The Shootist

Dick Lane is the best Texas pool player ever—and you can take that to the bank shot.

January 2000By Comments

Dick Lane couldn’t imagine a better way to spend his time. On an otherwise unremarkable night last summer, the onetime king of Texas pool showed his stuff for seven hours, until just after one in the morning: At a Clicks Billiards in Dallas, he shot a two-hundred-point game of straight pool and five lengthy sets of nine ball. “That sounds like a lot for a fifty-year-old man,” he says, “but, heck, I could’ve played more. And the more I play this game, the more I love it.”

He’s not kidding. Over the past three decades, Lane has established himself as the state’s greatest pool player ever, a two-time Southwest Player of the Year who has won more than one hundred tournaments and set benchmarks that his rivals can only dream of (he’s run 324 consecutive balls in straight pool and nine straight racks in nine ball). He’s also been the state’s greatest pool advocate, working tirelessly to make the sport a pro-tour powerhouse on the order of golf and to win it the respect he insists it deserves. The king has been in a kind of self-imposed exile since 1994, when sheer frustration over pool’s slow growth compelled him to resign as the vice president of the Pro Billiards Tour Association—”a bad experience,” he says, that led him to disappear from the circuit. But he resurfaced in 1999, participating in a national event here, a senior there; in April in New York City, he finished second in the biggest straight-pool event of the year. “I’m finally ready to take action,” he says, “to develop my vision and make pool work—to do something to catapult it to a higher place.”

Lane’s passion for the game is not the only thing that sets him apart from his fellow players in Texas poolrooms, where intimates know him as Tricky Dick. There’s also his wealth. Lane was one of the original investors in Clicks, a Dallas-based chain that celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1999 and has 22 locations in four states, including 15 in Texas. Consequently, he’s a millionaire several times over, though a frugal one. He hardly travels, wears no showy jewelry other than an eighteen-karat gold Piaget watch that his mother gave his father, and doesn’t wear expensive suits. He bought a Lexus sports coupe in 1995, but only after driving around for a decade in the same BMW. “I’m just low-maintenance, pragmatic, and not very good at getting outside my comfort zone,” he says.

A devout Christian who has taken courses in bible study at Dallas’ Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, Lane has crafted a monastic existence for himself. He reads constantly—from the Bible to Anthony Robbins’ self-help shtick to personal finance tracts like The Wealth Equation—and revels in moments when he can sit back quietly and listen to Rachmaninoff. Never married, he lives alone in Highland Park in a one-bedroom condominium on Turtle Creek Boulevard, right down the street from Jerry Jones and Trammell Crow. He rented the place for years before buying it—”Which is typical Dick,” says his friend Cathy Vanover, a former pro player whose husband, Bob, was one of the dominant forces in Texas pool for decades. “He’ll study something for years before making a move. He approaches everything as if it were some mathematical equation he needs to solve.” Inside, there are French Impressionist paintings, antique chairs, pool trophies and assorted memorabilia, family photos, and of course, a pool table.

A slight man with thinning brown hair and tiny hazel eyes, Lane looks nothing like the stereotypical pool shark. He’s given to wearing suspenders, has a complexion so pale that you’d swear the sun never laid a ray on him, and often displays the blankly wan expression of someone deeply lost in thought. “One time four of us were in a twenty-four-hour diner,” recalls his friend Dannie Holt, “and we were talking about playing pool, and some guy in the booth right behind us asked if any of us played for money. And we said, ‘Sure, we all do—just pick one of us [to play].’ And, of course, he picks Dick, who happens to be the best of the bunch, because Dick’s got the look of somebody who can’t play a lick.”

The first time I saw Lane compete was in the early nineties in a tournament just outside Chicago. I remember being struck by three things: his painfully slow pace (which, I later found out, made him notorious among his peers), the incredible precision of his play (including his cue ball control), and most of all, the violently odd action of his stroking arm. On his preliminary practice strokes, his arm shook almost to the point of vibrating like a tuning fork. It was a startling sight, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Could the guy be that nervous?” On every final stroke, however, he delivered the stick straight through the ball. Only much later did I discover that it wasn’t nervousness at all but the by-product of permanent nerve damage caused by three incidents in his mid-teens: a shoulder injury sustained during a football game, whiplash from being rear-ended by a drunk, and arm strain from throwing too many fastballs as a high school baseball pitcher.

