Reductio ad absurdum: Latin, meaning "reduced to the absurd." From the Greek eis atopon epagoge, "reduction to the impossible." A rhetorical technique used throughout recorded history in mathematical logic, philosophical reasoning, and informal argumentation. The idea is that if something becomes absurd when you take it to the extreme, it makes the same notion suspicious even when it's less extreme.
Okay, I promise not to write a Guide to Buying Pool Tables. I realize my "other" obsessions are invading TOP rather a lot these days, and that not very many people are interested in my thoughts about pool tables. Vintage audio, maybe; jazz, of course (everybody loves the jazz); coffee, most certainly: everyone in the world drinks coffee, except Ctein. And nobody minds when I write about my dear doggie, because not liking dogs is a serious character defect that most people would not admit to even if they secretly felt that way. But pool? An acquired taste. Even I know that.
But I think there's an insight somewhere in the area, and I'd like to chase it down if I may. It's even pertinent to photography, kind of.
I've been dealing with three stupid little letters—"pro"—all of my life as a photographer. The idea the term signifies is that a "professional" uses a certain product and that therefore that product is very serious and impressive indeed, and your chances of being ridiculed for using it are minimized. Everyone seems to want to be like a "pro." Everyone wants to be thought of as serious and impressive. Nobody likes to be open to ridicule, much less be ridiculed. Slap those three little letters on damn near anything and people apparently will flock to buy it, regardless of what it is.
In many areas of life, you kinda can't object. It does seem absurd to me every so often: GM has a line of rebranded Chevy trucks called "GMC," for instance, that use the advertising tagline "We Are Professional Grade." Um...what? Struck me as stupid (and lazy on the part of the marketing department) when I first heard it, and still does, but then, people do use pickup trucks for their businesses, sometimes—for instance if your business is gardening or laying concrete, or carpentry, when you might need to transport building materials. I have a cousin who's married to a concrete guy, and he's a cool guy. So, okay.
In photography, I was alive when the "big shift" occurred in amateurs' aspirations: when I was a boy, the pinnacle of photography was the globetrotting photojournalist; that's what all the amateurs admired the most and wanted to emulate. By the late '80s or early '90s, it was the professional, someone who made a lot of money doing jobs for pay. A long client list became the ultimate bonafide, rather than editorial tearsheets from newspapers and magazines.
I could never really object to the idealization of the "pro" in photography. I'd much rather be an amateur, which seems hugely more appealing to me. But if you want to buy a pro safelight, or a pro point-and-shoot, or a pro camera bag, or a pro lens, or a pro widget or a pro gizmo, fine, be my guest.
But in pool? Really?
Seems to me this is where the universal allure of the term "pro" descends to absurdity. Who wants to be a pro pool player? Think about this for a minute:
- To be a professional pool player, you pretty much have to spend your days playing and practicing pool. The really good guys practice up to 12 hours a day. That means you're effectively closing off your life to pretty much everything else. Is that really desirable for most people?
- You can't make a living playing pool. Well, a few people can, but it's really hard. There are something like 42 "Pro" tours, and none of them have any money. Even some fairly large tournaments have first prize purses of three or five thousand dollars. And even some very good players work hard at it and barely scratch out an existence. Not one in a hundred Americans can name the biggest, most presitigious tournaments. Not one in fifty Americans can name the best pool players in the world. Ask around.
- Then there's that seamy underside. Everyone who's ever seen either of the two major pool movies, "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money," both with Paul Newman (and both of which had a major influence on the popularity of the game) knows about "hustlers," people who travel around trying to make a living by betting with other pool players in local pool rooms. Becoming a "pro" in this sense is roughly as prestigious as aspiring to become a small-time hood.
- Try this on for size: "Dad, Mom, I've decided to quit college in order to follow my dream. I really want to be a professional pool player." Would you glow with pride? Even Willie Mosconi's parents were dismayed and appalled when they realized their son was going to pursue pool as a career.
In short, there's very little glory and very little money in being a "pro" pool player.
But does that stop amateurs from wanting to emulate the "pros" in pool as in every other sport?
Many home pool tables have nasty, narrow little pockets that are hard to hit—they're "tight," in the parlance of the game. Why? Because pros prefer tight pockets. There are many reasons why: practicing on a table with tight pockets will improve your aiming skills, and playing on a table with tight pockets tends to separate really good players from not-quite-as-good players. Both are things that pros like. Therefore, amateurs want tight pockets too, just like a duffer will tee off from the he-man tees even when he can't drive the golf ball two hundred yards from anywhere on his best day.
But for amateurs—occasional players who don't practice as much as an hour a day—they're not only unnecessary, they're actively undesirable. Why? Because pocketing the balls is only half of the game. The other half is "playing for position," i.e., controlling where the cue ball ends up for the next shot. Tight pockets merely make it harder for occasional players to pocket the balls (or "pot" them, as they say in Great Britain), thus reinforcing the notion that the entirety of the game is pocketing balls. And de-emphasizing position play even more than it's already de-emphasized. If you miss your shot, it doesn't matter where the cue ball ends up.
I say, make the pockets on home tables looser and people will have more fun playing and learning the game.
