Fresh out of college and working as a young reporter in Costa Rica, R.A. "Jake" Dyer wandered into a pool hall to do some exploring. What he found there would take ahold of him for the rest of his life.
"It was a really identifiable subculture," says Dyer of the hustlers he met. "There were rules, a certain etiquette, a certain language."
By the time Dyer made his way home to the United States three years later, he was fascinated by the world of pool-hall hustling. A former Houston Chronicle reporter who now works for the Austin bureau of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dyer has recently published his homage to that world in a book called Hustler Days.
"I normally write about politics," says Dyer, who spent mornings, weekends and vacations over the past five years researching and working on the book. "This was a labor of love."
According to Dyer, the glory days of American pool went hand in hand with the existence of a bachelor subculture in the United States in the '30s and '40s. Prior to World War II, older, unmarried men were set apart from the rest of the community and gathered together in bars and pool halls. That environment generated the hustler, who was as much of a mind reader as he was a good pool player.
"A hustler will have a shtick, and can only play well with money on the line," says Dyer. "And a hustler will play only as good as they need to play." This technique of playing under par is commonly known as playing on the lemon, and it's suckered many novices into losing money because they believed they actually had a chance at winning.
But pool culture suffered a little death during the '50s. The onset of suburbia after the war drove pool into the underground, where it nearly disappeared altogether. Luckily, a 1961 film called The Hustler starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason saved the sport. The romantic portrayal of the hustling subculture as seedy, chaotic and corrupt attracted Americans back to the game. Suddenly, people wanted to learn how to play, and professional tournaments started airing on television. Women also were drawn to the game, which helped increase its popularity.
"The pool culture exploded in the '60s," says Dyer. "Its popularity has remained, and never fallen off to the doldrums it was in in the '50s."
With the resurgence of pool came the resurgence of the hustler. One of the best at playing on the lemon was a Houston pool player named Jersey Red, one of several Dyer profiles in his book. "He'd play in such a way that anyone would think they could beat him," says Dyer. "He was one of the nation's finest pool hustlers."
While Dyer is proud of his book, he says he's been unable to pick up many tricks from the countless hustlers he's observed over the years.
"It's the great tragedy of my life," he admits. "I'm so bad. I play, and people say, 'You're hustling, you play better than that.' And I say, 'No, I really don't.'
Jake Dyer appears at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 17, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, 1000 West Oaks Mall, before a screening of The Hustler. He will give a short talk and answer questions about the movie and the subculture of pool. For information, call 281-556-0204 or visit www.alamo drafthouse.com. $7.