This story takes place in the heart of the south, southern Mississippi that is, and it was an experience that I’ll never forget. Now that I look back on it, I find that it was hilarious, brilliant, and a little bit cruel. It was around July 97 when me and another buddy of mine went on a road trip to hustle some pool. We were both in our late teens at this time. We were definitely not top level sharks by any means, but we could beat better than average players pretty consistently. This would also be the first of many road trips that us two would embark on over the next 5 years or so, and yes we got better at it.
We left our small northern Florida town and headed west along I-10 searching for towns with pool rooms in them. Heck, they didn’t even have to be pool rooms. Bowling alleys often had pool tables in them as did little dive bars and clubs. Sometimes we never had to even venture much off the interstate because some of the larger truck stops had game rooms for the truck drivers.
Now fast forward a couple days and after a less than stellar start, we manage to pull into a small and quiet little Mississippi town just over the border from Alabama. After expenses we were down to about the last $100 between us. This was not how it was supposed to go down, but it had, and we needed to make a score tonight or we would be forced to head back home broke. The key to making money on the road is exactly that, make money!
So we pull into this little gas station to grab some fuel and dinner. After filling the car and our bellies, we had about $80 left. When paying the cashier we asked if there was any places to play pool nearby. After eyeing us up down like we were tourists, he pointed to a door right passed the restrooms and said that there’s a little table in there we could play on for a little while. He said that a lot of people come by on their way home from work to shoot a couple racks before going home. After paying we walked down the hall to see what all the hubbub was about. To our surprise, it was a very nice 3 1/2′ x 7′ Valley bar table in excellent condition. This was not what we expected. There was a couple of mediocre pool sticks leaning against the wall with halfway decent tips on them, which were in better shape than most house cues we’ve come across. Even though we have nicer custom cues in the car, they would certainly label us as players, or hustlers, so we just decided to use what was there.
After about 20 minutes of getting used to the table, a group of older gentlemen walked in with some cheap and old cues. It became a challenge table where the winner kept the table and the loser went to the end of the line. After about 4 games or so, one of the gentlemen asked if we would mind playing for $5 a game. After a little drooling and acting dumb, we happily obliged. After just an hour we had already won about $60 or so. Even with some stalling, it didn’t take long for them to realize that they were outclassed, and they finally left and mumbled between themselves the whole time.
We quickly took our winnings and headed down the street to a burger joint where we could grab a cheap bite to eat. While eating our burgers we were talking about what just happened and if it was worth going back when we finished eating. One of the employees must have heard us talking about pool because he made it a point to come to our table and asked if we liked playing pool. We said yes, and quickly asked him the same question. He responded by saying that he doesn’t play for free, and that it would take at least $20 a game to play him. This cocky looking young kid couldn’t have been older than 18. Me and my buddy looked at each other and then at the same time said, ” we’ll try some “. He then wrote down an address on a napkin and said to meet him there in about an hour.
So about an hour later we show up to this mobile home with a rusty old shed out behind it. Skeptical about getting out of the car, we noticed the kid walk out of the shed with a pool stick in his hand. He waved us back, so we grabbed our cues from the truck and headed his way. To our surprise, there was an identical table to the one at the gas station inside. In great condition with a nice bright light hanging overhead. That made us happy to play on good equipment. The only problem was that there was no floor in this shed, it was just the naked ground. The pool table was literally sitting on the hard packed dirt. It must have been in that position for a while because there was a shallow groove around the table like the kind of path you see from a dog that runs up and down the fence line continuously. It sounds funny, but there was an actual little wore out track around the table. This placed looked like something you might see in an old western movie. The icing on that cake was that this kid was barefoot as well. He said that he didn’t like to wear shoes when playing out here. Somehow being barefoot on the dirt calmed him down and made him feel more comfortable. We definitely did not remove our shoes for this scene from the twilight zone.
It took about 5 minutes for him to ask which one of us was going to play him. We decided that I would give it a go. Knowing that at $20 a game, we didn’t have much room for margin. Even though it was tough, I just had a little more seasoning then him and was up $160 before he realized that he couldn’t win. He waved his hand and said that he was done with me. We were paying off every game so I thought that he just might be out of money and needed to quit. Boy was I wrong! He pointed to my buddy and said that he’ll play him some. This was a no brainer and a free swing for us, so my buddy put his cue together and stepped up to the table.
This time it was more of an even contest as it went back and forth for what seemed like hours. You could tell that this kid thought he was better than my friend, and was getting frustrated that he had not taken our money yet. With a confident voice he said that this isn’t going anywhere, and that they should just play a race to 5 games for $250. That way there would be and end to this session, along with being a winner. We talked it over and decided to go for it because we would either be up about $500 or go home broke like we almost already did.
They started playing again and this time the kid looked like he was on a mission. He was a totally different player than he was up until this point. He quickly was up 3 – 0 and it wasn’t looking good for us. Had we just been hustled ourselves is what we both were thinking. After another nail bighting game, my friend was now down 4 – 0, and if he lost the next game we would have lost everything we’ve made till then. Being nervous now, my buddy lights up a cigarette and takes 4 big drags off of it while he’s racking the balls. As he walks back to his chair he flicks his cigarette on the ground in disgust. Unbeknownst to both of them, the cigarette butt rolls down into the groove that circles the pool table. The kid makes a ball on the break and walks around to the other side of the table for his next shot.
About 3 steps in the kid lets out an unfiltered yell, he had stepped on that butt with his bare feet. He angrily picks up the butt and throws into the corner of the shed without saying a word and lines up for his next shot. He missed the ball and my buddy ran out to win the game and make it 4-1. We could see that this had startled the kid and that his foot was bothering him a little bit too. After a couple more uncharacteristic misses from the kid, we had tied the match up at 4 – 4. Now it was essentially 1 game for the whole $500. My friend breaks and doesn’t make a ball so it’s the kids shot. With all the balls open, we just new that we had just let this money slip through our hands. Distraught about the all but certain defeat, my friend lights up another cigarette. After only one puff on it he looks at me with this devilish look in his eyes and gives me this shit eating grin. I knew exactly what was happening next, and was right. He flicked the burning cigarette directly into the dirt groove without ever taking his eyes off the kid. Sure enough, as the kid was walking to make his last ball, he stepped squarely on that cigarette butt and jerked his foot quickly up and his faced turned bright red. After a few choice words, he bent over to take the winning shot and missed the easy ball. Oh my goodness, we couldn’t believe he actually missed that really easy shot. The ball went around the table a little bit and ended up sitting right in front of another pocket. My buddy quickly jumps up and sinks the game winner.
We collect our winnings and get the heck out of dodge before he puts 2 and 2 together. This was just the momentum changer that we needed. After 2 weeks on the road, and turning that $500 into $6200, we decided to head back home with the money and some good stories. And who says that cigarettes are bad for you!
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