Like any other game, pool has its own peculiar jargon, terms like cutting the ball and banking a shot and running english and jumped ball and balance point and feather shot. But even if you've never slid a pool cue between your fingers, never leaned over an expanse of green felt and been dazzled by the glare of light coming off the nine ball, there's only one term you really need to understand.
In pool, everything comes down to the hit -- not so much the sound of your stick driving into the cue ball and setting off a chain reaction across the felt, but the feel -- the little shock wave that reverberates back through the shaft and up your arm and into your heart and gut and brain all at the same moment.
"Oh, what a feeling that is," says Dan Janes in his office at Joss Cues in Towson. "When you shoot a ball in and it hits the pocket crisp and clean, it's instant gratification. You know your whole life is right then, right there. It's such a great feeling."
But even better than the hit, he says, is building a handsome, perfectly balanced cue that conveys to a player all that is right and holy about the hit.
"I do this as well as anybody on earth," says the former Air Force mechanic, who started building custom pool cues under the Joss name in an old Baltimore garage 25 years ago. "Some do it as good as me, but nobody can do it better than me. And I can this far better than I ever played pool."
He'll get a chance to prove that today through Sunday at the American Cuemakers Association Billiard Cue and Collectible show at the Sheraton International Hotel at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where some of the biggest names in American cue design will display their work.
To the uninitiated, names like Leonard Bludworth of Texas, Ernie Gutierrez of California, Bill Shick of Louisiana and Tim Scruggs of Baltimore may be unfamiliar, but in the arcane world of pool cues you could simply substitute the names Rembrandt, Picasso or Da Vinci. If that sounds a little highfalutin, consider that at a recent association convention in Houston, collectors spent $250,000 on hand-crafted cues made from exotic woods like purpleheart, cocabola, pink ivory, and many fitted out with diamonds, rubies and gold.
And while the high-end sticks in Baltimore this weekend may bring prices as high as $80,000 -- from people who will simply put them in a glass case and never use them -- designers like Mr. Janes also produce a more practical, playable cue. Prices for those are still steep, starting at around $250 and going beyond even $4,000.
"It's all because pool rooms are no longer pool rooms," says Mr. Janes. "They're now extravaganzas, million-dollar operations. People who are buying pool rooms are accountants and doctors and lawyers who used to open restaurants. It's happening all over the U.S. and a big part of Europe right now."
A map of the United States hangs over one of the two desks in Mr. Janes' office. "That used to be our territory," he says, shifting his gaze quickly to the larger map of the world framed over the second desk. "And now all of that is our territory."
While steadily growing for the past two decades, the market for the game of pool and especially the near hysterical demand for fancy, American-made cues exploded almost overnight in 1985. That was the year of "The Color of Money," a movie about pool players starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. In the film, Mr. Newman, reprising the role of Fast Eddie Felson that he first brought to the screen in "The Hustler," gives his legendary Balabushka cue stick to the character played by Mr. Cruise. That ornate Balabushka, supposedly made by legendary cue maker George Balabushka, was a reproduction, designed and built for director Martin Scorcese by Mr. Janes.
And while the movie never quite satisfied film buffs, it so whipped up worldwide interest in pool that the game has recently taken hold in Japan, the Philippines and across Europe. It also has helped turn the cue-making industry into a major business. In Taiwan, for instance, cues are mass produced at the rate of 50,000 a month.
Cost of good turns
Concerned about the influx of so many cheap cues, U.S. cue makers recently formed their own association to promote American cue making (as well as to help each other get basic benefits like liability and medical group insurance). Each of these low volume, custom designers turns out only a few dozen to a few hundred cues a year, making special trips halfway around the world to buy choice pieces of wood, and not even starting work on a stick until they have a customer in mind.
"Some people, though, are so impatient," says Tim Scruggs, whose Custom Cues shop is in an old butcher shop in Arbutus. "They think a cue is like a pizza, where you can call up and deliver it in half an hour. It doesn't work that way, not when you're doing it by hand."
Mr. Scruggs, who learned the art of cue making while working for Mr. Janes in the 1970s, says that spending several hundred or several thousand dollars on a good cue isn't so hard to understand.
"It's the same if you ask 'When do I buy a good shirt or a good pair of pants?' " he says. "If it's not a good quality cue, things start to happen to it, just like when you buy a cheap
shirt and the stitches fall out after a few washings. Now obviously you could give some people a two-by-four and they could play all day saying this is wonderful. But the thing about owning your cue is that it's your personality."
Here's your cue
Thus the measure of real pool players is not just ability, but whether the stick in their hands is their own or just a lowly house cue. And yet too much personality on the face of a stick can mask problems, says Leonard Bludworth, president of the American Cuemakers Association, from his shop in Houston.
"The cosmetics end of pool cues has come to be an American art form," he says. "In fact, it's gotten so far out in left field, people just don't understand. You can have the most gorgeous cue in the world and it may just hit terrible. It makes the wrong sound, the wrong thud. So it all starts with the type of leather you use on the tip, right down to the type of density of the wood you use."
While most cue makers use fairly typical lathes and mills to shape their wood, other designers, like Tony Scianella, owner of Black Boar cues in College Park, have invested as much as $500,000 in computer-driven equipment.
Mr. Scianella's son, Tony Jr., recently graduated from Catholic University with a degree in electrical engineering, and designed much of the equipment as his college thesis. The point, says the elder Scianella, is not to turn out pretty cues but scientifically perfect cues.
"We are an absolute nut about the physics of what's going on with the pool cue," he says.
So when he selects wood, he wants to know whether the tree grew on the north side of the mountain or the south side. "Because if it got too much sunlight, too much moisture, the tree grew very fast. And that type of wood produces a different hit."
In Arbutus, Mr. Scruggs agrees that wood can be cantankerous.
"One day you come in and the cue is straight as an arrow," he says. "And the next day you come in and the cue's gone South on you. It happens. Anybody in the business can tell you it happens. They can't tell you why. It's just nature's way of doing things."