It’s been nearly 10 years now, but if I concentrate I can still hear the sound of a break shot. There’s nothing else like it. The cacophony of tightly grouped billiard balls exploding apart and smattering about the green cloth like acrylic mice desperate to find a hiding place. They scurry around the table, at first colliding violently, then slowly, almost casually bouncing off each other as if they’ve lost their will. Within 6 seconds of the initial blast, everything is calm. The table, which was moments ago neatly organized, now resembles the chaos of a plane crash – balls are strewn about haphazardly, some huddled together and others off in the corner alone. They seem dazed, like a boxer trying to shake off a left hook to the chin. The only sound now comes from adjacent tables, yours is quiet and still. Nothing is more Zen.
I preferred to play by myself. In retrospect, I see it was a form of meditation. Competition took me out of the moment. It made my hands shake and my heart race. I would make inexcusable errors, and miss important shots simply because they were important. I started to hate myself for being undependable under pressure. I never performed up to my ability when there was something to lose. Failure was all I could think of, and fatalistic imagery causes the muscle memory you’ve spent thousands of hours building, to fail.
Finally all the frustration culminated in one unforgettable moment. I missed a relatively easy shot during a tournament. It was one I had probably made thousands of time with my eyes closed. In anger, I planted my cue into the floor and bent it like a pole vaulter. It snapped in half under the weight of my aggression.
The room fell silent. Other players paused mid shot, stood up straight, and scanned the room to see which one of us had pulled a McEnroe. It’s so taboo that people came over to check on my mental well-being. We all abuse our cues now and then. We unscrew them aggressively and throw them into their case. Sometimes we yell at them (but more frequently at the balls). But it’s a rare emotional fit that causes someone to actually break a $500 custom made Ted Harris stick.
I assured my friends that I was stable enough to be left alone. I apologized to my opponent and the tournament director and forfeited the match. I was embarrassed and humbled by my ability to completely lose my composure in public. I had always gotten angry, but never had I failed so miserably at containing it. I was at rock bottom and I knew that I would probably never play competitively again.
I play now and then in bars where I’m performing comedy, but I’ve only ventured into an actual pool hall 3 or 4 times since that incident. I sometimes pull my case out of storage and inspect my old cues. They feel like iconography of an abandoned faith. Now that I’ve revisited some of the old emotions (both good and bad) that I felt while playing pool, I think I might be ready to go out and hit some balls soon.