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If you're interested in playing competitive bar pool with the 49-team San Francisco Pool Tavern Association, you need to know only two things. First, teams of five play weekly, best-of-15 eight-ball matches. Second, winning isn't everything, but it's better than being handed a big loser sandwich. Tonight the men and woman (Kara) of California Street's dark, homey Hanauma Bay are hosting a Tuesday Division C match.
2124 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94114-1319
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Leading the competition is Rob, playing for Market Street's Expansion Bar("If you blink, you miss it; if you try to park, you're screwed"). For him, the draw is threefold: "A little bit of glory, testing your mettle, and drinking beer -- a lot of it."
The action gets under way -- picture gorgeous leaves, beautiful banks, and the occasional, deadly eight-ball scratch -- and one fact quickly becomes apparent: Shooting stick as the jukebox blares and nine sets of eyes watch your every move adds an edge to the game. It can make the most skilled shooter choke like Barry Bonds in the playoffs or send a victor back to his teammates in a flurry of high-fives. The Expansion team takes a 4-1 lead before H-Bay evens the score at 5-5. The tension is palpable as Hanauma ace Jesse Jameson (aka "Jesse James") steps to the table. His stroke is as smooth as velvet, his English so wicked it could burn holes in the felt. He puts Hanauma in the lead, then indulges in a round of cue stick air guitar.
"Well, I had to play that way when I was a youngster, because everybody was so good," he says. "I got tired of people taking my money, so I learned to be a hustler."
In the end, the H-Bay rally falls short. Rob savors his victory over slices of pizza while the H-Bay team allows a visiting bar columnist to test his mastery of the cue.
The result? Let's skip that and travel to Clement Street's Primetime Sports Bar, where banks of televisions overlook the 32-team Sunset Pool League's midseason mixed-doubles tournament. The crowd ranges from blue collar to a hipster-esque posse from Haight Street's Murio's, and the competition is a bit less intense than at Hanauma.
"During the regular matches, we want to beat each other tooth and nail," says Ron, who normally shoots for Ireland's 32. "During this, you still want to win, but it's a lot of, "Oh, I just hope I can make it past the first round.' And I like to look at the women."
On the table, couples discuss the nuances of various shots, while bystanders offer insight into the game. Marina says that frequent chalking is the key. Michael, on the other hand, says, "It all comes down to your stroke."
"Be sure you mention my tangerine poundcake," requests Miki, who provided the snacks. Indeed, it's a fine bit of pastry -- moist on the inside, with a crisp, sugary topping -- and takes surprisingly well to a cold glass of beer.
If league pool isn't your speed, head to (among other places) Geary Street's cavernous Edinburgh Castle, where you can tip a pint among dark wood booths or shoot pool on the gorgeous red felt. Here, a group of Scots is schooling Mike and Ray. "They're good. Anybody from the U.K. is good," says Mike. "I get my ass whipped on this table."
Watching the action, Dirk doesn't think of himself as a hustler. "I try to make the ball go in, but probably not," he says, adding that his date has stepped outside for non-pool-related reasons: "She's getting a sweater because her nipples are stiff and she needs to cover them."
In that case, chalk wouldn't help a bit.
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