Hustlers by Jim Meador

Mick's is a small neighborhood bar. It has been anchored to the same corner, with its patrons anchored to the same seats, for as long as I can remember. It has suffered several different owners, none of whom changed the place. Well, that's not altogether true. I believe one of the owners vacuumed the floor.

The people who frequent Mick's come in all shapes and ages. They sit at the bar for hours, staring into a glass of beer, constantly nodding agreement with whatever the person next to them is saying. Agreeing is a requirement, unless the subject is sports. People who disagree too much, or about the wrong thing, are shunned. If you want to become popular in Mick's, just find an empty stool at the bar, get a glass of beer and stare into it for... maybe three days, and start nodding your head. Do not look up. Do not stare at people. Act like you understand and empathize with every sad story you hear, but don't speak first. Sooner or later your opinion will be solicited. Just agree with whatever was said, and remember that our boys could kick ass, if the government would just let them fight. If you need female company, Sue Anne will find you. It will cost you a dozen beers if she doesn't like you, six if she does, and none if she can't lift her eyelids.

Mick's is a place where lonely people escape the elements, find companionship, and...a great pool game. You'll find one dirty, seven foot, coin operated pool table, and half a half dozen crusty old shooters who will take your measure. These men don't shoot anywhere else, and show little interest in shooting anyone other than each other. They don't look like pool players. They look like bar decorations. They are retired, pickled, and cunning. They know when to wager, and against whom to risk their retirement dollars. I have never heard one of them ask for a money game, but they will "reluctantly agree" to play for a buck or two, if solicited, and if they are certain they will win. I call them "passive" bar room hustlers. They shoot well enough to beat most strangers who enter the bar, and they will play for money as long as they are winning. They are benign, in that they have no desire to fleece anyone. They are in Mick's to drink and enjoy the game among themselves. They are hustlers by default, not design.

When people think of hustling, they think of Paul Newman's character in the movie, The Hustler. In the movie, "Fast" Eddie loved the game. He was a road man who hustled in order to earn enough money to keep playing. It was the challenge of being the best, not the money, that really turned him on. He knew he had to beat Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in order to earn the title. Although Eddie hustled his way through bars and small time pool halls to get to Fats, when they finally met, hustling wasn't involved. They gambled, but neither man was hustling. Eddie tried a little sharking, but it didn't work with the Fat man. (Sharking is behavior used by hustlers to cause their opponents to lose focus or confidence, such as making conversation while they are shooting.) You'll have to rent the movie if you want to know how it turned out.

Many small time (and some big time) hustlers are unsavory types who can be found in every town. They are often and rightly barred from bars and better pool halls by proprietors who protect their regular clientele. This kind of hustler isn't worthy of too much space in this, or any other pool article. Most don't play pool because they love the game. They happen to have a talent for the game, and use that talent to demean the unwary. No doubt, one can learn a lot about the game by watching them, but keep your distance. While they may appear friendly and jovial, they can turn mean and threatening in a heartbeat, especially when drinking. They have a talent for talking people into money games, and keeping them in the game with all kinds of propositions, and even threats. Some even team with "gorillas" who pretend to be drunk or obnoxious to distract the opposition. (Most are drunk and obnoxious.) Most often, local hustlers are advanced shooters who you can not beat, regardless of the proposition or handicap offered. Of course, they back away in a heartbeat when the stronger road agents ride into town, or when they are challenged by someone they know to be better or smarter.

At the top of the heap are the road warriors. The best pool players do not necessarily play on the pro tour. Those on tour are simply the best sanctioned players. There are many pool hustlers and road agents who are unknown to the general population, but well known by the pros, and those who follow the game. It is unlikely that the average Joe will ever face one of these "professional hustlers", because they look for big money games in pool halls that are frequented by other known, and even professional tour players.

Major pro tournaments draw road agents like honey to a bear. Again, they are usually not interested in nickel and dime games. They play for the fat green: $5,000.00 for a race to ten is not unusual. They show little fear of the sanctioned pros. Road agents, unlike the small time hustlers, are usually congenial and pleasant. They are confident players who take pride in their craft, and most have no desire to hustle weekend shooters. They will often offer their help if asked, and can be spellbinding story tellers. No fisherman on earth ever topped a road player on tall tales. And unlike fishermen, the big ones never get away.

The broad brush descriptions offered here obviously do not apply to all hustlers or road players at any level. Like the rest of us, they come in all sizes, shapes and personalities. Just be aware that they hustle for money, not pride or fun. In that regard, they are no different than the touring pros, and in some cases, one in the same. If you run across a pool hustler, don't get sucked into losing money believing you have a chance. They only stay in a game they are certain to win.

The old men at Mick's? Well, every town has a hundred of them. It is perfectly safe to challenge them to a game for a beer, or even a few bucks. If they realize they are outclassed, they will quietly put their stick in the rack and return to their beer. But, don't expect a cake walk. Some of these ole' geezers can shoot some stick, and you might learn something in the process. Chief among the lessons will be humility, and how to lose or win with dignity.
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