In the song
, Johnny Cash sings about a pool game between the baron and Billy Joe in which, down on his luck, Billy Joe bets his mother's wedding ring against the baron's "fancy stick."
In an unexpected and fortunate turn of events, the baron's long-lost wife shows up before the eight ball falls, and Billy Joe realizes that the baron is actually his father -- and inherits his pearl-handled cue.
Countless pool players, even the pros, can only curse Billy Joe's luck as they hand over their prized cues as payment in bets gone bad.
Many of the top pool players are hard gamblers who will wager anything of value when they get desperate, says cuemaker Anthony Sciannella, owner of custom cue outfit
Black Boar. "People forfeit their cue and get out of town," jokes Sciannella.
The best cuemakers in the country, like the swordsmiths of ancient times, are hoping you won't have to hock their masterpieces of ingenuity. However, you can be assured they will fetch you a nice price if you do.
Sciannella only produces eight cues a year for two exclusive clients, at around $20,000 for an eight-point cue.
When the price goes above $5,000 or $6,000, says Sciannella, the cue goes from playing item to collector's piece. "Many of these cues will never hit a ball," he says.
Dan Dishaw, president of the
American Cuemakers Association and owner of
Dan Dishaw Custom Cues, says that the majority of people buy cues because of how the pieces look in hand.
A friend once advised Dishaw, who formerly sold musical instruments, "If you want to sell more guitars, hang a mirror in your store." The same clearly holds true for the cue.
Basic cue construction is pretty consistent throughout the industry, says Dishaw; the difference is in the design.
The design is an extension of your personality," Dishaw explains, describing one $100,000 cue made by Alaskan cuemaker Thomas Wayne on which interlaced ivory formed an intricate Celtic design interspersed with about forty gold pieces. "The gaudier it is, the more appeal it has," says Dishaw.
Think of the cue as a fashion statement akin to driving a Mercedes, suggests Arnot Wadsworth of
Arnot Q Custom Cues.
Jim Stadum, co-owner of
Samsara Cues, calls the cues he makes functional art. After cuemaking exploded in the 1990s, the competition became stiff, and creativity gives the needed edge.
Samsara relies on its unique techniques and styles, most notably an ancient technique called intarsia, in which many pieces of wood are glued together at different angles to create a design. The goal, says Stadum, is to have people look at his cues and wonder, "How did they do that?"
But does a flashy cue increase the odds against the competition? Is there some weird psychological effect from all that glitz?
If you have an expensive cue and you walk into a pool hall, people might notice it and perceive that you know what you're doing, says Dishaw. But "as soon as you hit a ball, the
perception goes away."
"A good player can play with a broom handle," Dishaw adds. In the hands of an expert, however, a custom-made cue can be the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin to a virtuoso.
Wadsworth says it's hard to find a cuemaker you can really trust. "Especially in the last five years ... a lot of what
cuemakers do doesn't work well because they have no experience," he says. The biggest thing to look for is the use of seasoned wood, which helps prevent warping.
Cue prices range from $900 to $20,000, but the bells and whistles make the difference in price, notes Sciannella. Details of ebony and ivory are popular, as are gold and silver inlays and exotic handle wraps, including lizard. Most frills, such as inlays, don't do anything functional, but features such as deep-knifed prongs add weight, stiffness and balance.
Stick to Science
That's not to say cuemakers only care about fancy sticks; in fact, Sciannella has the perfect playing cue down to a science.
Black Boar differentiates itself because it relies heavily on the physics of the cue. "We take everything to a much higher level," says Sciannella, who watches how clients play in order to determine what kind of cue will give them the best game.
His favorite part is determining which eye the person is using in his or her game. Ninety percent of people play favoring the right eye, while it's really the left that plays pool, he explains.
Sciannella's secret is also in the wood -- bird's-eye maple and curley.
Besides their beautiful colors and grains, these woods are strong and shock-resistant, providing the right weight and the lowest resonant pitch.
The slightest change in material can alter the stiffness and weight distribution in the cue, Sciannella explains, making a stainless-steel joint of 1 ounce vs. 1.3 ounces an important factor.
"If there was just one cue that was good for everybody, everybody would be playing with it," says Sciannella, who will customize a cue even after it's made. "We modify it until it does what it's supposed to do."
Sciannella claims that his cues, which can take up to six months to make, are so distinguishable that people walk into a pool room and hear the specific sound -- like hitting the sweet spot on a tennis racket -- and they know it's a Black Boar.
As far as the professionals, Sciannella says they are not necessarily pros at picking a good cue. They often go for endorsements from commercial cuemakers or assume they can play with anything. "They all want something for nothing," he says. The average pool player, who will often opt for the prettier cue over the better playing one, ends up switching quickly, he says.
In the end, as Sciannella says, "Each cue speaks for itself."
So before you get carried away with showy sticks, find yourself a reputable cuemaker. Then, in the immortal words of Cash, "Maybe you'd shoot straighter than you do."
Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.