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Old 06-25-2009, 04:37 PM
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CaliRed CaliRed is offline
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Default A article about the Chicago Pool Scene

Since I embarked on this journey to setup a website paying tribute to old pool halls, I have done some searching around and found this article. I don't know if it's been linked to before or not. The print on the website is kind of small, so I will attempt at posting it here. The link is http://www.newcitychicago.com/home/d...ool070599.html

Don't know when it was written but it was a interesting read. I know we have several here familiar with the Chicago scene.

P.S. I'm still waiting on some pictures !!!!!! C'mon guys!! It's for a good cause.

Keir Graff examines the changing face of Chicago's pool scene

It would be apparent, even to an outsider, that a wake is being held. Amid the usual weekend chatter and din, the clatter of pins and the rattle of pool balls rolling into return trays, flashbulbs are popping. Regulars drape arms over each others' shoulders for photos; others immortalize the old poolroom with its ten Art Nouveau tables; a trio of young guys poses with the owner, grinning, holding some softball trophies they had no part in winning.

Though the pool tables are full, hardly anyone's bowling, preferring to mill around the bar trading shots and swapping stories. Bonnie, the owner, is red-eyed as she receives hugs; she's got the night off as her two daughters work the bar. The jukebox blares its odd blend, from "Sentimental Waltz" to "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," the Charlie Daniels Band to the Gin Blossoms. North Center Bowl & Billiards, on the second story of a triangular building wedged between Lincoln and Damen, is old; the bowling lanes reputedly date to 1893, and the pool hall came into being in the golden age of pool, 1917. It's not much to look at - blond wood paneling, chairs bulging foam and bandaged with duct tape, a floor that has worn through to reveal several layers and a mug collection in the trophy case - but it's going to be missed. The landlord's selling the building.

It's been a rough year for poolrooms in Chicago. Stix closed, Break Time burned down and now North Center shutters its doors. The St. Paul, which dates to 1921, is for sale. Gene Lazich, the 70-year-old owner, would like it to remain a pool hall, but on fast-developing Fullerton Avenue, the prospective buyers so far have other ideas. These weren't the halls revered by the serious players, but if the St. Paul closes too, Chicago will have lost nearly its last living specimens of poolroom history.

As the old saw goes, it wasn't always like this. Chicago was once one of the preeminent pool hotspots in the United States. Though New York had, at the towering height of pool's popularity in the 1920s, up to 5,000 poolrooms, at least one eyewitness said Chicago topped even that. In a 1972 book named for him, self-described "billiard bum" Danny McGoorty told historian Robert Byrne, "Believe it or not, in the early 1920s in Cook County, Illinois, there were 5,200 licensed pool halls. A lot of them were one- and two-table joints in barber shops and cigar stores and so on, but that is the number of licenses there were, and shows how popular the game used to be. In the Chicago Loop alone - where there is not a single poolroom today - there were twelve big layouts, each with no less than forty tables."

In the early 1930s, green felt goliath Willie Mosconi could outdraw the Bears, and, from 1948 to 1951, he defended the world championship in a specially-constructed arena on Navy Pier. And, for years, we had Bensinger's, which may have been the best-known billiard parlor in the country. Recollected by Mosconi, in the book "Willie's Game," "It was a magnificent place, with velvet curtains and original oil paintings on the walls. An open, wrought-iron cage elevator took you up to the second floor where the tournament games were held. At night, you were surrounded by the glow of neon lights from Chicago's Loop until the games were ready to begin." And he didn't even mention that Bensinger's had a third story; one each for pool, billiards and snooker. This pool paradise, on Randolph opposite the Oriental Theatre, closed in 1960. A smaller, scaled-back Bensinger's survived the sixties in a rundown basement at Clark and Diversey, but in the early 1970s relocated again, to a second-story room nearby on Broadway. It closed for good less than two years later. To a great extent, pool in Chicago has followed national trends. By some estimates, skewed by boosterism and the inherent difficulties of counting pool sharks, in the 1920s, twenty-two million people played the sport. During the Depression, pool was hit hard, as all sports were, but failed to rebound afterward, with player numbers dropping to three million by the late 1950s. In the 1960s, the phenomenal success of the movie "The Hustler" sparked a resurgence; in 1962, one year after the movie's release, seventeen million players again enjoyed the sport. It didn't stick, though, and player numbers declined until, in 1986, "The Color of Money," the locally-filmed sequel to "The Hustler," again got the balls rolling. The Billiard Congress of America currently estimates that more than forty million Americans enjoy pool, "ranking it among the top participation sports." Comparing these figures against census counts, pool is far more popular now than in the sixties, and about 75 percent of what it was in the 1920s.

In light of these numbers, the closings seem paradoxical. Has the cash infusion provided by "The Color of Money" run out - is the safe empty?

