smith5Billiards and pool have had their periods of flood and ebb in popularity, but all the while, oddly, remaining steady favorites at both poles of the socialspectrum. In the United States, blue-collar bars and Ivy League game rooms as well have alwavs had tables.In the middle reaches of society, however, the games have only recently begun a major comeback.

In Manhattan in the '60s, poolrooms abounded, including such temples of the sport as McGirr's, where one could behold the likes of Henry Ringling North, resplendent in his double-breasted pinstripes, taking his personal cue from the counter attendant-- who would whisper, awed, "He owns the circus!" as North strode to his luncheon billiard table, where ancient black women with the dignity of members of Parliament were placing the balls for his billiard match. But just a few years ago, McGirr's was padlocked and scarcely a table was to be found in the Big Apple. The sport of billiards seemed almost dead.Today, however, the game is once again zooming back, enormously popular in Japan and in Manhattan, too, as yuppies crowd into restaurants with as many as 30 tables, to pay upwards of $10 an hour to play against their dates at billiards, old-fashioned straight pool or even some Nine Ball, formerly a ghetto gambling game but more recently made popular by the movie The Color of Money.

Nobody is happier about the resurgence, or has devoted more effort and thought to billiards and pool than cue maker Bill Stroud, who has given most of his 48 years to the sport.

"I don't allow myself to make any mistakes," Stroud says. "No room for error. If You make an error, vou just have to chop it up, I won't send out anything that's less than perfect." Stroud jokes about keeping friends in firewood with the lumber he buys and later rejects as unacceptable-90 percent of what he buys, he esti-mates. His wife, Barbara, says she uses the cue shafts he turns and then rejects for tomato stakes.

I want my cues to look machine perfect-but to take a lot of handwork. My computer helps. It can do a multitude of final designs. I work fast, and I work pretty efficiently," says Stroud, "and think about how to be more efficient. You've only got so much time, and I you might as well make use of it. It's Iike trying to paint: you look at a blank canvas and paint something. Instead, I look at a blank cue stick. I've got designs I don't have customers for yet, in my head.

"It cannot be proved beyond a doubt, of course, that the cunning and complex inlays with which Stroud adorns his cues actually help win games, but many of his customers feel the ornamentation is worth the cost. Stroud's plainest models sell for about $1,000; his most complicated designs, inlaid in the costliest woods, can push the price of a cue to more than $5,000.

smith3Working on a small piece of inlay, Stroud says admiringly, "When this cue is done, it will be an absolute knockout from afar. When you walk into a pool-room,It will be the only cue you see.

"In the world of the hustler, where the pro's livelihood depends on suckering an unwary mark into thinking he can win -- and a cardinal rule is thus never to reveal your true speed -- having such an ornate cue would be a dead giveaway, alerting an opponent that he was up against a serious adversary. "When I was hustling pool," Stroud says , "it was not common to have your own cue. You wouldn't carry it in. That would immediately identify you as a hustler." However, he admits, once in a while he would have trouble beating someone with a house stick, "so I'd go out and get my own stick-and beat the guy's brains out.


"The difference is almost metaphysicalAnd therein lies the essence of the appeal of owning an Excalibur of a cue, the reason why professionals insist on their very own top-quality, custom-crafted stick. Says Stroud, "Having your own cue and playing with it constantly adds 20 percent to your ability-and a tenth is enough to win at the top. The stick makes so much difference, it's almost metaphysical. Basically, when vou plav pool, you're not really playing in the physical world. You play in your mind's eye. Everything's easy. You think it, and it appears. That's what I miss about shooting pool. When you play at a high level, everybody is playing with the same ability. So, you have to make yourself rise above that ability. Pool games are seldom lost. They are more often won. You have to play above your ability to win. You just have to figure out the tricks that get you above yourself.