My family went to a neighborhood pub for burgers the other night and the kids ended up getting a lesson in how to play pool. A couple of strangers taught my kids, 13 and 9, how to play pool in the back room of Dougherty's Irish Pub in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore.
Whenever a domestic disaster strikes our household -- such as whenever there is nothing in the house to eat -- a plea goes out from the kids to eat at the pub. For a long time I thought the reason the kids wanted to eat there was the pub's thick hamburgers topped with bacon or blue cheese. But the other night I discovered another attraction. Shortly after placing their orders with the waitress, the kids quickly headed toward the pool room.
The pool room and the pub had recently been relocated, moving about 50 yards down Chase Street from their former location. The old pub was a dark, smoky structure with a separate side entrance, which years ago was used by ladies who preferred not to enter through the front door and walk past the bar. In the old place, the pool table was on the second floor, up a narrow flight of stairs.
The new pub is bright and airy and all on one floor. The new dining room has overhead fans and shiny tile floors, and the feel of a family restaurant. I followed my kids to the pool room, now right behind the dining room. You wouldn't confuse the pool room with a library, but it, too, had a pleasant air. The pool table was being used, but the foursome of three men and a woman invited my sons to put their names on a nearby chalkboard, guaranteeing they would play next.
When it was the kids' turn to play, the two young men who had won the previous game volunteered to team up with my sons, and to teach them the basics of the game. That was fine with me. I play pool but not correctly.
As my wife and I watched our offspring pick up the pool cues, I had feelings of both melancholy and alarm. Our "little boys" were growing up. Instead of playing with blocks, they were now shooting pool with strangers. This sense of melancholy was quickly mixed with a sense of danger. Once the kids learned to play this game, I told myself, they would become slackers. They would forget their household chores, and as Robert Preston warned in the musical "The Music Man," they would leave us stuck with "a cistern empty on a Saturday night."
This fear passed. Instead of heading down the road to degradation, the kids were simply learning how to play a game. My wife and I watched the pool players for a few minutes, then went back to the restaurant and enjoyed a quiet meal.
Later, I learned the kids were lucky to find an open pool table. Pool tables in pubs all around Maryland are virtually in constant use. Action at the Irish Pub is especially heavy late at night, said Bill Dougherty, the owner. That is when waiters, waitresses and bartenders from downtown Baltimore restaurants drop in after work, he said.
Moreover, I learned that on weeknights the state's pubs and pool halls are packed with male and female players, competing in leagues. Maryland is a hotbed of interest in amateur pool, said Terry Justice, who heads the Bud Light Pool League of Maryland. The league, sponsored by the beer maker and administered by a staff of seven, arranges weekly matches for teams playing in locations from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. The 600 teams make it the largest pool league in America, Mr. Justice said.
In addition, a league in Southern Maryland, also sponsored by Bud Light, has about 350 teams. The amateur players, who usually range in age from their early 20s to late 40s, are given a skill rating. A player with a seven rating, the highest ranking, should beat a player with the lowest rating, a two, by five games, he said. Gambling is forbidden.
Pool leagues run all year long but the big tournament is this weekend. Championship teams from around the state are competing at the Green Room Billiards in Dundalk to determine who advances to a national competition in Las Vegas.
Reading last year's list of teams that made it to Las Vegas gave me some feeling of the pool hot spots around the state. Last year's championship teams were from the Little Falls Tavern in Harford County, the Red Rooster Lounge in Northeast Baltimore, the Hudson Street Cafe and Hub's Pub, both in Fells Point, the Avenue Tap in Dundalk, Baltimore Billiards in Dundalk, the Fishbowl Inn in West Baltimore, Barnacles in South Baltimore, Doobies Lounge in Cumberland and Sonny Mac's Tavern in Denton.
Despite the popularity of pool leagues, some tavern owners, like Dougherty of the Irish Pub, don't join them because they don't want their pool tables tied up with league play.
The other night the kids were so enthralled with pool that as we went home they were plotting ways to get a pool table installed in our basement. So who knows, maybe 10 years from now, the game that they first learned during a visit to a neighborhood pub will earn them a trip to Las Vegas. If that happens, I will let them go, of course, provided they first fill up the cistern.