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The Heart of a Hustler : An outlaw culture? Sure. But one writer also sees a seedy grace in pool halls.

February 13, 1996|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David McCumber is about to kiss $500 goodbye. And there isn't a damn thing he can do about it.

He sits helplessly next to the man to whom he has entrusted his wad of cash: Bay Area pool hustler Tony Annigoni, who is deadlocked at 10 games apiece in a "race to 11" of nine-ball with local pro Israel "Morro" Paez. Paez is a flashy player cut from the look-good-play-good cloth--he wears slacks and a cream silk shirt, a stark contrast to Annigoni's jeans and loose-fitting polo shirt.

Not only is Paez one of the best players in the country, he also has the home-turf advantage--Hard Times Billiards in Bellflower. Paez needs only to sink the 6 in the corner pocket and he's home free. Easy. A shot he's made a million times.

Paez lines it up and lets 'er rip, adding mustard to the shot with a bunny hop. This time, however, he misses. The partisan crowd of about 30 in the grandstand above table No. 9 (the "Minnesota Fats" table) collectively groans.

Like a predator smelling blood, Annigoni leaps from his chair, chomping his gum feverishly as he surveys the situation. Just like that, it's over. He picks up Paez's table scraps and voila! he and his partner have doubled their money. McCumber quickly grabs the cash that's stashed atop the worn, wood-covered light above the table and says, jokingly, "It was never in doubt."

Spoken like a grizzled gambler. But McCumber isn't really a pool hustler; he just plays one in his new book, "Playing Off the Rail: A Pool Hustler's Journey" (Random House), a diary of his four months crisscrossing North America with Annigoni in 1992, during which McCumber served as his "stake horse," investing in his game for a piece of the action.

The book is a revealing account of the 43-year-old writer's immersion in an outlaw culture torn between its sleazy, notorious past and a sanitized, upscale future. McCumber describes the characters, hustles and magic of the game with a seedy grace that combines a journalist's eye for detail with a literary penchant for maximizing drama. The images McCumber leaves us with are both romantic and tragic, reflecting a joie de vivre similar to Hunter S. Thompson's wild ride with the Hell's Angels nearly 30 years ago.

"My hope was to make people stop and think about more than the surface of the game, and look at the underlying beauty of it," McCumber says, sitting on a plush sofa upstairs at the Hollywood Athletic Club.

*

McCumber developed "road fever" when he was a teenager in the late '60s while hanging out at the Stag Tavern in Sidney, Neb., his hometown.

The pool hall "was the cultural center of town if you were male," he says. "It was forbidden fruit for a kid--it smelled like a bar. It smelled like smoke and stale beer. I'd go and see all the old men when they were playing. It was just a huge part of my life."

At 17, McCumber won 40 bucks staking a visiting road hustler. There was no turning back.

"I absolutely fell in love with it," he says. "Those dark, beautiful colors and the way the balls rolled and the elegance of the tables. There's just something intoxicating about it."

Still, he waited 22 years to satisfy his hunger for the life of the traveling gambler. After a long career as a journalist at several newspapers throughout the western United States ("Someone once said my resume looked like a Greyhound bus schedule," he jokes), he wrote a book about the porn industry's notorious Mitchell brothers.

While looking for another book project, McCumber, a self-described "method writer," met Annigoni at his pool hall in San Francisco. It didn't take him long to realize that he had found his next subject.

Annigoni didn't fit the profile of the typical pool shark--he doesn't smoke or drink, follows a macrobiotic diet and studies Eastern religion. He is, McCumber writes, "a Renaissance hustler."

But that was the whole point. By staking Annigoni, McCumber figured he would encounter the usual suspects on the road. He wasn't disappointed. For example, in Chicago they ran into a character named Curtis, who was such a compulsive gambler that he would bet the money in his pocket on a coin flip.

"I couldn't believe that guy," McCumber says. "He's absolutely on the square. That boy's got a lot of gamble in him." Curtis, McCumber adds, is currently "in the slam."

The hustlers McCumber describes in his book are larger-than-life figures, with monikers like Waterdog, Three-Dollar Sam and Amarillo Slim, that personify the "It's better to win money than to earn it" ethos. To many of them, such as Bucktooth, a millionaire ex-con jeweler whose mouth is nearly as big as his game, pool is merely an end to a means; what matters most is the gambler's rush, the mind games they play before the first rack is broken.

*

Even McCumber was not immune. In the book, he describes the feeling of laying down his first stake, on a table in Seattle, as sending "a galvanic jolt through me stronger than any drug."

As time went on, however, McCumber came to his senses.

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