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What Killed Straight Pool?

Was it 9-ball at the Johnston City hustlers' tournaments? Or 8-ball in the barroom? Or maybe it was the TV networks, looking for faster thrills.

As part of his "Untold Stories" series, R.A. Dyer plays detective to find the culprit, or culprits, in the death of a generations most beloved game.

THERE WAS A day, not so long ago, when straight pool was king. Played beneath elegant chandeliers by stern men in tuxedos, straight pool bedazzled and amazed for more than a half century. It was the game of champions: an elegant, intelligent, thinking-man's game. It defined pool's greatest players.

But to torturously paraphrase a line I once heard in a mobster movie: If straight pool is so damned great, then why is it so damned dead? Why, after years of dominance, is straight pool such a rarity in the American poolroom?

In an effort to shed light on this, one of the great mysteries of our sport, Billiards Digest this month has sought out players, industry representatives, historians and fans. We've poured through The New York Times, pool magazines and even old TV listings. We've come up with some conclusions that might seem obvious, others less so. I even have a theory of my own.

But one thing is absolutely certain: no single event or person killed straight pool. As with the murder of Julius Caesar, the weapon resides in many hands.

"Luck is virtually no factor in the game"

Straight pool is a multi-rack game that facilitates continuous scoring. Every ball counts for a point; the player pockets any ball he wishes just so long as he calls it first. When only one object ball remains on the table, the player re-racks the remaining 14 and continues his or her run. Tournament games typically go to 125 or 150 points, with runs of 100 or more not uncommon among top pros.

Mike Shamos, in "The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards," notes that straight pool (also known as 14.1 Continuous) was adopted as America's official tournament game in 1912 and that many believe it to be the purest form of pocket billiards. "It requires intense concentration, superb position play, defensive maneuvering, and all-around shot-making ability," writes Shamos. "Luck is virtually no factor in the game." The game still remains somewhat popular in Europe, although the more common tournament game there is 9-ball. In the U.S., the Billiard Congress of America last sanctioned a straight pool U.S. Open in 2000; it's been nearly 30 years since the organization sanctioned them with any regularity. The Old Lions - Steve Mizerak, Allen Hopkins and "Champagne" Eddie Kelly among them - will tell you the same thing: The game is all but dead here. Several say its demise came during the mid-1980s.

Who or what murdered straight pool? Through interviews, detective work and the process of elimination, I've come up with the following list of suspects. I believe each played a role, either working separately or in concert. Relating to many of these suspects - but not all of them - is the common contention that straight pool can be just plain boring to watch. But as you'll see in the pages ahead, that answer is far too simple.

"There's also that whole idea of the sociological interaction between the game and what's going on in society," says Shamos. "What is it that makes games popular during certain periods of history?"

Here's the list of potential suspects:

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Since 1978, Billiards Digest magazine has been the pool world's best source for news, tournament coverage, player profiles, bold editorials, and advice on how to play pool. Our instructors include superstars Nick Varner and Jeanette Lee. Every issue features the pool accessories and equipment you love - pool cues, pool tables, instruction aids and more. Columnists Mike Shamos and R.A. Dyer examine legends like Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, and dig deep into the histories of pool games like 8-ball, 9-ball and straight pool.

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