It’s All About the Pool (and the People)

What makes JOB Billiards Club a Madison mainstay

By Leslie LaChance
Photography by Chad Crawford

Owner Ricky Gamble presides over the JOB Billiards Club bar, where he spends as much time dispensing sets of balls as he does rounds of drinks.
Owner Ricky Gamble presides over the JOB Billiards Club bar, where he spends as much time dispensing sets of balls as he does rounds of drinks.

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Ricky Gamble doesn’t like to brag, but when someone tells him they’ve heard his place has the best pool tables in town, he’s not surprised.

“I’d be aggravated if that weren’t the case,” says the owner of JOB Billiards Club. “All the tables get new covers every December. And the pit, 19, and 29 [the tables that get the most play] get re-covered at least twice a year.”

JOB has 30 billiards tables spread over three cavernous rooms tucked away on the south back side of Madison Town Center [formerly Madison Square], so keeping them well-covered is a significant investment in vivid turquoise felt.

Wait, blue? Aren’t pool tables supposed to to use the classic green felt, which supposedly hearkens back to the sport’s origins as a lawn game for French nobility? 

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Simply enough, blue shows up better on television, according to Gamble. And that’s especially helpful each January, when Pool Action TV livestreams the Music City Open Nineball Championships from JOB. The event draws professional players from around the world to shoot for high-dollar prize money on those freshly covered tables. According to Gamble, only one billiards club in the Southeast has more tables than JOB, and that one is in Atlanta.

Thousands of distracted commuters drive past JOB on Gallatin Pike every day without a second glance at the billiard club’s bright awning. Those who do notice it probably imagine the pool hall hassles and hustles they’ve seen in movies and television.

But brave the hustler cliches and stop in to shoot a few games. What you’ll find among the many Diamond-brand tables are lots of regular folks who love the game. It’s mostly men, but there are enough women to make for real competitive play.

Of course there are eight ball and nine ball, plus variations on both, along with cutthroat. There’s also snooker, which uses 15 red balls, six numbered balls in various colors, and a white cue ball. Played on a 10-foot table near the entrance, it’s an advanced game for the more accomplished player of cue sports.

But the casual billiards player need not be intimidated by JOB. Players of every level are enthusiastically welcomed, with league play most nights of the week for those who want to take things more seriously and improve their game.

Michael Cooper started playing as a novice at JOB last fall and was invited to join an American Pool Association (APA) league team almost immediately. But don’t be too impressed because, as Cooper points out, each team must have a certain number of entry-level players to qualify for tournaments. It’s a way of getting new players involved to keep the game thriving.

“I was entry-level and just looking to improve,” Cooper says. “Here, it’s never hard to get a table. Everyone is friendly. It’s a nice culture, and there are lots of fun, odd people you might not meet other places.”

Like most of the JOB regulars, Cooper appreciates the fact that the focus of the establishment is billiards. “Other places have pool tables, but there might be ping pong or other games, or people are there just to drink and socialize. Here, it’s just about the pool. I mean, they have some dart boards over there, but I’ve never seen anyone using them.”

“Yeah, [the dart boards] don’t get used much,” Gamble admits. And while JOB has a full bar, the owner spends much more time handing out sets of balls and opening tables for play than he does pouring drinks. “It’s not like a normal bar where people just come to drink. A lot of my customers maybe have just one drink or none. And we don’t ever have altercations because people don’t come here just to drink. It’s not that kind of place.” JOB also has a respectable menu of pub fare, so players don’t need to leave the premises to get a decent burger
and fries.

Past is Present

In fact, JOB began with a food business. The founder, James Oliver Blaylock, owned Madison’s Montague’s Market in the early 1970s. When a convenience store opened nearby, Blaylock decided to take his grocery business in another direction and converted the market into a deli, which included a pool table. The game attracted so many players that Blaylock knocked out a wall and added three more tables.

In 1988, he took over one of the storefronts at Madison Square and opened a proper billiards club, christening the new establishment with his initials — JOB. Over time, two neighboring storefronts became vacant, so he expanded the business into those rooms.

