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New York's Chelsea Billiards: Last Home for the Hustler : Games: Sharpshooters can still pocket a fast buck in this dank, old-fashioned pool joint. It's a scene out of Hollywood.

April 07, 1993|DAVID RYNECKI | COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK — They come with names like Skeeter, Spanish Eddie and Blood.

Surrounded by framed photographs of the legendary Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, they are the ones with the steady hands covered in blue chalk dust who stalk a table with surgical maneuvers, rarely looking for the reaction of an opponent.

When they stroke the ball it is not the overpowering, macho smash of a novice. Their touch is gentle, barely a physical effort.

Some say the hustlers are dead. But at Chelsea Billiards, in Lower Manhattan, they gather nightly.

Carrying finely made cue sticks in leather cases, they enter the room one by one. They give the joint the once-over and walk to the center table, where a small gathering watches two of the best players in the house.

The scene is pure Hollywood.

"The first time I walked into Chelsea Billiards I recognized it," says John Lewis, programming director for the Billiard Congress of America, a national organization based in Iowa City. "It's just like 20 years ago, when I used to gamble. You walk in at 2 a.m., and you've got to get past 20 hustlers."

Since the 1986 box-office smash "The Color of Money" turned pool into a yuppie craze, billiard halls around the country have taken on a new look.

Gone for the most part are the dank and dingy, linoleum-floor pool halls with flashing neon signs. They could not keep up with changing times. Famous halls such as Julian's and Ames are gone, replaced by "nouvelle" pool, where well-dressed men and women socialize and shoot a few leisurely games of stripes and solids.

There are fewer and fewer rooms for sharpshooters to find a fast buck, Lewis says.

"Most upscale billiard rooms have no need for hustlers," Lewis says. "Most of the time they don't want to pay $10 to $15 for a table and they can scare off customers."

Although it is a product of the new trend and is barely five years old, Chelsea Billiards may be one of the last places for hustlers. While many of the patrons may know more about how to fit an Armani suit than how to hold a cue stick, Chelsea has achieved a clientele that blends accomplished and recreational players, Lewis said.

"We don't get trash in here," says Rolph Laube, a night manager. "We do get many players who know their game and want to shoot for money. Big money--$500 a rack."

The sharks often go unnoticed to the average patron as they prowl on the sidelines, waiting for the unsuspecting sucker, called a fish or a guppy, to agree to a relaxed game.

"Hey, you want to shoot some, just for table time?" they ask.

As sharpshooters watch from the sidelines or practice alone at a corner table, they are oblivious to the sounds of a couple giggling over a missed shot and a cue ball sent flying over the rail.

"This is a great place to come with a date," says Fred Pollack, a 28-year-old salesman who stopped by with his girlfriend.

Three tables away, a group of four men, impeccably dressed in oxfords and slacks, stand watching as the Fat Man, a rotund regular, sets his pudgy fingers upon the cue stick and applies his smooth stroke, knocking the cue ball into the four ball. It careens off three rails and finally sinks into a corner pocket.

"Damn that's fine shooting," says one man, as the shooter picks up a few loose bills.

The hustlers keep their distance from the couples, but not from the regular flow of young men venturing for the first time into the 55-table room.

"However it started out, Chelsea has turned into one of the last action rooms," Lewis says, referring to the legendary pool rooms where scenes from the 1961 film "The Hustler" happened almost nightly.

The sharks gather, hoping for action.

"Look, look at the fish, that fish is mine," says Brent, a barrel-chested man dressed in jeans and an old sweat shirt. He likes to sit on a bench fronting the two main action tables and scan the room for pretty girls in fur coats and the occasional chump who will accept his offer of $10 or $20 a game. "That fish is never going to leave. He just doesn't know."

But the fish doesn't bite, this time.

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