This is an excerpt only.
By Alice Rim
December 14, 1995
Department of Sociology
Michigan State University
“To play a good game of billiards is the sign of a well-rounded education,
but to play too good a game of billiards is the sign of a mis-spent youth.”
Unknown, quote in Polsky (p.27)
While the above quotation is both humorous and applicable to many other recreations, it is true in that in order to become a ‘good’ pool player, or simply a ‘player,’ one must devote an enormous amount of time, energy and sometimes money. In fact, pool may require more time to learn than other recreational activities when taking into consideration the fact that pool is one of the few where formal instruction is rarely give. Consider tennis, piano, guitar, or swimming for example. Nowadays, it is quite common to know someone who has taken either private or group lessons, or learned sports and music through schools. Pool, however, is another story. While a very few number of establishments have offered group lessons, “pool lessons” are generally unheard of. Consequently, most players have learned it “on their own” or with the help of other players.
Like other forms of recreation, the popularity of pool and the number of players in the United States have fluctuated over the years. During the 1960s, following the release of the successful movie The Hustler, interest in pool increased as did the number of people who played pool (Polsky, 1967). In the 1980s it was The Color of Money. If it did not actually contribute to a rise in interest, it did, at the very least, re-introduce the world of pool to the newer generation. Overall, however, there has been a general, steep and downward trend since its heyday in the 1920s (Polsky, 1967). Yet despite the decline, there still remains a small number of people who devote a majority of their free time to pool.
The collective activities formed by the congregation and interaction of the pool players and other non-pool playing participants may be termed the pool hall subculture or social world. A member of this social world is known as a “regular.” Although there are no concrete definitions of a regular, anyone that fits two of the following three descriptions will be considered as such:
- Consistently or regularly spends some free time in the poolroom, whether it means one hour a day, or a few hours once a week.
- Interacts with other regulars, whether it be as a pool player, bettor, etc.
- Is known to the employees of the establishment as a “regular.”
While there is a great deal of variation among these “regulars” in terms of occupation, income, race, personal taste, ideology, personality, and degree of participation, it is this diversity which creates the unique dynamics characteristic of only the pool hall subculture.
Previous writings on pool, gambling and other relevant topics, especially the older literature, have tended to treat such subcultures as criminal and deviant. Furthermore, the lenses through which they have generally been examined have been from a structural perspective, rather than from the standpoint of individual members. For example, in “The Propensity to Gamble: Some Structural Determinants,” the title alone speaks for itself. Li and Smith (1976) argue that since gambling is a leisure activity, as one climbs the rungs of the economic class ladder, s/he is more likely to gamble. They also point to life cycles and community size as significant indicators using statistical analyses. The younger one is and the larger the community, the greater the propensity to gamble, although income status affects the two aforementioned variables. Consequently, their structural determinist approach reduces gamblers to mere products of their environments.
In similar fashion, Polsky (1967:15) argues that the decline of pool resulted from “certain longer-term changes in America’s social structure that are, apparently, irreversible.” More specifically, he refers to the poolroom as “the exact center and veritable stronghold of a special kind of subculture. . .the heterosexual but all-male subculture, which required that certain gathering places. . . serve as sacrosanct refuges from women. The pool room was not just one of these places: it was the one, the keystone” (1967:31). While Polsky incorporates individual participants into his analysis, he does so in such a way that treats members as reactors to structural influences.
However where scholars have taken an individual-side approach, their analyses have reduced ‘phenomena,’ such as gambling, to psychological variables. There is a plethora of literature engaging in psychologism (see Bolen, 1976; Knowles, 1976; Wagner, 1972; Martinez, 1976), which results in the construction and maintenance of the individual as a prisoner of anger, conscience, instinct, subconsciousness and the like. Even perspectives that focus on the decision-making aspect of psychology portray the individual as reactive, rather than pro-active. For instance, in the introduction to the chapters on the psychology of gambling, the author writes that:
“Psychologists have approached the study of gambling from two general perspectives. First, they have explored the fundamental motivations behind gambling behavior in terms of various conscious and subconscious psychological dimensions. . . The second way in which gambling has been used in psychological studies has been as the basis of experiments to analyze behavior under conditions of risk and uncertainty. . . In other words, it is assumed that gambling behavior is reflective of behavior in general, and that by examining how people react under differing circumstances in a gambling game, inferences can be drawn as to how they would react under more general circumstances” (Eadington 1976:249).
