint in Europe in the early 1950s. When he returned, he began playing pool for extra money. And his father was proud.
“He was glad I was doing something,” Gus told me. At least Gus was making money.
From Gus’ point of view, playing pool was a means to an end: It was a way to avoid keeping a regular job. “I must’ve had 10 different jobs, but they didn’t last long and I didn’t like any of them,” he says. He delivered Dr. Pepper once for two weeks. He preferred working for himself, either at the pool table or painting houses. Once when he was broke, he painted the trim on his brother-in-law’s house for $20. That night, he went out and won $100 at nine ball. His career choice was a no-brainer.
By the early ’60s, Gus was hanging out at a place called the Coffee Shop in Silver Hill, Md., just over the D.C. line in Prince George’s County. The Coffee Shop had bar tables, waitresses, and a good crowd, but Gus had played all the regulars and was growing restless there. One day a new player walked in, a skinny youth 10 years his junior with a good reputation. He was Daniel Dennis on his driver’s license, but in poolrooms he was “Baltimore Buddy.”
“The first time we ever played, I beat him one set,” Gus says. Nine ball is played in sets, and the winner of the set is either the first to win seven games (“the race to seven”), or the first to win seven games more than his opponent (“seven ahead”). “But while we were playing I knew I couldn’t beat Buddy. One short set I beat him; after that we played three more times—and he annihilated me. He barbecued me.”
When Gus and Buddy became partners in hustling, the country was in the throes of a pool boomlet, as it is now. The Hustler came out in 1961 and proved so popular that it was re-released in 1964, elevating the behatted pool hustler to icon status. And yet, at about that time, the game’s foremost sociologist pronounced hustling dead.
“The heyday of the poolroom is over,” declared Polsky in Hustlers, Beats and Others, his 1967 study of the “sociology of deviance.” “Hustling is a dying trade.”
Certainly, owning poolrooms was a dying trade. Three decades before The Hustler, there had been 40,000 pool halls in the U.S. By 1961, there were 3,000. Though the film renewed interest in the game, the remaining hustlers were still swimming in a much smaller pond than before the second World War, Polsky wrote. That left them with fewer potential victims and increased their chances of recognition.
Paul Newman’s impersonation of a pool hustler also made the real hustler’s job more difficult by exposing the average American moviegoer to his basic quiver of tricks: feigning incompetence, pretending to be drunk, and so forth. The film reflected the reality of the ’30s rather than the ’60s.
“The days when a poolroom hustler could readily find nonhustlers willing to play for high stakes are long gone,” Polsky wrote, “and probably gone forever.”
Luckily for Gus he wasn’t a “poolroom hustler.” Out of happenstance and also out of shrewdness, Gus and Buddy plied their trade not in pool halls but in bars, where the coin-operated pool table remained a standard fixture and where the average pool hustler rarely deigned to venture. “There was more action in the bars than the pool rooms,” Gus says. The general disappearance of poolrooms may, in fact, have proved a boon for Gus and Buddy. Fewer places for players to hone their skills translated into a steady supply of inept opponents.
“See, there’s two ways of playing pool,” Gus explains. “You can play competitively with guys in your class or just above you, and you can win one and you can lose one. The other way of playing pool is, it’s not how good you play, it’s who you play. In a bar, they don’t know you, they’re in there having a good time for an evening. They’re willing to wager two dollars a game to 20 a game, and they don’t have a lot of talent to go with it.”
“Most of them are pretty good,” he admits, pausing for a drag off a filterless Pall Mall. “But just not good enough.”
Writer Chip Brown calls skiing the “last bastion of faith in the perfectibility of man,” which goes to show that he doesn’t play enough pool. Like skiing, and also like golf, pool is a game that reveals your own imperfections, your own limits. The better you are, the more clearly you see your faults. Such knowledge is always humbling, but you deny it at your peril.
“Everybody who plays pool thinks he’s just a little bit better than what he really is,” Gus observes one night at Buffalo. “That’s why he loses his bankroll.”