But no, we can't do that, because it's not what the pros would do. And we all have to be like pros, even if we only play stripes-and-solids once a week on Saturdays while drinking beer.
Same thing with fast cloth. Everybody is all impressed with fast cloth because that's what the pros like. Never mind that it makes the game harder to enjoy for 99.5% of the people who play it—like summer weekend golfers playing on glass-hard, ultrafast U.S. Open greens.
The abbreviated version
Okay, so I lied: here's my micro buying guide—three things to look for in a pool table, sez me:
- Relatively loose pockets, so you can make more shots and concentrate a little on the position game.
- Closed rails. Here's one area where we should emulate the pros, who all play on closed-rail pool tables such as Diamonds or Gold Crowns...and yet we don't. A closed rail is a rail that encloses the pockets. The majority of home tables are open-pocket designs because they're more decorative and more traditional, but closed rails make it easier to bridge over the pockets. On an open-pocket design you have to make your bridge on the pocket itself. Closed-pocket tables aren't as pretty, but they're more playable.
- Regular cloth. Don't let the dealer upsell you to a superfast cloth like Simonis 860 because it's supposedly "the best." It's not; it's just fast, meaning the ball never stops rolling. Again, it's what the pros want—but who cares? It's not what the rest of us will be happiest with. We want to be able to have some idea of when the cue ball will come to rest without needing the feel of a Bustmante.
I know nothing I say will ever keep the primates from wanting to ape "the pros." But if I never heard that word again in the context of product marketing, it would be fine with me.
"Open Mike," the editorial page of TOP, is a series of off-topic essays that appears only, but not always, on Sundays. This one could have been a lot longer, so count yer blessings!
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bryan Willman: "It's worth noting that in 'pro' woodworking shops, machine shops, welding shops, etc., the equipment is often simpler, more brutish, and much older than 'amateur' stuff. This is often economics (the stuff has to pay for itself; there's not a day job somewhere else paying for it). Sometimes it's operational (fewer features means fewer things to break.)"
Speed: "Part of the allure of Porsche automobiles is their racing heritage. Porsche makes really fast professional race cars that accelerate, turn and stop frighteningly well. But a Porsche race car would be a horrible thing to drive to work every day. Which is why the Boxster has relatively loose pockets, closed rails, a heater, air conditioning and a killer radio."
Mark Sampson: "The great Irving Crane made his living by selling Cadillacs in my home town, Rochester N.Y., while also being one of the best pool players of his time."
Mike replies: Interested parties can actually see the famous 1966 U.S. Open online at YouTube. It's a thrilling match, very unusual and entertaining—after a short safety battle at the beginning, Crane runs 150 and out for the Championship.
(They are playing 14-1 straight pool. The game is that you can shoot at any ball but you have to call the pocket, receiving one point for every ball pocketed. Then you leave the last ball on the table and the other 14 balls are racked; you then pocket the last ball from the previous rack while simultaneously breaking the new rack. First player to achieve a predetermined number of points—in this case 150—wins. In this match the referee is calling most of players' shots for them so the crowd can hear.)
I had never actually seen this match before, although I have read about it. The video quality is poor but it's still great to watch.
Manuel: "Much rather be an amateur? And rightly so. 'Amateur' derives from the Latin 'amatore,' which means 'lover,' or 'the one who loves.' Can't think of a better word to define the enthusiasm for photography."
Jona: "Pros can ruin a lot of hobbies. You should ask Grant Petersen about how much impact it has had on bicycles. Most bicycle companies assume everyone wants to race or train rather than just have fun and the vast majority of new bicycles you see in shops reflect the racing angle. If you are just looking for a bike for exercise and fun, you may have a really hard time finding something practical in your local bike shop."
Vern Ogren: "One should never assume that everyone shares your view. I am one of those 'seriously flawed' personalities who does not have a positive view of dogs. As a child I was chased and bitten by dogs. The neighborhood I live in is well served by barking and loose dogs. There is seemingly no escape from these incivilities. Add a little goo on the shoe from someone's dear doggie and it's clear winner for 'I love dogs'? I have very much enjoyed everything about your blog except the dog stuff. An annoying skip-over for me."
Mike replies: Vern, I was of course speaking tongue in cheek. I'm aware that most people don't share all my views and even that a great many people find something or other on the blog that is annoying to them. Ctein hates it when I write about sports! And he and I are even now, because I don't like IR photography. It's always something.
Dogman (partial comment): "Even when I was a 'professional grade' photographer, I wanted to be an amateur. Being professional meant having to work at it, being an amateur meant enjoying it."
Karl: "You don't have to be a great player or an aspiring pro to appreciate a good fast cloth. If you play on different equipment and in pool halls, and if you don't have a good cloth on your home table it becomes noticeable and eventually a bit of a problem. Speed control is a big part of the game, so you might as well have your equipment be consistent.
"The other thing about having a table at home and practicing is that in pretty short order you'll clobber your friends and relatives, and it's no fun to hide your skills to save their feelings. So if you love the game and play regularly, you'll end up looking for some competition, which tends to be at pool halls with tables that have faster cloth and tighter pockets...."