Pool exerts a strong hold on our collective imagination. The poolroom is a set, a backdrop, a coded symbol for the low life. Hardly an action movie or a cop show concludes without a scene in a smoke-hazed pool hall, where stoolies and thugs provide a ready reference library for detectives. Music videos and commercials continually employ the image of the pool table to sell sex and danger. The poolroom also lingers for the authorities; in many cities, archaic laws remain on the books that treat the game as more dangerous than drinking, drug-taking or some of its attendant pastimes, real or imagined. In Chicago, poolrooms close earlier than bars (though bars with a few pool tables are exempted), and minors aren't allowed unless accompanied by a guardian, even in dry poolrooms. In an era when the street corner can be a dangerous place, the specters of poolroom pimps, hustlers and bookies keep kids outside. And everywhere, poolrooms run into struggles with zoning committees and community groups who fear the pool-playing "element."

The irony in all this is that "the poolroom" exists only as a construct, or if in reality, it is so marginalized as to no longer pose a threat as a breeding ground for juvenile delinquents. There are still many establishments that offer the game of pool, but to a purist they are not poolrooms; similarly, for three or four quarters you can enjoy a game in which you employ a cue stick and fifteen balls on a table that is covered in green cloth, but you are not playing pool. Bars and coin-op tables transform a game of concentration and skill into a form of foosball.

To wit, what is a pool hall? David Mamet, in his essay "The Pool Hall," celebrated it as a place to be alone. Sociologist Ned Polsky, in his landmark work "Hustlers, Beats and Others," cites it as a place for men to be alone with one another. Along with taverns, barber shops and clubs, poolrooms served "as sacrosanct refuges from women. The poolroom was not just one of these places: it was the one, the keystone."

Imported from England as a gentleman's pastime, billiards soon developed the sort of split personality that it maintains today: sport of the gentleman, sport of the bum. If not played on a private table in a stately home, it was undertaken in a den of ill repute, and the bad reputation that led fathers to warn their sons to stay out of poolrooms was well-deserved.

Know that "billiards" denotes a game with three balls and no pockets on the table; "pool" denotes what we actually play. Technically, you call the first "three-cushion billiards," leaving "billiards" to serve for all cue games. "Pocket billiards" was coined by admen and industry flacks trying to enhance the image of the sport; it sounds best intoned drolly. Three-cushion was bigger than pool for many years, but since the twenties, in this country, it's taken a long, slow swandive.

(Part II to follow in my reply)
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Old 06-25-2009, 04:41 PM
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CaliRed CaliRed is offline
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Default Part II

(continued from above)
The game in pool used to be straight pool, where each ball counts as a point toward a final tally of 125 or 150; games were played on enormous 5-foot by 10-foot tables. It was slow, and when spectators got harder to come by, in 1949, they shrank the tables to 4 1/2-feet by 9-feet and widened the pockets by half an inch. Of course, now you can play on even smaller bar tables. Eight ball, a faster game, and nine-ball, even faster, have usurped straight pool. Baseball diamonds and football fields have remained intact, but pool has become a smaller, swifter game, with the express intent of getting YOU to watch.

With the sport hardly recognizable, why would we expect it to be played in the same hallowed halls? It's easy to be nostalgic for the old rooms, but the life of a sport depends on those who play casually, or even just watch, and the record would indicate that most people only like to watch dingy, smoky old poolrooms on TV.

Chicago still has some great rooms, of course. Chris's Billiards is near-legendary, though it's probably not more than 30-years-old. Still, its forty-nine tables make it the biggest, a mix of pool, billiards and one snooker table. Aside from a TV that's often on and a jukebox that can be heard from the side room, Chris's evokes the old-time poolroom. Tall chairs near tables encourage unobtrusive viewing, and good players are usually in evidence, a mix of ages, cultures and playing styles.

One weekday afternoon at Chris's, a loud, jumpy white guy and a slow-moving, quiet Latino play each other for $60 a game, though it's the game they're playing that's more noteworthy than the three twenty-dollar bills that change hands after each victory; they're playing one-pocket, once favored by hustlers and gamblers. The object is to be the first to sink eight balls in one corner pocket, each opponent having a separate pocket. It's slow-moving and requires endless defense, the complete opposite of bang-bang games like nine-ball.

The Chicago Billiard Cafe, at Irving and Austin, receives good reviews from players, and Marie's Golden Cue, on Montrose, is a real pool hall, right down to the cue lockers. On the Far South Side, just over the city limit in Alsip, you can get action at Red Shoes Billiards. Problem is, all these rooms are far from the city's epicenters. One bright spot is the nearly year-old City Pool Hall, on Hubbard in West Town, which offers a busy bar environment for relatively serious enthusiasts.

These are all, however, in the suburbs. Schwartz, who grew up shooting at the Clark and Diversey Bensinger's, agrees that the trend is moving toward the suburbs, but thinks "there's gonna be some nice ones in the city." In his view, so many more people are playing today than twenty or thirty years ago that, "All you need (to do is) just get a room, put tables in it, you're gonna get business. It's incredible."

In many ways, the sport's increased popularity and demand have been the downfall of its old-time venues. With the faster game comes spectators and interest, but also the seedier elements - the gamblers who find taking bets on a three minutes of nine-ball offers a better payoff than wagering on an hour, or more, of straight pool. And the new player, the young, upwardly-mobile types making their first foray into pool, the novelty of smoke, dim dinginess, gamblers and hardcore enthusiasts who will play a table for hours doesn't cut it.