Gus and Buddy worked this gap. Buddy was the better player, but he didn’t talk much off the table. Gus was the outgoing one, so his job was to get the action started, striking up bar-stool friendships in each new place. Standing something less than 5 feet 6 inches tall, Gus is hardly an intimidating figure, and his friendliness is unfaked—or at least it seems that way. He’d typically start playing for nothing, then suggest a small wager: $2 or maybe $5 a game.
Hustling requires subtle acting; you adopt a certain persona on the table as well as off. Gus couldn’t throw the first games too obviously, because his opponent would get suspicious. But neither could he run the rack every game, which is what his talent begged him to do. Gus usually chose to play the middle, pretending to shoot better than the average guy, but not much better. It all depended on his opponent’s skill, or “speed.”
“You have to make sure your opponent is getting enough shots, so you can see how he plays—see his speed,” he says. Gus would make a few balls, then leave his opponent a makable shot. “When you have a pretty good idea how he plays, you can adjust your game to his game, which will make him play longer.” By imitating crappy players, Gus made himself a master of bad pool.
When he worked it properly, the $5 bets would flow all night. Gus was what hustlers call a “grinder,” who played for small stakes: $2, $5, maybe $10 a game of nine ball. When the stakes got higher than that, say $100 a game, Gus started thinking in terms of how many games he could afford to lose. That didn’t help his accuracy at all.
Buddy, who had come from the higher-rolling world of professional pool players, didn’t understand why Gus would waste time grinding, until one night when Gus took him to six or seven different bars. “First night we went out together, I said, ‘You’ve got to be satisfied with what you win.’ Buddy got a two-dollar game and won $12. Went to another bar, won $32. Went to another, won $18. Broke even in another bar—just grinding. And none of them had a snowball’s chance in hell.
“At the end of the night, he said, ‘Damn, I won over $150.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and you never had to bet over $5, or play anybody that could beat you’—which was my game, you know.”
Buddy was converted, even if it meant giving up his beloved regulation-size, 4-and-a-half-by-9-foot tables for the smaller, quirkier coin-operated bar tables. He and Gus prowled the suburbs of Washington for a year or so, and when that action grew sparse they ranged farther afield. They roamed west through Ohio to Oklahoma and Texas, getting as far as Las Vegas and San Francisco. They swung down south through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Late one night, the phone rang at the Coffee Shop. It was a bar owner in Fayetteville, N.C., who’d found a top shooter to play Buddy. They hopped in the car, drove through dawn, and won $500 within an hour of their arrival.
In small towns, they ditched their city clothes—Gus maintains a fondness for Italian knit shirts and alligator shoes—for corduroy jackets with lambswool collars and plain Buster Brown shoes. A routine developed: Gus would warm the place up, and then Buddy would move in for the kill. They found a second home at a joint called the Ash Tavern in Johnstown, Pa., even after they had pocketed at least $1,200 in three visits by Gus’ reckoning.
“They liked us,” Gus says. “They liked us so much they adopted Buddy. You know what they got from him? My home phone number, so they could call him when a player came through town: ‘Hey Buddy, we got a guy that’s really good. C’mon up.’ And Buddy’d go up there and shoot holes in the guy.”
Once Gus was playing a guy on a bar table in Pennsylvania and winning, while Buddy sat diffidently at the bar. The man soon tired of losing to Gus, and asked Buddy if he wanted to play. Playing the perfect chump, Buddy asked Gus for permission. “Do whatever you want to,” Gus spat, shoving the cue at him. “Everywhere we go, you end up losing us money!” But not, in the end, at that place.
“The best hustler is not necessarily the best player among the hustlers,” Polsky observed. “His playing ability is not nearly so important as his skill at various kinds of conning.”
Hustling requires trickery and deception, but few hustlers worry whether what they do is “fair.” Their opponents, most of the time, are just as guilty of hubris. One time, Gus won $1,000 off a local supermarket owner, a man who wielded an expensive cue but “couldn’t hit the fuckin’ end rail,” he says matter-of-factly. Gus would fault the supermarket owner, who neglected to master the game at which he fancied himself expert.
