One of my favorite books is Jon Bradshaw's criminally overlooked 1975 masterpiece Fast Company. In it, Bradshaw explores the sometimes seedy but always colorful world of the professional gambler, a vocation that has gained some legitimacy through the popularity of televised poker and the cinematic rendering of a famous blackjack card-counting team's exploits.
In Bradshaw's day, this was the realm of the hustler — fast-talking and even faster-thinking gamblers who used their wits, and sometimes outright cheating, to make a profit off squares in card games, proposition bets or, most famously, pool halls.
While the days of Minnesota Fats and Titanic Thompson are long gone, there remains a gritty mystique associated with that era that can still be found in modern pool halls. If you'd like to bet a round of drinks on a game of 8-ball, you'd better get to practicing, and I know just the place: the Crooked Cue.
This Clearwater pool hall is friendly and doesn't intimidate the novice, but it's got gear serious enough for skilled players — the local APA and CPPA leagues shoot pool there, as well as other amateur leagues.
There are 11 tables at the Crooked Cue, eight 9-foot regulation Gandy tables and three high-end Diamond tables. The Diamonds have slightly tighter pockets, and thus require a little more skill to play on. Either way, these aren't the beat-up, ratty tables you put quarters into at your local dive; these are full-sized, well-maintained tables that you rent by the hour.
This hourly fee — $4 per player, per hour — allows you to really get some work done if you aim to build up your chops, but it's also a good price for you and a friend to get some serious play in. And should you really want to invest in your playing, the Crooked Cue's pro shop sells a variety of professional cues and accessories.
In terms of atmosphere, this is a classic pool hall, if a bit more well-lit and clean than most. The interior is a large and wide open, populated by rows of pool tables, a few high-top tables and little else. Near the entrance is a long bar, and this is where the Crooked Cue has a selling point away from the tables — the drinks here are inexpensive, and the selection isn't bad. The advertised special, which I recommend, is for a pitcher of Cuba Libre for just $8.50. A pitcher!
While pool is undoubtedly the name of the game here, the Crooked Cue also offers a few classic games, such as darts, cribbage and my favorite, backgammon. One of the chapters in Fast Company focuses on Tim Holland, widely considered the world's best backgammon player in the '70s, when playing for money was fairly common. Backgammon pros are rarer than pool hustlers these days, but a good game can still be played for drinks among friends.
You aren't likely to find any old-school hustlers at the Crooked Cue, but if you want to hone your game on well-maintained, quality tables in a smoky dive where pool is more than just an afterthought, then this is your place. And if you happen to enjoy a stiff drink or cold beer with your game, then you'll find the Crooked Cue to be a good bet, indeed.