Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't hate the game, hate the idiot who didn't even try

Nicaraguan bar pool!

The closemindedness of some people is exasperating. On 3 separate occasions, here in León, Nicaragua, fellow travelers have negatively commented, unsolicited, on the local rules without having even tried the game:

"Any game which allows intentional fouls is stupid" --British asshat after watching 45 seconds of two Nicas playing
"That's just not the right way to play pool" --German p.o.s. upon hearing the very first difference in the rules
"In REAL pool you get 2 shots after a foul" --Australian nit who had obviously only ever played Blackball pool.

The few travelers I have met who did try the game more than once have commented very differently:
"I'm going to show people how to play this in California" --American hippie
 "It's my favorite cuesport variation" --Longtime foreign resident of León
 "The tactical implications are very interesting" --French non-player with a keen intellect

  Today I present you Nica rules 8-ball, called "Pool Ocho".

At first glance the game ressembles American 8-ball. The equipment is identical. You are shooting either stripes or solids, and the 8 goes in last. The similarities end there.

Key differences:
  1. The 7 and 15 each have a designated side pocket. If you make your 7 or 15 in the wrong pocket, it gets spotted back up and you lose your turn.
  2. Hitting no balls is a foul. If you hit an opponent's ball first, they have the option to set the shot back up and have you shoot the shot again. If they choose not to have you shoot it again, you must remove one of their balls.
  3. If you foul, you must choose and remove one of your opponent's balls. If they are on the 8, you lose the rack.
  4. There is no "must hit a rail after contact with legal object ball" rule. You can just roll up behind one of your balls and just touch it. No penalty. Common shot.
  5. There is absolutely no stigma against playing defensively (unlike most bar pool across the world). This makes it easier for serious shooters to enjoy the game socially.
  6. Scratching results in loss of turn, but is not penalized by removal of opponent's ball (unless rule 2 also applies to the shot)
  7. Jumping is not allowed. Flamboyant massé shots are not allowed, but you can sneak in small curve shots without reprimand.
  8. If you sink one of your balls and one of your opponent's balls in on the same shot, your ball gets spotted, their's does not, and you lose your turn.
  9. Until the groups are determined, the only way to make a legal shot is by first contacting the 1 ball. Failure to do so is NOT penalized in any way. At first I thought this was strange, but you get used to it.

 The Rack:

Note: I have also seen the 7 and 15 racked where the 12 and 2 are in this diagram

I managed to film one of the hundreds of racks I've played. Here it is, with annotated explanations.

Here is another rack, this one very different.Watch for the numerous intentional fouls. Also, an epic fail of a forfeit at the end.

All age groups enjoy the game here.
People start playing at 8am, and drinking shortly thereafter
At this bar/restaurant, the pool is FREE (although there is a sign up that says it's 20 US cents per DAY, I've only been charged that once), and it's winner stays on. The level of play is generally quite high compared to what you'd find in an American bar. You can count on multiple railbirds enforcing the rules at all times, the game is taken quite seriously. No gambling (but you can find gambling at any actual pool hall in Nicaragua). As I have been "stuck" in León for some time now, this place has become one of my favorite places in the world to play competitive social pool. There are however some major drawbacks to this bar/restaurant so I won't name the place here. You can find it easily if you do come to León; feel free to contact me for those details.

Interruptions, obstacles, and other annoyances are an accepted fact of life here. Just deal with it.

My huge room. Private bath, free wifi, smell of fresh baguettes in the morning, $14/night :)

Experimental billiards photography (30s, iso 100, f/32)

Jack, best cook in Central America according to several sources.
Haven't tried them all yet, but he's excellent.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Antigua, Guatemala. It was time for a break..

View of the Volcano of Water, from the hotel terrace
I arrived in San Salvador 2 days ago, after sunset. San Salvador as a rough reputation, having been crowned Most Dangerous City in the world in 1992, at the end of the civil war which ravaged the country for 12 years. While Guatemala was no walk in the park security wise, I was under the impression El Salvador would be worse. But like I tell my Mom, due diligence goes a long way towards staying safe - this includes lots of reading and general travel experience. You can avoid risk by knowing where you are and where you are going, geographically and culturally, and by following simple guidelines that, in the end, only vary slightly from place to place.
The famous Arch in Antigua
When I arrived in Guatemala in early July, it had been a full year since I had started my trip. I needed a break, so I spent 3 weeks relaxing in and around Antigua, a beautiful small city at the foot of the Volcano of Water. I only played pool once. I spent most of my days there practicing guitar (bought one there for about $40) and conversing with other travelers. I made many contacts there, and got some recent information about traveling trough the rest of Central America. The geographical and cultural knowledge of your average hippie backpacker in Guatemala would put any NBC Olympic commentator to shame (obviously). I found myself discussing subtleties of language distribution in Central Asia, methods of crossing the Darién Gap overland, negotiation norms in Botswana, and other fascinating topics. You do also meet the occasional crazies as well, and there are some people for whom it is a total wonder that they made it as far as Antigua.
It was also super nice to be able to spend more than a day or two with the same people. In the past year, I've hadn't had a chance to spend much time getting to know people face to face, and although FB, Twitter, IM etc are really great tools for keeping in touch, there is nothing like having a conversation that lasts more than a week and making true friends in the process.

Kids in the small villages around the volcano
I didn't stay in Antigua for the whole three weeks - I had time to visit the villages around the city and the volcano - many of these villages are almost 100% Maya, and the locals do still wear the traditional dress and believe in the peculiar mix of pre-columbian, catholic religious, and conquistador legends which color the local customs. See Maximón.
I also took 20 hours of Spanish lessons, in a colonial building with a courtyard generously shadowed by a huge avocado tree. I figured I needed to brush up on that language before continuing on my journey South. Learning Spanish again has come at the expense of my ability to easily codeswitch to Italian from my other languages, but I am confident I will get that back too if I ever spend time in Italy again. My German, English and French are safe, however.

Lakeside lunch in San Pedro de la Laguna
I also got to spend a couple of days around Lake Atitlan, an aesthetic marvel of volcanic geomorphology. Aldous Huxley said : "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
I climbed the San Pedro volcano along with a friend, and the view of the lake from the almost 10,000' summit was truly a wonder.

View from the summit of the San Pedro volcano

Although I don't have pictures good enough to post, one of the very best restaurants I've ever been to is in Antigua. Hector's, an unsigned affair near the Iglesia de la Merced, with its 6 tables and tiny kitchen, did not disappoint. Using French cooking techniques along with local ingredients and its own twist on traditional dishes, this little jewel of a restaurant with its perfect atmosphere and presentation made me come back for a second visit to celebrate my last evening in Antigua. It is worth going to Antigua just for a meal here. An equivalent meal in the US or Europe would run you at least $100/person, but here about $25 with wine and starters. 

The San Pedro volcano viewed from San Marcos, across Lake Atitlan

Anituga itself is sort of in a bubble - being a Unesco World Heritage site, and having so many Spanish schools, it is the safest city in Guatemala by a long shot. However, you don't have to go very far before encountering real danger - just the Volcano of Water, for example, is heavily discouraged to climbers - the locals say there is a 95% chance you will come back naked due to bandits, if you can even find your way up - or back down. I heard several stories of people being robbed on buses and public places, and even much worse - basically anyone putting resistance up to an armed robbery gets killed on the spot. But again, simple guidelines followed, you will get away shaken up but alive.

I promise to write about El Salvador very soon. I'm actually heading out to a pool room right now :)

Found this guy on the very summit of the San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan, with view of the Indian's Head - can you see it?

View of Antigua and the Volcano of Water, from "The Cross"

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Toronto - Billiard Tourism North of the Border

From NYC, I rode the Greyhound to Toronto.

I visited two poolrooms in Toronto.

Le Spot Billiard Lounge

From the website :  (anything in purple is directly from the website)

A BRIEF HISTORY of the Academy of Spherical Arts and the building that houses it reads like an outline for a short story.
In 1890 the 38 Hanna Avenue (now #1 Snooker Street) address was assigned to the original four-story building. Over the years, space was added and in 1905 the Brunswick Balke Collender Company bought the building and began manufacturing billiard tables, cues, balls and all manner of accessories (can you see it coming?).
In 1910 the company bought Canada's oldest and largest manufacturer of billiard tables, the Samuel May Company, making them the undisputed king of Canadian billiards. In 1959 the company moved its operations to Cooksville, Ontario, and the building lay fallow until its rescue in the late 1980's.
Serious collection of whisky
In September of 1991, the Academy of Spherical Arts opened with what is now the Samuel May Room. The facility was expanded in 1995 with the John Brunswick Room, and again in 1997 with the Georges Chenier Room. As a millennium project, in the fall of 1999, the Academy undertook the construction of our newest addition, La Belle Époque. Today, the Academy occupies 20,000 square feet, approximately one sixth of the old factory.
It is a poetic and comforting thought to know that many of the billiard tables, cues, balls and scoreboards that were handcrafted here decades ago have returned at long last to their place of birth.
All's right with the world.

The Samuel May Room :

Part of the Samuel May room
Our current bar, built in 1998, is fashioned from steel, copper and wood. This bar was custom designed by Rick using British Columbia fir shipped to Ontario in the 1920's. It was stored in a barn near Glen Williams, Ontario for some seventy years before being used to hold the vast array of Academy libations.
One of the Samuel May tables
Four of the billiard tables you see in this room are original Samuel May and Co. tables; they range in age from 100 - 130 years old. They are fine examples of Samuel May's Manufacturing excellence and keep Canada's billiard heritage alive.

The room features Kind Edward's personal snooker table, on which I played for free thanks to Foursquare :

King Edward's personal snooker table

Woodwork worthy of a King's table

The John Brunswick Room :

The billiard tables and accessories found in this room were all manufactured in the building. They have returned home. The bar was built in France at the end of the 19th century, and the stained glass lamps that light the bar are early 20th century.

The George Chenier Room :

zOMG mustard felt
As a billiard factory this area of the building would have been the busiest. It was the loading dock. All finished products came to this area to be shipped across Canada. The external windows in this room were loading doors and under the carpet you will find quarter inch steel plate floors necessary for the movement of slate and heavy table frames.
This room was opened in 1996. The idea was to provide space for smaller groups and create an intimate warm atmosphere. The large interior windows give the room an airy feel and also represent a significant part of Toronto's history. These windows were part of the now demolished Massey Harris factory on King Street at Strachan. Massey Harris was the largest manufacturer of farm tractors and implements in the first half of the 20th century. So in a small way we've brought together work and leisure under one loading dock roof.
Since the first two rooms of the Academy were named after the foremost Canadian manufacturers of billiard tables, it was only appropriate to recognize one of Canada's greatest players, George Chenier.

 There was also a last room called La Belle Epoque, but it was off-limits as they were in the process of renovating it :(

 I leave you with a few more shots from the Academy. The employees at this establishment were very happy to show me around and tell me history and anecdotes about the building, its furniture, and its tables. I highly recommend going to take a tour, shoot on some antique tables, sample some scotch, and have a delicious juicy ribeye with asparagus and gnocchi as I did!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Koalas and 3-cushion Billiards in New York City

