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I try pool-hall diplomacy in China

In China a month ago, in a small town called Zhouzhuang, I walked away from my tour group. We had another hour before the bus was finishing the trip to Shanghai, and I didn't want to spend it buying souvenirs.

Five minutes later, I was the only non-Chinese in sight. The townspeople glanced at me and went about their business. I took a few pictures of what I considered their "real" world, which was more drab than the glorified flea market that lined the canal behind the main street. And then, incredibly, I saw a pool hall.

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An open-air pool hall. The front of it was simply empty space, though there was a roof over the three tables and a wall in the rear. I stepped inside. The humidity and heat were so prevalent that I looked around for talcum powder as I watched two men shooting a game of eight-ball.

All I saw was a slate board dangling from one wall. There was no furniture whatsoever besides the tables. No cue rack, just two cues sticks lying on the empty table that I stood beside. That table had a cloth patch three inches by four inches covering a tear in the felt midway up the table. The cue sticks, I saw with relief, had tips.

The men played with enthusiasm. They celebrated every shot made and spouted what I knew to be excuses in Chinese for every miss. When the game ended, I gestured toward the empty table and lifted a stick.

I tried to make it clear I wanted to pay for a game, but they smiled, and one of them racked the balls. The other rolled the cue ball my way. When I broke, the balls drifted so slowly apart that I knew I'd received the softest rack in China.

They both smiled again, but my opponent missed after making two shots, and he left the table open. I drove an easy shot dead-center, and it caromed off the back of the pocket back onto the table. The men grinned.

A slow learner, I repeated the same shot on my next turn. This time they made the universal, palm-down sign for "slower."

And so the game settled in. On my third turn I slid a soft cut in the center pocket, and they smiled and nodded. When I managed a four-ball run, they beamed.

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By now, 20 men surrounded the table, a murmur of approval or disappointment following every make or miss. There was no sign that anyone but me knew a word of English.

When faced with a shot that required a bridge, I didn't even look for one. I leaned so far over the table that my feet nearly left the floor. When I missed, my opponent used my ball for a combination shot - anything was legal, apparently - and got a wrong-pocket shot to drop. Nobody called a pocket in Zhouzhuang, evidently. Then he tapped in the eight-ball.

I shook his hand and asked for another game. He chattered to the crowd and broke. When I stepped up, ready to use the anything-goes rules to my advantage, I dropped five in a row, heard a chorus of approval, and saw that the crowd filled the room. The other tables were quiet.

I was rolling now: That pool table in my basement half a planet away was paying off. I won that game, making a bank shot to the audible pleasure of the crowd, and we started a third game.

I ran four balls and then, with a ball sitting in front of the pocket, I had to shoot across the patch. The cue ball veered three inches left to a murmur of sympathy and knowing nods.

I managed two more wins, muddling along on the unreliable table. It was the most fun I'd had in months of shooting pool. I shook hands with my opponent after each game. The crowd smiled. Knowing that our tour bus was ready to leave, I gestured "enough" and pulled out my disposable camera.

The two men I'd played and the man who'd racked happily posed for the oversized American wearing a T-shirt proclaiming Republic Records.

I shook hands with half a dozen of the spectators. If this was "cultural exchange," I was all for it. Three blocks later, I was still smiling.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor