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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002
As regularly as Saturday itself, there comes the Saturday afternoon Pool Tournament.

Hosted and sponsored by the Watering Hole, said Tournament is a family and friends affair attracting perhaps a dozen regulars, $5 entry fee, 8 ball style, winner and 2nd place share the pot. Double elimination format. So you’re guaranteed to shoot at least two games, and continue shooting until you lose. Stu acts as Tournament Director, bringing along his laptop computer, sitting on a table with the pool tournament software turned on and game brackets glowing on the screen.

This has been going on for months now. A few of the participants don’t even come up to the bar unless this Tournament is in session, so it’s a good attraction for the owner. Anything to create a little business on what would otherwise be a very slow Saturday afternoon.

Ally and I have been participants nearly every week. We are fodder for the other regulars, we are the ones who come in and bulk up the money pot and serve as warm-up games to the more experienced and skilled players. Players who can arrive minutes before the thing starts, grab a warped stick off the rack and proceed to whip our respective asses with ease.

Yesterday began much like all the other Saturdays. We arrived an hour early. Shot practice games. Moaned and cursed our relative lack of talent and the unerring way that balls clang off the rail and miss the pocket on certain shots. “I just can’t seem to line it up right,” or the more common “Dammit dammit dammit” rang out with each successive missed shot.

But pool is a game that begs for calm. For serenity. For getting to and remaining in a certain level of karma that will allow the shooter to reach enlightenment and make sense of the geometric patterns of the balls and control the muscle twitch of arms and hands. The better players all have this, they get in a zone and there’s no stopping them. Once they step up to the table, they throw some mental switch and their eyes glaze over and instantly they’re in another place. And they can step away and turn it off just as easily.

Not so Outfoxed. I have to get way over on the other side of the bar and sit by myself, chant a few East Indian incantations in the lotus position, light a few ceremonial candles. After a while I’ll reach nirvana but let me tell you, it’s tough. And I don’t think that multiple applications of Coors Lite was ever intended to be part of Buddhist rituals but hey, I’m making this up as I go. If it works, so much the better.

Promptly at 2:30, Stu called for the first four players to take their places at two tables. “Louie and Outfoxed, you’re up on table one! Carlos, you and me over here!” And we were off.

Louie is a retired gent who favors wing tips and dress slacks, a white haired paunchy sort who would be right at home at any country club. He plays the game of pool in a defensive way, he plays the odds most favoring position, he is patient and willing to allow his opponent to make the mistakes which will increase his chances of winning. He does very well in these tournaments because everybody else plays a more aggressive, offensive game and they can’t believe it when he sinks the 8 ball after quietly waiting them out.

He and I have had some memorable games, as I have no idea of how to play offensively (or defensively, for that matter), and usually blunder my way into a position that thwarts his strategies. I suspect I frustrate him a little bit.

I managed to get all my balls off the table and left him with three of his own and the 8 ball. He swung into action, nailing all his balls and cutting in the 8 on a spectacular shot. And I was in the familiar position of having played one game and lost. One down, one to go.

I was gracious, shook his hand and said “Great shot Louie” and wandered off. At the Watering Hole, there are three pool tables set in a row at the front of the bar, and one lone table way in the back. For whatever reason, I ambled away from the crowd and headed for the rear table to practice for a while. I guess I was morose about the loss, they come so routinely that even doing well against a player like Louie is not enough consolation for me anymore. Wanting to play better and being able to demonstrate it in the public eye, you know.

So I was feeling a little sorry for myself and fed quarters into the table. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked myself silently. “You play this game often enough to get a little skilled. You can win once in a while, you know. Don’t have to come up here every week and get your hat handed to you.”

I don’t converse well with myself, and it showed as I whiffed on a number of easy practice shots. So I was not feeling particularly better when I strolled back to the action. And found that Ally had won her first game and was dancing around flashing her million-watt smile. “I won! I can’t believe I actually won a game! Woooo!”

The worst part of losing your first game is that, according to Stu’s software, you get to sit for a long time. Winners play winners and losers sit, awaiting their second game. Sitting is the worst thing that can happen if you’re an amateur player, the game demands constant play. But sit I did. Ally lost her second game by a nose, she was shooting extremely well and having a good time. She joined me as I sat in my funk, depressed over a game of clacking balls and wooden sticks.

“What’s wrong baby? You look like you’re mad at the world.” She was right, I’m sure I looked that way.

“Oh, I’m alright. Got a lot on my mind these days.” Which is partially true, I do have a lot of work related stuff going on. “Call this my PMS day, I’m entitled, okay? You girls get to have a week off every month, I’m going to say this is my day. I’m pissy and cramping, alright?”

She was wise enough to see that for what it was, and sat on her barstool rubbing my neck with a smile.

“Outfoxed and Steve, you’re up! Come on, losers! Table 2!” Stu is such the comedic Director.

Steve is the cook of the Watering Hole. A young guy, he displays flashes of brilliance on the pool table with powerful shots coming off his one indulgence, a custom made and ivory clad pool stick. At any given moment he can run the table on anyone, but tends to let the lure of the fantastic shot overtake his game, losing to the more stealthy players who work strategy games on him. He has the additional misfortune of having to run to the kitchen and cook up hamburgers when there is a demand, thus interrupting any continuity in his game.

I won the toss for the break and watched Steve rack the balls. “Deep breaths, get in the zone,” my inner voice said. “Piss off,” I muttered to the voice. But in spite of myself, I felt the calm coming on. Or maybe it was the buzz from 4 beers, but whatever it was, I was doing the Buddha thing and the world slowed down and the cue ball looked huge.

Short story, I whipped Steve’s ass. It wasn’t even close. He got one shot at it, missed, and I rammed the rest of the table in with a flourish. There were a great many jaws flapping let me tell you. Even some surprised and scattered applause. And I started to grin. Winning wasn’t so bad.

“Outfoxed, stay up! Patrick, you’re next!”

I sat away from the crowd as Patrick bounced up. Another young and powerful shot. He’d won the whole thing the previous week. A disciplined and smart player, always in the hunt. But I didn’t stop grinning, I sat in my zone and watched him miss an impossible combination. I was up again.

I whipped his ass, too.

The crowd grew, it was to the point in the tournament where there were only winners left, but they had to get to the final round through me, the lone representative of the losers bracket. Me, the grinning Chesire Cat with the Buddha belly. With the whole bar watching.

“Outfoxed, stay up! Ally, you’re next!”

Ally had been having a good day. She’d never advanced to the winners round before, but was shooting like she did it all the time. We generally play each other pretty evenly, and pretty ugly, and the games take forever since we spend most of the time whiffing on easy shots and leaving each other horrible scenarios.

The clash of the spouses began. And it was somewhat the same as always, we battled for position, taking a lot longer than usual to get to the final few balls. But there was some skill to it. We actually looked like we knew what we were doing. I sank my last shot but scratched in doing so, leaving Ally with only the 8 ball between herself and victory.

I could hear the whispers over at the laptop computer table. “Hey, what the hell is Outfoxed still doing up? And Ally? What’s this Tournament coming to?”

Ally missed an easy shot and I rolled the 8 in. So it can’t be said that I whipped her ass, but I wouldn’t have wanted that anyway. “Honey, why did you miss that shot?” And she had no direct answer, but smiled and said “Go get ‘em, baby.”

“Outfoxed, stay up! I’m next!”

Stu had been shooting like Minnesota Fats all day, running the balls in as if they were tied in to an invisible laser guided sighting device. He was confident to the point of being cocky. I broke, had no shot and he zoomed in for the kill. After making three in a row, he paused on an especially tricky set-up and perused his options. The crowd hushed, sensing a pivotal moment. Three things could happen, based on what Stu had in front of him. He could make a difficult shot and probably run the table, he could miss and leave me open to run the table, or he could scratch on the 8 ball and lose. It was just that sort of arraignment.

Stu grunted out “3 ball to the corner” and looked over at me for my acknowledgment. Which was his undoing, I swear. I gave him my best Chesire grin, nodded serenely and froze him with my cosmic stare.

He scratched on the 8. Game over.

The crowd roared and applauded, Stu is rarely defeated in match play. He whacked me on the shoulder and sighed ruefully. “Oh my gosh, you finally did it. Whipped me in front of everybody. How am I gonna live this down?”

“Everybody loves the underdog, old man. Don’t feel so bad.” And it was true, the bar was cheering for the guy who never wins but always shows up. It was turning into a sort of ‘Rocky 1’ picture show, with me trading punches with the champs and coming away a winner. A grinning, meditating winner.

“Outfoxed, stay up! Money round! Carlos, you’re next!”

Money round indeed. This was the game to determine who would finish no worse than 2nd. Heady, uncharted waters for me. And Carlos was no slouch, he’d won this thing a couple of times. A very kindly gentleman who turned into a tiger when holding a pool cue.

We battled back and forth, pausing for dramatic license between shots, neither one of us giving an inch. It was high-level pool, a chess match of picking off stray balls and setting up the next. The crowd was into it, cheering and clapping at each finely tuned maneuver. Ally called out “Come on baby, Momma needs a new pair of shoes!” and it filtered through my beer/Buddhist haze that yeah, I might actually have a chance at this thing.

It came down to Carlos having two balls and the 8 left to go. I had run out all my shots but missed on the 8, leaving it precariously on the edge of a pocket, to the groans of the multitude. Resuming my perch on the lone barstool, I glanced over at Stu and the crew of cronies as they whispered and gestured in my direction. And I could almost read their thoughts. “He’s got Carlos on the ropes! Carlos can’t make that setup, if Outfoxed gets up again he’s gonna win for sure!” And the astonishment in their eyes at this thought was transparent, and funny.

Every underdog might have his day but the big dogs don’t get to be big without a lot of work. Carlos lined it up, sank the two balls on beautifully executed shots but left himself with an impossible leave on the 8. Totally undoable shot. The crowd winced audibly, it was a shot even the pro’s would miss. Never been done in the history of pool.

Well, maybe once.

He made it. Just barely.

And I bounced up and trotted over to him, shook his hand with enthusiasm. “That was one helluva shot Carlos. Beautiful. Congratulations!” The crowd was applauding somewhat dazedly, it had been a tremendous game that they had, apparently, expected the underdog to take. They were kindly and unapologetically enthused about my chances and had been let down at the end.

It didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did the crowded bar.

And Buddhism with beer is the new cult they’re all subscribing to.

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