Playing off the Rail: A Pool Hustler's Journeyby David McCumber
At the age of 17, David McCumber was stricken with "road fever" that irresistible call to the itinerant life of a professional gambler. Twenty-two years later, he got the chance to follow that dream-not as a player but as the "stakehorse" (financial backer) for Tony Annigoni, a non-smoking, macrobiotic-eating "Renaissance Pool Hustler,"
At the age of 17, David McCumber was stricken with "road fever" that irresistible call to the itinerant life of a professional gambler. Twenty-two years later, he got the chance to follow that dream-not as a player but as the "stakehorse" (financial backer) for Tony Annigoni, a non-smoking, macrobiotic-eating "Renaissance Pool Hustler," student of Eastern religion, and master of the pure green-felt poetry of the dead stroke." With $27,000 in David's pocket they took off together on an astonishing four-month odyssey across America-traveling from seedy, hole-in-the-wall billiard parlors to high-class snooker rooms to high-tension pro tourneys, from Seattle to Miami and back again-exploring a shady twilight subculture and uniquely American mythos, in search of serious money, local glory...and the perfect hustle.
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Breaking the Rack
"The trouble with shooting pool is that it's no good if you don't win."
--Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money
by Walter Tevis
When I was young, the poolroom where I lived was very old. By the summer of 1969, when the road player walked into that elegantly dissipated atmosphere of stale beer, stale cigar smoke, and the stale aspirations of old men, past the big front window where sallow, rebellious eighth-graders slouched, eating Slim Jims and Planters peanuts, smirking nervously at the good people who walked by on Illinois Avenue and hoping none of them were their mothers; past the high dark bar where Ole, the day man, stood stolid, staring rheum-eyed at his regulars, pouring short drafts of Pabst for fifteen cents; all the way back to the snooker table nearest the back door where I was practicing cut-shots on the black ball, the Stag Tavern was in its dotage. For more than fifty years the upstanding women of Sidney, Nebraska, including my mother and grandmother, had sniffed censoriously as they walked by, but peered with vicarious curiosity nevertheless at a clientele of wheat farmers and Union Pacific railroad men, along with Farm Bureau agents and short-order cooks and insurance men, cops and farm-implement salesmen and auto-parts house countermen and the high school basketball coach-- and seventeen-year-olds like me. We had no idea that in another five years the pool hall would stand empty! waiting along with the rest of the country to be redefined by the trauma of the next decade. We had no idea that for many men the Stag Tavern and hundreds of similar pool halls would lose their allure, paling before the ruthless charms oftelevision, video games, and singles bars. For a few like me, who could never forget the fierceness of first love, nothing would ever be quite the same.
At the time, I just felt the gaze of the road scuffler as he settled onto the end barstool and lit a cigar. He was maybe forty-five, with curly black hair and blue eyes that froze me like a ball on the rail. I didn't even know he was a player. I just knew he was watching me, and it made me self-conscious, and I missed three shots in a row. I lined up an easier one, made it, and scratched in the side.
"Kid," he said around the cigar, "can you play snooker at all?"
"I can play some," I said defensively.
"You got twenty bucks?"
"I've got ten."
"Well, partner, why don't you and me play any two players in the house for twenty apiece? I'll spot you the other ten."
We did, and he ran fifty points in the first game, and seventy in the second, and nobody would play after that. It was a smart move, kicking in with me-he must have known it would be easier to get action if he partnered up with one of the locals, especially one who looked pretty weak. By five o'clock that evening he was gone, and I never saw him again, but he had done more than win me forty bucks. He had fired me with road fever, with an impossible yearning for the turbulent existence of the traveling gambler.
Copyright © 1996 by David McCumber
Meet the Author
David McCumber is an award-winning journalist, a former assistant managing editor at the San Francisco Examiner, and the founding editor and publisher of Big Sky Journal. He has worked for more than twenty years as a writer and editor at newspapers and magazines across the American West. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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