I must have seen The Hustler a hundred times over the years, wearing down an old VHS copy that my Dad dug up at a swap meet. I eventually bought him a set of DVDs, complete with the 1986 sequel The Color of Money, to update his collection, and we still sit together and watch it once every year or so.
Unfortunately for me though, and my fellow billiards enthusiasts, those pool halls are becoming more difficult to find each and every year. According to a 2014 study conducted by Statista Research and Analysis, billiards and pool participation by Americans peaked at 51 million players in 2007 – but plummeted to just 35 million seven years later. That disturbing downward trend has continued through 2018, as the same research group now estimates fewer than 30 million pool players regularly play the game nationwide.
Interestingly enough, the billiards industry points to movies like The Hustler, and a litany of similar pool shark scenes depicted on television, as a prime reason people remain wary of pool halls.
In an interview with CNN, Edward “Sandman” Liddawi – a former pro pool player turned owner of Sandcastle Billiards in Edison, New Jersey – described the slow deterioration of his beloved industry:
Apparently, it seems as though the pool hustling lifestyle I admired from afar managed to scare more sensible folks away from the game.
Thankfully, while the game is experiencing a period of prolonged shrinkage right now, you can still find great old-school pool halls tucked away in towns and cities from coast to coast. Take a look below to learn about 10 of the most renowned pool halls in America, as listed by CNN Travel:
Top-10 Old School Pool Halls as Rated by CNN Travel
- Chris’s Billiards – 4639 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
- Sandcastle Billiards – 101 Townsley Street, Edison, New Jersey
- Hardtimes – 17450 Bellflower Boulevard, Bellflower, California
- Marie’s Golden Cue – 3241 W. Montrose Avenue, Chicago, Illinois
- Capone’s – 10463 County Line Road, Spring Hill, Florida
- Q-Master Billiards – 5612-A Princess Anne Road, Virginia Beach, Virginia
- Orton Billiard and Pool Rooms – 133 N. Front Street, Wilmington, North Carolina
- JOB Billiards Club – 900 Gallatin Pike South, Madison, Tennessee
- Billiard Palacade – 5179 Mission Street, San Francisco, California
- Mr. Cue’s Billiards – 3541 Chamblee-Tucker Road, Atlanta, Georgia
These pool halls were chosen based on their adherence to certain aesthetic, so expect to find chalky wood plank floors, rowdy railbirds sweating the action, and yes, hustlers plying their trade. These guys and gals aren’t cheats and scoundrels though, just serious pool players who enjoy having a little skin in the game. And if you’re up to the challenge, taking on a legitimate pool shark in a spirited game of 9-ball or snooker can be downright invigorating.
Now that you know about a few of the best pool halls in all the land, I hope you’ll chalk up your cue and rack ‘em up without worrying too much about the threat of hustlers. To help you weave your way through the world of pool wagering without getting hustled, I’ve put together a primer on avoiding sucker status.
First and foremost, the easiest way to stay out of a hustler’s crosshairs while patronizing a pool hall is to avoid betting on the game. Hustlers earn their living by backing their skill on the felt with cold, hard cash. And unless you’re willing to play with your own dough on the line, they’ll hardly pay you any mind.
Under these circumstances, the most prudent course of action is simply to refuse any direct challenges. The hustler’s M.O. involves making idle conversation, appearing drunk and casual along the way, before subtly bringing up the prospect of betting on a game or two. But if you make a point to refuse these challenges altogether, the pool shark will keep swimming elsewhere rather than sink more time into a fruitless effort.
You can still get your action down of course, but you’ll be the one issuing challenges instead of accepting them. This can be a tricky spot as well, with many hustlers adopting a “lay in the weeds” style defined by playing poorly until some unwitting sap tries to hustle them. Nonetheless, if you observe your prospective opponents carefully – watching for the warning signs of exaggeratedly bad play and listening for any insider slang – you’ll generally be able to find a fair game.
For the most part, savvy hustlers go out of their way to avoid outing themselves as proficient players. But every so often, you’ll overhear a player using insider slang that only a pool hall veteran would know. If you pay close attention, eavesdropping when necessary, you can easily identify would-be hustlers based on their use of specialized vernacular.
Pool gamblers have a lingo all their own too, so when you hear anybody using the following slang terminology, be wise and avoid putting a penny on the line against them:
Barrel(s) – A term used to describe the betting unit a hustler is risking on each game (i.e. “I brought 20 barrels at $50 a pop… so let’s play.”)
Firing and/or shooting air barrels – The act of gambling when you don’t have the money needed to settle up (i.e. “This loser was talking a big game, but after I cleaned his clock it turned out he was firing air barrels the whole time.”)
Dog the nine – A term used in 9-ball to describe spots when a player has a seemingly easy shot on the 9, only to miss it due to the pressure of the moment (i.e. “Pete here had me dead to rights, but then he went and dogged the nine!”)
Even up – The act of settling up debts after finishing a session (i.e. “Good game pal, let’s even up and grab one more pitcher.”)
Horse – Any player who is competing on behalf of another individual’s bet (i.e. “Fred’s a great player, he’s just strapped for cash this month, so I made him my horse until he’s back on his feet.”)
Lemonade – The act of intentionally play slower than one normally would, with the intention of disrupting their opponent’s rhythm (i.e. “I was killing the guy, running the table, but he got one shot and started sipping lemonade to cool me off.”)
Nit – Any player or railbird who isn’t willing to bet large sums (i.e. “She’s just a nit, always yapping about her skills but never down to bet on them.”)
Road warrior – A skilled pool player who travels from hall to hall hustling for a living (“That guy’s just a real road warrior, I’ve seen him grinding in Biloxi and Denver in the same month.”)
Another way to stop a hustler in their tracks is by leaving the game before they get a chance to spring the trap. The age-old hustling method used by pool sharks, and gamblers of all stripe for that matter, involves dropping the early games to build the mark’s confidence. The hustler doesn’t mind losing a few dollars to the mark, as they know the third game will see the stakes rise. Then, with the mark thinking they have an easy game ahead of them, the hustler goes for the kill and wins handily.
From there, marks that aren’t able to control themselves can easily spiral out of control, challenging the hustler to a rematch and upping the ante simply to save face. These marks wind up leaving the hall broke and busted, all because they fell for the oldest trick in the book.
A former pool hustler who calls himself “Russ” provided the perfect rundown of this trick in an interview with Cracked magazine:
But while his scheme worked wonders on most players, Russ wound out the hard way about a surefire method that could counter his hustle in a heartbeat:
If you’re willing to walk the proverbial tightrope – risking money against suspected hustlers for two games only – walking away before Round 3 can be a fun way to flip the script on pool sharks.
Way before he was “Kid Poker” – winner of six World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets and nearly $40 million in earnings – Daniel Negreanu was just another teenage pool hustler in Toronto.
In a journal entry posted to his personal website, Negreanu recounted an especially interesting moment in which his own hot streak was cooled off by an extended break from the action:
In this case, Negreanu fell prey to basic tournament logistics, as he was forced to wait for a final opponent. But if his quandary of going cold without the cue in his hands sounds familiar, that’s because “icing” an opponent is a time honored trick among pool hustlers.
In fact, it’s right up there in that glossary of pool lingo from earlier, under the “Lemonade” entry. Pool players may call it lemonading, stalling, or icing, but in each case the objective remains the same – take the wind out of a hot opponent’s sails by slowing the pace of play to a crawl.
If you notice an opponent who has suddenly decided to take their sweet time, especially when you’re playing well, don’t hesitate to call them out for lemonading. Indeed, outing yourself as a knowledgeable player who knows how the game is really played is an effective deterrent to ward off hustlers on the hunt.
On a final note, players who know their way around the table can always go for the ultimate revenge – hustling the hustler. This is an especially difficult ruse to pull off, so use it sparingly, but if you’re confident in your game it doesn’t hurt to take a shot. In this case, you’ll typically take the first two games by default, following the hustler’s tried and true plan of dropping the early contests in exchange for larger bets down the road.
Only now, when the hustler tries to kick their game into high gear, you’ll be waiting with a surprise of your own.
Here’s how former pool shark Russ described his own encounter with a “hustler of hustlers” in the aforementioned interview:
Just picture the look of shock on this guy’s face when he realized he had fallen victim to his very own trap. Of course, defeating a bona fide pool shark at their own game requires an immense amount of talent, not to mention moxie and money to burn. If you’re up for it, however, there can be no greater thrill in pool than battling wits with a true hustler and getting the better of them.
Billiards is a beautiful game for many reasons, but the scourge of gambling relegates it to the fringes of society. Recreational players looking to have a little fun don’t like the idea of losing their hard-earned money, especially to a hustler who hoodwinked them along the way. This dynamic is reminiscent of the old poker scene, when tourists would be circled like vultures by poker pros running every conceivable hustle.
But just like poker cleaned up its act, the pool halls of today have come a long way from The Hustler era. Today, players in the know can protect themselves from sharks simply by adopting a few useful preventative measures. Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, my hope is that you’ll enjoy your next visit to the pool hall without worrying about wagers that aren’t on the level.