In the opening scene of Chalk -- the most recent indie film directed by local Cassavetes zealot Rob Nilsson -- a petty bar hustler walks through a smoke-filled pool hall. The sequence begins in slow motion, thick, druggy, and muted. The character of Jones, played by former Tenderloin "resident" Johnnie Reese, has an unmistakable dope sheen. You can smell him. Junkies have that faint odor. They like smelling themselves, lingering in their sweat, breathing in the residue of their labor. As the founding member of the Tenderloin Action Group -- a production and acting workshop comprised mostly of homeless San Franciscans -- and a former resident in a transient hotel, Nilsson is no doubt familiar with the atmosphere. As a director, he seems captivated by it.
Chalk is filled with tight, shadowy close-ups of all its players. They're oily. Sweaty. Dank. Concurrently oozing desperation and complete submission. But these aren't dope fiends -- not most of them, anyway -- they're pool players. In Chalk, pool is portrayed almost as an addiction. Dorian James -- the slightly unhinged player portrayed by co-screenwriter Don Bajema -- says as much during the tense final game between himself and TC, played by ingenious local actor Kelvin Han Yee: If you're any good at it at all, it just takes over your life. It's under your skin. So, day after day, the years mount up, and what do you end up with? It's a break-your-heart sport. No amount of televised women's tournaments and classy "billiards clubs" can eliminate the romantic, cinematic vision of the seedy dive bar and the potentially violent hustler.
During a stirring improvised monologue delivered by Chris MacDonald -- one of several ranking professionals who worked on Chalk -- the serious shooter's despair is brought to light: No matter how good you are, in the eyes of the world you're still just a pool player. This is a fact MacDonald reiterates over a cigarette outside the Tenderloin Action Group benefit held at Chalkers Billiards Club in the hoity-toity Rincon Center downtown.
"You can be the best in the world and still get diddly for it," says MacDonald with palpable exasperation. "In 1988, I was ranked 17th in the country, and I couldn't even cover expenses. You're forced into gambling, just to get to the next tournament."
But that's how pros are born.
"Nearly everyone on the pro circuit started out gambling," says Billy Aguero, a pro ranked 32nd in the nation who appeared in Chalk and designed the tension-filled game that ends the movie. "That's how you become seasoned. It's the way it is, but gambling is very ugly to me now. You win one night, you lose the next. There's never an end to it."
The soft-voiced Aguero is Chalkers' house pro, and for $40 a pop, he'll teach any fresh-faced dolt how to shoot. Corporate parties, private lessons, and the touring circuit keep him in neatly pressed white shirts and waistcoats, but back in the day, when he was a teen-ager hustling his way across the country with then-girlfriend, now-pro Robin Bell, I am told he was known as Billy the Kid.
MacDonald started playing when he was 10 years old, in a dusty little place on the corner of Telegraph and Durant in Berkeley. According to him, the joint was littered with Hell's Angels, Gypsy Jokers, and very talented players from Oakland. At first, the characters held as much fascination as the game itself. But he was betting on his own games by age 11.
"Watching those people gamble was a very intense experience," says MacDonald. "But it's a really different game now. Pool has completely evolved. It's frustrating that people don't realize it."
Certainly, Chalkers is a far cry from the ratty hole-in-the-wall depicted in Chalk. For this benefit, large curtained windows overlook an elaborate wedding reception in the marble lobby of the Rincon Center. Tasteful lamps hang over 30 regulation tables, illuminating thick carpet and expensive shoes. The well drinks are $4.50, the crowd is white-collar workers by day and well-dressed clubbers by night. This evening, at $25 a head, the crowd consists mostly of people who want to rub elbows with Nilsson -- good-looking movie hopefuls and members of the Tenderloin Action Group -- and a few pool enthusiasts who have come to see MacDonald and Aguero compete -- students, house pros from other halls, and some unrepentant hustlers who served as informal advisers on Chalk.
Aguero gets the action started with a trick-shot exhibition: five balls sunk between four water glasses without spilling a drop; a jump shot over eight balls, through two racks, sinking the 13 and 14 in the corner pocket; a jump shot over one pool stick onto a ramp of two more, sinking the 8 in the side pocket; a 1-ball shot off a stack of chalk, jumping a row of 13 balls, breaking through a rack covered in foil, and sinking the 8 in the corner.
The film crowd is thrilled.
So is Howard Harrison, a regular gambler at the 500 Club who wears his signature powder-blue fingerless wool glove and American flag bandanna under his 500 Club cap.
"I don't usually hang out in halls like this," says Harrison between shots. "No money in it, you got to pay off the pros. In bars, it's just guys off the street." Harrison will say no more while the balls are rolling.