What the modern newcomers want is variety, amentities and a host of activities in one place to hold their attention. And though some new poolrooms are geared toward serious players, many offer features that would once have been unimaginable. Coffee, cigarettes, a snack bar - these have long been staples of the business, providing a means to keep players at the tables - but now pool is just one of the attractions.

Adult playpen Dave & Buster's features a poolroom, as does Club 720. In the recently psychedelicized AMF bowling alley at Marina City, pool is a costly, nearly hidden, adjunct. Even at Philosofur's, a seemingly pool-centric bar, the game takes a back seat to bar business. Says Sven Davies, online coordinator for Billiards Digest and a pool teacher, at bars like this "It's an atmosphere that they want to have, they want a certain clientele, and pool just happens to be one of the things that they use to get you in there. They have drinks, cigars, comedy acts in the back." Davies knows something about the modern face of pool. As a student at Weber State in 1992, he created Internet Equal Offense, a means to compete with other players via the Internet. Attention from this landed him a job at the BCA.

"Pool doesn't really shine when it's a part of some big corporate vision," he says. Yet he feels that new rooms represent a natural cycle. "What people are expecting from pool may be changing. People tend to gravitate to the new rooms or the new way of promoting the sport and now the other rooms don't get the traffic and they die out... there are definite signs of this weeding out of the weaklings."

Professional billiard player Deno Andrews, also a teacher who advertises at $125 per hour, finds the new trend somewhat puzzling. "It's kind of strange, ["The Color of Money"] was the beginning of all these new high-end poolrooms, but the movie was really about hustlers running around old-time seedy places. I never understood how these new, ultra-clean, no smoking, beautiful places came about from the movie."

One answer, however, may lie in reality. According to Andrews, "most players tend not to spend a lot of money in a poolroom, especially the gamblers, so there seemed to be a trend to start to cater to the non-players" who would bring friends, buy drinks and generally improve the profit margin. This is fine with him. "In the big picture, it's far better to have non-players participating. It's like bowling - I mean, how many non-bowlers are there out bowling on a daily basis? It's huge. And golf - how many guys can't break a hundred on the golf course every day? Without those people, the sport is nothing.

"And while there may be a few people who still want to go into a smoky, foggy poolroom where you can't see the back wall, the non-playing public wants to go into a clean room, where they have a non-smoking section, a half-way decent food and beer selection."

Upgrading the image of pool is nothing new. Willie Mosconi discussed the attempts to brighten and safen the game for families, women and students in the 1950s. Ned Polsky recorded similar events in the 1960s: "In the poolroom this process is known as "'cleaning up the game,' and currently it revolves about such things as installing carpets and bright lights and pastel colors, curbing obscene language, getting rid of hustlers and hoodlums and alcoholics, and trying to bring women in."

But, he concludes, "Once the initial novelty has worn off, the proprietor finds that his trade consists mostly of teenage boys, especially the school dropouts, and secondarily the old-style 'sporting' types among the adult males. They play so much oftener and longer than women or teenage girls that he can't afford to kick them out."

The fate of the pool hall, then, is inextricably linked to the "bachelor subculture." Polsky cites the early-century rise in poolrooms as a direct result of the receding frontier in America; as the frontier was "a male escape hatch from effete and 'feminized' urban civilization," the poolroom became "a kind of behind-the-lines or inner frontier." The world is more crowded, and with more people emigrating into the frontier of cyberspace, you can be alone with any group you like in the solitude of the home, obviating the need for an actual gathering place.

There are two possibilities. One, that the resurgence sparked by "The Color of Money" has extremely long legs, but, just like the earlier renaissance, will die out once again. The new players will not prove to be repeat players. Over the next five to ten years, rooms will close, the sport will wane, and once again become the province of the disciplined, the nostalgic, and the marginalized. Two, that society has outgrown the need for this male meeting place - and given the desegregation of pro locker rooms, college bathrooms and even bachelor parties, this is a distinct possibility - and pool will flourish in a new form.

Supporting this view is the fact that professional women's pool is well-organized and viewable on ESPN while men's languishes because of acrimony. Whichever, however, and regardless of the game's health, the poolroom is dead.

Probably no need to quote this when you reply
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Old 06-25-2009, 05:23 PM
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gulfportdoc gulfportdoc is online now
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Originally Posted by CaliRed
Though New York had, at the towering height of pool's popularity in the 1920s, up to 5,000 poolrooms, at least one eyewitness said Chicago topped even that. In a 1972 book named for him, self-described "billiard bum" Danny McGoorty told historian Robert Byrne, "Believe it or not, in the early 1920s in Cook County, Illinois, there were 5,200 licensed pool halls. A lot of them were one- and two-table joints in barber shops and cigar stores and so on, but that is the number of licenses there were, and shows how popular the game used to be.
I've seen this 5000 figure bandied about in several places. However I don't believe it. 5000 poolrooms in any city or county is ridiculous. Granted, billiards and pool were wildly poplular in the early 20th Century; but it would be a stretch to even imagine 5000 pool TABLES in a city, let alone 5000 pool ROOMS.

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