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Pool Shark


Aaron Nadler takes a last shot at winning a name for himself in the world of smoky halls, cool hustlers and wily pros

By Ami Chen Mills

A pool ball is an elegant object: perfectly round, of considerable heft, dense with internal colors--purple, gold, blue--and with an added element of danger. You could kill someone with a pool ball.

A pool ball exudes its own Zen--which, along with smooth felt tabletops and sleek cues, draws some 40 million people in the United States to the sport each year, up dramatically since the 1986 release of The Color of Money. In the last three years, 30 pool halls have opened in the greater Bay Area alone.

Everybody wants to be a hustler.

For the last two years, Santa Cruz local Aaron Nadler has been rackin' 'em up, winning and losing against some of the best players in the country in the hopes of making a game--and a name--for himself. In a recent $200-a-game match against fellow shooter Jimmy Lee, Aaron played until dawn, switching pool halls as each closed its doors.

He's been called "Hollywood" in the local circuit, because--win or lose--the lanky, boyish Aaron can sometimes get dramatic. He's talkative and demonstrative, and once threw a fit in a San Francisco pool hall, yelling and cursing and winging pool balls at the wall.

Aaron started shooting pool when he was 7, and in his teens would head up to UCSC and handily beat a bunch of book-smart asses. But he set his stick down in college, and went to work as a math teacher and then a teen social worker in San Jose.

Still, he missed the competitive, character-filled world of pool. Two years ago, Aaron laid it all on the felt. He knew he was good, but how good? He decided to give the game one last shot and play pool until he could give up his day job, or until he failed. He ordered a custom cue stick, bought himself a spanky leather carrying case and a regulation-size table to go with a newly constructed pool room at his home, and hasn't looked back--yet.

"All of us have some calling. I didn't want to miss mine," explains Aaron--who, at 34, is anxious to make his mark on the world. "Maybe my assessment was wrong," he adds.

Pool is a game of nerves as well as skill and Aaron admits he's a "mental" player. "I get in my head," he says, "and I get nervous and miss shots I could normally make." With a background in therapy, he tends to overthink and empathize with his opponent.

Aaron is, essentially, a nice guy. To counter this weakness, he studies his bible, Hustler's Handbook, by unflinching pool shark Steve Allen. Never give your opponent a chance to breathe, Allen counsels. Aaron feels bad when he's winning--and he's got almost too much love for the game.

"I feel that I have somewhere within me a great ability. But it means so much to me that I tense up and play fearful." Still, he has hope. Playing top-level pool, Allen advises, is an attainable goal for anyone who really wants it bad enough to work for it.

Ball-Breaking Breaks

It doesn't help that the game of choice in pool halls and tournaments across the country, and even in the U.S. Pool Players Association, is 9-ball, a fast and flashy game that's four parts skill to two parts luck. Aaron hates it, but that's the breaks.

Yet, with almost daily practice, Aaron's been winning Tuesday night 9-ball tournaments at his home hall, the Break Room in Santa Cruz. The Break Room's lighting, he says, is perfect and the tables are consistent. Also, there's no smoking--and Aaron has waged a lonely, mostly futile one-man campaign to end smoking in Bay Area pool halls.

On a Tuesday, tournament night at the Break Room, the lure of the game and its rarefied atmosphere is obvious. The main hall is long, divided by rows of elegant wood and Italian-slate tables upholstered in forest green, with an opulent carpeting of jewel hues underfoot. The soothing click-n-clack of pool balls offsets tunes from a well-stocked jukebox.

It's first round in the tournament. Aaron is matched in a race-to-five with a young unknown in a black Sega T-shirt and newish jeans. Whoever wins five games first wins the match and moves on.

Only balls 1 through 9 are played in 9-ball. After the break, each must be hit--not necessarily dropped--in order. If you fail to hit the low ball, you've scratched.

The first player to drop the 9 wins the game. Thus, you can hit the 1, for example, into the 9 and win on your first shot. Or, you can drop each ball in order. Or, you can win a game on a lucky break by dropping the 9.

If you hit the low ball, but don't drop a ball, you lose your turn. If you hit the low ball and drop it, or another, you go on. Pockets are not called.

Nine-ball is a wild game. A solid player might break, drop a ball and make a tough run all the way to the 8, but miss the 9, which is hugging a rail. An opponent can then plunk the 9 down and walk away a winner. The superior player can easily lose. That's the breaks.

