So you want to make a little cash playing the nine. You can. The small time hustle is the most effective hustle if and when done right.
I found my first pigeon by accident really. I shot pool at a little place called Toot’s Hall in Round Rock, Texas when I was in high school. My friend Eddie and I went there quite often, and we got quite good. Eddie said I got quite good because I had mastered the long shot. Eddie read pool-playing books.
I was shooting pool by myself one Saturday morning on one of the quarter tables and a kid, freshman named Bucky, from my school put three quarters on the table.
He looked up. “Play me?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said and put the quarters in the table.
We played eight ball. Bucky wasn’t a bad pool player, but he lost when he focused on his short game.
“Know how to play nine-ball?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
I racked them up. “You want to put a little money on the table?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “But I gotta warn you, I’m pretty good.”
“Okay.” That day I took Bucky for fifty of his hard-earned bucks. I beat Bucky not because he was a bad pool player or because I was so good, though a quick learner. It’s just that Bucky played for the short game. The short game pays short money. A player must look past the shot that is in front of him. I made money throughout high school, and never had to improve my skills.
Down the road, I went to college and found myself short on money; food was scarce and I had only empty pockets to impress girls. I didn’t think I would ever experience college life in my predicament. I returned to the game.
I already knew to not play for the short game, but to sink the winning ball. However, during my college years, I added three simple rules that put $500 cash a month into my pocket.
Robert Byrne’s, one of the pool playing greats says, “A surprisingly large part of pool skill is a matter of attitude and concentration. When the pressure is on, the player with the best control of his nerves and emotions has a big advantage.” (Byrne)
Rule #1: Don’t get greedy. A pay out of twenty dollars is better than a pay out of zero.
I’ve found that $60 is a nice payout for the night. When on a roll, a person can be sucked into the excitement of the game. A nice run at the table doesn’t give a hustler a license to be reckless. In fact, arrogance is a sure sign of a novice hustler, and has no place in nine-ball. A good player leaves his opponent with a little bit of cash in his pocket and still with as much pride in his game as possible.
Back in the day, a buddy of mine, Richard, managed the Buffalo Room, a club in Austin on Seventh and Neches. I could shoot pool there at no cost to me at any time; it beat sitting at home. It is necessary for you to know that the upper crust in Austin, Texas observe happy hour downtown south of Sixth Street, typically in the warehouse district; those who venture north of Sixth are more like the crusty part of the city. I began to shoot pool with the crust regularly at the Buffalo Room.
One evening, when I first got started and added rule number one, I took a guy for $120. It was a good night for me, and I rubbed it in. “Perhaps you’re girlfriend could do better,” I jibed.
He was there with two friends and a girlfriend. He had lost and kept on losing to me until the final match. I infuriated and embarrassed him.
Sadly, I would never again be able to play him for money, and I came close to getting beat up by the guy in the bathroom.
I said, “Make sure to wash the crap off your hands.”
He said, “What?” and looked down at his hands.
I turned off the faucet. I said, “I’m not speaking literally. Just you’re game out there.”
It was too late for me to take a smaller dip into his wallet, as I should have, and to take back the insult. Rule #1 is very important to remaining healthy. He let me off with a squeeze of the shoulder and a warning.
Remember always that eight-ball is the past time for nonplayers; nine-ball is the hustle. Robert Byrne once said, “Gamblers like nine-ball because money changes hands quickly and spectators like it because the players frequently must try spectacular shots.” (Byrne)
Rule #2: Play it safe.
Don’t ever play for the spectators. People who watch pool like the amazing combination shots. However, the hustle requires very little skill with nine-ball. A player just relies on the testosterone and ego commonplace in a pool hall. The object of the game is very simple in nine-ball: sink the ball with the nine on it and you win the game.
“Wow, look at that shot!” a player once said to me.
I had planned to meet Jeremy, a friend of mine, and two girls at Slick Willies for a couple of buckets of beer and a few games of pool. We had just met the girls last night and Jeremy was late.
“Yeah, that was a nice one,” I said.
The guy didn’t have a clue what he was getting into. You see most players have the mindset of eight-ball in their heads. In eight ball, players have to sink seven balls before shooting for the winning ball. In nine-ball, the winning ball can be attempted at any time.
“Whoa, and now I got a good shot on the three.”
“You sure do,” I said.
A good nine-ball player only tries for the spectacular shot, or even the average combination shot, if absolutely necessary. I knew this guy at Slick Willies was going to play himself out.
The three-ball bounced back from the pocket and popped out. The three would have teased most players as it lay so close to the pocket. However, I shot with high English so as to barely tap the three, and I sent it to the other side of the table. Two balls blocked the cue ball from any shot on the three.
“That’s too bad,” the pigeon said. He leaned down, “That’s a lot of green.”
Yes, it is I thought.
Of course, he missed the three-ball spectacularly and left me ball-in-hand. Ball-in-hand is the end of the game. A win will, at the most, require a simple combination shot.
Players lose because they see a challenge in a tough shot and enjoy it. If you want to be able to pay for a little extra macaroni and cheese in you pantry, then play it safe. Don’t ever buy into the challenge. The “play it safe” rule will never backfire on you in the long game. It may be hard at first, but if the other player gets lucky, then let him.
Robert Byrne explained, “Always have a plan, but reevaluate after every shot.” (Byrne) I think he meant play for the long game. A hustler sees one ball, the nine-ball. Any other shot just leads to the nine sinking. A novice doesn’t look for the endgame. He evaluates only the shot in front of him. He doesn’t even evaluate the other player.
We arrive at the final rule.
Rule #3: Circle the fishbowl. Attack the guppies; stay away from the piranhas.
It’s all about location, location, location. In other words, make sure the pool hall has players playing there that will lose well. A bad player will lose to you well when he plays by ego and parts with his money at the end of the game.
I stopped playing pool downtown. Many players would not hand over their cash without confrontation. Frat guys are the worst. Never fight over a game. Just change pool halls. The hustle shouldn’t require fighting.
The Side Pocket remains the best and safest place in Austin for nine-ball hustling. Players there are mellow, but have enough ego to get pulled into a money game. A player at the Side Pocket will not admit to not knowing how to play nine-ball, which makes them easy to take.
“This place is pretty cool. How’re you doing?”
“Want to play a little nine-ball?” I ask.
I use small talk to disorient. “Nine-ball is fun because it goes a lot quicker.”
“Name’s Jeff.” I then reach to shake the guy’s hand. Once the handshake is done, then I’m guaranteed at least twenty bucks from him. He has introduced himself as my next pigeon.
Don’t overuse a place though. Schedule a place one night a week and two at the most. Many people patron a pool hall regularly and will remember you.
Well, those are my three rules that will always work for those who understand the long game. Every now and then I find myself back in a pool hall, and I find these techniques do still work. If you want to know the hustle, then be low-key. Don’t get pulled into the movie, The Color of Money. Vincent, the character played by Tom Cruise, is not a role model. As David Alciatore explains in an article, “Vincent’s ego and showiness get in the way of efficient hustling”, which is the goal of a good hustler. (Alciatore) Remember, the good hustle is a small time hustle. It won’t make you rich, but it will keep you safe and well fed, especially for you college kids. Happy hunting and rack ‘em up!
Alciatore, D., “Billiards on the Big Screen – The Color of Money,” Dr. Dave’s Illustrated Principles, Billiards Digest, September, 2004.
Byrne, Robert. Standard Book of Pool and Billiards. San Diego: Harvest Brace Jovanovich, 1987.