\o7 The pool hall regulars gather by the railing, a few gamblers make side bets, the bartender turns down the television and the old man and the Gypsy begin shooting pool.
The games are close at first, and the two players seem evenly matched. But their style is decidedly different. The Gypsy, wearing designer jeans, white shirt unbuttoned to the navel and a purple vest, is cocky, effusive and frequently winks to his "stake horse" to let him know the game is under control. The old man is conservatively dressed in slacks, brown loafers, tweed hat and is poker-faced throughout the game.
As the match drags on into the second and third hour, the Gypsy, almost imperceptibly, alters his game. He grows slightly impatient and occasionally loses concentration and rushes his shots.
\f7 But the old man is an inexorable force, growing stronger as the hours pass, knocking in ball \o7 after ball, never changing expression or altering his stroke.
At midnight, the Gypsy's stake horse pounds his hand on the bar and yells: "Wake up!" Forty minutes later he runs out of money and the match is over.
\f7 There are a few pool hustlers in Los Angeles who shoot straighter than Robert (Rags) Woods. There are hustlers who use the rails better or have a stronger break. But Woods, 64, has one distinction that sets him apart from the majority of his younger colleagues--he makes a living with a pool cue.
Many fine players must work in pool halls or take day jobs to supplement their hustling. Woods is one of the few hustlers in Los Angeles who can afford to play pool full time.
Woods knows exactly how much weight (advantage) to give an opponent in order to secure a game. He knows when to keep the stakes low and when to raise them. He avoids the few players who are on his level. He never wins by much, but he always wins.
"There is a difference between a pool player and a pool shooter. And I," Woods said, pausing and drumming a forefinger on a table, "am a pool player. This ain't no game with me. It's my business.
"I won't play a guy if it's a 50-50 proposition. I stay away from those players whose game is as good as mine. I only play when it's 75-25 in my favor. Some of these young guys can't do that. They have that big ego and have to prove something to everyone in the pool room. If I still had that ego . . . I'd be working 9 to 5."
Woods views pool hustling as a full-time job. Most weekdays at 11 a.m. he stops by the House of Billiards in Santa Monica and plays locals and the occasional out-of-town hustler searching for action. He spends afternoons at a pool hall near downtown Los Angeles, returns home for dinner with his wife at his central Los Angeles condominium and then checks out the evening action. After about three months, a poolroom "plays out." The locals finally discover that they cannot win, Woods said, and he searches for another spot and another cast of opponents.
Big-money games are rare at Woods' regular weekday spots. But they provide a steady source of income--he asks that exact amounts not be mentioned--and keep him "in stroke" for the lucrative weekend games at a bar in Bellflower where the top road and local players gather.
Woods has slowed down during the last decade. He rarely goes on the road anymore, does not like to play all night and has had to quit smoking cigars--once his trademark--because of high blood pressure. And the Rags of 64 does not "pocket the balls" as quickly and as cleanly as the Rags of 34. But Woods--who was once considered one of the top players in the country and was known for his sweet stroke--is still a formidable opponent.
"I got to use knowledge and experience to compensate," he said. "These younger guys make those long, hard shots and everybody cheers. But I don't want a lot of green on the table; I don't want that cue ball to travel a long way. I handle the cue ball and get it in the right position. I don't care about the cheers. I'll take a bunch of easy shots, bore the people watching half to death . . . and end up with all the cash."
\o7 In a dim corner of a pool hall on a weekday morning, Rags slumps in a chair and waits for a game. Wearing a tan overcoat and carrying a cue case under his arm, he looks like a commuter with an umbrella waiting for the bus.
When a game breaks up, Rags lays his overcoat on a chair, grabs his cue with the maple butt and inlaid mother-of-pearl shaft and says: "I've got a tune to play."
He walks over to a man in his early 20s and asks: "Hey kid, you got time?"
"I got time," the kid says.
The game is nine-ball. The match is a race to seven--first player to win seven games takes the cash. Rags gives the kid a three-ball advantage and the break.
It is Rags' first match of the day and he moves around the table a little stiffly and has trouble finding his stroke. The players exchange the first few games.