The match begins with a smashing break by Aaron. But in a flash, Sega is up three games to Aaron's one. Then Aaron runs the table skillfully. The score is 3 to 2. Aaron hits a hefty break and wins again. Then Sega wins, putting him "on the hill" at four games to Aaron's three. In the next game, Sega has a shot at the 5, but it's stuck in front of a cluster of balls. He smashes the 5 into the cluster, and by chance the 9 falls. Sega wins the game and the match, shakes Aaron's hand and ambles away.

"Well, I went down," Aaron sighs. "He's a good player," Aaron nods to the scorekeeper, another regular. "Where's he from?" Nobody knows. Is he better than Aaron? Hard to say. Sega won the last game shooting wild, praying for something to drop.

"That was luck," Aaron notes. "But I'm fair. I don't like it when I get the good luck or the bad luck."

Aaron's been practicing hard at the Break Room for the semi-annual Rack 'Em Five regional tournament at his favorite pool hall in San Francisco, Hollywood Billiards. All the big names will be there: Baby John, Filipino Gene, Tom Butler, Dave Piona. Players will be in from L.A. and even Arizona. And, although Aaron has won at the Break Room, he's never won big at Hollywood Billiards.

He can't allow his recent setback to get him down. You cannot learn how to win until you learn how to lose. The hustler does not ascribe any emotional importance to defeat other than: He had a bad day.

On the Rack

At Hollywood Billiards on Friday night, Aaron is wrapping up his first match, a rout. The hall is massive, encompassing 37 tables and a giant mahogany bar. Thanks to new smoking regulations and Aaron, who complained to the Department of Health, the bar is the only area where you can light up, ending a century-long smoky tradition. Hollywood Billiards is one of the oldest pool halls in San Francisco. It's been torn down, rebuilt and retrofitted with elegant, refurbished antique tables, a padded floor to soothe tired feet, and incandescent lighting--easier on the eyes.

On Friday night before the big tourney, the place is a beehive. There are people--predominantly men--on almost every table. There are Filipino men, white men, Korean men, Arab men, Israeli men and Australian men. Fat men, skinny men, men in shiny nylon jumpsuits and men in jeans and T-shirts. There are men in plaid, checks, stripes and solids. Each is playing with a brow-wrinkling concentration that led one writer to call pool "the green island of high seriousness."

Aaron loses his second match. A small crowd is gathering on the other side of the bar around Filipino Gene, a wiry, energetic pool shark of small stature whose name is legendary in these parts. Although men like Gene have built a reputation on playing tough--or at least acting tough--Gene's small feet sport tiny, white sneakers. Gene is balding and his face scrunches like Yoda's with each shot. Above his bright tennis shoes, he wears jeans and a black Garlic City Billiards T-shirt. He's got a running match going for $30 a pop with a tall guy named Tim who wears khaki pants, a ribbed sweater, long hair pulled into ponytail, and an earring.

Players like Gene have backers, who put money up for their games. If Gene wins, he wins half the pot. If he loses, he loses zilch. There's another guy in a Garlic City T-shirt sitting on the sidelines cringing and cursing each missed shot. But he's a player--you can tell by his case--and Aaron says players normally don't back.

Robert Scheer

The Felt Green Jungle: Santa Cruz pool pro Aaron Nadler yearns to pit his skills and wisdom against the best in his chosen sport. Only time --and nerve wracking head-to-head competition--will determine whether he has what it takes to climb the ladder of pool-hall success.

By now, Tim's up $270 and probably would like to take the money and run. It's already 10:30. But in billiard-gambling etiquette, you do not quit when you're ahead and Gene is not about to quit. Some say he sleeps at Hollywood Billiards, which is open 24 hours.

Gene lays down his cue and says he's going to the bathroom. "Classic hustler maneuver," Aaron whispers. "He's going to come back from the bathroom and start to win. Did you ever see The Hustler with Paul Newman?"

The other Garlic City guy, a portly man with a cute face and mop haircut, is Tom Butler, one of the highest ranked players in the room. Tom won the last two Rack 'Em Five tournaments and is trying now for what players call a "threepeat."

