In the pocket

No miscues in Hoboken as pool tables and taverns team up

The clack of pool balls is a familiar sound in many Hoboken watering holes. It’s commonly heard on Monday and Wednesday nights when the American Poolplayers Association holds league matches in bars all over town.
The APA is the world’s largest amateur pool league. In Hoboken alone, more than 120 players shoot pool at around a dozen APA venues.
Mark Lavery has been playing on the APA league since 2000, but he stepped up to the table long before that. “I remember my uncle had one in his house, and I was probably just head and shoulders above the table,” he says. “No one really explained it to me, but there was just an initial attraction.”
As he got older, he was tall enough to play but still had doubts.
“I always enjoyed playing,” he says, “but never thought I was good enough, which I think is a common mistake a lot of people make in not joining a league.” It was being a regular at a now-shuttered Hoboken bar that led him to join. “The bartender said, ‘Hey we really need some players’, so I thought I would be doing him a favor. It’s one of the best moves I’ve made. I’ve made so many good friends.”
He is now co-captain of his team.
League Division Representative Adam Decicco agrees that many connections can be made over a game of pool. “Genuinely, it brings the town together; it’s casual, it’s friendly and it works,” he says. Decicco, along with fellow rep Theron Steiner, helps build those relationships. “I introduce the bar owners to the pool players,” Decicco says. “It’s a networking opportunity.” Bars that start a team and welcome players are finding new patrons.
The pool scene in Hoboken “is on an upswing,” Decicco says. “Some new venues this fall, such as Willie McBride and hotel Victoria, should bring pool to areas that might not have had a location within four or five blocks of where people may live.”

Halls Versus Bars

But many players mourn the loss of Willow Billiard Club & Lounge, which closed a few years ago. The difference is that pool-hall tables are larger than bar tables and are often better maintained.
“In bars it seems that people go to drink and shoot pool, but in halls we would go to shoot pool and drink, in that order of priority,” Lavery says, adding that halls in Weehawken, Secaucus, and Bayonne have shut down as well.
Gary Barsky’s family used to own Willow Billiards. “It all started with my mother and stepfather many years ago,” Barksy says. “We had a nice run for 23 years, but unfortunately business started to dry up a bit and then my stepfather passed away. I was looking for something else to do and that’s when Andy Segal approached me.”
At the time, Andy Segal was League Operator of the APA for Hudson County and the top-rated trick shooter in the world. Segal was looking to sell his Hudson County APA franchise. “He knew me because I had been playing for the league since 2003,” Barksy says. “I was a rep and we had teams at the hall.” Barsky teamed up with league buddy Robert VanderToorn to buy the franchise. “Andy was incredibly nice and showed us the ropes,” Barksy says. “And through Willow I already knew all the players.”
When Willow closed, some serious Hoboken players packed up their cues and headed to New York City to play. Jake Schwartz was one of them. “I played in the league for years,” he says. “I did it for over a decade. Once the pool hall went out of business, I went to the city to play. In New York City I’m a small fish in a big pond.” He now plays on the Billiard Congress of America.
Schwartz fondly recalls joining the APA when he first moved to Hoboken 13 years ago. “I was thrilled to death ’cause I could play pool right around the corner. And I was new to town and didn’t know a lot of people.”
The Hoboken scene has changed. “There are a lot of tables still,” Schwartz says, “but a lot less than there used to be, because there’s been this move to more generic sports bars with a lot of TVs on the wall and dance music and stuff like that. It’s more profitable, but it’s kind of shifted the pool scene to a select few bars where you can find people who are really passionate about it. The pool scene here isn’t as big and spread out as it used to be, but it’s just as passionate.”

Billiards for Bucks

Schwartz comes out to watch Lavery’s team compete in one of the final matches of the summer season. The game determines whether Lavery will move on to compete in the Tri-cup, and next the Gold Cup.
“If you win your slot in the Gold, the APA cuts you a check, Lavery says. “The team flies out to Las Vegas to compete in a national amateur event.”
Schwartz says, “It’s not necessarily being there that’s the best part. It’s the feeling of accomplishment of your team having to work toward this goal for months and months, if not an entire year, and all the trials and tribulations that lead to it.”
Both Schwartz and Lavery have made it to the Vegas event on Hoboken APA teams several times over the years. Hoboken offers opportunities to play pool beyond the league as well. Lavery, who tends bar at DC’s Tavern, runs a tournament there every Saturday.
“It’s been a big success,” Lavery says. “I try to do a 12-person tournament. First place you’re looking at about $150, second place is $65, and third place you get your money back. There’s a small buy-in, but on top of that the house actually puts in money.”
The game is open to the public, and anyone has a shot at winning. “It’s a handicapped event,” Lavery says. “Week after week I was recording all the wins. I didn’t want to discourage anybody, so I tweaked it to make it a little bit harder for the higher-ranked players.”
Try the league out for a season. As Decicco says, “It’s a come-one-come-all-no-pressure-required activity.”—07030

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