February 17, 2015

Changing times for Philly's billiards scene

Might a new pool hall resuscitate a struggling industry?

Games Billiards
Pool Table File Art /iStock

Stephen Abbonizio was 13 when he first played pool.


He lingered in the back and watched, scene by scene -- ball-tap by ball-tap -- as his father shot stick with a bar-side pal at Bumpers Bar. Quickly, he realized something that would later be essential to his adult life: This was exciting.

"I found myself rooting for him, and I was suddenly like, 'Yeah, I want to do this,'" Abbonizio told PhillyVoice.com. 

So, he followed in his father's footsteps and signed up for a league: He first joined Philly's American Poolplayers Association league in 2008 and, for the past two years, has been joining seven teammates as representatives for Buffalo Billiards. But Abbonizio's a bit of an anomaly as a pool player in an Internet-driven age: He's young (28), plays seriously (he hopes to win a tournament-awarded trip to Vegas) and can spot a poorly kept pool table a mile away (don't you dare sit your drink on that felt). He's a rare find in an age when, if you ask the average teenager to play a round, they'll likely whip out a smartphone and tap a billiards app.

"I don't think there are many young people on board to play pool at a higher level," he said. "That's something severely lacking in Philly right now: a clean place to send kids to go do something that's not only good for the mind, but the body. You can build hand-eye coordination; it's a chess game -- there are lots of positives to this."

"And there are detriments," he added, "but they don't take away from the passion that comes with playing pool -- with being a part of something."

Still, Philly's not just missing the "Seventh Heaven" pool hall that calls back to times of teens galavanting about on a Friday night in search of soda pop and their high-school crush; it's also missing the type of pool hall that attracts serious pool players like Abbonizio, halls that, as of now, only exist in the suburbs in the form of Fusco's The Spot (owned by Philly professional pool player Pete Fusco) in Trevose, Bucks County, and Drexeline, in Drexel Hill, Delaware County. Tacony Billiards -- debatably the most popular city-limits pool hall since Longo's -- closed in 2013 (a charter school bought the real estate), and Boulevard Social and Athletic Club closed in 2007. No one has stepped in to fill either void. 

What happened to a game that, a short two decades ago, was a $2 billion-a-year industry that was reaching a point of "craze," not curse?

End of an Era?

Understand this: Philly's pool hall scene wasn't always reaching for a life vest -- far from it.

We're the city that's home to Willie Mosconi, whom many would cite -- without wasting a breath -- as the greatest pool player who's lived. (So popular and talented -- he once shot 526 consecutive balls into pockets without missing -- that he even consulted for the film "The Hustler" and performed all those nifty trick shots that Paul Newman surely didn't know how to do.) Meanwhile, Allen Hopkins, a South Jersey-based, pool-playing star in his own right, has hosted the Super Billiards Expo in Valley Forge for 23 years. And Center City (yes, tightly packed Center City) used to be home to massive pool-hall spots like Allinger's, at 13th and Market streets; Longo's, at South Street and Passyunk Avenue; and Newby's, at 11th and Chestnut streets -- the latter of which was founded by former Philadelphia detective Earl Newby, who also started the first billiards publication, the Billiard News. Alas, Longo's burned down in 1978, and the others boarded up when regulation table standards changed, and they suddenly were left with dozens of 5-by-10 tables no one wanted to play on.

Point being, Philadelphia doesn't just have a history with pool, it has the history.

It's not surprising, then, that its pool halls tumbled alongside the at-large pool industry. Citing "external competition" and "low consumer confidence" in a post-recession economy, the pool industry's estimated annual decline in the five-year run-up to 2014 was 0.4 percent, to $750 million, according to an IBISWorld study released in May 2014. (That number is estimated to have dipped even lower in 2014 -- by 4 percent, in fact.) The study also notes that the number of billiards participants has declined from 51.1 million in 2007, to just 35.2 million in 2012. Coin-operated tables are also dwindling in number, declining from 332,000 to 260,000 from 2007 to 2010.

Yes, pool -- a centuries-old table game derived from 1600s croquet and French noblemen -- isn't exactly pocketing eight balls these days. Its fortunes have been grim; its outlook is bleak. 

A representative from advocacy org Billiard Congress of America, who asked to be unnamed, partly attributes the very recent decline of the industry to the housing bubble burst of 2008-09 but also, most importantly, points to those "glowing, buzzing devices [young people] can plug themselves into" -- namely, Xbox, PlayStation, iPads and smartphones. As a result, the billiards bars remaining -- ahem, looking at you, Buffalo Billiards -- are raking in revenue (as much as 65 to 85 percent) through alcohol sales. Because why pay $5 an hour to play pool, when you can download the app for free on the App Store?

Times are changing. 

"You can play pool on your phone, if you want, but it's not the same thing," Bob Gettis, a volunteer division rep for the APA, told PhillyVoice.com. "You can shoot a full table shot from a drawtable anywhere in the phone, but it's a little different when you have to actually, you know, perform the shot." 

South Philly native Jimmy Fusco, a famous pool player who said he's won 15 Pennsylvania State Pool Tournament championships and was runner-up in the 1983 World Championship (and was also the last pool player to be aired on network television), doesn't dismiss the notion that video games might be a contributor to the decline of pool but is particularly vehement about placing blame on -- of all things -- poker. The legalization of human-to-human poker on a regional level, he said, has killed Philly's pool halls.

"When the casinos legalized poker in 1992, that really killed the pool rooms that opened from the 'pool boom' of the early '90s," Fusco said. "A lot of new rooms went out of business, because everybody was going down to Atlantic City to play poker. ... And when the casinos opened in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, that really buried pool. Pool halls went out of business because people no longer had to go to Atlantic City and play against a casino -- they could play against other humans."

