Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Phnom Penh nights, custom tables, and the gaming culture of Cambodia

Phnom Penh traffic, minutes before I was drenched in monsoon rain on the back of  a motodup
Cambodia struck me with its apparent contradictions :
- Some of the most impressive historical sites in the world, and a disturbing recent history that appears unacknowledged from within.
- Extreme wealth side by side with poverty
- Tourists come to Phnom Penh for the genocide rubbernecking, stay for the raging nightlife

As soon as I arrived, greeted by the famous and ubiquitous Khmer smiles, it was obvious that the people here loved taking their minds off of the numerous difficulties they face, in particular through a wide appreciation for games of all sorts. These games include Makruk (which they simply call "oh" here), an acient relative of chess as we know it, and people do play it everywhere... Tuk-tuk drivers waiting for their next fare, kids at the market, they all love playing.
After being convinced by other tourists, I did go visit the genocides sites including the S-21 prison and the killing fields. It was worth it, and I guess I would recommend it, although I still do think some people go there for  morbid emotional stimulation and I'm not really sure I'm cool with that.
One night, along with another American I had met and traveled with from Koh Chang, we were looking for some bar to go to and had hopped into a tuk-tuk. Riding through the center, I saw a sign : "HOWIES BAR - FREE POOL" and immediately ordered the driver to stop.
The pool table at Howie's which some would characterize as a gaff table
We walked in and were greeted by a horde of girls behind the two tiny bars inside the tiny place. They were all playing games, with tourists, with locals and with each other. Connect 4, and a strange little game played with dice were the big hits. They would play the tourists "for a drink", but of course when the girls would win they would order the most expensive drink on the menu, which did not contain much alcohol at all. No giant worries, though, because that drink was still only $2.50.The girls simply never lost, though, so if you have too much pride you will windup leaving with a very light wallet!
Clearly a customized table!
Walking from the connect-4 bar 5 feet, I bumped in to the pool table, with its uncommon (to be polite) lavender felt. I played a few games that night, pick-up pool with a whiteboard list on which to write your name and wait your turn, winner-stays-on style. The pockets were enormous, the balls rolled relatively true given the looks-like-it's-been-through-several-wars state of the felt. However, there was definitely something unusual about that table, and finally I figured out what it was : the table was not proportioned normally - it was too skinny! About 2 inches were missing from the short rails! That night I played a few games and we went back to the guesthouse relatively early after a full day. I wound up staying in Phnom Penh for over a week, after having met some very cool expats living in the city. I came back several times to Howie's bar, and met Howie himself on one of those nights. Turns out he had worked for Boeing in Seattle, and that's where he fell in love with pool. He told me all about his table...
He cut 2 inches off the short rails because the 7-footer was too wide for his bar. He built and added a ball return system to the original drop-style pockets, and he widened the pockets in order to increase the speed of the games so that his customers would keep interest and to even out the chances, giving more people a chance of winning. Although I like tight pockets for practice, I think these customizations are what made this table so enjoyable for simple bar pickup pool.
Another thing designed to speed up the games were the house rules, which differed from the Phnom Penh and general South East Asia regular rule folklore (for a later post). This is what he had :
  • The game is 8-ball
  • Fouls result in ball-in-hand, anywhere on the table, for the opponent
  • The table stays open till you make a called shot
  • No defensive shots allowed (Howie clarified to me that not all defensive shots are illegal, only the ones where you slowly push the ball with no chance of messing up)
  • You have to make contact with a ball of your group
  • There is no rule regarding touching a rail after contact (making the no defensive shot more of a necessity)
  • Any foul while shooting at the 8-ball is a loss
  • Part of the homemade ball return on this unique pool table
Howie does know the "normal" rules for American 8-ball, but put these special rules in place again to accelerate the play, and make it simple for weekend players to enjoy the game in a competitive sense, and I think these are overall a great set of rules for that purpose - and yet the game is still a lot of fun for more serious players.

I really enjoyed Howie's, the great staff he had, who were friendly and quite skilled at their gaming craft, Howie himself and his great stories, and the general atmosphere in Phnom Penh. If I ever go back to Phnom Penh, and I hope I will, I will stop by Howie's and try my luck at staying on the table as long as I can! Go and pay a visit to Howie next time you are in Cambodia!

One of the ball rackers at Howie's bar, along with Howie's son