And JOB today looks a lot like it did in Blaylock’s day. “I put in flat screens instead of the old televisions and opened up some spaces in the wall. I put in that other bench,” Gamble says when asked about any changes since he took ownership in 2010. “That’s about it.”

All of JOB's 30 billiards tables are recovered in fresh blue felt at least once a year, and even more often for the most popular. Photography by Chad Crawford
All of JOB's 30 billiards tables are recovered in fresh blue felt at least once a year, and even more often for the most popular. Photography by Chad Crawford

He kept the dark wood paneling, the tournament room’s wooden spectator bleachers, and the vintage table lights emblazoned with the Camel cigarette logo. (Tobacco and pool have a deep history together, which makes it tough to separate them even now. Smoking is still allowed at JOB, which means the club is only open to ages 21+. Go early in the day to avoid the evening’s accumulated haze if smoke bothers you.)

At the club entrance, around the back of the strip mall, patrons are met by a life-sized statue of a man and woman holding pool cues. The man stands beside the woman, who is bent over an imagined table, a gleam in her eye and a slight smile on her face as she lines up a killer shot. Glass cases along the walls are crammed with tournament trophies going back decades.

Photography by Chad Crawford
Photography by Chad Crawford

On the facing wall runs an enormous mural of cowboys shooting pool in a barbed-wired corral under a night sky, draped with a long string of old-style snooker scoring beads. Elsewhere, movie posters from The Hustler and The Color of Money hang alongside beer ads and pool cues. The blue-topped tables are lined up in neat rows under individual wedges of light, an inviting geometry in the otherwise dark and hazy rooms.

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JOB is the kind of place that honors its history in both professional and amateur play. Along the upper reach of one of the rooms hang custom-made wood carvings depicting various pro players who won championships at JOB back in the days when cigarette brands still sponsored professional pool, such as the Women’s Professional Billiards Association (WPBA) tour.

Jeanette Lee, Allison Fisher, and Karen Corr all have played at JOB. So have Bobby Pickle, Francisco Bustamante, and Jose Parica. While the names might not be as widely recognized as those of NBA and NFL stars, these folks are royalty to billiards fans. The walls are covered with photos and memorabilia from the many tournaments hosted at JOB. There’s also a photo memorial dedicated to JOB regulars who have passed away.

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‘Affordable and reasonable’

So yeah, pro and semi-pro players are no strangers to JOB, but the club is still very much an everyman’s kind of joint.

“It’s a game anybody can play, whether you just want to come out and play for fun and have a drink or, if you want to, take it seriously,” Gamble says. “It’s not like golf, where it takes a lot of money to play. You can play pool here for an hour for $6. It’s a lot more affordable and reasonable than other sports.”

JOB hosts amateur league play most nights, with as many as 170 players taking shots. There’s the aforementioned APA, the USA Pool League (USAPL), the Billiard Congress of America (BCA), and the Music City League. Plus, there are open tournaments with prize money every weekend. However, outright wagering on billiards is illegal in Tennessee (even if Gamble’s name might suggest otherwise), so don’t ask. Ahem.

Photography by Chad Crawford
Photography by Chad Crawford

Dedicated pool players only get better with practice, obviously, but ask any regular player, any true aficionado of the game, if they are any good, and they’ll never admit to it.

Take, for example, a JOB regular who goes by the name D.J.  “I’m here every day,” he says when asked how often he plays. So he must be an awesome pool player by now, yes? “No, I’m terrible!” he says, laughing. “That’s why I’m here every day — to get better. There’s a lot of really good players in here; it keeps you humble. There’s always somebody better than you.

“This is a billiards club,” he adds. “Ricky doesn’t run it as just a pool hall or bar. It’s for people who love the game.”

Another regular, Bob, chimes in. “I’ve had some young friends thinking it’s just about ‘I want to win.’ But no. It’s about getting better.”

And really, what keeps the regulars coming back isn’t the game, or even the great tables. “It’s definitely about the people,” Gamble says.

“These guys come in to see each other every day, as much as they do to play pool. I don’t think they’d even play if they couldn’t argue! They just play and argue and argue and play and have themselves a pretty
good time.”