Sounds emerge. Clack, clack, clack. Pool balls hit the sides of other pool balls. Inside, the building is dark. But people and low-hanging lights brighten the room. Green felt covers each table, and cues hang along every wall. The aroma of burgers and fries fills the room. TVs are tuned to sports channels. A bartender mixes up the signature cocktail: the Devil’s Ice Box. It’s a shot of Effen Cucumber Vodka, Malibu and Sierra Mist. Patrons at the bar relax while sipping their drinks. This is life in a pool hall, specifically Billiards on Broadway.
Columbia’s bar scene is extremely active and includes many ways to appease anyone’s appetite for entertainment. Some people like dancing, some like country music and some enjoy trying unique beers. Others like playing pool. There are people who grew up with a pool table in the basement or learned by playing at a friend’s house. I learned after I was hired as a server at Billiards.
I worked as a server at Applebee’s for four years when I lived in St. Louis, but working in a pool hall was a different experience. My goal was to make money for tuition and rent. I didn’t realize how much enjoyment and friendship I would find. I met interesting people whose lives revolve around pool. What surprised me more was that I, too, wanted to play. In fact, I didn’t just want to play; I wanted to be good.
The pool scene is diverse. People of all ages, backgrounds and personalities play at Billiards: college kids trying to escape the stress of school; working professionals enjoying the game after a hard day at the office and opponents wagering on the outcome of their next game. Since opening in 2008, Billiards on Broadway has become one of Columbia’s centers for competition and recreation.
Among the regulars at Billiards is Nabin KC, a 23-year-old from Nepal who goes by the nickname “KC.” His long, dark hair reaches the center of his back, and it’s held in a ponytail by a hair tie.
I’m playing a game against KC, and he shakes the hair out of his face as he bends down to eye the cue ball in preparation of his next shot. He’s trying to break in his new $700 pool cue. He lines up his shot with the blue 2-ball and shoots. It goes in.
He’s solids. I’m stripes.
His next attempt is already lined up. That’s the difference between the good pool players and the beginners; veterans plan for future shots. KC slowly walks around the table as he studies the layout of the balls. I can tell he already knows how he’s going to sink the last one.
KC has been a regular at Billiards since before I started working at the restaurant in May 2015. You can find him there nearly every day shooting for fun, practicing shots alone or playing in a league. He likes to come in with other members from the Sunday night pool league and play with them while he enjoys a Corona with lime. If there are no potential opponents, he tries to perfect trick shots he’s seen on YouTube. When he was 10 years old, KC learned to play pool from his dad.
KC misses his shot. It’s my turn now, and I start to focus. There’s an open shot at the corner pocket. Without much thinking, I line up my shot and strike the cue ball. By some miracle, I hit two of my balls in at once. How did I do that? I look over at KC to see how he reacts, but he keeps the same concentrated facial expression as before.
Pool offers players the option to compete at different skill levels, and there are a variety of ways to play the game. Some people prefer playing a 9-ball game as opposed to the classic 15-ball game. Pool takes practice, patience, hand-eye coordination and plenty of spatial awareness. It’s rewarding when a target ball is hit into a pocket.
I walk to the other side of the table. My only decent shot was a long one at the 9-ball on the opposite side. Long shots aren’t my strong point, but I attempt anyway. I strike the cue ball, and it doesn’t hit any balls on the table. That’s a scratch. My opponent can now put the cue ball anywhere on the table.
Les and Molly Wagner are the two owners of Billiards on Broadway. Les got hooked on the game during his college years, and he occasionally missed class to focus on pool instead. When Columbia Billiards, which was on Ninth Street, closed in 2007, the couple realized they wanted to start their own pool hall and opened Billiards on Broadway. Now, Les gets to play whenever he has a chance after a long day of work.
Tournaments and leagues hosted by Billiards attract some of the best pool players in Columbia and beyond. One of these players is Sam Stuck. He’s another regular, and he’s been playing pool much longer than the other regulars. Sam, 67, is the type of person who wants to share his love and knowledge of the game. He’s not afraid to coach other players. He’s full of life and has a good sense of humor. One time, he called a corner where all the balls were locked up the “corner of bullshit.”
I met Sam while I was playing against KC one day. Sam and KC usually meet up and play pool outside of league games. I was too intimidated to challenge the pool league players. I had been watching them play during my shifts, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance against them. At least I thought I didn’t. They all have a calculated way of playing, and it seemed as if they knew what shots to go for.
