In Taos County anything billiards related is pretty much handled by Stephen Montoya.
Any bar with a sufficient amount of felted tables or at least one table of a high enough grade will feature a tournament he organizes. There is one on Mondays at the Alley Cantina in the Taos Historic District. There is one on Sundays at the Midtown Market & Lounge in Arroyo Hondo.
The one that occupies a majority of Montoya’s time as the unofficial Pool President of Taos is the Amigos 8 Ball Pool League — where matches occur concurrently on Thursdays at 7 p.m. at three classic quintessential dive bars: Don Carlos Lounge, the Eagles Club (Fraternal Order of Eagles) and Midtown.
Don Carlos Lounge is considered (by some) to be the mecca of pool in Taos. Its sign, which can be seen from Paseo del Cañon, claims it's the “best pool hall in town." It's also where the pool league got its start.
The league’s been in existence for over 20 years; Montoya’s been at its helm for the past three. Unfortunately, the longtime owner and operator of the Don Carlos, George C. Trujillo, passed away in November. His wife Isabel Trujillo, son George R. and daughter Kathy T. Romero, are still an essential part of the bar's experience. The lounge remains the definitive spot for league games.
Listed as Montoya’s occupations are certified showboater at Mariachi Teotihuacán and world’s okayest bartender. These credentials have served him well in the pool league, where his affable demeanor set the tone for a friendly and inviting league. On the league newsletter/standings sheet they welcomed newcomer Joanna to the league and made note that she also had an 8-ball break.
At the bar, while waiting with other players for their turn to play, Montoya pulls out a hefty black “bad decisions” token chip, which features a swiveling middle for taking the guesswork out of a night’s outing; on one side is a “yeah,” on the other “maybe.” Currently his team, the “Lucky Bastards,” sits atop the team standings with 44 wins to 31 losses. Individually he leads the league with 13 wins to 2 losses. He’d like to pass on the deeper understanding of pool to a youth league.
“You have the left side of the brain sitting there doing your angles and geometry for the English (striking the ball off-center for a desired spin to overcome obstacles or for certain shots)," he says. "Then you have your right side brain, which plays a lot of the strategy, the chess game (the order of the balls you decide to shoot first and the manner in which you leave yourself a make-able shot on your next shot). But then you really get the the right brain involved with the whole mechanics of your stroke.”
“The mechanics of your stroke is the most important part of pool, and it's the easiest thing to actually teach, but it's the hardest thing to do consistently. With just the [right] amount of inflection — you can hit the cue ball in the exact same spot at the exact same angle with the exact same force. But, depending on how how tight or loose your bridge is or how tight or loose you're holding it in the back, will completely affect how that cueball reacts to it”
Teaching the cue sports fundamentals to the next generation of pool players can possibly go a long way in terms of professional outlook, much like another not-so-quite-athletic and alcohol-friendly sport, bowling, has done for those who take it seriously enough. Montoya shares this sentiment, and he would like to change the perception around the sport.
“There’s actually an organization that helps start up youth leagues because it's a great game and they're trying to end the stigma that it's all just playing in bars getting drunk. But when you see the pros playing, it's kind of like bowling, they offer huge scholarships in certain places for bowling.”
One kind of perception won’t change. Pool will never not be cool.
From its origins among the French nobility to its associations with slick pool hustlers in a smoke-filled pool hall, there’s a strong stylistic element to the game. From one of the league games an older gentleman could be seen with combed back silvery hair holding a cue waiting for his opponent to miss. One of the teams embraces their heritage by calling themselves Los Chicanos. Their tongue-in-cheek motto printed on their white and black shirts is “I’m here to break your balls."
Lining up his shot, another league player was wearing a hipster ensemble: a thick flannel shirt, one of those newsboy style wool caps, Frontier Classics pants held upright by suspenders, and a pair of Diesel sunglasses. Another player wore more muted garb executed sharply: well-fitted Wrangler jeans, a tucked-in plaid shirt, spiffy brown boots without any notable scuffs, and a clean Chevron type mustache.
For one of the league nights at the Eagles Club, Alley Cantina’s Shiloh (no last name provided) breezed through the competition, winning all five of his matches. In one of them, he was behind on the 8-ball, still needing to pocket four balls spaced far apart, and the 8-ball was somewhat blocked by the opposing player's remaining ball. He’d have to make the four shots and then leave the cue ball in a specific portion of the table, which he did. Game over.
Toward closing time at Eagles Club, one of the patrons, wearing a grey suede cowboy hat and blue leather shoes, started stripteasing to Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer,” at which point it started to rain dollar bills.