Playing pool with a nonviolent streak in your heart


I don't fight. Or I haven't in 24 years.

The last time I was in a serious physical battle that did not end in a handshake was in preschool. A kid challenged me in the hallway. I flattened him with a little-kid roundhouse, then promptly retired from combat with a perfect 1-0 record.

My nonviolent streak nearly came to an end not long ago, when a misunderstanding over a pool table led to drunken shouting and, very nearly, fisticuffs.

At issue was a disagreement over barroom etiquette. My friend and I had paid for the table, set it up, and gone out for a smoke. We expected to return and find our rack intact. Two other players thought you lose your rights when you step away, rules they apparently learned from a smoking cessation pamphlet.

We informed them of their error.

"Why don't I split your head open?" one of them asked my friend, who did not like this line of questioning.


Others around the table tried to cover for the mistake by refunding our $2. But I didn't want $2. When I had $2 a minute ago, I explained, I used it to pay for the pool game you jackasses are stealing as we speak. Or maybe I shouted this piece of information.

As we shed our social graces, I eyed the litigant's playing partner. In the mind's eye of memory, he stood roughly 6-foot-4 and looked like he'd been banned from ultimate fighting for steroid use. A bar manager intervened, ejecting us two-by-two, like Noah preparing his ark for the great flood of whiskey.

A couple weeks later it happened again. Different location, different antagonists, wildly different approach.

This time, the protagonists brought the classic Midwestern passive-aggressive argument. They hinted that we had invented our smokers' custom moments ago, and had not paid the table fare to begin with.

Cooler heads prevailed, though mine was not one of them. They moved on, taking up residency near the bar, and my friend and I resumed a gentleman's game of billiards.

No blood, no foul. But there's something else going on here, something much greater than the finer points of polite pool.

Since these episodes, I've come to wonder about the point of the game itself. Do we almost fight because we play pool? Or do we play because of the odds that we'll fight?

I get some enjoyment out of the game, though only if I win. Yeah, I'm that guy. It provides something to take my hands from less profitable habits like drinking, smoking, and putting coins into machines.

Men in particular take the whole event as a test of virility, especially if women are near. I have no idea why this happens. Now, if you'll stand clear, I need to use this stick to forcibly deliver something into that dark hole.

At root, the game is a way to bump up against people, stalk the table and each other, circling, fizzing up the barroom like the inside of a beer glass. The point is structured conflict, occasional amity, controversy, success, or suffering. All for a small amount of money and pride. With any luck, you'll still have some of each when you wake up.

Long ago, people decided that kicking and catching balls — and tackling each other — would be preferable to running each other through with swords. Bar games became the fix for the barfight. Our public houses don't throw up many scenes more cinematic than a fast-talking little maniac challenging some bearded giant who plods about the felt like a grizzly sniffing his way to the tastiest organ of a fresh kill.

Curiously, it's the guys who seem capable of doing real, violent damage who generally make the calmest opponents. The most genial man I played was a happy chap who smiled as he revealed that his custom-made cue screwed apart to unsheathe an eight-inch blade. (I'm kidding. It was probably 10 inches.)

I beat him. Then we joked and went out for a smoke.

You are how you play. That includes how, or if, you interact with an opponent, whether you play by the rules, and if you can shake hands after a loss.

I still don't want to fight. I live in this city for a lot of reasons, but one is my belief that the only thing I'm likely to get stuck in my ribs is a cheese curd.

Win a fist fight and you might get arrested. Lose one and you might wake up ugly. Pick one with the wrong man, depending on what's in his pocket and his heart, and you might not wake up at all.

That, to me, sounds like a lose-lose-lose. In pool, the most I've ever lost is control of the table. And there's always the rematch.

Don't believe me? Want to prove your point, your might, humiliate me, and maybe ruin my night?

Fine. We'll settle this like gentlemen. Let's take it inside.