Somehow, I’ve managed to get the 8-ball stuck behind the 7-ball (a solid), and it’s now teetering over the corner pocket. I say “somehow” because placement is not one of my skills at the pool table. If one of my competitors mutters, “Nice lay” following one of my shots — meaning they’re admiring the advantageous arrangement in which I’ve left the balls — I redden slightly, knowing that my lay resulted from the mathematically predictable, but hardly intentional chaos of any given pool shot. I will usually accept the compliment.
In this case, my nice lay consisted in getting the eight ball stuck between one of my balls and the corner pocket, a scenario both precarious — the closer the eight ball sits to any pocket, the more likely some accidental geometry will prematurely knock it in — and defensive. Because of the rules by which we play at my Monday night pool tournaments, my opponent is not allowed to hit the cue ball into my ball in order to make his shot. If he hits my ball first, I am allowed to pick up the cue ball and place it anywhere on the table — a penalty called “ball in hand.”
OH AND: not only can I hear you sniggering at all this balls talk; I am doing some pretty regular sniggering myself.
OK SO BUT: my opponent is most definitely a more skilled pool player than myself, someone who will beat me 9 times out of 10; it’s just that we happen to be playing that 1 out of 10 game. There is no end to his frustration in this, especially when I manage to make the 8-ball basically un-hittable.
“God! My bad luck week continues,” he cries out when I make the shot.
“Nice lay,” one of the spectators adds.
Pool is most often a bar sport; and even when played in a pool hall, there’s usually a bar. Most pool halls even place a small shelf at elbow height around the room so as to discourage their patrons from putting beers on the pool table itself and possibly spilling them all over the felt. Though we take this pairing for granted — beer and pool — it’s mostly a pretty bad pairing. I’ve made the pairing slightly worse tonight by ordering wine. I started the night drinking a French wine with a pretty label at my friends Jay and Paris’s apartment; but here at the tournament, I’m consuming whatever you get when you order “red wine” at a bar with pool tables. My guess is I’m drinking Yellow Tail Shiraz — the ubiquitous cheap red wine that can stay open for days with little discernible harm (it’s like the Twinkie of the wine world). In this way, it is the perfect wine to serve at your pool hall; though that’s like saying it’s the best beer to drink while driving. That’s an extreme comparison, but I am feeling self-conscious. To the bar tender’s credit, neither her nor any of the patrons offered any hairy eyeball as I carried my wine glass over to pick out my cue.
Most often, wine pairing is discussed in terms of food. You pair wine as a flavor amidst other flavors. As is probably obvious from my earlier columns, this does not concern me. I take a more liberal approach: pair any wine with any food. It’s much simpler this way and it seems to me that if you’re spending much time on the food pairing, you aren’t spending enough time not being a douchebag.
I prefer thinking about how wine pairs with various activities. How does wine integrate into my life in general and how can I integrate it better? I probably shouldn’t be pairing it with competitive pool playing, but then I rarely turn wine down when it’s available.
As I see it, wine mostly doesn’t pair well with pool for four reasons:
Reason #1: Pool — like golf, darts, and most surgeries — requires fine, repetitive motor control. It’s a game of so many minute angles that if one is off — your elbow, your wrist, the cue, the cue ball, etc. — you botch the shot.
In my case, I’ve got pretty good motor control most of the time, and I’m not full-on drunk while playing this guy, but still. The wine can’t be helping. When I follow through my shot there’s a little quiver, an almost imperceptible jerk that sends the cue off target. Something is not in control. After I’ve trapped the 8-ball, I do little else but hit my balls back and forth across the table, narrowly missing each pocket. It’s a game of angles that grow bigger the farther away you are.
To be fair, my opponent is also drinking; and also botches shots; so at least in this case the alcohol equalizes itself.
Reason #2: Like chess, pool requires a solid short-term memory that recalculates itself at every moment. You must be able to hold several future steps in your head and then alter those steps when your opponent moves. It’s like trying to remember a long phone number — like one of those good quality European ones — by repeating it to yourself over and over while the end of the number keeps changing every time you say it through.