“It’s all a fake job, and when people meet people a lot of times they’re faking it,” he says. “It’s all about impression, and I impressed this guy I played his speed, or a little bit below him. Nobody felt sorry for him.”
In its basics, pool is not a difficult game; that’s what makes hustling possible. It’s simple Newtonian mechanics in action: conservation of momentum, equal and opposite reactions, and all that. Bar tables, with short rails and fat pockets, are even easier. “After a while you gotta figure, how hard is it to put these balls in a hole that’ll accept two balls?” says Gus. “To hit them with a stick and put them in a hole can’t be too goddamn hard.”
But of course it is. The player who makes a difficult shot once in five games comes to believe he can do it every game, and that’s where he goes wrong. He believes that shot, and forgets about the long straight shot that he dogged two games ago, or the needless scratch that gave his opponent a victory. He believes in his own perfectibility, his own immortal consistency. Gus is under no such illusions. He remembers what a “Spanish boy” once told him after they’d played a few sets in a poolroom in Virginia.
“I said, ‘Why is it when you get a five-ball spread and you’re sitting good, you can get out, and a couple games later you get a three-ball spread and you either miss ’em or get out of line? I can’t understand why.’
“And he said, ‘Gus, if nobody ever missed, there’d be no pool.’”
“You play like a homeless person,” Gus snorts, eyeing my stance. “All droopy.”
Months after the Gussification of my formerly incompetent friend Ariadne, I’ve weaseled a lesson out of him. Ariadne doesn’t know about this. I’m playing catch-up, because after 20 years of hitting balls around pool tables and two months of getting beaten, occasionally, by the novice Ariadne, I’ve finally figured something out: I suck. Well actually, I already knew that, but now I’ve decided to do something about it.
Gus pushes me aside and mocks my stance: a hangdog, depressive, I’m-gonna-miss kind of stance. “You’re like this.” Then he snaps into the proper posture, leaning forward with his leading knee bent like a boxer stepping into a punch. He confronts the ball, his chin in a plane with the cue and his eyes focused on the object ball. To watch him, you’d think that pool was an actual sport.
My turn. I walk up to the table and drop into the Gus-Approved Stance, twisting my hand into the Gus-Approved Bridge, which by now is second nature: the heel of my palm and three fingers on the felt, index finger wrapped around the cue shaft. This is an easy shot, the nine in the corner, practically straight. I draw the cue back, taking aim, when my teacher objects. Something to do with my right hand, on the butt of the cue. It’s too stiff.
“See this bone?” he says, pinching a bone deep in my wrist. “Do you know why God put that there?” I don’t. “For playing pool.” He waggles his hand sideways, showing how it pivots around that one small bone. I hunker down once more, try a few loose-wristed (and quasi-onanistic) practice strokes, then draw back, pause, and let fly.
The ball thuds into the bumper, an embarrassing miss.
“You’re pausing in the wrong place,” he says in disbelief.
I try again, this time pausing with the blue tip against the ball, and I miss again. My wrist froze up, according to Gus. He sets up the shot again, the same we’ve been hitting for the past half hour, the cue a foot from the nine, a straight shot into the corner. It’s almost embarrassingly easy. And I nail it, finally, but he doesn’t care about that. He sets it up again and again, paying attention only to the basics of stance and bridge and tempo. After more than a dozen of these, he pronounces me fit to play.
Gus keeps things simple, concentrating on the fundamentals of bridge and stance rather than fancy spins and cuts. He’ll maybe show a basic draw shot, if someone asks, backspinning the cue ball so it rolls back to where it started. He does this all night, for beginners and mediocre players alike, without ever telling people the whole hard truth: that the essence of pool, the feel for how the balls will spin and angle and bounce off one another and ultimately come to rest, cannot be taught. That knowledge comes from experience, and it resides in the unconscious.
