The New Cool of Pool

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Chris's Billiards in Chicago, where the nation's top pool players rack 'em up before crowds in bleachers, is an old-fashioned pool hall, famous for its grit, its smoky aroma, its hints of intrigue and unsavory wheeling and dealing. For years the club, where Martin Scorsese filmed scenes of his 1986 Tom Cruise — Paul Newman hit, The Color of Money, was the kind of place parents warned their children to stay away from. Yet on a recent Tuesday afternoon Diana Dobrzynski, 5, was there shooting a few games with her brother Joshua, 12, and her grandmother, retired police officer Pat Hays, a pool teacher and a regular at Chris's. Unable to handle a large cue, the pint-sized Diana was using a more manageable instrument: her Barbie doll.

Five years ago, Eric Rosen, the owner of Chris's, would have been shocked to witness such cuteness in a sport famous for fast-talking hustlers with monikers like Minnesota Fats and Cornbread Red. But as pool has exploded in popularity among upscale professionals, baby boomers and now children, Chris's has become one of a growing number of pool parlors to welcome the new breeds of players. To accommodate the steady influx of families, Rosen has installed video games and a jukebox, complete with Britney Spears and 'N Sync, in a family-friendly back room where families can have "privacy, [and] we keep them away from the smoke and swearing," he says.

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Driven by the low cost of play, the easy social interaction, the increase in the number of female players and the coverage of professional tournaments on ESPN, the sport has expanded, prompting not only a shift in many of the old halls but also the construction of a slew of new, pristine, family-friendly pool dens. Says Mike Aube, who opened up Suzie-Cue's Family Billiards in Palatine, Ill., four years ago, after his teenage daughters complained that they didn't have a place to play: "Today halls are welcoming. They're more like family restaurants."

To appeal to their new clientele, some halls are smoke and alcohol free; others have special rooms for G-rated playing or set aside afternoon hours for families. In New York City, for example, Amsterdam Billiards is host to birthday parties for the younger set about once a week. At Reno's in Webster, Texas, only sanitized versions of pop songs are allowed on the popular karaoke machine before 10 p.m. At Slate Street Billiards in Vernon Hills, Ill., minors sport T shirts featuring a beer stein with a red circle and slash, indicating that alcohol is off-limits. And in Conway, Ark., where state law prohibits kids from playing in adult billiards-only halls, Paul Loyd and Judy Potts have opened P.D.'s Billiards & Game Room, offering kid-size pool cues and imposing a rule that bans smoking by anyone under 18.

New pool lovers say the game is a confidence booster for nonathletic kids, an intellectual challenge and a great way to socialize. Joshua Dobrzynski, who used to think "hitting pool balls around was senseless," was hooked once he tried it. He says the appeal of pool, which has surpassed even video games in his affections, is the adrenaline rush of the balls' "clacking." Chicago cop Debra Spraggins, who takes lessons with her son Nick, 12, says the focus on angles has helped him in math class, and the game has provided a refreshing way for her and Nick to spend time with each other. "Usually there's a hierarchy in our relationship. I'm the parent; he's the son," she says. "When we're playing pool, we're both equal. Sometimes he even teaches me things."

Of course, the biggest change for pool may be the adjustment that old-timers have to make as the newcomers invade what was once their hallowed space. "The most annoying thing in a pool room is a jukebox," says Merhl Smith, 79, a three-times-a-weeker at Chris's. "You put up with [the kids running amuck] for a while, and then you tell them to please stay out of the way." Still, by all appearances, the seedy good old days won't be forgotten anytime soon. In Marcie Davis' physical-education pool class in Fair Oaks, Calif., the reading assignment on Minnesota Fats is the hands-down favorite with her high school students. Says Davis: "The kids get a kick out of those guys."