The gambler: Chris’s Billiards

For a night of action, we head to an old favorite.
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki
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“He hit the long,” Arturo grumbles to himself. “Damn. Maybe he’s just lucky. It’s your fault. I gave him a shot.”

I’m at Chris’s Billiards, in Jefferson Park, and I’ve picked up some action (that’s pool jargon for gambling) with Arturo, a school bus driver who hustles every Saturday night, usually for anywhere from $50 to $500 a game. (Yes, it’s illicit. That’s why losers throw their money on the table. So it never changed hands.) We play cheap—$20 for a race-to-seven set of nine-ball. I win the first game when Arturo leaves the nine on the table.

The unlit climb to the second-floor hall is accompanied by an ascending display of memorabilia commemorating Chris’s role as a location for The Color of Money. Four dozen billiard, snooker and pool tables fill a room whose dingy stucco walls are mementos of nights when players set down their cigarettes only to chalk cue sticks.

Arturo wins the next six but suspects I’m stalling—deliberately hiding my speed. “You may be hustling,” he says, after I pin the cue behind the seven ball, when I’m aiming for the two. “I never see you before. Every time you miss, I don’t have a shot.”

Finally, Arturo deduces from my clumsy grip that I’m not a hustler, but a fish­—an easy mark. He suggests a spot, or handicap. “The way you play, I can give you seven,” he says, meaning I would only have to sink the seven ball to win, while he’d have to sink the nine. That’s a big advantage in nine-ball, in which the goal is to sink every ball on the table, in numerical order.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s play that way, then.”

“Not this set. We play even.”

Negotiating the spot is the overture to every game at Chris’s. After Arturo beats me (I miss an easy nine with a shot so weak an onlooker shouts “Did you eat breakfast?”), an old player named Richie starts knocking his game. In hustling, that means talking up another guy’s speed to scare off his competition.

“He’s the 1985 Manila nine-ball champion,” Richie says.

“That’s not true,” Arturo retorts. He is having trouble finding action, though. A would-be opponent calls to say he’s decided to play cards instead.

“He wants more spot,” Arturo complains.

It’s easy to find an open table at Chris’s, but if you walk in with a rep, you’ll be lucky to play two or three times a night.

So Arturo turns to Ken “Chopstix.” Pool players generally have nicknames; Ken has been hanging around Chris’s so long he has two: He is also known as “The Master,” which suits his black ponytail and mustache.

“Kenny, you want to play $10 a game?”

“What are you going to give me?” Ken demands.

Ken walks away, flapping his hand.

“I’ll only play him even up,” Arturo says. “He’s younger than me.”

I break the impasse by putting up a sawbuck for Ken to play Arturo even up in one-pocket. This investment makes me a sweater, because I’ll be sweating out the game. Ken is my stakehorse—the guy I’m betting on to win. Gamblers often stake pool players, with a split of 60 percent to the sweater, 40 to the horse. But the money is more often $500 than $10. That’s all I have left in my pocket, though.

Arturo beats Ken, 8–4.

“You lost $10!” shouts Arturo, who now has me stuck for 30 bucks.

“You want us to play again?” Ken asks me.

“You guys work it out,” I tell him.

Chris’s Billiards is located at 4637 N Milwaukee Ave (773-286-4714).

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