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March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Balls zing back and forth across green felt and ricochet off rails and into pockets. Players work the ivory-colored ball like puppeteers, ripping it into position with backspin or sidespin as if it were on a string, setting up the next shot for target practice. Others send the cue ball bouncing from rail to rail and hope for contact.
Big Zack is crushing Peewee. First, it’s the three ball into the corner pocket. Next, he sinks the five. Finally, he hammers the eight ball into the side pocket. It’s over.
Big Zack 6, Peewee 0.
“There you go,” Peewee says, dejectedly. “Absolute domination.”
Big Zack and Peewee good-naturedly shake hands and head back to their bar stools. Teammates lean comfortably against the brick wall nearby. They’re not hustling. Nobody’s hustling.
It’s week 14 of Sunday night league play at Billiards on Broadway, where five teams are shooting eight ball over a pot of money that grows $5 per player each week. With five to eight players per team, the pot’s starting to rack up.
The pool hall is a large rectangular room with tall exposed ceilings. Wood paneling races across its floors. Burgers sizzle behind a concrete bar. Low lights hang over the 12 carefully spaced, felt-topped tables and ensure they’re well-lit. The rest of the room is a study in soft orange hues.
The players chat over the percussive collisions between cue, ball and pocket. Everybody knows one another. Heck, some of the people helped build the place by contributing their talents when owners Les and Molly Wagner decided Columbia needed another pool hall.
More than two years ago, Les, whose tufts of white hair and gentle wrinkles make him look like Robert Gates, was moping around the house and bemoaning the close of Columbia Billiards, his favorite hangout.
Les had been playing ever since he checked out a rack of balls at MU’s common area when he was 18. A year and a half later he became the university champion. He missed the camaraderie, shooting pool with folks he’d known for 40 years and beating up on the local competition.
His wife, Molly, decided a pool hall would draw business, so she told Les she would run it.
Right away, the regulars from the old billiards hall chipped in for all the pool hall’s necessities: electrical wiring, architecture, carpentry, heating and air conditioning and concrete work.
Jeff Mueller carved the mahogany trim above the bar, sometimes working until 1 or 2 a.m. Mueller traded his labor for future pool time, but he managed to shoot off the bill in about a year. Now, he’s a member of The Creep Show, a team looking to move up to second place in the league standings.
Sometimes on a break, the cue ball will skitter its way off the felt, plop to the floor with a crash and bounce off the wood paneling. No one seems to notice. Pool consumes the players, who survey the table, calculate angles in their heads and eye their opponent’s ball positions. They lean over the table, zone out and mechanically follow through the cue ball as they carefully fire away.
When the game’s over, it’s “good game,” or “tough rolls” and a handshake. Then there’s a yell over to their teammates, who score each game on a spreadsheet. When everyone’s played six games, people start to pack up their cues in leather cases and file out the door. Big Zack becomes Zack Richardson, and PeeWee becomes Mike Rahmoeller.
Until next Sunday.