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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

"I'd look at some of these guys who'd obviously been just stone gamblers all their lives--the life hadn't treated them very well; they look down on their luck," he says. "You realize that not that many people win when they live their lives gambling."

Still, he steadfastly believes that those who want to eliminate gambling from the sport would be ripping out its heart and soul.

"The powers that be are trying to project a squeaky clean image: no gambling. I think that's a big mistake," he says. "Gambling and pool are inextricably linked. Pool's been around for 500 years and through all that time, gambling's been a part of it. I don't think you're ever going to get gambling out of pool. I don't think they should. I think that's what makes it so rich in its culture."

The contrast between the old and new is especially pronounced in Los Angeles, McCumber says, as he compares the old-school, working-class rough edges of Hard Times ("a great action room") with the opulence of the Hollywood Athletic Club, which he describes as "the quintessential yuppie pool room in some ways." But there is hope for the room: He praises the quality of its equipment and is encouraged by the increased action there lately, which he believes is due to the demise of Hollywood Billiards, a victim of the Northridge earthquake.

McCumber's experience as a stake horse was strictly clandestine--only Annigoni and Bucktooth, a fellow Bay Area partner in crime, knew he was a writer.

He figured it was the only way to capture the natural flow of the pool hall. But it necessitated many a sleepless night back at the local fleabag motel, feverishly recounting the day's events.

"I had to stow things up in my mind," he says. "We'd play all night, and I'd be dog tired and I'd have to take notes. And sometimes the dialogue is so beautiful. One of the great things about the subject for me as a writer is that there is a whole dialect to pool that I just found to be so poetic. It was imperative that I get that dialogue right."

Ultimately, McCumber found that his two professions were not dissimilar. "You need to be a pretty good observer to be a good stake horse," he says. "Lots of crazy things can happen. You have to be aware of the money, you have to be aware of the layout of the room, where the doors are, you gotta be aware of what the other player is doing and how he's moving and how your player is playing."

*

McCumber adapted relatively quickly to the nuances of staking--especially after the pair pocketed eight grand on their first stop in Seattle.

"I thought, my gosh, is it going to be this easy? I found out it wasn't."

In fact, on occasion, McCumber felt a bit overwhelmed. "I was an inexperienced gambler gambling with some very experienced gamblers," he says. "For a long time on the road I slept with my money under my pillow because I was so insecure carrying large amounts of cash. I really was afraid I would do something to mess us up. But you learn pretty quickly, and by the end of it I felt like a pretty seasoned stake horse."

By the end he was also a pretty burned-out stake horse. After four months of bad food, cheap motels and erratic sleep, it had become a grind, a job totally removed from real life.

"The amazing thing was how disassociated from my normal world I became," McCumber says. "We were on the road during the Clinton campaign, which I'd been very engaged with before I left for the road. Suddenly, I realized how little it meant to the average professional gambler, how little relevance it had to the life I was living, and that was disturbing. It made me feel cut off from reality."

In the three years since his hustling days ended, McCumber left California for Montana, got divorced and started a magazine. Now he's about to embark on his next project--working as a ranch hand to document another fading traditional culture, that of the cowboy.

Pornography, pool hustling, wrangling--is there a macho pattern developing here?

"My agent said to me, 'I've got you figured out: You write about the stupid things men do.' And I said, 'The nice thing about that is that it gives me a lot of material.' "

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