SI Vault
Robert Byrne
October 09, 1978
The graceful, solid dignity of an English Billiards table bespeaks the charm of a game that in its varied forms—billiards, snooker or just plain pool—has fascinated its devoted followers since the invention of the cue tip.
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October 09, 1978

A Thing Of Beauty

The graceful, solid dignity of an English Billiards table bespeaks the charm of a game that in its varied forms—billiards, snooker or just plain pool—has fascinated its devoted followers since the invention of the cue tip.

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Phrased as an apothegm, mental control is as important as cue-ball control.

I play pool and billiards for fun, not for financial reward and not for my health. There is little money in the game. People who think they can make a decent living, or any kind of living, as pool hustlers or tournament players and who set about honing their skills to that end are making an error in judgment of appalling dimensions. Petty thievery is a more profitable career than pool hustling, which it resembles, requires less talent and training and is equally devoid of promise.

That playing pool and billiards is somehow good for your health is a tack once taken by equipment manufacturers and industry flacks. I don't think the game is detrimental to health, but it is on recreational rather than medical grounds that I recommend it. There surely were more invigorating physical things to do even in 1881, when Modern Billiards by H. W. Collender appeared. That great book quoted a Dr. Marcy, "the well-known American physician," as follows:

"One of the pleasantest and easiest means of regaining and retaining health is to introduce into private houses a billiard table, and to present it to the entire family as a means of daily exercise.... The most indolent and stupid will, by practice, soon acquire a fondness for the game; and the improvement in the sanitary condition of those who habitually indulge in it will commend it in the strongest manner to the heads of families. We also advocate the game of billiards in families from a moral as well as a sanitary point of view. Young America is naturally 'frisky'...and fond of excitement and fun.... Give them a billiard table so that body and mind can be amused and invigorated, and the attractions and pleasures of home will be superior to those beyond its boundaries."

As Professor Ned Polsky (State University of New York at Stony Brook) pointed out in his seminal work on the sociology of the game, Hustlers, Beats, and Others (Aldine, Chicago, 1967), the billiard world has always been divided into two main streams, the public room on the one hand and the private club and home on the other, with little leakage between them. Tournament promoters had players dress in tuxedos to blur the distinction, but this never really fooled anybody. While my own career has been conducted almost entirely in public facilities—Walt and Hank's in Boulder, Colo. when I was pursuing an engineering degree, Palace Billiards in San Francisco when I was editing a trade journal, and now Harry's in Novato, Calif. while I relax in the interval between jobs—I think I would be better suited temperamentally to the quieter confines of a paneled clubroom or a stately mansion, with liveried retainers fetching my tea.

A family can have a lot of fun on a department-store pool table costing only a couple of hundred dollars. The fake wood, composition bed, unpredictable cushions and generally flimsy construction permit luck to overwhelm skill. Shoot hard and the balls will land on the floor; shoot softly and they'll roll like eggs. A cheap table will frustrate even the best player's intentions, and there is always the amusing possibility that it will collapse completely.

Such a game can be fun, but it can't be pool. A real game of pool requires a table costing considerably more than a couple of hundred dollars. It has to be at least seven feet long, otherwise so much maneuvering room is lost that the game becomes farcical. It has to be heavy enough so that if somebody bumps it the balls won't rearrange themselves. It has to have a slate bed because slate doesn't warp and is rigid enough not to act as a trampoline for the balls. Slate can take the punishment that children and drunks dish out.

Slate, unfortunately, is heavy, which means that furniture designed to hold it must be heavy, too, and well made. You can't buy a piece of heavy, well-made furniture for less than $400, at least not one shaped like a pool table. The cheapest slate table made by Brunswick, the largest manufacturer of billiard equipment in the U.S., has a playing surface four feet wide and eight feet long and sells for about $400. From the point of view of a player rather than an investor, collector, cabinetmaker or interior decorator, the most durable table you can buy new is probably Brunswick's Gold Crown, which has the regulation tournament dimensions of 4�' x 9' and retails for about $2,000. You can pay $10,000 for beautiful antiques and replicas of antiques.

Two thousand dollars isn't out of line when you consider that a fine pool table costs almost nothing to use and will last forever. Aside from cloth and cushions, there is nothing to wear out. Further, a good table retains a substantial resale value, while a table that was junk to begin with is destined only for the dump.

You can still buy a decent pool cue for less than $10. It will last for years without warping or splitting. It won't have inlays of exotic woods and mother-of-pearl, but if pointed in the right direction and thrust smoothly forward it will knock balls into pockets with soul-satisfying regularity, beyond which not a great deal should be asked of a cue.

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