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May 03, 2000|EARL GUSTKEY

Title: "Playing off the Rail--A Pool Hustler's Journey"

Author: David McCumber

Price: $25

Publisher: Random House

Tony Annigoni, much to the dismay of the padres at Serra High in the Bay Area, excelled at only one subject--pool.

In fact, writes McCumber, midway through Annigoni's high school years, Tony had become an "eighty-ball runner" in San Mateo-Burlingame pool halls. That put him, McCumber writes, in the "shortstop" category, a player good enough to beat all but the very best local players, but not yet a threat to pros.

Annigoni's high school academic record was "horrible," McCumber writes, but adds his subject was finding greater educational nourishment at Town and Country Billiards in San Mateo. There, his real teachers were sharpies named Mexican Phil, Ears, Legs and Filipino Gene.

McCumber watched Annigoni's pool skills grow, then was struck by a book idea: Stake this kid to some money, take him on the road, and write about it.

"Backing a pool hustler was certainly a more interesting proposition than taking a flutter with a new tax-free municipal," he wrote. "Security and prudence were never on my top five."

The result is a well crafted look at tension and high-stakes games in the pool room, of train stations, wonderful pool-hall characters and long bus rides. McCumber writes well of the game, as in this description of a big-money game at Amsterdam Billiards in New York:

"Witnessing talent on this level is a rare privilege. When straight pool is being played correctly, a rhythm develops, not too fast, not too slow, the cue ball rarely traveling more than two or three feet from shot to shot. Tony was carving up rack after rack with surgical precision, clearing lanes to the pockets whenever he could, breaking the clusters of balls apart, but not so hard that they scattered down the table, moving from shot to shot like a drill sergeant scrutinizing soldier after soldier, lined up awaiting his attention."

And this, to describe how insulated shooters are in their own world:

"Reading about Saddam Hussein becomes subordinate to finding out who Mark Tadd beat out of three thousand last week in Florida, or how Toby Flaherty in Las Vegas is playing a ball or two better than he used to."

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