Part-time player Tom Crowley has racked up Bangkok's shady pool scene to break into a corner of the capital "few foreigners ever have a chance to know and see".
For his opening shot Crowley describes his traumatic entry point to Asia as a young American soldier in ’66. He survived Vietnam, taking home with him a hatred of war-hungry politicians but a newfound love for the East and a determination to make his home here. Business then took him across Asia before he finally rolled to a stop in Bangkok where he devotes his time to an NGO helping HIV-positive adults and children.
And in his spare time he plays pool.
Crowley begins this 150-page book with a brief sketch of the game’s history, from its roots as “indoor croquet” in the 15th-century court of Louis XI, to its big break in Bangkok when Nana Plaza’s girlie bars began shipping in tables as moneymakers after the ’97 crash.
With girlie bars, the well-trodden road of expat memoirs opens before us, though Crowley is a better barstool correspondent than most as he launches into his chapter on “The Owners”. First stop is Patti’s in Nana, where the husband-and-wife owners were among the first to catch the pool wave before, as Crowley describes it, money went to their heads and they reverted to the more lucrative sex trade.
The author turns a cool eye on this scene and others, refusing to leer or pass judgement on the “working girls” and the protection money paid to “friendly” cops. The detail will be an eye-opener for anyone unfamiliar with the Bangkok scene. Jaded night owls, however, will have little new to pick over, and a downside is sometimes-humdrum description.
Readers will also be divided by the tale of romance between Crowley’s expat pool buddy and a younger Thai makee (pool hostess). Once again it spins towards superior bar-room anecdote, though with the interesting twist that her pool expertise wins her a place on the national team.
The growth of the game here is traced through chapters on well-known home and foreign players. Woven in are more anecdotes spotlighting corners of Thai nightlife such as lesbian tom and dee relationships, katoey, and the “hi-so” world of fast cars and gambling. Crowley manages to pack a lot of Bangkok exotica into a short space.
Pool halls begin to spring up and the author joins the dedicated, growing band of players who prefer to hone their game in peace, away from the hustle.
He encounters hustle of a different kind, off course. The reader is warned never to accept the offer of a game from “Jelly Baby” or “The Killer”, no matter what head-start they give you.
After arming you with that knowledge, Crowley gives you a cue – a useful appendix of Bangkok pool venues is tagged to the end of the book.