Pocket billiards, like bird-watching, is a diversion for the entire year, but it’s only in winter that we take it up seriously as a sport. The game is endlessly engaging because its species of devotees are innumerable: each pool player is unique, with a set of mannerisms gathering to constitute a certain style of play. The game is also, in itself, unfathomable, challenging at any level. Yet it’s only in the colder months, when football games pile up like snow in a parking lot, when college basketball warms with intraconference play, when almost every pro basketball game (while almost meaningless) goes down to the final seconds, that we feel the need to drag ourselves from the television and take an active interest in a participation sport. Pool may not require the exertion of our summer participation sport, golf, but it’s nevertheless healthy in its own unique fashion, good for the mind and body. And, unlike the latest Madonna single, it does not grow more tiresome with increased popularity–although it’s trying, it’s really trying.

Pool’s explosion, especially over the past year, is not difficult to explain, nor is it aggravating to lovers of the sport. The game is a challenge; everyone should want to play it. Yet it has never attracted everyone because it has always been a little forebidding in its traditional environs. It’s said to be a dangerous game, an impression suggested by blue-stockinged aunts and old movies, but confirmed, for almost everyone, by one’s first exposure to pool, in a smoky bar, where the table is surrounded by bikers or other unsavories. The game is said to be a sanctuary for those who’ve lost control of their lives–except, of course, for those who happened to grow up with a table in the basement. That makes for a completely different environment, and one that is re-created, on a mass scale, in the numerous yuppie pool palaces that have sprung up in the city in the last few months. The atmosphere of these places isn’t at all dangerous. One gets together with one’s friends to shoot pool and the breeze, perhaps to watch the football game on the television in an upper corner of the room or to have a few beers–both these last two depending on just how upscale the individual pool hall is trying to become. It’s no more likely that a biker will come up and challenge one to a game than it is in one’s basement. Good pool can be played in these places– don’t get us wrong–but it’s sort of inconsequential, like a cold-fusion experiment attempted in a high school lab.

There was an atmosphere of illicit leisure to the places where we first found pool (not being to the pool table born), and the faintest hint of possible danger. Call us a purist if we say that’s the way it’s meant to be. It wasn’t until the end of our freshman year in college that we went into Deluxe Billiards, a place we now regard as so tame it’s almost shameful what connotations we once put on it, what we believed the small campus bar contained. A few motorcycles were always lined up outside, and long-haired guys in leather pants sometimes hung out in front. Inside, however, was a long, single room with a bar and booths in front–the bar on one side, the booths on the other–with a grill behind the bar, around the corner from the door. The floor was of old black and white tiles, laid out in a simple pattern, and the ceiling, too, was tile, of that larger, more ornate type, painted over long ago. In the back, away from the light coming in through the front windows, were the pool tables, lit by lights hanging just above them. Once we grew accustomed to eating there–fish sandwiches on Fridays and Saturdays, burgers and a fine 90-cent cup of chili other days of the week–the back of the room came to look more attractive, but no more accessible. There wasn’t much pool-player posing that went on, although to be sure there was some (no way to avoid it); people shot pool there, by the hour, getting the balls on a tray at the bar, having a ticket stamped with the time. It was serious leisure. On weekdays, when maybe only one or two tables were occupied, the balls would drop into the net pockets not with the crisp clack of balls striking one another on the table, nor with the rattly racket of balls crawling under a coin-operated table, but with the muffled kiss of billiard balls getting into bed with one another. Of course, the first ball in each pocket wouldn’t even make that noise. And so we aspired to play pool at Deluxe and–in the manner of college students–we went about bettering ourselves. In a word, we studied.

