Pool and the Current Cultural Climate
By Neal Shaffer

The term "sports" conjures up certain images, and generally speaking these images will be of men or women engaged in some kind of competitive athletic play. There is probably specialized equipment at the ready and almost always a uniform. It is organized and observed. As a functional matter these are the proper images—when one uses the term this is most often what is meant. But part of what makes sports (and the sports world) interesting is the fact that in sports one finds abundant metaphors for the culture and the life. What’s even more interesting is to turn that concept around: to see the sport in the life.

The Monday Morning Quarterback, the Weekend Warrior. The kids who soup up their late-model Mustangs and peel out in the empty corners of suburban parking lots. The old buddies who get together every other Thursday for poker. All of these people are engaged in sport, and all are better for it. The acquisition of skill and the deployment of same in competition, however informal, is a necessary element of the human experience. And nowhere is this notion more pure, or more clear, than in the game of pool.

The act of shooting pool is one of the last unadulterated pleasures. When it is done properly. Pool is like any other sport in that it is governed by a set of precise and intricate rules that anticipate and solve any problem that might arise. In order to play pool the proper way one must be aware of and well versed in these rules. To lack such knowledge can subject one to ostracism at least, and violence at worst. It all depends, of course, on where you are playing.

Pool is a game of presumed respect. Your opponent is cool until he does something to indicate that he isn’t. And if he appears to be doing something that doesn’t jive with the rules the proper response is to ask him about it and find some kind of mutually agreeable solution. This is where house rules come in. Since there are so many different variations of the game many places have their own particular codes to decide things like where to place the ball on a scratch, how to follow up the break, etc. The new player is expected to learn and play by these codes in addition to the universal rules of the game.

It’s a world in which a lot of folks wouldn’t feel welcome, to be sure. But that’s not because they don’t belong. It’s because they don’t want to belong. We’ve all had the experience of walking into an unfamiliar place and feeling the burn of all eyes upon us. In most cases it’s easy to overcome by simply taking stock of your surroundings, asking appropriate questions, and acting according to the accepted behaviors.

The sports the common man enjoys have no referees. It’s up to the participants to understand the order and govern their actions accordingly. In many ways it’s an ideal situation—peace without the necessity of enforcement. People inclined to enjoy this particular brand of freedom seek it out in dive bars and pool halls. They understand that these are the only places where the Law won’t be waiting to find you guilty of a crime you didn’t commit. But some people can’t live that way.

For one reason or another the current cultural climate is one where people feel it is their right to act as they please until and unless a duly appointed agent of the government declares their actions wrong. Regard and respect for their fellow man does not enter into the equation. These are the people who will talk on their cell phones in a restaurant or a theater, who will cut you off in traffic, who will demand a refund on an item marked final sale. They are allowed to do these things because it is inconvenient to tell them to stop.

Sports teaches its participants about the virtues of winning and losing, the proper way to do it, and the repercussions of doing it improperly. The man who declares his loss in a pool game a matter of his opponent’s luck is as unwelcome as the man who shoots out of turn, and this is how it should be. What is necessary is a calculated and firm enforcement of these basic codes of respect in the rest of the world. Too many people are dealing from the bottom of the deck simply because they can.

Is all of this a bit overstated? No. It is unrealistic to expect that every person around you will show you the respect you deserve, which is to say the respect that you have not shown you do not deserve. In the pool halls and card rooms of the world you either live this way or risk the consequences. Why things are not this way everywhere, everyday, is a mystery desperately in need of correction.