A Love Of Science Comes From The Strangest Places: My Fateful Night In A Pool Hall

As I began my transition from a high school student to part of the labor force years ago, my very first job was at a local pool hall/carry out restaurant called Top Cue Billiards & Pizza in Whitehall, Ohio.

We had two rooms, the front room for food and socializing, and the adjoining room which had eight billiard tables. Although we didn’t serve alcohol, there was a bar next door. While it had a couple of pool tables of its own, it was not uncommon to have many of the bar’s patrons come next door to Top Cue for some action over and above the typical $1 a game folly you might find at the bar.

My passion for pool started as a boy. My grandfather had a pool table in his basement; the only pool table anyone owned in my limited social circle as a child. Twice a year, on Father’s Day and Christmas, we all gathered at grandma & grandpa’s house.

There weren’t many kids my age at these gatherings, so aside from grandpa’s “pull my finger” trick, it was generally pretty boring for me just sitting around while the adults caught up on their lives. So I’d sit there on pins and needles until an adult FINALLY suggested we play a little pool.Creation_Of_Pull_My_Finger_by_oriel6six6[1]

At sixteen, I discovered Top Cue was in the next town over. So I’d beg mom for a few bucks and the keys to her car to go play. In the first two years I frequented it, I became an OK player, but was by no means special.

After graduation, I received a summer job at Top Cue and began playing significantly more. We didn’t have an official closing time, per se, we just shut down when there were no customers left, which was often around 1:00-2:00 am.

Once we closed, one patron or another would often hang around and practice with me, since I couldn’t play on the clock. Practicing until daylight came was not out of the norm.

There were a lot of wonderful characters that were incredibly kind to me through the years there; they taught me a lot about life and the game.

There was “Shotgun” (Never knew his real name), your archetypical Harley-Davidson rider; he looked like Jesus with an extra 200 lbs. He came complete with his “I may not go down in history, but I’ll go down on your little sister” T-shirt.

Shotgun loved to play one-pocket. He wasn’t much good at it, but he enjoyed what can arguably be called the chess-match of pocket billiards more than any other game. Me being the type who loved mental challenges as well, learned to love it too.

There was “Fast” Eddie, A 70-year-old black preacher who moved at a snail’s pace, thus the facetious “Fast Eddie” moniker, stolen from the movie The Hustler.

The Hustler - Starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson
The Hustler – Starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson

Eddie was possibly the kindest person I’ve ever met, and was one of the few people who would give me a good one-pocket match without needing to gamble on it, since it was against his religious beliefs.

There was “Taiwan Tony” who was neither from Taiwan, nor named Tony. The best hustler I ever met. He probably took to teaching me the most. He oddly never tried to hustle me personally, probably because I was hooking him up with free practice time in the process. But I appreciated him imparting some great wisdom on me nonetheless.

Tony could beat someone out of $40 at $2 a game, and have them leave thinking they almost had him—trust me, they didn’t. He would play horrible, but just-good-enough-to-win, one minute; then switch gears and play lights-out to beat a much more formidable opponent the next. It was poetry in motion to watch.

Although he spoke perfectly good English, albeit with a strong accent, Tony was a master at purposefully acting like he was a dumb foreigner who could barely speak English, in order to win a buck or two.

There was Kenny McCoy, a man Pool & Billiard Magazine called one of the greatest shot makers of all time; many simply knew him as the truck driver. The kindest soul you’ll ever meet, he never went pro, but many pros came to town looking for a game with him, and left town with an empty wallet.

There are shots I’ve seen him make that make me laugh just thinking about how seemingly impossible they were. And these weren’t trick shots he did for fun after trying several times, these were shots he pulled off with very high stakes on the line. It was almost scary to witness, but rest assured, I’ll tell my grand kids about Kenny if I ever have any.

There were also the Williams twins. Us regulars could tell them apart fairly well, but it was always fun to watch someone be afraid to play one of them because of an experience playing the other, thinking it was the same guy. Then again, they were both fairly evenly matched, so it really didn’t matter anyway. They were fixtures in the place, and always made me, and every other patron feel welcome and part of “the club.” You almost couldn’t imagine Top Cue without them.

There was a man named Butch Poe, a great player who was always happy to play me for a sandwich. I could never beat him, but it was a great learning experience getting my ass beat by him for the mere cost of a sub and a Dr. Pepper.

Butch once had a guy quit in the middle of a best-of-seven 9-ball match with him after Butch had run the first five of seven racks without a single miss. IMG_9076_-_Copy[1]

When Butch asked the kid why he was quitting, the kid responded, “I can’t beat you, man.”

Butch promptly responded, “How do you know; you haven’t even shot yet!”

After losing $50 in a game he didn’t even get to participate in, the kid was not amused.

One night, a regular named Brian came in, and was looking for a game. I was about to close up, so I figured I’d give him a go after hours like usual. We entered into a $20 a game one-pocket match. At the time, I was making maybe $100-$120 a week, but on that fateful night, I lost $320—and yes, I remember it to the penny.

Losing three weeks pay was a horrible event in the short-term, but it was ultimately a life changing event for the better.

Many of you know my love for science, but oddly enough, it didn’t come from a science teacher in school, it came from that night. Losing like that taught me the value of analytics; that I shouldn’t just play by feel, but I should study, learn, and be able to assess my abilities and correct my mistakes on the fly. I could only do that if I actually knew what I was doing.

It may have seemed like a gambling addiction issue I had that night, but it was simply me refusing to believe I couldn’t correct my game, which was poorer than normal that night. But how could I correct it, I never really learned how to play right in the first place?

As a result, I immersed myself in lessons with Jay, the owner, who sadly died shortly after. But I also studied with all the people above, soaking up every bit of knowledge from them I could. Why them? Because they all knew MORE then me.

I also started learning from videos and books from a pool teaching legend named Robert Byrne, a man with a degree in engineering, he essentially taught physics and how it applied to billiards, beginning my love of physics which carried on long after my love for pool waned.

Here’s a little excerpt if you’re interested.

Since then, I’ve taken golf lessons, studied the game-theory of poker, and read about the physics of autocross racing, to name a few.

While I may be a master at none of these sports, what I am is someone who has the knowledge and ability to make myself better at any one of them given the time and motivation to practice. What I didn’t do was just jump in and “see what happens.”

This has also allowed me to share my love of these sports with others by passing on what I’ve learned from those wonderful characters from Top Cue and my various other sporting ventures that followed, and do it in a way that I’ll know I’m not just passing on bullshit.

It doesn’t matter how you become a skeptic,  showing an eagerness to learn all you can about that which you are passionate about; if you endeavor to do it right, then you must learn to do it right. You can only get that information from the science that knowledgeable people can impart on you.

There were a million horrible players who didn’t know the first thing about pool, yet attempted to teach me. But because I had learned from some of the best who actually knew what they were doing, I knew to ignore the riff-raff. Most were drunken fools.

A great truism is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore, it is impossible to teach yourself, you can only learn. But how you choose to learn is entirely up to you. I suggest learning from those who are better than you at your chosen passion, but most importantly, those who can explain the science of what you want to do so you truly understand the hows and whys.

Science is everywhere, not just a classroom. It is not something we should be intimidated by, it’s a process we can all benefit from whether we’re a professor of physics, or a simply layman with a passion for learning like me. Embracing the scientific method will make you infinitely better at whatever your passion may be. Enjoy the ride.

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