We’d gather at the student union on Friday afternoons–sometimes cutting a class or two during the week–and we’d shoot pool. For a dollar or $1.50 an hour (depending on whether it was peak time or not), leaving an ID at the desk to guarantee payment, we’d play. This pool hall was sort of a stripped-down version of the city’s new pool palaces: it had large slate tables, but none of the brass trimmings, no televisions, and certainly no bar service. It was as functional as a classroom with its desks in rows, and it served us in our striving to improve ourselves. In short, we got better. Did we see the game as we see it now? In a way, but not really. At that time, as now, there was nothing more aggravating than playing beneath one’s capabilities, but the game wasn’t yet anything more than a test of oneself against others. We were simply trying to get good enough to play at Deluxe without embarrassing ourselves, to sink the long roll to the corner pocket and the odd bank shot. The great irony, of course, was that once we got to be regulars at Deluxe–watching other tables during our partner’s turn–we realized we were no worse than anyone and better than most. All that’s ever required to play pool is the courage to believe one can play it, a quality not lacking in some people, as one soon finds if one hangs around pool tables.

This was the line of our development, and its climax as demonstrated by our play at a place like Deluxe retains its charm as certainly the most relaxing and, in some ways, the best sort of pool. One plays against oneself among others in a way much like golf. One allows chance to freely enter the game as an added entertainment value. Golf is a game riddled with chance–even more so in Europe, where the courses are sometimes arbitrarily unfair, than here, where there is still the wind and such things to contend with. In golf, one is to spend four or five hours in a group (please don’t say six, although this is getting to be the norm on some courses), and there is an obligation to be if not sporting then at least fair company. In the most common sort of pool there is no such obligation. We are playing for only a few minutes–the fewer the better–and what we’re playing for is the table, who owns it and who pays for the games. Baser instincts enter the picture, but the pool usually improves.

The common 50- or 75-cent pool game is played in a bar, like those we first encountered, on a table smaller than those in a poolroom. The game is usually eight ball, with the winners retaining the table, and the game is played for pride if nothing else. The schedule of play, however, is as fixed as a Chicago election, because there is no enforceable obligation to play fair. Quarters placed on a table can be ignored; names signed on a chalkboard can be skipped over. Sometimes the only thing getting us onto a table is the belief that we can take it away from the people on it. We hope, ideally, to be on the table at the end of the night, with others having paid for our enjoyment.

This is where most species of pool player can be found. Pool, unlike most sports available to the common person, is undeniably both spectator sport and participant sport. One is how one plays, both in the way one pushes the balls about–daringly or with care–and in the way one addresses the table, in posture and mannerisms. There is the rooster, sleeves rolled high on the arms even in the coldest weather, calling across the bar to his friends, usually on topics that do not concern pool. There are the various drunks, the formerly skillful ones who try to make easy shots by poking at the cue ball one-handed as if they were poking a fire, and the duffers, who scratch their eyes with their knuckles, who line up their shots by imagining they are shooting a colored ball directly into a pocket, and who blink– once, twice–over their shots before they execute them. There are the understated, for whom the act of chalking a cue is a mannerism, or for whom the game is a diversion, as they turn to the game from an involving conversation to run four balls and the eight ball. Then there are people who are simply very good, who are not often found playing pool in bars; when they are encountered it is always more delightful to lose to them than to defeat them on a lucky shot.

For that’s the joy of the game, when one admits to oneself that there is no luck in pool. There are 16 balls on the table, and they can go off in any number of directions, but there is really no kismet, no consequences that aren’t fully deserved, no event that one really shouldn’t have anticipated. When one sees a person playing at that level–or, on those extremely rare occasions, when for a few short moments we find ourselves within the game and touching all its various aspects–it’s really no longer a game. The movements of all balls suddenly come within our grasp and control, and they rattle about like musical notes at our command. We push the cue ball through a shot so that it runs across the table to our other balls, draw it to make two neighboring shots, bend it to send a ball stuck on a rail rolling slowly toward the pocket like a three-year-old trudging off to bed. To sink our last ball only to watch the cue come rolling to a stop directly in line with the pocket and the eight. That may be something more than sport, more than mere entertainment–a degree of control we rarely exercise in our own lives.