Five minutes later, Gene's back. The lanky Tim obligingly picks up his cue. Gene's been known to throw tantrums if an opponent quits when he's up. Gene loses the first game, then wins and wins and wins again. As if by magic, Tim watches his money vanish in $30 increments. Finally, the players are dead even. It's 11:30. Tim wants out. Tom Butler produces a wad of cash and pulls off $20 to pay for table time. He's the backer.

The players shake and Tim says, "Nice playing."

"Thanks. You let me get even," Gene allows.

It wasn't a hustle. Hustlers don't play for three hours to come out even. Most hustlers won't play tournaments because they take so long and stakes are low. Easier to make big money off a sucker in a few easy games. Hustlers are utterly without conscience. They show no compassion when they have a player down to his last dollar.

When Tim leaves, Gene fesses up to his backer. "I was shaky, man. It's cold in here." But Tom's got his sights set on his next mark--Aaron.

Art of Intimidation

"Look," Tom says, "let's you and me play. For a hundred bucks, race to eight." Aaron won't bite. "I'll play for fifty, but I get the breaks and 7-up," he responds. Tom won't do it. Fifty bucks isn't enough with those odds: Aaron wins if he drops the 7, 8 or 9. But Tom won't give up, either.

Aaron is markedly uncomfortable. Tom is good, one of the best players around, and wouldn't play if he thought he might lose. Aaron tries to change the subject, but Tom starts again. "You wanna play or what?"

It's practically midnight. But the bait has been set and Aaron can't lose face now. He offers to take first break only, 7-up, for 50 bucks.

The odds are against Tom, but through the first three games, he glides around the table like a tai chi master, each stroke assured, elegant, perfectly clean. In no time, and with impressive neatness, Tom is up three games.

When Aaron finally steps up, he hits the five and drops it, sending the cue ball dancing backwards into position for his next shot. At this moment, Tom must realize he has a match on his hands. But his face doesn't show it.

They continue. Aaron chokes once, then rallies and, with a little luck, makes it to case game--at which each player has four wins and either could take the match. Aaron keeps his cool and wins the match.

Tom wants to play again, but it's 1:30 in the morning. Tom peels a few bills off his roll and hands them over, reluctant to let Aaron go. On the way out, Aaron muses, "He's won all of these tournaments--what makes him different from me?"

The hardened hustlers and masters say it without saying it. They hardly talk at all, in fact. Hustlers have made an art form of intimidation.

And in that arena, Aaron admits defeat. "I'm the farthest thing from a tough guy. I'd certainly like to be more intimidating. I thought having a thousand-dollar cue and a $500 carrying case would make people run from the room and quake at the knees. But instead they say, 'Hey, look at you. You got the cheapo deal!'" Aaron says, sheepish.

Midnight, 24-Hours

Saturday morning, the sun beams brightly in the Tenderloin and the line to St. Anthony's Dining Hall stretches the length of a city block. It's the sparkly, heady morning of the Big Tournament. Once up the stairs to Hollywood Billiards, though, it might as well be midnight. The windows are shuttered against the sun, and pre-cancerous types at the bar have already started in on a long day of chain smoking. Guys like Gene and Tom have been here all night. "I can't play if I get any sleep," Tom says, his hair damp and tousled from a hasty run home to shower.

Aaron's been bumped up a game--he doesn't have to play first round. He's already nervous, won't eat breakfast and is warming up with a woman who says she's been playing for just two years. She'll be one of only two women in the tourney.

Aaron's first match is against a young, Middle Eastern-looking man ranked 95. The average PPA ranking is 42. There are players here ranked in the 20s. Aaron is ranked (somewhat low, he thinks) at 66. Filipino Gene, by contrast, is ranked 135. Tom Butler is ranked 134, Dave Piona is ranked 138, and the highest-ranked player, at 140, is a man by the name of Robert Yamasaki, who nobody here knows and nobody has seen.

Depending on rankings, better players might be forced to give up anywhere from one to four games to even the match. In this race-to-eight match Aaron gets one game because he's ranked lower. But he's on. Aaron steps up again and again and runs the table, handily dispensing the 9 ball each time. The other guy can't get a break. Or gets a break and flubs it. He wins one game, two, but Aaron's in control, and the match ends with Aaron on top, 8 to 2.