Erie, Pennsylvania - one o'clock in the morning. The bus is already 20 minutes late. The station is closed; I'm outside trying to keep warm. A taxi pulls up and drops off a very small man with one suitcase and one backpack. He approaches me and mutters something completely incomprehensible. I pull out a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, crack it open and offer him some; I mean he was really skinny. He asks something again, and this time I understand a bit better: "What time the bus is?"
I answer in my most neutral traveling English, "Twenty minutes ago".
I'll spare you the impossibly language-barriered exchange and summarize.
 The guy is from Thailand, FOB. His name is Ski. He looks like he is 13 years old but is probably 20 or so. He arrived a couple of weeks before with a visa and a job aligned at a spa somewhere in the vicinity of Erie. He didn't like the job, "boss no good". He quit. He had heard from someone, somewhere that there was a spa in *NO IDEA HOW TO TRANSCRIBE WHAT HE SAID* and another person told him the bus went there, leaving at 1 am from Erie.
 I try to explain to him gently how screwed he is; he seems to get it. You can't buy tickets on the bus. The bus is not going where he needs to go. It's -5 deg. C outside and he has a light jacket. He does not have a place to stay in Erie; he burnt bridges at the previous job; he doesn't have cab fare or any money really to get back to warmth. I started telling him that it's too cold to sleep outside and he could consider calling the police.
After much back and forth, I figure out that he wants to go to a small town in the Pocono Mountains, clear on the other side of the state. He has been grossly misinformed, or there has been a communication failure. The only bus leaving from Erie was the one to Buffalo, which I am taking on my way to NYC. That bus is not going anywhere near his destination. He was hoping to be at work in the morning. He does not have a bus ticket, and the station is closed. He is visibly hungry, and freezing his tiny frame to death in the early April winds of Erie midnights.

 An old SUV comes screeching around the corner. A guy in a wifebeater and leather jacket gets out of the driver's seat. He's drinking Pepto-Bismol straight from the bottle. He's in a GREAT mood for some reason. Possibly drunk, but likely some other type of substance abuse. He walks up to check the bus schedules which are posted next to the window. When he sees Ski, he says "You're still here? From this morning?" and Ski mumbles something which I understood to mean "No, I went somewhere but came back when I was told the bus would leave here at 1." The Pepto-Bismol dude, in spite of his confidence and good mood, does not radiate trustworthiness. Rather, just plain weirdness. He gets back in his seat, rolls down the window and says, "Com'on guys, get in my car, warm up for a bit." I ignore him, and Ski notices this. Ski goes back and forth looking at me and Pepto and finally goes and opens the passenger door. He pokes his head in, mumbles something inaudible. Then I hear an incredulous Pepto say very loudly, "What? You want to come sleep at my house..." and then "You don't have any guns do you?" and finally, "Alright hop in". I help him get his luggage in the back and wish both of them luck.
I have no idea how Ski will go forward from there. He's out of money, doesn't know where he is going, probably doesn't really have a job lined up the way he thinks he does. I won't even go into whether his visa is still valid if he just quit his previous job etc.
 So they went on their way, improbably connected. Good luck to you, Ski!
 The rest of the trip was uneventful, with stops in Buffalo and Syracuse in the middle of the night.

My main interest for coming to New York, was to visit two very famous pool rooms.

Carom Café

3402 Linden Pl
Flushing, NY 11354

1 718.358.8585

Located in Queens, this room has housed most of the best American 3-cushion players for the last decade or more.

11 Full size, heated 3-cushion tables
2 Korean 4-ball tables (8')

20 Full size American Pool tables

3 Full size Snooker tables

6 ping-pong tables

This has got to be one of the best places in the world to play 3-cushion. An employee vacuums the table after every game. They are super well-maintained, as you would expect from a place owned (from what I understand) first by Sang Lee, and now by Michael Kang. Regulars include Pedro Piedrabuena, Hugo Patino, Ira Lee, Sonny Cho and many others.

I watched a lot of 3-cushion, in particular Ira Lee and Hugo Patino who are practice buddies.
I played a game of Uniards with Hugo Patino, who had never played the game. It was a blast. He would get all excited about certain shots, saying something like, "Oh, I ALWAYS double kiss THIS one!" Turns out he would play the game by placing an imaginary red ball on the table and figuring out which normal 3-cushion shot would habitually kiss double-kiss the white ball after 3 rails. Interesting. Ira Lee validated that it was the technique he also used when playing Uniards.

