The Beatrice Interview

David McCumber

"The thing about pool hustling is you know it's always an alternative."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

David McCumber was living in San Francisco when he met Tony Annigoni, then co-owner of the Q Club. He offered Annigoni a chance for a cross-country pool hustle, with McCumber putting up the seed money. Playing Off the Rail is the story of that hustle, which took them from one end of the country to the other, in a world where men have names like Bucktooth and Cornbread Red, bond with each other by swapping insults, and take their billiards seriously. After their tour ended, McCumber got a divorce, moved to Montana, and is now planning to sign up as a rancher for a year to gather material for his next book. I caught up with him during his return to San Francisco, hours before he would watch Annigoni's narrow 11-10 defeat in a $1,000 match at the upscale pool hall Chalkers.

RH: How did you first get interested in this project? You talk in your book about your love of snooker and billiards as a youth...

DM: ...and ever since then, which was quite some time ago, I've had a great love for the games. I met Tony Annigoni at the Q Club in San Francisco (which has since become Hollywood Billiards), when he had just opened the club. I took some lessons from him, watched him play matches, and was really impressed with the way that he played and handled himself. He's very articulate, has a great approach to the game, very analytical and philosophical. I thought, "This would be a great guy to take on the road," so I asked him if he was interested, and when he was, I wrote a book proposal.

RH: One of the things that comes across right away in the book is his methodic approach.

DM: He's a very workmanlike player, very serious.

RH: You played in high-class billiards clubs and hole-in-the-wall pool halls in bad neighborhoods. Were there any moments during the tour when you two feared for your physical safety?

DM: Two or three times, which we managed to get away from in every case. The hall in the back of a warehouse outside Baltimore was one of those times. The first weekend was fairly tense as well, in Seattle.

The more we played, the more I got the sense of poolplaying as a distinct subculture, with a defined code of honor and an enforced morality. A strong historical background and perspective. A lot of the players I met were intelligent, industrious, and aware people who had a great sense of that history and an understanding of their place within it.

RH: As you travelled, you not only got to hear stories about great games from twenty years ago, you quickly found out that the grapevine still exists today, and three cities down the road, they've heard of the game you played last week.

DM: The grapevine is also somewhat unreliable, because players' luck can change from one game to the next, and also because people will tell you things that aren't necessarily accurate, for their own reasons. They'll steer you towards players that they want you to play, for example, because they're going to put money on the game after they sucker you in.

RH: What I find interesting is that despite the surface level of chicanery, the code of honor you mentioned does seem real. You can mess with another player a little bit, and everybody accepts that risk...

DM: ...but there are certain things you don't do, right. You don't quit on somebody when they're stuck, win a lot of their money and then leave them hanging. The loser determines the length of the matches. If he feels like he's had enough, he'll say so. If not, you keep playing. If a winner didn't give a guy a chance to get his money back, the word would get out and he'd find it hard to get another game.

RH: As a journalist, you've worked at a lot of different places all over the western half of the country. Do you see any connections between the life of the pool hustler and that of the itinerant journalist?

DM: You mean a newspaper bum? (laughs) There is. Both of those occupations or pursuits involve skills applicable in many different places. Both require a healthy curiosity, which often leads to a desire to move on. I enjoyed my newspaper career immensely; it's who I was, what I was, for a long time.

The thing about pool hustling, if you're good enough at it, is that whatever else you're doing, you know that it's always an alternative. If your marriage blows up, your job's not going well, the pool room you opened isn't doing well, or if you're just tired of working hard all the time, the road is always there.

RH: And it's essentially a separate economy from the one that ordinary salarymen have to deal with. Whether the Dow is up or down, no matter what the inflation rate, the pool table stays open.

DM: Those things have some effect, but it's minimal. Pool is something of a Never-Never Land, and it's very addicting. I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but I love it, and just doing the book tour, reprising my trip with Tony, has been a blast. I've been playing a little -- Tony's played more, of course.

RH: Pool's become extremely popular in the last decade or so. Do any of the oldtimers feel that the game has been gentrified?

DM: Yes, a lot of the people who grow up playing in dingy halls filled with cigar smoke, where only men were allowed to play, feel nostalgia for that kind of setting. But what I like about the new order is that so many rooms are clean, attractive places with great equipment. It's opened the game, made it accessible to more people.

The big difference has been in the women's game; there are so many great women players now, and the women's tour does better than the men's in terms of the prize money and the tournament. There's no intrinsic reason why women can't be as good at pool as men; it's not a sport where physiology matters. But there's still a talent differential between the top players in each group, because women are still behind on the curve, and their talent pool was smaller for so long. But I'm looking to the day when women will compete directly and equally with men in tournaments.

RH: You write about official attempts to "clean up" the sport by eliminating the gambling around it. Have those attempts had any success since the time that you write about?

DM: I don't think so, and I don't think it's possible or advisable of them to try. The late Minnesota Fats wasn't the best player in terms of skill in his day, but he was by far the most colorful player, the best known player in a well known group. He was a great gambler, excellent at matching up, at making the game before the game. If you do away with those types of players in the name of purity, the game loses a lot of its character. I just don't think that the pro pool tour should look like the pro golf tour, with cookie cutter players.

RH: Without the colorful players, does pool become little more than geometry? Is it the sidelines that make the game?

DM: There's a wonderful poetry to the game itself, it's infinite variables within a fairly small set of boundaries. Every time I play snooker with Tony, I'm struck by the physical and logical beauty of the game. But the spectators love to get involved by betting; look at the way fans treat snooker in England. Tony would always say, if you have a tournament match in one room, and two players in another room with money on the table, the fans are going to go to that second room.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Mark Singer | David Shields

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan