Shooting Pool with Samuel Clemens

Mark Twain comes to the defense of bad sports gear

Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT
Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT (source)

Mark Twain was an enthusiastic pool player, sometimes playing for hours a day. His billiard room on the third floor of his home in Hartford, CT was a space where he did a great deal of his writing and has been described as the ideal billiard room by the New York Times. It's easy to imagine this room filled with cigar smoke, friends and expert-level bullshitting until the wee hours.

Mark Twain in his billiard room (sources)

What I love about Twain is that he didn't look for perfection in the sport. He played for fun and enjoyed the quirks that came with the gear. In this excerpt from his autobiography, Twain argues that a bad pool table is sometimes better than a good one:

I wonder why a man should prefer a good billiard-table to a poor one; and why he should prefer straight cues to crooked ones; and why he should prefer round balls to chipped ones; and why he should prefer a level table to one that slants; and why he should prefer responsive cushions to the dull and unresponsive kind. I wonder at these things, because when we examine the matter we find that the essentials involved in billiards are as competently and exhaustively furnished by a bad billiard outfit as they are by the best one. One of the essentials is amusement. Very well, if there is any more amusement to be gotten out of the one outfit than out of the other, the facts are in favor of the bad outfit. The bad outfit will always furnish thirty percent more fun for the players and for the spectators than will the good outfit. Another essential of the game is that the outfit shall give the players full opportunity to exercise their best skill, and display it in a way to compel the admiration of the spectators. Very well, the bad outfit is nothing behind the good one in this regard. It is a difficult matter to estimate correctly the eccentricities of chipped balls and a slanting table, and make the right allowance for them and secure a count; the finest kind of skill is required to accomplish the satisfactory result. Another essential of the game is that it shall add to the interest of the game by furnishing opportunities to bet. Very well, in this regard no good outfit can claim any advantage over a bad one. I know, by experience, that a bad outfit is as valuable as the best one; that an outfit that couldn't be sold at auction for seven dollars is just as valuable for all the essentials of the game as an outfit that is worth a thousand. ... Last winter, here in New York, I saw Hoppe and Schaefer and Sutton and the three or four other billiard champions of world-wide fame contend against each other, and certainly the art and science displayed were a wonder to see; yet I saw nothing there in the way of science and art that was more wonderful than shots which I had seen Texas Tom make on the wavy surface of that poor old wreck in the perishing saloon at Jackass Gulch forty years before.

I'm not sure if he meant that passage as a metaphor, but it makes me wonder where else we can value the interesting and irregular to the ideal. Anyhow, take a spin of the bumpy pool table at the Mark Twain House on Google Streetview: