Not your father’s pool hall

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Not your father’s pool hall

Standing at the corner of a pool table, eyeing the ball carefully to measure the distance, a slender man with a mustache pumps his cue one last time, before unleashing concentrated energy through the cue and hitting the ball.
The ball, hit below the center, sends another ball into the far corner. As if some invisible hand were pulling the first ball back, a sudden backward spin moves it toward the edge of the table, from which it bounces back and spirals slowly along the side edge to hit another ball.
“Hmm... Too strong. I’ve got to practice this shot,” says Kim Jong-suk, 51, who many consider to be a master of the game.
A professional pool player with 35 years of experience, Mr. Kim has rows of championship trophies displayed in his billiards hall in Deungchon-dong, which he has been operating for 12 years. Among the players here, he is simply known as “The Mustache.”
Korean billiards, called danggu, has different rules and is played in a different way than pocket billiards. Played on a pocketless table with two red balls and two white balls, the object of the game is to strike both red balls with one white ball without hitting the other white ball.
Ten points are awarded for a successful hit. The turn passes to another player when he fails to hit both red balls or hits a white ball.
So how is proficiency determined? Unlike billiards, where a player wins by putting all his designated balls into the hole before an opponent does, in danggu, a player must obtain a given number of points.
The number of points a player needs to win depends on his skill level. A beginner can win a game by scoring a mere 30 points; once you’re past the 2,000-point level, you’re generally considered a pro. But professional billiards players often participate in 10,000-point tournaments.
A typical game at such competitions lasts for about five hours, while casual games can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour, depending on the number of participants. About 20 players in the country are considered to have the skill to take part in 10,000-point tournaments, which are held five times a year.
“It’s not exactly a contact sport, but physically it’s much harder than one would think. How many people do you see walking for more than an hour?” Mr. Kim asks.
The overall image of the game has changed drastically over the years. In the past, billiards halls were thought of as places where gangsters and other unsavory characters hung out. Much of this negative image may be from memories of the 1950s and 1960s, when thugs linked to political parties were said to plan their activities in smoke-filled pool halls.
Still, this rather outdated image of billiards halls in Korea persists on Korean television dramas. It was not until 1998 that billiards halls became accessible to people of all ages; until then, people under 18 were not permitted entry.
Today, schools send their students to billiard halls such as Mr. Kim’s as part of their extracurricular activities. Around 1,000 students from 10 high schools in the Deungchon-dong area receive danggu lessons at Mr. Kim’s billiards hall, where he and five other players rotate in teaching the young pupils. The fee is subsidized by the district office.
“Times have changed. Billiards halls are no longer a place where you get in trouble,” Mr. Kim says. Nevertheless, easier access to the billiard halls has not necessarily increased the number of players.
The number of billiards halls in the country fell drastically during the Asian economic crisis, from 30,000 to 15,000. Middle-aged men now frequent billiards halls at lunch time or after work, but for the younger generation, there are many other temptations. Mr. Kim blames the karaoke and PC rooms that offer instant entertainment.
“This is not a game that you can learn overnight. You need to invest time,” Mr. Kim says.
The fact that billiards halls charge an average fee of 1,200 won ($1) per 10 minutes might be another reason Korean youngsters flock to alternatives such as PC rooms, where they can stay for an hour for the same amount.
Lim Bu-gyeong is a freshman at Young-Il High School who, along with 20 other students, is learning the basics of the game as part of the school’s extracurricular activities. He thinks the game could be fun, but says he does not have enough time to play.
“I’d rather play pocket billiards. It’s much easier to learn,” he says.
Convinced that pocket billiards did not promote a gambling culture, the Roh Tae-woo military regime allowed pool halls to install pocket billiards tables in 1988. Today, one or two pocket tables can easily be found in any billiards hall.
But times have changed. Today, the billiards culture in Korea embraces all ages, although only time will tell whether danggu or pocket billiards will prevail.
“Old-timers worry that danggu might fade out, but we don’t see it that way. Pocket ball will help people to get to know various versions of billiards,” says Bang Ki-song, an official with the Korea Billiards Association.

by Brian Lee
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