Vacuuming the tables after every match

Korean 4-ball table (8', unheated)

Sonny Cho (L) and Michael Kang watching the NCAA finals

Hugo Patino

Ira Lee

--Geological Interlude--

One of the reasons behind my decision to cross the North American continent overland was to be able to observe firsthand some of the most beautiful geology in the world, in particular in the American West. Although you may not think of New York City as being particularly interesting from a geological point of view, I was convinced otherwise by one of my favorite blogs, Friends of the Pleistocene (Twitter : @Geoturn).
The Friends of the Pleistocene explore the interactions of humans with the geological, often in a poetic, artful manner. They did an entire series on New York City - one of my favorite posts explores the geology behind the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. As a member (yes, I am a paying member of fan club of a particular geological time period), I also received a nifty booklet - New York City is a Geological Force.
You can expect more pictures and possibly some stories about geological goodies in future posts.

--End Geological Interlude--

Delicious Manhattan Indian food with fellow traveler and awesome person (hi Lana!)
The following day, it was time to visit Manhattan and meet up with a traveler I had first met on a bus in Norway who had recently moved to the City. We had a great time discussing language, music, food and a myriad of other subjects over some great coffee and then Indian food. After that, I walked to Amsterdam Billiards.

Amsterdam Billiards
110 East 11th Street
New York, New York 10003

Phone: 212-995-0333

25 Brunswick pool tables
Ping pong, darts, foosball, pinball, and beer pong.

Mika Immonen playing at "home"
Home to Mika Immonen, player of the decade, and to several other touring pros such as Jennifer Baretta and Tony Robles, this room came with high expectations, which... were not met, unfortunately. The space is terribly cluttered, and the low ceilings do not help. I realize this is Manhattan and space is at a premium, but the plethora of support columns, brass barriers and railings, chairs and tables, and tight walking corridors are not my idea of a great place to play or watch pool.

Cluttered space, low ceilings... not my favorite type of poolroom

Redeeming quality - 3 pinball machines!

  I left Amsterdam Billiards a bit underwhelmed but with awesome plans to go see my favorite DJ in a concept art gallery/concert performance in Brooklyn :)

Kid Koala

Melodic Turntablist
Artist, sculptor, cartoonist
One of the most creative people in the world
My favorite living musician

As part of a launch series for his new comic and soundtrack, Space Cadet, Kid Koala happened to be performing in Brooklyn while I was there. I had seen Kid Koala in concert many times before, in Baltimore, New York City, Tennessee, and probably other places too.
Kid Koala is not your traditional disk jockey. He is the only person I know that can create a jazz trumpet solo by changing the speed of records, juggling 4 turntables live with a signature, mature yet lighthearted sound.
PvP Pinball!
The show started with a cocktail/gaming hour on the upper level, overlooking the stage. He and his wife had created many arcade-type games that guests were invited to play in order to try to win lottery tickets used to enter drawings for free stuff during the concert. Games included PvP pinball, "turn your face into an asteroid", and plenty of other little creative installations. There was also lots of art and sculptures, including an intriguing little garden of alien flowers, and various electronic music creation instrument hybrids such as a voicepiano and TVurntables.

After some sangria (made by Kid Koala himself), guests were invited to go downstairs and don wireless headphones - this concert was played at your own volume. It was actually interesting to remove the headphones during the concert and observe a dead silent theater full of hip young concert goers sitting on giant beanbag rolls, rocking out calmly to the best DJ in the world.

The giant beanbag roll concert pit, seen from the art/gaming gallery

Kid Koala spinning in his koala suit, as he does.
I had won a few tickets playing the games, and sure enough one of my numbers got called during the show and I won a copy of the new Space Cadet comic w00t. 

Next stop, Toronto. Stay tuned.