Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Working The Angles

For both raw beginner and seasoned veteran, the Moscow pool-playing scene has something to offer.

A man leans over the table and -- CLACK! -- the balls scatter to the four corners; one, a red-striped rocket with the number 13, caroms off the side rail and hurtles toward the opposite pocket, into which it disappears. The man looks over the resulting arrangement, deciding what his next shot will be.

In the movie, "The Hustler," starring Paul Newman, it was glamorized. In the classic Broadway show, "The Music Man," it was vilified as the source of trouble with a capital "T". It is the game of choice in upscale bars and seedy dives the world over. In Vegas tournaments, champions sweep the tables clean while their opponent sits in the corner, sweating in a tux.

There are almost as many versions of pool as there are of cards -- ranging from basic eight-ball to snooker and Russian billiards. And in recent years, the game has become immensely popular in Moscow, with dozens of clubs, bars and recreation centers offering both the amateur and the more advanced player a chance to try his luck -- or to show off her skill, whichever the case may be.

In Soviet times, billiards was almost exclusively a man's game, and the facilities available reflected a certain chauvinism that has all but vanished in the post-Soviet era. Nowadays, it is possible, even chic, to spend an evening with that special someone -- or just a friend -- hitting bank shots, straight-ins, cut shots and combinations.

But for the lone wolf who likes to play pickup games, a word of caution is in order. Playing pool in Russia means that -- and this should come as no surprise to the veteran expatriate -- the rules change depending on where and with whom you play.

If you're used to playing by a certain set of rules, outline them to your opponent. Be prepared to negotiate.

Especially if you play for money, it is imperative that all the variables be clarified. In eight-ball, for example, a rule commonly used here is that the eight ball must be shot into the same pocket that you shoot your last colored ball into. And if you're expecting to play call-your-shot, you'd better say so beforehand. And don't forget to discuss what happens if a player scratches.

If there's money at stake, settle the bet immediately after each game. And beware the classic pool shark ploy of an opponent who loses a few games, talks about how it's just not his night, then suddenly wants to go double or nothing. No matter how good a player you are, there's always someone who can play better -- and he or she could leave you with both a deflated ego and an empty wallet.

But where to play?

Whereas in the past the choice of venues in Moscow was quite limited, today there is something for everyone, from the serious player to the occasional, both for the well- and not-so-well-heeled.

Russkaya Pyramida, located in the CSKA sports complex, could be counted among the places for the "serious" player, although on any given night the skill level of players there can vary, with "greenhorns" playing at one table while seasoned professionals battle it out at the next.

Russkaya Pyramida has 14 tables, seven of which are for Russian billiards, three for American pool, and two each for snooker and carombol, an Italian version played on a pocketless table with bumpers.

Russian billiards is played on a large table with oversized balls that barely fit into the pockets. There is no cue ball and any ball can be sunk, including the first ball struck, provided it is hit off another ball. The smaller pocket size relative to the balls makes it a more challenging game than pool and one whose main strategy involves forcing your opponent into situations where he is without a playable shot.

Katya Poslavskaya, who says she's a regular at Russkaya Pyramida, prefers snooker over other games. "Pool's O.K., but I like snooker better -- you have to think in order to play well," she said. "It's a beautiful game."

Poslavskaya's game is a little rusty, she says, because she hasn't been able to play much recently. But she's seen the competitions on television. "Jimmy White and David Hendry, they're the best," she says of the two world-class snooker players.

Director Georgy Mitasov said Russkaya Pyramida holds competitions all year long, including the Russian national billiards championship.

The club offers little in the way of amenities, however. A small bar, which usually sells cold beer and soft drinks, is closed for the summer. The decor is somewhat run-down, and the restrooms are not for the nasally sensitive.

Entrance to Russkaya Pyramida costs 25,000 rubles ($4.30), and tables rent for 36,000 rubles per hour. The club, open 24 hours, also sells memberships, which allow holders free entrance as well as priority use of the tables, at 600,000 rubles quarterly. Call ahead to reserve a table.

Aleko, a short walk from the Tekstilshchiky metro station, is almost exclusively dedicated to Russian billiards, with only one table each -- out of a total of 19 -- for snooker and American pool. Here, too, the atmosphere is somewhat somber, with walls lined with hand-painted signs explaining the rules of various games, and floors covered with brownish-yellow linoleum.

Eating, Smoking or Drinking are not allowed in the pool hall, although the club has a player's lounge with a small bar where refreshments or a smoke can be had.

According to director Anatoly Basov, Aleko was designated "best in Europe" in 1995, and has hosted five world championships over the past decade. The club attracts a mixed crowd, Basov said, and even holds lessons for children during the summer.

Aleko is open 24 hours and has an entrance fee of 15,000 rubles. Russian pool and snooker tables rent for 50,000 rubles per hour, and the lone American pool table is 36,000 rubles per hour.

The Cafe Club Billiard, on the embankment next to the Expocenter, offers a more upscale venue, as well as a preponderance of American pool tables. Of the club's 12 tables, three are for Russian billiards and one for snooker. There is no entrance fee, and American pool costs 25,000 rubles per game. The Russian and snooker tables rent for 100,000 rubles per hour, and there is a private room with Russian billiards available for 150,000 rubles per hour.

The club, open from 2 p.m. to 4 a.m., has a small bar and restaurant as well as a patio overlooking the river, which makes it an excellent place to combine socializing with an hour or so of pool. The decor here is rather attractive, although a row of slot machines against one wall doesn't exactly add ambience.

Security is somewhat daunting, however, with a heavily armed doorman in fatigues patrolling the interior.

The club owners went to great pains to explain that the security was there to make sure that no weapons were brought into the club. The owners added that gambling was prohibited.

One of the more pleasant places to spend a night hunched over green felt is the Monte Cristo, in the Kinoteatr Mossoviet building on Preobrazhenskaya Ploshchad. With an obliging staff, excellent tables and luxurious furnishings, the Monte Cristo is perhaps the best place to take a date, as long as he or she doesn't mind traveling the short distance from the center.

The club, open from noon to 6 a.m., also has a small bar and restaurant -- with tablecloths -- billed as a "European kitchen," with a wide range of appetizers and entrees priced from 25,000 rubles to 120,000 rubles.

The pool room itself is luxuriously appointed, with leather wing chairs and beautifully polished drink tables lining the walls, and perhaps the most elegant pool tables in town.

The Monte Cristo has nine tables: seven for American pool, which costs 20,000 rubles per game, and two for Russian billiards, at 120,000 rubles per hour. Manager Gagerin Pogosyan said the club hosts a tournament every week, some of which are open to all comers. Next year, the club plans to offer membership.

For those for whom central Moscow is the only place to go, the Armadillo, with six American pool tables, two bars and a dance hall is a convenient and entertaining alternative. Located not far from the Rossia Hotel on Khrustalny Pereulok, the Armadillo -- open from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- also has a Tex-Mex kitchen and, on weekends, live music.

The pool tables here, however, leave a great deal to be desired. Smaller than regulation-size, and costing 30,000 rubles per game, the Armadillo is for the player who isn't particular about such niceties as table size and affordability. Whereas other clubs can be considered pool halls with a bar, the Armadillo is a bar with pool tables.