Just a couple of decades ago, Donna Sasges's favorite pastime would have been the object of raised eyebrows and disapproving glances. Even today, the 30-year-old Edmonton schoolteacher says, "some people think it's kind of shocking." But none of that stops her from indulging in her newfound pleasure: the sweet science of billiards. Sasges played pool as a kid - her parents had a table in the basement - but her adult career really began three years ago, when she read about a new billiard league and signed up. "I got put on a very interesting team - with some biker women," she laughs. Still, Sasges stuck with it - and since then, the league has grown from 100 teams to about 350, with more than 2,200 players. "It's an affordable sport," she says. "You can go have a beer, and have a lot of fun with friends. And it's a stress-reliever."
Gone are the days of Fast Eddie Felson, the no-good huckster portrayed by Paul Newman in the 1961 film noir The Hustler. And if he were around today, the Music Man who warned of "trouble in River City" in the 1957 musical would probably be talking about crack cocaine instead of pool. Billiards - long the object of moral opprobrium and dire warnings about wasted youth - has become downright respectable in the 1990s. Now, rather than a way to make easy money or to display testosterone-charged competitiveness, billiards is a social event - open to men and women. According to the Billiard Congress of America in Iowa City, Iowa, billiards is now the third most popular recreational sport in North America - right behind bowling and basketball. "You can sit down, relax, have a beer and a bite to eat," says Cheryl Larson, manager of Yankee Doodle, a Calgary sports bar and billiards hall. And unlike bowling, she adds, "you don't have to change your shoes."
To be precise, billiards is the generic name for any table game played with cue and ball. The most popular manifestations of the game, which originated in France during the reign of Louis xi, have their own histories - and attractions. In Canada, the dominant game has long been snooker, an intricate test of strategy created in India in the 19th century by British military recruits known as Snookers. Pool, by contrast, is an American game played on a smaller table with larger pockets and balls.
In bars and billiards halls across Canada, eight-ball - played on the smaller American table, where one player or team has to sink striped balls, the other solid - is replacing snooker as the game of choice. "People are playing the American pocket billiard games because they're easier," says Rick Williams, general manager of the Academy of Spherical Arts Inc., an upscale Toronto billiards school and restaurant. "For many people, it's a great way to get started. But as the pros say, eight-ball is to snooker what checkers is to chess."
One of the reasons for billiards' popularity, Williams adds, is the relaxation of liquor laws in the past few years. "It used to be that the best you could do was get a pop and a bag of chips at the pool hall," he says. "In Ontario, they thought that if anybody had a cue in their hands and was drinking, they were going to end up breaking it over somebody's head." Larson says that the game has taken on a "more upscale, bar-oriented atmosphere. Women feel comfortable in those surroundings."
Many women are also dead serious about the sport. On a recent Wednesday, Sasges and fellow players Laura-Lea Thompson and Debbie Nousek drove the 280 km from Edmonton to Calgary to shop for pool cues - they heard they could get a better deal than at home - and then stopped in at Yankee Doodle for a friendly match. "It wasn't until they started cleaning up the pool halls that I started playing again," says Thompson, 40, a stay-at-home mother who played at her grandfather's house as a teen. "Now, they call them billiards halls, and you can go to most of them and feel comfortable." At Halifax's Q Billiards Club, which for almost 50 years has occupied a wing of the Masonic Hall downtown, manager Brad Smith also notes the change in clientele. "At one time, you would rarely see a woman here," he says. "But if you come in now on a Friday or Saturday night, possibly half the people in the place are ladies." Pool has also become a dating game. "A lot of people prefer to play a game when they go out, and the dance craze is over," explains Doug Simmons, Calgary-based vice-president of the amateur Players League of Canada. "And women love the sport, which attracts the men."
For other participants in billiards' renaissance, however, the attraction lies in the game itself. At the Academy of Spherical Arts, Allan Kazmer, a retired Toronto advertising executive, recalls the time 30 years ago when he lost $18 to a shark at Shorty's Pool Hall in his home town of Detroit. After that, his passion for snooker waned. But three years ago, old friends gave him a custom cue for his 50th birthday - "and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I remember that.' " Cue in hand, he began frequenting the Academy, and now he plays three or four times a week. "It can be a magnificently graceful game," says Kazmer, pointing to a nearby table where the resident club champion - a young man in jacket and tie - is skilfully manoeuvring balls into pockets. "He beats me nine out of 10 times," Kazmer whispers. "But when I do win a game, it's truly a victorious feeling."
Maclean's April 24, 1995