Monday, March 15, 2010

PoolSynergy 5: Pool and the Sporting Life

This is the fifth in a series of posts written in coordination with other online pool writers. It's part of the Pool Synergy project hosted this month by Alison Fischer at NYCGrind. Look for more PoolSynergy installments in the future.

I note with interest the on-gain and off-again debate about The Action Report, which, as many of you know, is that online site devoted to high-stakes pool gambling. Founded by Justin Collett, The Action Report (better known as "TAR"), streams gambling sessions -- sometimes very expensive gambling sessions -- featuring our sport's top players.

The question is this: is glorifying gambling good for pool or bad for it?

“There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to this,” writes the anonymous blogger responsible for the online Pool Cue News and Review. “One camp will tell you that all TAR is doing is embracing what pool has always been. The seedy side of pool has a reputation for gambling and TAR is simply putting it up on a pedestal. The other camp will tell you that pool is a sport that should be recognized as such and the only way it will find its way into the mainstream (and the Olympics) is if the industry sheds its seedy reputation.”

It’s a fair question, and a particularly appropriate one considering our PoolSynergy topic this month. In case you haven’t been following along, PoolSynergy is a collaborative effort between online pool writers, each of whom agree to post essays on a single theme. Our topic this month is “Pool and the Mainstream,” which I take to mean: “How will pool ever gain legitimacy with the mainstream media and the general public?”

And this takes us back to the question of TAR, a website devoted to what many would deem the seedier aspects of pool. Does glorifying gambling help promote our sport, or does it harm its image?

Although the Pool Cue News blogger doesn’t come down one way or the other on this question, he does note that TAR's market strategy is not much different from the one employed by the city of Las Vegas. That is, Las Vegas gave up trying to promote itself as a "family-fun" destination -- that clearly wasn't working -- and instead now promotes itself for what it truly is: a city where you can go gamble.

I also won't come down one way or the other in this debate. But I will provide this bit of historical context. Know that pool's conflicting duality -- that is, the tension between respectability and tawdriness that is illustrated in the TAR question -- has been with the sport always. The game may have began as a pastime for nobility, but it soon migrated to the public rooms, where it then became a favorite of “blacklegs” and ruffians.

Even the term “pool” refers to the gambling "pools" that were commonly operated in 19th Century parlors where one often also would find a billiard table. As historian Mike Shamos points out, it was a linguistic misunderstanding -- that is, the habit of calling these betting parlors “pool rooms” -- that gave our sport its very name.

Brunswick later tried to clean up the sport’s image by attempting to change its name to "pocket billiards.” But like the attempt to project a family-fun image for Vegas, this really didn't take. As anyone who plays in an APA league knows, we’re pool players, not pocket billiard players.

There was also a great hue and cry over the release of The Hustler, a film that did more to bring our game to the public's attention than any single cultural event of the last 50 years. And yet thematically it's focus was exactly the focus of the TAR website: pool gambling. Willie Mosconi, who served as a technical adviser for the film, got an earful from his friends in the industry after its release. They thought the film would wreck the sport. Instead, it sparked a decade-long renaissance.

Likewise, the most watched pool match in history – the Great Shoot-Out between Mosconi and Minnesota Fats – embodied the tension between these two very different faces of pool. Mosconi represented its clean-cut image. Fats represented the gambling. The ABC broadcast had ratings commensurate with some World Series games. I would argue that it was this very tension between the sport's gambling image and its clean-cut one that helped propel its ratings.

Younger readers who have never seen The Hustler should do so immediately. It’s great. And if you're interested in looking at footage from the Great Shoot-Out, I have some posted up here. There's also my two books, Hustler Days and The Hustler & The Champ, that deal extensively with these questions.

So, do outfits like TAR -- that is, those who would romanticize pool's sporting life -- provide for us a way forward? Or, given the general apathy exhibited by the public, should we move away from this image as we look to bring our sport into the mainstream? I think these questions are among the most important for our sport.

-- R.A. Dyer


jbiddle said...

One of the things I liked about your books was the way you tell the story without either romanticizing it or denigrating it, but just tell the stories in a way that put me there. You left making up my mind to me.

Markus Hofstätter said...

Thanks for your views about this topic. I wrote also about that topic and I think if it is done official and the right way it will help pool.


Michael Reddick said...

Nice article...well balanced and factual. I think some of the points you make align with GG's article. The consumer wants to see characters and make a connection. It's not just about skill.

Justin Collett said...

Thank you for your well reasoned and written opinion Mr. Dyer. I have a great deal of respect for your work. TAR is about the action side of the game of course but I like to think we are more than that.

No one has done as much coverage of the high end custom cue scene as us as well as streaming traditional events like the WPBA, US Bar Table Championships, and the upcoming US Open 10 Ball. To me personally I could care less about someone "hustling" or trying to steal the money through deception.Frankly if I never heard the word hustler again I would be a happy man.

TAR is about the best players in the world in one on one matches. I believe this format is the only way forward for the sport in this country. People have to care if someone wins or loses, root for a guy they like or against one they don't. It really is no secret it is as old as time. People want the drama of a contest.