The Heart of a Hustler : An outlaw culture? Sure. But one writer also sees a seedy grace in pool halls.
David McCumber is about to kiss $500 goodbye. And there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it.
He sits helplessly next to the man to whom he has entrusted his wad of cash: Bay Area pool hustler Tony Annigoni, who is deadlocked at 10 games apiece in a “race to 11" of nine-ball with local pro Israel “Morro” Paez. Paez is a flashy player cut from the look-good-play-good cloth--he wears slacks and a cream silk shirt, a stark contrast to Annigoni’s jeans and loose-fitting polo shirt.
Not only is Paez one of the best players in the country, he also has the home-turf advantage--Hard Times Billiards in Bellflower. Paez needs only to sink the 6 in the corner pocket and he’s home free. Easy. A shot he’s made a million times.
Paez lines it up and lets ‘er rip, adding mustard to the shot with a bunny hop. This time, however, he misses. The partisan crowd of about 30 in the grandstand above table No. 9 (the “Minnesota Fats” table) collectively groans.
Like a predator smelling blood, Annigoni leaps from his chair, chomping his gum feverishly as he surveys the situation. Just like that, it’s over. He picks up Paez’s table scraps and voila! he and his partner have doubled their money. McCumber quickly grabs the cash that’s stashed atop the worn, wood-covered light above the table and says, jokingly, “It was never in doubt.”
Spoken like a grizzled gambler. But McCumber isn’t really a pool hustler; he just plays one in his new book, “Playing Off the Rail: A Pool Hustler’s Journey” (Random House), a diary of his four months crisscrossing North America with Annigoni in 1992, during which McCumber served as his “stake horse,” investing in his game for a piece of the action.
The book is a revealing account of the 43-year-old writer’s immersion in an outlaw culture torn between its sleazy, notorious past and a sanitized, upscale future. McCumber describes the characters, hustles and magic of the game with a seedy grace that combines a journalist’s eye for detail with a literary penchant for maximizing drama. The images McCumber leaves us with are both romantic and tragic, reflecting a joie de vivre similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s wild ride with the Hell’s Angels nearly 30 years ago.
“My hope was to make people stop and think about more than the surface of the game, and look at the underlying beauty of it,” McCumber says, sitting on a plush sofa upstairs at the Hollywood Athletic Club.
McCumber developed “road fever” when he was a teenager in the late ‘60s while hanging out at the Stag Tavern in Sidney, Neb., his hometown.
The pool hall “was the cultural center of town if you were male,” he says. “It was forbidden fruit for a kid--it smelled like a bar. It smelled like smoke and stale beer. I’d go and see all the old men when they were playing. It was just a huge part of my life.”
At 17, McCumber won 40 bucks staking a visiting road hustler. There was no turning back.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” he says. “Those dark, beautiful colors and the way the balls rolled and the elegance of the tables. There’s just something intoxicating about it.”
Still, he waited 22 years to satisfy his hunger for the life of the traveling gambler. After a long career as a journalist at several newspapers throughout the western United States (“Someone once said my resume looked like a Greyhound bus schedule,” he jokes), he wrote a book about the porn industry’s notorious Mitchell brothers.
While looking for another book project, McCumber, a self-described “method writer,” met Annigoni at his pool hall in San Francisco. It didn’t take him long to realize that he had found his next subject.
Annigoni didn’t fit the profile of the typical pool shark--he doesn’t smoke or drink, follows a macrobiotic diet and studies Eastern religion. He is, McCumber writes, “a Renaissance hustler.”
But that was the whole point. By staking Annigoni, McCumber figured he would encounter the usual suspects on the road. He wasn’t disappointed. For example, in Chicago they ran into a character named Curtis, who was such a compulsive gambler that he would bet the money in his pocket on a coin flip.
“I couldn’t believe that guy,” McCumber says. “He’s absolutely on the square. That boy’s got a lot of gamble in him.” Curtis, McCumber adds, is currently “in the slam.”
