In an aura of twilight, pool still cracks

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Crack. Crack.

Even with a jukebox blaring, the sound of balls colliding on pool tables at Zip's Bar & Billiards was the noise that most frequently interrupted discussions at the Dalton establishment last Thursday night. Sometimes, the lack of such a sound was a conversation-stopper, too.

"That was a wonderful break," nine-ball league president Sue Whitcomb quipped after Girls Rule teammate Kellie Plant, a vociferous type herself, skimmed the opening ball cluster.

Errant shots, however, aren't the only reason pool tables are quiet these days. While a table or two may find its way into different multi-purpose businesses throughout the county, old-school pool halls are nearly nonexistent — and diminishing. Casey's Billiards in Pittsfield will close in October, replaced by a medical marijuana dispensary, and Zip's has been on the market for several months, according to bartender Libby Hall. Loyalists of the latter understand the stakes.

"We're trying to keep pool alive here," Whitcomb said.

At Zip's, this effort manifests itself in cash and American Poolplayers Association (APA) leagues as well as the standard 50-cent games on its six tables, which are available at all hours the bar is open. On Fridays, they are free to use.

The APA league is on Wednesday nights and involves travel. Top teams advance to the regional tournament in Northampton with the opportunity to eventually reach the APA's world championships in Las Vegas. Ed Depson, who occupied a bar stool at Zip's while keeping score of another game, has made it to Las Vegas before, at least partly because he doesn't treat any opportunity to play casually.

"I take it all serious," he said, later showing off an APA team captain badge stitched to the top of his cue bag.

At The Viking Pub in Adams the next night, Barb Lesure and Rob Francoeur offered a similar message as they practiced in a pool-dedicated room stocked with trophies. They play in the Wednesday night APA league as well as a cash league on Tuesday nights at the bar, which has three tables in total.

"For them, it's a night out," Lesure said of their Tuesday night companions, "but for us, it's a serious thing."

"My drinking team has a pool problem," Francoeur described it.

Beer was also ubiquitous at Zip's on Thursday night during the nine-ball cash tournament, with players often grasping a Bud Light in one hand and a pool stick in the other. Advertisements for Budweiser and Miller Lite covered walls, a hoppy odor presided and the affordable drafts ($1.50 for a Pabst Blue Ribbon) made having just one feel vaguely insulting. (This reporter had none, earning more than a few puzzled looks.) Bartender Libby Hall had plenty to keep her occupied on this evening, though she's used to it by now. She's a crowd favorite.

"Thursday night's not fun without Libby," Whitcomb said.

Sobriety wouldn't have subdued the trash talking very much. Up in Smoke, the all-male team competing against the women of Girls Rule, won last year's cash league. Kevin Stasiewski was one of the Up in Smoke team members reminding their foes about last year's outcome.

"We're the champs," he said.

That the taunting remained amicable stemmed from the players' familiarity with each other. The Thursday night league has existed in some form for more than two decades and produced its fair share of regulars, according to Whitcomb.

"Most of the people here have been here forever," she said.

Craig Sinanian wasn't one of them. Sinanian recently moved from Portland, Ore., to the Berkshires after accepting a clinical engineering position at Berkshire Medical Center. Though he hadn't played pool since high school, he joined the league this fall after some co-workers mentioned it, making some new friends in the process.

"Everybody's been real welcoming," he said before being pulled into a new game.

The league is looking for more members, particularly some younger ones. The season began the Thursday after Labor Day and will last for 30 weeks, but Whitcomb said people can still show up and play; teams can have as many as eight members and as few was four. Whitcomb also said that the league has organized benefit tournaments in the past, raising money for breast cancer awareness, among other causes.

Cash leagues aren't exclusive to the central and northern Berkshires. South county establishments Bogies Steak & Ale in Great Barrington (three tables) and Michael's Restaurant in Stockbridge (two tables), for example, run weekly games.

At Zip's, end-of-year payouts are based on a points system that also rewards individuals for various feats. The most points a team can accumulate during a given week is four (for winning each matchup). Up in Smoke did just that on this night, sweeping the four contests.

"It's only the third week," Whitcomb said before adding, "we'll come back."


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