BY Tan Lin in Books , Features | 07 JAN 22
Featured in
Issue 224

Tan Lin’s Guilty Love for the Game of Pool

The writer reflects on how secretly loving pool led him down a path of self-education

BY Tan Lin in Books , Features | 07 JAN 22

Tennis, pool and poetry, in that order – so the way of my self-education went. Poetry: I became proficient by late graduate school (1992), unlike tennis and pool, thus underscoring, sort of, the limitations of self-enlightenment. I was self-educated when it came to pool, but I received informal coaching from my mother’s colleagues in the English Department at Ohio University, principally Vance Ramsey, who had been a rack boy as a youth. Ramsey played with another English professor, named Walter Tevis, who had acquired celebrity status in Athens, as three of his novels were made into major motion pictures.

Robert Byrne, Byrne’s Standard Book of Pool and Billiards, 1987

Tevis was working for the Kentucky Highway Department when he wrote a short story for Playboy about Fast Eddie, a pool hustler, which he expanded into a novel, The Hustler (1959), that was adapted into a film, two years later, starring Paul Newman. Like a lot of decent players, Tevis’s first aspiration was poetry: ‘Originally, I wanted to be a poet, and I used to compose a daily sonnet on the way to the poolroom in Lexington, Kentucky.’ Tevis later wrote The Queen’s Gambit (1983), about a girl chess prodigy, which I read repeatedly along with my Bobby Fischer books. I read every one of Tevis’s novels, probably around 1977 or 1978, but by then he had gone cold sober and left Athens to be a freelance writer in New York. He died in 1984. Ramsey, with his Oklahoman drawl, showed me it was possible to put English on a ball. He played a ruinously precise version of straight pool and gave me classic advice in case I were to encounter Tevis, who was reputed to be an excellent player: ‘Put a $5 bill on the felt.’ He added: ‘His game will go to hell.’

I never did play Tevis, but he was part of the literary landscape that I interiorised and is inseparable from a kind of academic training that no longer exists, where professors, much like my father, were wholly eccentric in mannerisms and tastes, regional in speech and diet, and alcoholic in drink, in ways that were analogous to my own parents – who were all but the last. The relation between eccentricity and suffering was lost to the high schooler.

Robert Byrne’s book is, indisputably, the finest ever written on pool and its sophisticated cousin, three-cushion billiards. Byrne, an engineer and novelist, in addition to being a national-class player, drew diagrams that attest to brute geometric mastery, ball speed and friction. As with all masterpieces, these physio-dynamic elements are congealed in the amalgam of a single instructional guide that is ‘great’. The word ‘great’ is not used lightly, as Byrne attests: ‘I should stress that I consider very few games “great”. A game is not great, according to my definition, unless a person of at least average intelligence and sanity can play it happily for four hours a day for 50 years.’ His advice on pool geography is indispensable to anyone travelling the continent: ‘To avoid unpleasant surprises on your next trip abroad, remember that countries originally colonized by England use tables with pockets.’

Jacqueline de Jong, Crispy Hands, 1977. Courtesy: the artist and Château Shatto, Los Angeles

In grad school, I would take the book, rip it apart and carry the loose pages in a back pocket to Ferris Booth Hall at Columbia University or to Chelsea billiards, where I would watch money go down in the back of the room. Getting a graduate degree, by which I mean earning it, is laborious and the pay-off weak, but any incipient desire I had to become a hustler with a PhD, Byrne checked: ‘I play pool and billiards for fun, not for a living and not for my health. There is little money in the game. People who think they can make a decent living, or any kind of living, as pool hustlers or tournament players and who set about honing their skills to that end are making an error in judgment of truly appalling dimensions.’

I still dream of having a table at home; my sister promised to buy me one when I turned 40. The table has yet to materialise, but the table recommendations have stayed with me: ‘A family can have a lot of fun on a department-store pool table costing only a couple of hundred dollars. The fake wood, composition bed, unpredictable cushions and generally flimsy construction permit luck to overwhelm skill. Shoot hard and the balls will land on the floor; shoot softly and they’ll roll like eggs […] Such a game can be fun, but it can’t be pool.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 224 with the headline ‘Poets and Pool Sharks’.

Main Image: Jacqueline de Jong, Marqueur, 1977. Courtesy: the artist and Château Shatto, Los Angeles

Tan Lin is the author of 12 books. He is based in New York, USA.