Gus sets up another shot for me, a simple cut on the seven into the far corner. Time after time, it bangs into the far bumper and rolls uselessly back up the table. Gus smiles and sets it up again, and again, and again before letting me in on the secret: “This shot’s an optical illusion.”
Because of parallax, my eyes are telling me to hit it straighter than necessary. The true angle is apparent only when viewed from above. He shoots, nicking the seven on the side and sinking it. “Cut it more,” he says, so I do, and the seven drops. He sets it up again.
“I didn’t get the geometry of it,” I say.
“Well, the angle.”
Gus is appalled. “There’s no ge-ometry here,” he says, looking at me as if I had just whipped out my compass and protractor (or even worse, fastened a laser scope, available for $159.95 from the Herrington catalog, onto the butt of my cue).
To Gus’ way of thinking, each shot is a picture, not a mathematical problem. The only way to improve is by learning the different pictures, the different arrangements of balls and pockets and rails, and practicing each shot over and over again until it’s hard-wired into the brain.
Gus doesn’t believe that he can teach someone how to play pool. All he can do is show them the fundamentals of stance and bridge and stroke, and let them figure things out from there. Pool is about experience, in other words, and not about angles.
As he’s explaining this to me, a gust of bad guitar-rock bursts from a nearby speaker, drowning him out—more evidence, to him, of generational decline.
“This music sucks,” he says.
Though he never rose to the championship level—in fact, he despises tournaments in general because the sets are too brief and the pressure too intense—Gus did, in his own way, devote his life to the game of pool. He and Buddy were single, lived in motels, and had no responsibilities. Their world was an archipelago of green felt rectangles linked by road. Even the money was secondary to the game itself.
“When we went out to play pool, we did well,” he says. “When we went out to make money, and the pool came second, we didn’t do so well. You’re thinking about the money when you’re supposed to be thinking about the six ball.”
“Although numerous problems confront the pool hustler,” Polsky concurs, “alienation from his work is not one of them. It is small wonder that when asked why he stays in the occupation, many a hustler replies: ‘It beats working.’”
Nine ball allowed Gus to avoid working for a very long time, but the fates finally conspired against him. He never married, but he did happen to have a son in 1967. After he got custody of the child in 1975, he pretty much quit hustling out of a sense of responsibility. “I wouldn’t rely on it to feed a dog,” he says simply. He took a job in a friend’s trophy shop in Bowie and settled down to raise his son, John.
He’d already split with Buddy, not long after Buddy got a steady girlfriend. They’d been together 10 years, and Gus refers to their parting as “the divorce.” He hasn’t seen Buddy in more than 20 years, but he talks about him nearly every day.
Gus did keep a full-size pool table in his basement, and pretty soon John picked up his father’s game. “He played enough, to a point where he got to making balls pretty good,” he says. “He was about 12, and one day he came in late after school and he says, ‘Dad, I won $15 and a watch.’
“I said, ‘Doing what?’
“He said, ‘Playing pool.’ Only he really hadn’t learned how to play pool at the time yet. So I told him, ‘John, keep the $15, but give the watch back to the boy.’
“And the next day I sold the pool table. I did. Because I could read the writing on the wall. He had no place to go with his pool ability except up. He was gonna get better, and I didn’t want to see him go through what I went through.”
Life on the road was lonely and chancy and sometimes hostile. It didn’t seem to bother Gus when he was playing, but in retrospect it did. He didn’t want his son to be a grinder. The most difficult thing about grinding is that your own money—which you may need for dinner and a place to sleep that night—is at stake.
“These guys who play for 10 or 20 thousand, they have five financial backers behind ’em—that’s not their money. You play with your own money, and it’s a whole different thing. When you’re looking at a long nine ball, and you’re a $300 loser on the night, with $20 in your pocket and 500 miles from home, you start seeing things you can’t believe. That pocket just shrinks, and your arm gets polio.”
