Running the Table

Running the Table

The rack cracks and there’s a panic on the table. An angry, rainbow blur of numerals flies every which way, searching for holes. The action slows, then stiffens. Peace is restored.

But the game is on.

For the past 14 years, Charles “Chazmo” Bryant, proprietor of the bar Chazmo’s Cafe, has been hosting the largest amateur pool league in the world, the American Poolplayer Association. Not all at once, of course.

Every Monday and Tuesday, two teams of eight players, with five playing at a time, square off on Chazmo’s green 8’x4’ rectangle. Matches start at 7:30 p.m., sometimes lasting ’til 1 a.m. Bryant has three house teams at his bar, including his own, and, ultimately, they’re competing with thousands of teams across the nation. The hope is to first win at the division level, then win at the APA World Pool Championships held each year in Las Vegas.

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The championship tourney happens under the eye of the league’s spokesperson, international pool champion Jeanette Lee, a.k.a. “The Black Widow.” Teams vie for first-place prizes of $25,000 for 8-ball or $15,000 for 9-ball. Five years ago, Bryant and his team shot their way to the top of their division, winning a free ride to Vegas. “It was a beautiful thing,” Bryant says, recalling the sound of a giant room of pool tables cracking simultaneously.

With Bryant in Vegas were Carlton Outlaw, Wayne Baker, Dwayne Moultrie, Carmen Cruz, Paula Prates, Dwayne Branch and Ken Orphe, plus 13 other 8-ball teams from across Connecticut. The Chazmo’s team made it to the third round, finishing 513th of 712 teams—still impressive considering how tough it is just to get there.

Bryant hasn’t made it back to Vegas since, but he says a couple of teams out of his bar usually make it to the division playoffs held in Windsor, CT—the first milestone on the road to Vegas.

Some of the players talk like it’s just a matter of time until they’re back at the tables in Nevada. Mike James, vice president of local motorcycle club M-Pire MC, captains of one of the Monday night teams at Chazmo’s. He started playing pool at the clubhouse of another motorcycle club, the Soul Seekers. “I got whipped for the first six months,” he says, but eventually “got tired of getting beat.” Today, James doesn’t get beat nearly as often. He rates a 6 in the APA’s 8-ball handicap system, with 7 being the highest possible ranking.

James manages his team’s scorekeeping, paperwork and fees. From the sound of it, organizing a team is a bit like herding cats. “Collecting the money—ha! Forget about it,” though he says he still manages to get the team’s dues and paperwork in on time, incentivized by the bonus points that come with staying in the league’s good graces.

For Bryant, captaining carries a sense of fulfillment. “I’m a better coach than player,” he says—though he’s been at the tables for nearly his whole life and, also ranked an 8-ball 6, he’s more than a decent shot. As captain, Bryant takes a special pleasure in advising his players on the strategy behind certain shots. Considerations include setting up your next shot or, if you think you won’t likely sink your target, engineering a position that leaves your opponent with as little counter-strike capability as possible.

Strategic thinking goes beyond what happens in a single game. Highly experienced players might even miss on purpose—or draw out a game—in order to shave off points and keep their APA ranking low. The logic of this is that the combined rankings of a given five-person team has to add up to no more than 23. Thus hiding your skill with a low ranking—or “sandbagging,” as James puts it—is beneficial for your team, though it’s also looked down upon by the league.

Suspected sandbaggers can be reported to Connecticut’s league operator, Bruce Barthelette, and rankings can be elevated, or lowered, by complaint. According to the teams at Chazmo’s, issues sometimes arise when complaints are filed based on grudges or rulings made based on hearsay. Another pattern Bryant has noticed in recent years involves fears and resentments based on class or race, in which an all-white team might not want to play at his predominantly black bar and vice versa. Bryant says there have been a few occasions in the last year when teams have outright refused to come play at Chazmo’s. In turn, he and his team have sometimes refused to play at their venue of choice.

But while there are sometimes mid-game squabbles, and while pool sticks are sometimes abused in frustration, there’s much more friendship than feuding among the teams. “It’s a fun league,” Bryant says, and he’s glad to be able to ensure that, on the two driest days of the week, a small crowd of people is diving headlong into his pool table.

Chazmo’s Cafe
819 Dixwell Ave, Hamden (map)
Sun-Thu 4pm-1am, Fri-Sat 2pm-2am
(203) 641-0536…

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1 and 2 depict Kenishia Behery; photo 3 depicts Charles Bryant; and photo 4 depicts Twana Brown.

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