The gist of it, is that playing pool -- for the guys and gals with a taste for hustling -- required a lot more time and skill, with fewer rewards. Poker, meanwhile, only requires "a chip and a chair," Fusco said.

"The few times I've gone to the casinos myself in the past few years, I've shown up and seen half of the crowd be former pool players," he said. "And the reason why so many of them did it, is there's a lot more money in poker. Top players in the country I know quit pool to go play poker."

The reason new players are so few and far between, then, is this: Fathers -- mothers, too -- aren't taking their sons and daughters to play pool, as once happened with Abbonizio. (And, indeed, they may even be teaching them poker instead: An Annenberg Public Policy report found that 2.9 million people age 14-22 are gambling with card games on a weekly basis.)

"Someone has to give them interest in pool in the first place," Fusco said.

According to a separate survey conducted from 2010-12 by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of pool players in the country is even lower than other reports claim -- 21.8 million participants, measured by a counting of people age 7 or older who played the game at least twice per year. Of note, 13 million of those land in the 18-44 age bracket; the average player is about 36. The 7-11 range, meanwhile, barely makes a dent, accounting for 800,000 of all players. Pennsylvania as a state, meanwhile, is ever-so-slightly less likely to participate in pool than about 26 other states.

New pool players just aren't being bred -- or at least not at a rate fast enough (or in an income bracket deep-pocketed enough) to bring revenue numbers back up.

Hopkins said that the attribution of pool as a "game" at all is part of why it hasn't evolved to maintain in-the-black numbers. 

"The reason it's lost -- and I can tell you why -- is, when I was president of the Professional Poolplayers Association, the problem was television," Hopkins told PhillyVoice.com. "They won't publicize our tours and events -- we couldn't even get a sponsorship, because they don't consider pool a sport. They consider it a hobby. So they only use pool for entertainment on TV, and yet, you can turn on TV and watch golf every weekend -- football, baseball, every season you want. Pool? You'd have to get lucky -- you don't know when it will be on."

The game is, he said, very "unorganized" -- not surprising, given the seemingly endless pit of leagues and organizations claiming association with the game (excuse me, sport). To boot, corporate dollars they'd compete for, he said, would sooner go to golf and tennis. Without the exposure, and with stiff competition in the "gaming" category, pool, in general, is naturally having a rough go of it. 

It might sound a little odd, then, when I tell you a Northeast Philadelphian is taking a gamble on opening a new 20,000-square-foot pool hall later this year.

What's Old is New

While the numbers suggest it might be time to kill the lights on the concept of the traditional pool hall, Dominic Monaco, former owner of Tacony Billiards, is stepping up to bat with defibrillators in hand.

Monaco is planning to open the pool hall space at the corner of Grant Avenue and Bluegrass Road this fall -- he's signed his lease and transferred his liquor license, he said, and is merely waiting in the wings for the landlord to finish gutting the building and pave a parking lot to accommodate patrons. It's the first pool hall blueprint since a 12th and Chestnut street bank-renovation-turned-pool-hall plan fell through in 2012.

It sounds ambitious -- foolish, some might even say. But Monaco's got a pretty sterling track record as the former owner of Tacony Billiards, which, for years, was able to co-exist with Drexeline and The Spot.

"When we closed down, we were the last big pool hall in Philadelphia," Monaco told PhillyVoice.com. "Right now, in Philly, there's not many options to play pool on the big, regulation-sized pool tables."

The obvious question was posed: Why not?

The answer: practically a sounding board for Fusco's theory.

"It's all about poker," he said. "Texas Hold 'em poker is the reason why, in Philly, pool halls are starting to fade away. As soon as Hold 'em became popular, there was a big rush of pool players who quit playing pool and started playing poker. I play poker three or four days a week over at Fox Casino, and when I'm there, I see maybe a dozen ex-players there."

As for why young people aren't playing pool in droves anymore, he said, it all comes down to -- aside from pulling some away from poker -- having space available.

"When I owned Tacony, there weren't many young people playing pool there -- teens didn't come into Tacony because of the bar," he said. "But when I owned Boulevard, there were a lot of teens coming in as groups of 10; they'd come to learn to play. And by 21, maybe two or three of them still shot, and the others found new things to do. But there were people who came in, and that's what made future generations of pool players."

Part of his goal with the new place, then -- tentatively named Bluegrass Billiards -- is to open a separate section of the hall to teenagers and hire a professional player to teach lessons. 

The hall will, he said, have 42 pool tables -- 26 4-by-9 regulation tables and 16 bar-sized tables. 

"Honestly, when I open this, I want to concentrate on pool and not push the bar business so much -- that will come naturally," he said. "My main interest is pool. If you make your main interest a bar, then suddenly you're a bar with a pool table there. I don't want people coming there just to hang at my bar, I want them coming there to shoot pool."

The jury's out on whether the pool hall will find success where its predecessors haven't. Per Abbonizio's spiel -- and comments from others -- it seems more likely that Philly's billiards scene will settle into a league-oriented community comprised of the more than 80 bars participating (even if some of those bars do have cruddy tables, as described by Abbonizio). All the same, it's an attempt -- an admirable one, at that -- to address the root of the problem: a lack of pool exposure conducive to youth, ones who are either glued to their screens or, maybe, learning poker tricks in hopes of striking gold when they come of age. 

"If I had a teenager, or someone in their 20s, I'd want them in a pool room, not a casino," Fusco said. ""People, years ago, thought all these bad things were happening in the pool rooms and --" he grunts, as if holding back laughter from the funniest thought imaginable -- "we used to laugh, you know, because it's like a church in here compared to what happens at a casino. Us? We're priests, popes and nuns."