It wears you down, night after night. So, too, does the simple act of pocketing balls, at least after the first few million. Gus never much trusted his own luck.
“I hate pool,” Gus says one night, with a vehemence that surprises me because he is, at the moment, getting ready to play Frisco. “Making fuckin’ balls, for $5 a game?” And then he tells me why he quit playing—for good, he thought.
He was in a bar in Miami one afternoon in 1975, playing the owner at $5 nine ball. He remembers the game as if he just watched it on video. “I had a good shot on the seven, made it, got position on the eight, made the eight, and got perfect on the nine,” he says. “A shot I usually would just be overjoyed at getting, because it was so easy. And I got up to stroke it, and thinking how to hit it—even though it was an easy shot. And all of a sudden it occurred to me—well, you have to do an awful lot of thinking and concentrating if you want to be good at this game.”
The Pall Mall glowed.
“All of a sudden,” he concludes, “making the ball to win the game for $5 got to be a lot like work.”
And yet there he is, night after night, clearing racks with Frisco or instructing novices in the fundamentals of the game. Normally Gus is quite gregarious, but when he plays, he closes up like a steel trap. Beating Frisco takes a lot more work than it used to, and he has only himself to blame. They’d been playing a few months when Frisco asked for some pointers, which Gus grudgingly gave him and now claims
“He played wrong. He made a lotta balls but he played wrong. His stance was bad, he let too much stick out, out front, he held the butt end of the stick, he played with his feet crossed—and he made a lot of balls. But I knew I could beat him,” Gus says.
“So I showed him a few things, and with his ball-making ability and what I showed him I just made a monster out of him, you know. I can hardly beat him. Now when I’m playing him, I see a reflection of myself; it’s almost like I’m playing myself.”
Gus’ greatest strength, indeed, may be his talent as a teacher. “He’s like a professional football coach,” says Scott Wandling. “Someone who didn’t make it all the way to the top, but who knows the game inside and out.”
But even if he’d kept playing seriously, hustling was dying out, just as Ned Polsky had predicted. In 1985, there were only two public poolrooms left in Manhattan, according to a history of the game published by the Billiards Congress of America. Then The Color of Money came out, and the second pool boomlet has been going strong ever since. Only this time, there’s very little gambling.
“If a gambler came in here,” says Mark Handwerger, a co-founder of the Buffalo empire, “it’d be the most unproductive trip of his life. People here know they’re no good at pool.”
And yet gambling is rampant in America—everywhere but poolrooms. More and more states have OK’d Indian casinos and gas-station slot machines and barroom video-poker games and state-run Keno games. The desperate hordes who line up for their Powerball tickets, hoping for a million-dollar jackpot when they’ve got a better chance of beating Gus at nine ball.
But try and get someone to play for $2 a game in a yuppie pool bar like Buffalo Billiards and they’ll act like you just asked if you could sleep with their sister. The new gambling—sterile, automated, impersonal—has put pool gamblers like Gus out of business.
“It’s because they don’t have to participate,” he says. “When they lose their bet, they didn’t have anything to do with the loss. When you’re betting on yourself in a pool game, there’s only one person you can blame if you lose.” He’s between lessons at Buffalo, exterminating another filterless Pall Mall.
“Pool players used to fuck with each other—make bets on anything,” he remembers. “One guy would bet another guy he could hit a golf ball a thousand yards. The other guy would take him up on it, and the first guy would take him out onto a frozen lake. He’d hit that ball so fucking far.” Gus laughs.
A manager comes up to us: A party in one of the private back rooms wants Gus—“that guy who gives pool lessons”— to stop by and show them some trick shots. But when Gus steps into the very ersatz Victorian Room, marked with a Coopers & Lybrand banner, nobody is playing pool. He turns on his heel.
“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” he continues when he returns. “What’s going on here isn’t nearly as interesting as hustling was.” Around us, stonewashed and pinstriped singles are blundering through their 45-minute games of eight ball.
“This,” he finally says, “is bullshit.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.