There is a long period of waiting. The smoky air in the room is nearly unbreathable. Then Aaron receives a blow--his next match will be against none other than Mean Filipino Gene the Machine. Aaron is visibly agitated. The new table is charged with a different energy. A small crowd gathers behind Gene, who's bitching about the three games he must give up to Aaron. "How'd you get ranked so low?" he asks Aaron with a suspicious frown.

In the first two games, Aaron plays tense, blowing a couple of chances at the table. Gene steps in and runs the balls in again and again. At the end of the match, Gene's got eight games to Aaron's four, three of which were handed over.

But Aaron's got another chance. He'll swing over now to the "loser's" side and play on. Then, the second blow falls. He's matched with Dave Piona out of the East Bay, one of the best players in Northern California. It's too much to bear.

The race-to-five match swings back and forth dizzily. By the eighth game, Dave is up four games to Aaron's three. If Aaron wins, he'll make it to case game and have a shot at beating a pro, something to tell the grandkids. If he loses, he's out of the match, out of the round and out of the tournament for good. Aaron breaks and runs the table--all the way to the 6, which is flush against a rail.

Only three balls remain after the 6. Not wanting to give a player like Dave a chance, Aaron goes for the risky bank shot. He makes it. The cue ball heads for a pocket and Aaron is ready to accept defeat--but it stops at the edge. Reinvigorated, Aaron hits the 7 and it drops. He hits the 8 and it drops.

There's a long shot on the 9--he knows he can make it. He's made it time and time again. Playing with confidence and a positive attitude actually affects the balls and the rolls. Playing with confidence seems to coerce fate and the pool gods.

Aaron shoots and the cue ball hits the 9, the 9 rolls toward the corner pocket but veers left and bumps impotently off a rail.

Dave's up. He won't miss this shot. He steps up casually and strokes straight and smooth. The 9 will go in--but amazingly doesn't.

Aaron will have another chance. The 9 hovers near the pocket. Again, it's a long shot, but a shot he can normally make three times out of five. Aaron shoots, his heart and mind set on making case game. And he misses. Some people tend to work so hard at their concentration that they tend to lose it.

Dave Piona won't flub this one. Not twice. In one short stroke the money ball drops--and stays dropped.

Time to Move On

Aaron's bible states: Playing top-level pool is an attainable goal for anyone who really wants it bad enough to work for it. "I'm beginning to wonder about that," Aaron admits.

"I've played every tournament at every pool hall," he says. "I've taken lessons, I read books, I subscribe to all the magazines and newspapers, I belong to the NPL (National Pool League), the USPPA and the BCA (Billiard Congress of America) and my game is 15 to 20 percent better than it was two years ago, but not 200 percent, which is what I need."

It'll take time for Aaron to get over this loss. In some ways, he's already too old to become a national champion--players his age are already on pro tours--and as the months roll by, he's not getting younger and he's not getting better fast enough.

It's an exciting game, the crowd is silent, and the suck of the pool hall and pool world is reminiscent of the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Tom seems to be a nice guy--yet despite the tight-lipped cool, you sense a lonely guy. No wife, no family, just a Rack 'Em Five threepeat legacy and a second home in a smoky pool hall. Like a lot of men in here, he cries out for a girlfriend and some hot soup.

To play pro pool, the bible says, You must make the same commitment the hustler has made; total dedication of yourself, your time and your spirit and the total sacrifice of everything and everybody who is not contributing to the pursuit of that mastery.

Aaron stays on Sunday night to play the Last Chance tourney. He wins this one--not $2,000 like in the big tourney, but $250, which at least covers his entry fees.

What will he do now?

Aaron says he's headed for the national 8-ball championships in Vegas come May. But he is learning that in pool, as in most sports, there's only so much room at the top. "In this country, there are 32 men who make a living at pool. Of the tens of thousands of players out there like me, there are only 32 who are making it.

"I'll never give up playing, or my passion for the sport, but within about a year, I'll give up pursuing it as a career. I'd say by January of '97, I'll have to hang my head down."

Then, he says, he'll write a book on motivating teenagers that's been a long time coming, and maybe go back to teaching. But will he be happy?

"Oh, yes. I'll have given it a shot. The horror would be if I didn't and in my old age thought: 'If only I had given it a chance.' At least I'm pursuing it. And I've learned a lot, believe me. And the curtain's not down yet."

Aaron Nadler is a BCA-certified pool instructor. He can be reached by calling 427-3071 or 423-3835.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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