Growing up in Metropolis, Illinois, all Buddy Hall ever wanted to do was play pool. Hall was a pool professional for more than 50 years. He’s winner of 67 majors, 13 world titles, a five-time player of the years, and member of three halls of fame, including the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. These days, he’s retired … or, at least semi-retired. He’s slowed down, but says he can’t keep away. Angela Hatton caught up with Hall at a tournament in Murray.
The name of tonight’s game is 9-ball. A few dozen players are scattered around four tables in a dark back room pool hall. They blast the white cue through balls arranged in a diamond pattern on the table. The goal: sink the balls one through nine in number order, stacking up points for every ball sunk. Sink the 9-ball at any time … game over. Players go several rounds before yielding the table to the next two in the tournament.
Buddy Hall sits at a table in the corner, waiting his turn. He stands out, a big man, and the oldest in the room, and the other players give him a deferential respect. Hall started playing at 15, picking up the game from his uncle. As a teenager, Hall would skip school to go to the local pool hall where he swept floors in exchange for time at the table, because he was too poor to pay for it out of pocket.
“That’s all I wanted to do is play pool. Heck, I had loved it so much I didn’t get interested in girls until I was about 18," he said.
The 67-year-old Hall learned by watching other players and trying out the way they did it. If it worked for him, he kept it up. If it didn’t, he dropped it. He was 17 when he won his first tournament.
“It paid 500. That wadn’t bad for a 17 year old kid back then.” “What did you do with the money?” “God knows, I don’t," Hall said.
Hall practiced constantly. He’d throw balls out on the table, sink them until he missed one, and start again. He got good fast, winning tournaments around the country.
“I just worked hard. I played a lot of pool, and I wasn’t playing like it was a job. I was playing for the fun of it because I loved to play. It wasn’t for the money, it wasn’t for anything. It was just for the ability to play. When I saw somebody that played better than me, my goal was to play better than them. And I accomplished that in a lot of times," he said.
Hall says he’s seen many good players. They’re systematic. They aim from good positions and make good shots.
“But a great player is somebody that comes with something extra, that he’ll have shots that other people don’t see, but he does. And he’s able to go that one step farther," Hall said.
Brian Steele’s new to tournaments, and he plays with Hall in Metropolis.
“Buddy’s taught us all a lot, about the game, and what we didn’t even know we should be paying attention to about the game," Steele said. “Pool’s a game of chess, of decisions. Man makes best decisions wins, in life financially, and on the green.”
"Green" meaning pool table felt. For example, Steele says before he met Hall, he was trying to sink every ball. He didn’t know about “missing correctly.”
“A bank shot’s 60/40 odds. So that’s not high percentage," he said. "If you miss it correctly, it’s 100 percent odds that they’re probably not going to beat you when it’s their turn again, and then you get another chance, even if you miss.”
The number of people playing pool has risen dramatically since Hall’s early years. The Billiard Congress of America says the game almost died out in the 60s and 70s because of pool halls’ poor reputations and more interest in outdoor activities. Upscale pool rooms caused resurgence in the 80s. Now more than 12 million Americans play pool regularly, according to the 2012 USA Sports Participation Survey.
Steele has his own theory about the popular rise. He says in Hall’s day, the only way to learn was to make mistakes, but these days Steele’s generation goes online to look for techniques and strategies.
“We all, I guess, essentially cheated, and run a CD off and didn’t pay for it, in a way with the computer. And I don’t know if that’s wrong, but we’re learning a lot a lot easier than what them good ole boys did. That’s why there didn’t used to be so many of them. Not many guys spent that much time, and then they wouldn’t share the information because they wudn’t gettin’ paid,'" said Steele.
Hall’s turn to play comes up, and he racks the balls, and hits the open break, sending them skittering over the green. He loses the first game, and wins the second. But tonight’s not his night. Hall finishes the tournament middle of the pack. He calls the loss “terrible,” but he’s played long enough to not let it get to him.
“As long as you play the game, you’re going to pay your dues. You’re going to get good rolls, you’re going to get bad rolls. You’re going to miss shots, you’re going to make shots, as long as you play the game," said Hall. "So there’s no such thing as, ‘I’ve paid my dues.’ Long as you play pool, you’re going to keep paying your dues.”
For Hall, there’s always another tournament, and another chance.