My friend Jay’s brain works like this with little effort. He plays pool not only very well, but intelligently; he’s able to set himself up for his next shot as well as make things difficult for his opponent. This does not come easy for me and the wine is not helping. I pretty much focus entirely on the one shot I’m trying to make. So more often than not I end up with a difficult follow-up shot or make it easy on my opponent for their next turn.
I actually worry that wine has made me sort of dumb. I’ve consumed a lot of it in the past ten years, and while I can’t be sure that my inability to think a couple steps ahead in pool relates to this, I can definitely feel myself not caring to put in the mental effort pool requires. Wine enhances the moment you are in, but sometimes at the detriment of all the moments you are not in. For me that means not really caring about what happens after this one shot.
One thing I’ve been working on, however, is making safety shots, shots that don’t try and get one of my balls in, but which simply try to make it more difficult for my opponent to make their next shot without scratching. This is still just a one-shot level strategy, but it’s a strategy nonetheless. In the case of this pool game, I still have a good number of my balls left, and I hit the cue ball softly so that it pushes through a dense collection of solids (my balls) like a boat bumping through a bunch of glaciers. It comes to rest completely surrounded. On his next shot, my opponent accepts his fate; scratches; and gives me ball in hand.
Reason #3: Wine is, you’ll excuse the phrase, kind of a pussy drink. At least in the context of popular culture. Men do not drink wine. Men play pool and Men drink beer. Remember that scene in The Hustler when Paul Newman plays billiards (no-pocket) with the fruity rich Southern guy? Not only does that guy play billiards; he comforts himself with champagne. To order wine while playing pool causes cultural dissonance. It’s like wearing a suit to wrestling match; you can do it, but you’ll be noticed.
There is also, of course, the class thing. Wine is a perceptually high class liquid; and pool rooms are not known as high class joints, even though the history of billiards is one of aristocratic leisure. If I were to order wine in a lot of pool halls, my guess is it might be symbolically insulting — seen not as “Hmm, I guess that guy really enjoys wine”, but instead as “Who does that pussy guy think he is?”
To be honest, though, all of this is a bit theoretical in this pool hall here. I am playing pool in the liberal college utopia of Amherst, MA. Most of my fellow players here are physics PhD candidates, literally. A lot of them (probably for reasons 1 and 2 above) are drinking club soda. While not badass, my wine drinking here is also not all that dissonant. A lot of these guys are pussies.
Reason #4: Unlike beer, I believe wine is best taken in small sips along with whatever you are doing. Whether it’s dinner, a conversation, or watching your kid play Legos, wine seems more of an observer’s drink, a reflective drink. Beer, however, goes better with activities that have breaks built in to them — lawn work, softball, pool-playing. It can be taken in larger gulps in between stuff that you are doing. Obviously, this is not a hard and fast rule, but after I take a pool shot, I don’t want to sip a room temperature beverage. I want to take a drink and get back to the game. Wine is somehow too slow for this.
The thing about luck in pool is that it is so clearly a two-side coin: good luck for you is direct bad luck for the other person. By playing a bunch of safeties through the game, I manage to force scratches from my opponent and clear most of my solids from the table. I am left with the maroon 7-ball touching the 8-ball by the corner pocket. My opponent has one stripe left.
At this point, the trapped 8-ball becomes as much a liability for myself as it does for him. I need to get the 7 out of there, but the 8 is so close to the pocket that any wayward movement would knock it in, giving my opponent the game. I line myself up as Jay as taught me, getting my eye as close down to the cue as possible and take aim at the 7. The angles look ridiculous from here, with the 7 and the 8 fuzzy and out of focus as I concentrate on the white cue ball. I decide to simply hit the 7 dead on, try and bounce it out of the way.
I take a few practice strokes, imagining a straight shot, and fire. Here’s where wine actually helps in pool. In the translation between brain and body, it can be easy to over think and care too much. A predictable, possibly wine-influenced twitch takes the cue ball slightly right of the 7 and I think I’m done. But rather than knocking the 8-ball in, some mystifying geometry sends the 7 back across the table and into the opposite corner pocket. It’s a nice lay too, the cue ball set up to knock the 8 in no problem.
“Nice shot,” my opponent says. “That was a nice shot.”