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Mark Speer, a 2010 graduate of Ohio University, plays pool at The Union Bar & Grill. Ramon Luis Nieves | For The Post

Billiards, Booze and Bars

Though many Ohio University students identify with a hard-partying aesthetic when it comes to bar life, a more casual crowd of gamers exists that aim for pockets, rather than an empty glass when it comes to taking shots.

Within the Athens community, a variety of venues provide fully equipped pool tables, which students and residents alike come together to indulge in a few rounds of friendly competition.

The roots of pool, or billiards, can be traced to European nobility, but the game now exists as a staple of most pubs and restaurants. While a group of skilled players can make for competitive play, the game is also simple enough that most newcomers can pick it up with ease.

Justin Weller, a senior studying creative writing and philosophy, grew up learning to the game of pool from playing at the VFW, a veteran’s club that his mother and father belonged to nearby Lancaster, Ohio. He now plays around six to eight games a week at bars around campus.

The ability to understand the game tends to be passed down from one generation to the next, contributing to the game’s sustained popularity, Weller said.

“I think the game’s a basic sort of thing,” he said. “It goes back to the games that the Native Americans would play that actually would help them with hunting skills—it helps develop motor skill and aiming that I think is ingrained in us.”

The Smiling Skull Saloon, 108 W Union St, is one of the bars Weller chooses to visit most often, be it for pool or socializing — or more frequently — to participate in the bar’s Tuesday night “Open Mic Night” or Wednesday night karaoke.

Chris Wolf, owner of the Smiling Skull, purchased the bar and the pool table that came with it, in 1993. While the table shows its age, Wolf has found ways to attract business, including free pool on Sundays starting at 9 p.m.

“We’ve been doing free games for seven years or so, because Sundays are notoriously slow,” he said. “Between the free pool and reduced price imports, some Sundays are good. I popped in last Sunday and it was jammin’.”

Down the street from the Smiling Skull sits another pool-hosting bar, Lucky’s Sports Tavern, 11 N Court St. Though the venues might both be equipped with a table, a cue and multi-colored balls that glide across a felt surface, their atmospheres and focus attract a different type of crowd — especially when it comes to the condition in which they keep their pool tables.

“Everybody thinks (Lucky’s tables) are nicer, better-kept tables in Athens,” said Sean Fleming, a bartender at Lucky’s. “We cover them up on the busy weekends so they don’t get messed up, and they get re-felted about every six months.”

The special care the bar takes toward it’s property shows — the tables’ clean, ruby red felt the pool cues’ new feel makes for a smooth game that Fleming said helps spur business.

“You can’t really go anywhere around here where there are any real pool halls, so you have to go to a bar with friends to play,” Fleming said. “On slower nights, I think a lot of people come in to play, and it brings a crowd that wouldn’t otherwise be here.”

In stark contrast, the two tables at one Greek-life favorite are in the worst shape of the bunch. Zach Lloyd, a junior bartender at The Crystal studying magazine journalism, said while the tables at the bar are frequently used, unruly customers often damage them.

“They’re in pretty poor condition: none of the pool cues are really straight, the tables are a little warped and the balls are mismatched,” Lloyd said. “It’s a losing battle when people spill so many drinks on it all the time.”

Even though The Crystal’s patrons seem quick to disrespect the bar’s tables, Lloyd said the way in which the tables still get a lot of use and how people play on each whenever the bar is busy speaks to the sustained popularity of the classic game.

Tim Gunn, owner of The Union Bar and Grill, 18 W Union St, said some of the draw lies in the fact that you don’t have to be really good to play and you can always get better.

“I don’t know that there’s some magical reason that it goes well with drinking, but most things do,” Gunn said. “Bars are places where you can meet people that you normally wouldn’t interact with, and I think pool can be a common ground that leads to the discovery of new friendships.”


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