Since this is Pool Awareness Week, I thought I’d write about something I’m quite passionate about: The Perception of Pool.

Pool players gamble. It’s a fact. Everyone, at some point in their pool career, has gambled. Hell, even before I knew what a carom was, I played my friends for a dollar a rack. It’s not going away and it’s an element so deeply embedded into the sport, outsiders rarely know any other way to play the game.

Sadly, in professional pool there isn’t enough money in the tournament circuit (in the United States) to support a pool player, so gambling is something of a necessary evil. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t ways of making it respectable; as there are. Challenge matches have become quite popular lately. These are televised (or streamed online) events, which people will (and do) pay to watch. There are sponsors coming on board adding money to the prize fund. There are referees, commentators, arena-style environments and VIP seating for these events. This is a respectable manner in which to gamble and as such, not part of the problem. If you don’t want to be on a big stage with hundreds or thousands of people watching but still want to gamble $20,000 on a game of 9-ball, or perhaps you just play for $100, $10, $2, whatever – but you aren’t risking your livelihood and you don’t gamble more than you can afford to lose – you are gambling respectably; and thus, are not part of the problem.

The problem is when someone plays pool just so they can gamble on something. I’m sure we all know a couple of people who do nothing but look for action, all day, every day. And not just action; but the right kind of action; action they’re the favorite to win. Sometimes, they’re not the favorite, and even that’s okay too; because they have action. And that’s all they need. They don’t need a car, a job, new clothes, a decent cue, sometimes they don’t even need a place to stay; but they need action.

Okay, fine; have your action. You can even talk about your action, but do NOT try and sell yourself as a stand-up pool player. You are not a representative of what pool needs these days. You are a person with a gambling problem, period. You’re constant nagging for action, begging for weight, turning games down that are too hard and boasting about playing for $10 over 10 hours like some kind of road player are what’s wrong with pool.

Ironically enough, there is a real life road player in town this week, and playing for BIG money. But no one posts about it on social media, no one is complaining about having to give up too much weight, or not getting enough and certainly no one will post the results of the multi-day match-up. This is how you gamble; quietly and only within the realm of your own business.

Pool players need to be respectable. They need to be presentable and honest. They need to change the public’s perception of the game, and consistently reinforce that. Mark Wilson and his entire goal with this year’s Mosconi Cup team selection have been doing exactly that. And it has been so well received that it has spread beyond the limits of the Mosconi Cup. Other pro players are endorsing this kind of behavior. For example, Scott Frost lead a huge campaign for a young boy, Hunter Cole, battling cancer earlier this year. This change isn’t restricted to just players either. Pool rooms have opened their doors to humanitarian efforts, like fundraising tournaments for local charities or special needs kids. Some companies are now following suit, best exemplified by Universe Project’s Mission Statement; and that includes top-rated pro players like Johnny Archer, Dennis Hatch, Rodney Morris and Jennifer Baretta. Even beyond that, in social media, pro players are posting positively charged messages about pool, about the future of pool, about the new generation of pool players.

We, the pool playing community as a whole, are on the precipice of a new era of pool.

So, why in the world would anyone post something as asinine as this:

This kind of mentality perpetuates the stereotype of the ill-fated hustler. This ruins the progress made by respectable organizations trying to drag pool up from the seedy underbelly in which society had [rightfully] placed it decades ago. This kind of glorification of irresponsible behavior is killing everything the rest of the pool world is trying to do.

To quote Scott Frost, “It’s not 1965 anymore!”. In this one, simple image, the poster has just undone a year’s worth of clawing out of a hole that pool has been anchored in for decades. Sure, it’s a funny phrase; and it’s fine to say to your friends in private or a particular room; but it has absolutely no place in the public facade of pool. It portrays a person who admits they have a problem; someone who likely has lost all of their earthly possessions at some point due to gambling (why else would someone want to help them by calling the hotline); and yet, this person is requesting more money to continue gambling.

Also embedded in this image is an age-old style of bravado: Bet Something! One might as well call the viewer “CHICKEN!”. Those two statements are equally juvenile and only hurt the image of pool. This image disguises yet another known issue: that of the “Alpha Male”. The implication being that one must prove themselves; and this can only be done by risking everything on a high stakes bet. [sarcasm]Because, surely no one can play as hard or as fierce without having their house on the line. [/sarcasm]

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with gambling. There’s nothing wrong with adding something to the outcome of a match. Players like to challenge themselves and they like winning something more than the last game of a set. But how it’s done matters greatly. How you gamble matters. How you present yourself as a pool player matters. People who are good action, will typically always be good action, and able to find quality action. What that means is if you are a respected gambler, someone who wins gracefully, loses gracefully, gambles responsibly (relative to your financial standing), and pays their debts then you are good action. However, if every time someone tries to make a game with you, it takes longer figuring out the terms and gathering the money than it does to actually play the match – then you are not good action. You are a problem; a hassle that people will only deal with once or twice before realizing it’s just not worth it.

People who are good action can be good for pool, they generate a buzz amongst the players and can draw spectators to the event. People who are bad action sometimes get more buzz, but it’s all negative press; and in this case, there is such a thing as bad publicity. It’s this unfortunate consequence that continues to spread the negative reputation of pool. The horror stories about people in gambling matches having guns drawn on them, getting robbed in the parking lots, and other negative outcomes tend to get more press than “Joe Smith won his $2,000 match, shook hands, bought his opponent dinner then left without incident.” When ideally it would be the other way around.

There is good news for pool, however. The younger generation, for the most part, are being brought up in respectable establishments, with respectable goals, driven by honor and integrity, not machismo . The work of Mark Wilson and the Billiards Education Foundation are the two most notable contributions, on a national scale, to this effort. They are enforcing these quality traits in their members, and inspiring known players to change the way they present themselves to the world. Just in the course of this year I’ve witnessed a regional player transform from gambler into a respectable, professional pool player. It has been quite a privilege to witness. The social media posts from a year ago compared to today are worlds apart – and the pool community is better for it. The other followers of this player are seeing a positive example and I hope are taking notes.

The time of the chest-pounding pool player, grunting his successful swindle for all to see is coming to an end. I, for one, give an excited round of applause for this exit. It was an enjoyable story time, but it’s over now. This is the time of positive pool. This is the time when the community can prepare itself for public consumption. This is the time when pool needs to position itself so that it can start competing with larger sports. It needs to do this if it ever hopes to have a chance at getting big company sponsorships. If pool wants to bring on Pepsi or Budweiser or Nike, it will need to be presentable and respected by the general public. We all want to have events with millions of dollars in the prize fund, this is how we start to build those opportunities.