Take a cue from these billiards experts

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Carol Sorgen

You can usually find Charles Boyer at the billiard tables near Charlestown’s Fireside Restaurant. That’s where Boyer, whose enthusiasm for the game is catching on at the Catonsville retirement community, has been teaching the art of the sport to his fellow residents for the past decade.

So many of his neighbors have caught the billiards bug that there are now two resident-run Cue Clubs and scores of spontaneous games played regularly.

For two hours once each week, Boyer teaches the fundamentals of billiards or pool (the name is often used interchangeably, though there are subtle differences between the two) — such as how to properly hold the cue, aim and hit the ball, as well as the rules of the game.

Many ways to play

Cue sports, which are also known as billiard sports, have a long history, dating back to the 15th century. They are generally believed to have evolved into indoor games from outdoor stick-and-ball lawn games, such as croquet.

Today, the term includes a wide variety of games of skill generally played with a cue stick, which is used to strike billiard balls, moving them around a cloth-covered table bounded by rubber cushions.

There are three principal types of cue games: carom billiards, played on tables without pockets; pool, a term that covers numerous pocket billiards games generally played on six-pocket tables, including eight-ball (the world’s most widely played cue sport); and snooker and English billiards, which are played on a specific type of table and have their own separate culture and terminology.

Though the popularity of pool and billiards died out in the U.S. after World War II, the 1961 film, The Hustler (starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason), sparked a resurgence.

And if your idea of pool players are that they’re, well, hustlers, or that the game is played in smoky bars and pool halls, just take a look at Boyer and his fellow players, or visit many of the Baltimore pool halls that tout themselves as “family-friendly,” and in many cases, “alcohol- and smoke-free.”

Senior Olympics winner

Clifton Lyons, 66, taught himself the game when he was just a teenager by watching older guys play at the YMCA. Through the years, the Sandtown resident has added skills and learned new tricks.

In fact, he has become such an accomplished player that he recently won the Maryland Senior Olympics Billiards Tournament, held at the Top Hat Cue Club in Parkville.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Lyons continues to sharpen his skills, playing three times a week in various local leagues. “There’s always something new and exciting about this game to be learned,” said Lyons.

Speaking of leagues, Baltimore is part of the #1 amateur pool league in the country — the American Poolplayers Association (APA) Pool League of Maryland — which boasts more than 1,400 teams and 10,000- plus active members.

The APA was founded in 1979 by two professional players who thought pool should have a recreational league system like other sports have. The association now has 250,000 members nationwide.

In Maryland, there are two APA franchises, one in Southern Maryland, and the local franchise — which serves Baltimore, Howard, Cecil, Harford, Carroll, Washington and Frederick Counties, along with Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the West Virginia counties of Berkeley and Jefferson.

Teams compete in local divisions, where the APA Hosting Taverns are grouped geographically to minimize traveling distance.

The year is divided into three sessions, with each session running between 13 and 17 weeks. Winning teams compete for the right to represent the area in Las Vegas at the APA National Team Championships.

Richard Holden, 78, of Southwest Baltimore, plays in the Baltimore Highlands Division.

Though he started playing pool casually in his early 20s, Holden acknowledged that he wasn’t very good. Now, though, after more than 30 years of regular play several times a week — “I’ve never missed a session,” he said — his skills are “fair to decent.”

Holden enjoys the many people he meets at his twice-weekly games, as well as the fact that pool is a sport at which you can continually improve, no matter your age. Everybody gets better if you play long enough,” he said.

Practice makes perfect

Boyer, who began playing billiards at the Catonsville Senior Center before he moved to Charlestown 18 years ago, agrees.

“That’s why I teach — to get more people interested in the sport. Over the years, I’ve probably taught about 100 or so people.”

The lessons are free, and Boyer’s protégés come to him through word of mouth. “There are always new people moving into the community,” said Boyer. “Many people just stop by when they see us playing, and I’ll invite them to join us.”

Many of Boyer’s students are picking up a cue for the first time, or for the first time in years, and they welcome the pointers from Boyer and other more skilled players.

“Most of the people that come to me for lessons are ladies,” said Boyer, “many of whom haven’t had the opportunity to play in their lifetime.”

He advises the newbies, “It’s not something you can become an expert at overnight. It takes a lot of practice.

“I can teach you the rules and show you the proper technique, but you have to put in the time practicing to really get good. Once you get the technique down, it’s just a matter of sticking with it.”

So many women have become players that there’s now a women’s cue club at Charlestown — the Eightballers — led by lifelong pool player Betty Clark.

“It’s the nicest bunch of women who play,” said Clark. “We just have fun together.”