Like gambling, participation in the social world of pool could be broken down into structural variables as well as psychological factors. In fact, the assumptions behind my original objectives for this project were heavily rooted in a perspective that treated the regulars as passive individuals caught in a web of structural (and psychological) forces. I intended to examine which, if any, factors, particularly race, gender and class, contributed to one’s membership in this subculture. In other words, were there types of people that were predisposed to such membership? Also, what functions did this social world serve for the regulars? However, throughout my study, I have become increasingly aware of the dangers that could arise from focusing only on structural or psychological factors. In other words, simply breaking down the subculture into components, rather than examining various aspects of pool within the larger context, would ignore or minimize perhaps some of the most meaningful areas of this social world. While structural (class and gender) and psychological (thrill-seeking, guilt) factors are important, (and I do plan to discuss them), they alone do not suffice. Thus, it is my hope to present the pool hall subculture in such a way that illustrates the significance of the individual acting, reacting and interacting within the larger macro-setting.
METHODS AND SETTING
My study, which spanned approximately four months, relied on informal interviews, photo elicitation and mostly participant observation. Most of my data on the pool hall subculture in terms of structure, roles and processes, come from the interviews and observations. However, information and insight into its individual members are based on photo elicitation interviews with six respondents. By showing pictures of a variety of things – the Oklahoma bombing, a Grateful Dead show, a family picnic, pool players in a match, cast members of a popular TV show, sports, a man and his tractor, etc. – I was able to evoke responses that included stories about the subjects’ personal lives and thoughts about pool, politics, and anything else, as well as gestures and facial expressions. Also, such reactions indicated their personal tastes (of dress, appearance, activities), personality characteristics and perspectives of “mainstream society.”
The pool hall that was observed is located in the Lansing area, drawing a great variety of people. Due to my six years of experience in the poolroom (mostly as a customer but also as an employee) and having been considered a regular by other regulars for several months prior to the start of my research, accessibility was of little concern. During this time, I was able to form close relations with many of the regulars and the manager, who became my main informant and was aware of my study.
This particular poolroom is open every day of the week from about 11 am until 3 or 4 am, depending on the day. It has over twenty pool tables, three billiards tables and TV monitors around the room set on sports channels. There is a game room which has various video and pinball games, as well as poker machines. While there is a sign on these machines that say “For amusement only,” it is known among all the regulars that one can “cash out” if s/he obtains enough points. Food and drinks are sold, although alcohol is not. In display cases there are books, pool cues, cue cases and various pool-related items for sale and a jukebox sits near the entrance.
On a typical weekday, at least two or three regulars could be found playing pool, talking with each other, “hanging out,” playing video games, or playing the poker machines. During the weekday evenings however, one could expect to find anywhere from five to twenty regulars in the establishment (even more if it was a league night). But Fridays and Saturdays seemed to draw the most regulars, with attendance at its peak between early to late evening, although many are still there past midnight.
During the first few weeks of observation, my list of regulars leveled at about twenty five people. By the completion of my project, however, I had obtained a list of fifty one regulars. Since the majority of the time I spent in the poolroom was sometime between mid-afternoon and early morning hours, there is the possibility that late morning or early afternoon regulars were not included in my sample. However, from my discussions with other regulars, it seems that this possibility is very unlikely.
Furthermore, given the location of this poolroom, it is probably not representative of large city poolrooms. While some of the regulars had moved from perhaps another state or city, the majority was raised and continues to reside in the Lansing area. And although this area is not racially or culturally diverse as other East or West coast cities of the same size, the racial composition of the poolroom does seem to include more Latinos, Chicanos, and immigrant Asian groups than other poolrooms I have frequented in the Midwest.
One important point that must be made, however, is that the social world of pool tends to be male-dominated. Consequently, I am confident saying that my participation affected and was affected by my interactions with other regulars, especially those with whom the interaction was limited. But when a conversation, statement, or reaction of another regular was in question, I was usually able to discern late, from somebody else closer to me, what the situation was. Several times during the course of my study, some male regulars would tell me how well I played “for a girl.” Other times, I would approach a small group of regulars who were telling each other jokes, only to be told, “I can’t tell you that joke because I have too much respect for you as a lady.” And even one of the few female regulars once told me “I’m telling you this because I know you can understand. Guys, they just don’t get it.” And yet another female regular’s competitiveness with me was apparent in my interactions with herm or so I was told by some male regulars.
Along these same lines, as a person of color, I have little doubt that race played a role, albeit a small and infrequent one, in some of my interactions. In one such instance, a white regular (J) was gambling against an Asian immigrant regular (L). After a difficult shot made by L, J responded in frustration, “For having slanty eyes, those Orientals can sure see the ball well.” Although I was seated near them at the time, I did not actually hear him. In fact, another regular told me about this later. However, according to this informant, J thought I had heard his comment. Since I was aware that he thought I had heard, I felt uncomfortable and sensed his feeling of awkwardness in the few interactions we had later.
Yet while the gender and race factors enabled me to acquire some data that other researchers might not have been able to obtain, I do not claim the generalizability of this work. Indeed, there is a problem that arises with the female and/or ethnic ethnographer. Woo (1990) in “Maxine Hong Kingston: The Ethnic Writer and the Burden of Dual Authenticity,” discusses the dilemma posed by Kingston’s goals as a writer on the one hand, and by her “responsibility” to describe an authentic or “representative” cultural experience on the other. Similarly, an ethnic, female researcher can encounter the same problem. Woo sums it up by correctly stating that “In a world of multiple realities, there are bound to be different versions of truth, each with a truth value. A full depiction of a social reality requires more than a single perspective. Perception, in turn, is shaped by social location” (1990:191-2). Thus, what I am hopefully offering here is an analysis and a slice of an experience that may or may not be felt, understood or seen by someone else.
Full paper available upon request
 According to Polsky, this quotation has been wrongly attributed to Herbert Spencer.
 Over the years, the meaning of the word “pool” has changed. To the regulars, and to those knowledgeable and familiar with these games, “pool” refers to any of the various games played on the tables with pockets. “Billiards” on the other hand refers to those games played on the tables without pockets. Originally, “pool” was considered pocket billiards, although nowadays, conational use of the word “pool,” however, has come to mean “pool” and/or “billiards.” For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to pool to mean the conventional sense unless otherwise noted.
 One such place was the University of Michigan Union Games Room, where I was employed. Pool classes were available to those willing to pay and were not offered for school credit. The class was taught by a regular, who was known to other regulars as the most skilled player. To my knowledge, he had never had formal pool lessons. Enrollment varied between ten and twenty people.
 See also note 7.
 Actually, there is a dearth of academic literature on the social world of pool. Although it is occasionally referred to in studies of gambling, criminology, deviance, etc., the only major piece on pool I have found thus far is that of Polsky. Consequently, much of the research I have incorporated into this project deals with gambling.
 My observation lasted from August through December. The increase in the number of regulars accounted for may be a result of two factors. First, as I became acquainted with more regulars, I also was introduced by them to even more people. Second, as the seasons changed, the attendance of regulars, who would spend some of their time outdoors during warm weather, started increasing and leveling off.
 A few of the regulars included in my study were people who did not actually live in the area. One such personal lived in a small town three hours away. He would drive into town for the sole purpose of playing billiards, since there were no billiards tables where he lived. He would come into town every few weeks, stay in a motel for a few days, and play billiards for hours during this time.
 Whether or not he actually felt uncomfortable is a moot point. I tell this only to demonstrate how race played a role in my perception of this event.
 I also do not claim its generalizability because of the fact that only one poolroom was observed, and no cross-comparisons were made. While other poolrooms may be very similar in various aspects, there is no way to say for sure without further investigation.