Sam and KC share useful information with me. When I ask for advice on shots or situations during the game, KC has handy input and challenges my thinking. Before I start to shoot at a ball, Sam usually suggests a different way to approach the same shot.
The league games are always on Sunday nights, and I love to watch my co-workers play. Most of the players show up early to warm up on the open tables. League games involve a team of five players ranking from one to five, with number five being the lowest-ranked player. Each player participates in five games, and the scores are based on how many balls are left on the table at the end of each game. So, if every ball, including the 8-ball, is made at the end, that’s a win, but the score varies depending on how many balls your opponent leaves on the table. The bigger the differential, the higher the score. The players’ scores from each game are combined to determine the overall winner.
League participants are from Columbia, surrounding cities and other states. Different players excel at different types of shots or skills. My weakness, the long shot, eventually became the best part of my game because of the coaching I received from others.
It’s easy to underestimate opponents when you start a game with someone new. But in pool, anyone can win. Whenever I play the regulars at Billiards, they’re always welcoming. After all, they are there for the same reasons: the fun of the game and helping one another improve.The pool community is accepting of new players who bring fresh competition and room for everyone to grow and get better.
Like me, Caleb Wheeler, 18, is new to the game. He just bought his first cue from one of the Sunday night league players for $450. It originally cost $2,000. When you first get a new pool cue, it can be hard to adjust and get used to the feel of it. So whenever we both finished working a shift at Billiards, we would play a game or two together.
I’m not comfortable with the shot I have lined up. It needs backspin so the cue ball doesn’t follow the other ball into the pocket for a scratch. Before I shoot, KC stops me. He walks me through what I need to do in order to put backspin on the shot. I do exactly as he tells me, and I sink the 10-ball in the pocket. The cue ball doesn’t follow.
Eventually, I knew it was time to invest in my own pool cue. KC told me to speak with Les, the owner, about getting one. Cues range from dirt-cheap to thousands of dollars, but I wasn’t looking to spend much over $100. KC was excited when he received a new cue in the mail and immediately began to break it in. His cue cost nearly $700, and he knew every dollar spent would help his game once he became familiar with it. I had become accustomed to a few house cues, but having your own can completely change your game.
“Most people will tell you that having your own cue can improve your game about 10 percent, but I believe that it has an even greater impact,” Les says.
Les told me the story of a world-class tennis player named Rod Laver who owned two identical rackets. During an interview, the player was asked, “So what’s the difference between your rackets?” He replied, “Nothing. They’re identical. I want you to blindfold me and put a one-inch piece of Scotch tape on one of the rackets, and I’ll tell you which one has it without looking at it or feeling the tape.”
The point is that intimate familiarity with the tools of a sport can make a player’s game more consistent. Having my own cue took away the variable of using house cues and gave me a constant in my game.
KC is down to shooting at the 8-ball, but I still have two balls left. I’m not too hopeful about winning. He points to the far right corner pocket and shoots in an attempt for the win. I’m a little surprised when he misses. It makes me question if he’s going easy on me.
In the past few months, I’ve learned quite a bit about pool. It’s an interesting metaphor for the flow of life. Hitting in the 8-ball is the end goal, but there are so many different ways to get to that point. Some players are better at hitting long, straight shots, while others can easily nick a ball on the side and cut it into a pocket. In life, when you figure out your strong points, you can use them to your advantage. There are obstacles, and you’re going to have to take shots you’re not used to taking. Practice, skill and patience will help you succeed.
It’s probably my last chance to shoot at anything, so I have to make this turn count. I take my time setting up my next shot. I cut the cue ball to hit my first ball.
Pocket. One down, two to go. My last stripe is already next to the corner pocket. I know I have to hit softly. This shot is easy for me; I’ve done similar ones before. It goes in. Now on to the 8-ball. It’s a long shot, but I’m feeling confident after making two in a row.
KC and Caleb are watching me. Caleb’s just called dibs on next game. I take a deep breath and allow myself to think. I focus on how much power I’m going to use hitting the cue ball. I don’t want to hit it too hard or too softly. Now I must figure out which pocket I want to call.
“Far right,” I say as I point the cue stick in that direction.
I adjust my grip three times. I wind up and shoot. The two balls collide with a clack and the black 8-ball heads toward the right.