The hustlers McCumber describes in his book are larger-than-life figures, with monikers like Waterdog, Three-Dollar Sam and Amarillo Slim, that personify the “It’s better to win money than to earn it” ethos. To many of them, such as Bucktooth, a millionaire ex-con jeweler whose mouth is nearly as big as his game, pool is merely an end to a means; what matters most is the gambler’s rush, the mind games they play before the first rack is broken.
Even McCumber was not immune. In the book, he describes the feeling of laying down his first stake, on a table in Seattle, as sending “a galvanic jolt through me stronger than any drug.”
As time went on, however, McCumber came to his senses.
“I’d look at some of these guys who’d obviously been just stone gamblers all their lives--the life hadn’t treated them very well; they look down on their luck,” he says. “You realize that not that many people win when they live their lives gambling.”
Still, he steadfastly believes that those who want to eliminate gambling from the sport would be ripping out its heart and soul.
“The powers that be are trying to project a squeaky clean image: no gambling. I think that’s a big mistake,” he says. “Gambling and pool are inextricably linked. Pool’s been around for 500 years and through all that time, gambling’s been a part of it. I don’t think you’re ever going to get gambling out of pool. I don’t think they should. I think that’s what makes it so rich in its culture.”
The contrast between the old and new is especially pronounced in Los Angeles, McCumber says, as he compares the old-school, working-class rough edges of Hard Times (“a great action room”) with the opulence of the Hollywood Athletic Club, which he describes as “the quintessential yuppie pool room in some ways.” But there is hope for the room: He praises the quality of its equipment and is encouraged by the increased action there lately, which he believes is due to the demise of Hollywood Billiards, a victim of the Northridge earthquake.
McCumber’s experience as a stake horse was strictly clandestine--only Annigoni and Bucktooth, a fellow Bay Area partner in crime, knew he was a writer.
He figured it was the only way to capture the natural flow of the pool hall. But it necessitated many a sleepless night back at the local fleabag motel, feverishly recounting the day’s events.
“I had to stow things up in my mind,” he says. “We’d play all night, and I’d be dog tired and I’d have to take notes. And sometimes the dialogue is so beautiful. One of the great things about the subject for me as a writer is that there is a whole dialect to pool that I just found to be so poetic. It was imperative that I get that dialogue right.”
Ultimately, McCumber found that his two professions were not dissimilar. “You need to be a pretty good observer to be a good stake horse,” he says. “Lots of crazy things can happen. You have to be aware of the money, you have to be aware of the layout of the room, where the doors are, you gotta be aware of what the other player is doing and how he’s moving and how your player is playing.”
McCumber adapted relatively quickly to the nuances of staking--especially after the pair pocketed eight grand on their first stop in Seattle.
“I thought, my gosh, is it going to be this easy? I found out it wasn’t.”
In fact, on occasion, McCumber felt a bit overwhelmed. “I was an inexperienced gambler gambling with some very experienced gamblers,” he says. “For a long time on the road I slept with my money under my pillow because I was so insecure carrying large amounts of cash. I really was afraid I would do something to mess us up. But you learn pretty quickly, and by the end of it I felt like a pretty seasoned stake horse.”
By the end he was also a pretty burned-out stake horse. After four months of bad food, cheap motels and erratic sleep, it had become a grind, a job totally removed from real life.
“The amazing thing was how disassociated from my normal world I became,” McCumber says. “We were on the road during the Clinton campaign, which I’d been very engaged with before I left for the road. Suddenly, I realized how little it meant to the average professional gambler, how little relevance it had to the life I was living, and that was disturbing. It made me feel cut off from reality.”
In the three years since his hustling days ended, McCumber left California for Montana, got divorced and started a magazine. Now he’s about to embark on his next project--working as a ranch hand to document another fading traditional culture, that of the cowboy.
Pornography, pool hustling, wrangling--is there a macho pattern developing here?
“My agent said to me, ‘I’ve got you figured out: You write about the stupid things men do.’ And I said, ‘The nice thing about that is that it gives me a lot of material.’ ”