Lane was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Wichita Falls, where his father was the president of the City National Bank for twelve years. He remembers being serious-minded as a kid and admiring excellence in all things, but he wasn’t especially interested in his schoolwork; his love of sports was too great. He played football, baseball, and golf, idolized Mickey Mantle and Arnold Palmer, and—sporting a nine handicap in his early teens—won country club golf championships in his age group. He played pool from time to time but only to wind down from other sports. Then, between his junior and senior year in high school, after reading and rereading a small paperback by old-time pool great Willie Mosconi, he suddenly fell in love with the game and became a regular at a downtown Wichita Falls pool hall called the Board Room. Later, as a student at the University of Oklahoma, he won a bunch of regional collegiate championships and got caught in a kind of undertow: Pool had such an irrestible pull that he wanted to play it his every waking hour.

He played his first pro event in Fort Worth in 1968. Anxiety-ridden, he won only one match and finished out of the money. But the following year, he ran more than one hundred balls for the first time—a milestone for pool players—and two years after that was running in excess of two hundred regularly. In 1973, competing in the U.S. 14.1 Open, a prestigious straight-pool tournament, he toppled two top rivals, Ray Martin and Danny DiLiberto. Based on that performance, he was asked to play in the inaugural Pabst Brunswick 14.1 Invitational Tournament in 1974. He was one of six competitiors, and the other five were all future Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famers. Lane finished first, defeating Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter in the finals—to this day, a major highlight of his career.

In 1975, after graduating with a degree in business administration and completing a stint in the Army, Lane moved to Dallas to be near his stepbrother France (another stepbrother, Ken, lives in Maine). At first he lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment—though still managing to fit in a regulation pool table—and worked in Richardson as the store manager for Bowling and Billiards, a retail supply store. But he itched to play some serious pool and eventually cut his hours to weekends only.

Then, in 1979, his boss introduced him to Nick Alexander, a corporate lawyer who was ready to start a chain of pool halls. Alexander took an immediate liking to Lane, and both were intrigued by the possibility of teaming up—of combining Alexander’s business sense with Lane’s billiard expertise. Lane wanted not only a position in the company but a financial stake as well. So, along with Alexander and his Southern Methodist University cronies and a few lawyer friends, Lane became an investor. The group initially invested $66,000, with Lane’s outlay being $10,000. “I was broke at the time,” Lane admits. “I had some surrender value from a life insurance policy my grandfather took out on me when I was five. Later I borrowed some money from my mother, which I paid back with fifteen percent interest. I nearly borrowed some money from a character in a poolroom but thought better of it. Besides, the guy told me he didn’t think the thing would fly.” The guy was wrong. In August of that year, the first Clicks opened in the European Crossroads Shopping Center, on Northwest Highway in Dallas, and within six months the money was rolling in. By 1982, he was seeing, like clockwork, on the fifteenth of every month, a five-figure dividend check.

By 1984, at age 35, he had enough money to retire. The Clicks chain was expanding aggressively, with Lane investing liberally in all the new locations; the dividend checks, even bigger by that point, kept coming and coming. So, just as he’d always wished he could, like some kind of lottery winner, he up and quit blue-collar life for good and, from that point on, started “enjoying life on my own terms.” Which, in Lanespeak, means he finally had the financial freedom to play pool at will—every single day, for hour upon hour, the rest of his life.

Lane says his strength at the table is “managing the risk-reward percentages well,” and that his trick for running hundreds of balls is nothing more than an inevitable outgrowth of his supreme love for the game and his ability to concetrate well for long periods. “I’m not talented so much as someone who’s logged a lot of hours,” he says. Indeed, Lane has always been considered by his peers as something of an eccentric practice freak. “I don’t know anybody in the world who has that kind of discipline,” says Bob Vanover. And Lane’s practice sessions have often extended beyond the pool hall. “I had a friend who lived in the same building as Dick,” says Dannie Holt, “and sometimes we’d pass Dick’s apartment at four in the morning, and we’d hear him in there still hitting balls.”

Even with absolutely nothing on the line, his friends say, Lane is always dead serious about his play. “We were playing in my game room one night,” Bob Vanover recalls, “and I turned on some soft music just to kill the quietness. Well, we hadn’t been playing but ten minutes before Dick says to me, ‘You mind if we turn the music off?'” And after every match, Lane will unfailingly jot the results and a detailed self-critique in his “pool journal,” a ritual he’s performed for 32 years. It’s his somewhat anal attention to detail, in fact, that once helped him recover his stolen cue stick: He spotted it in a poolroom one night, recognizing, of all things, the barely visible grain of wood along the shaft.

So tightly controlled, so technically flawless, so subtly brilliant, Lane’s play ultimately produces in his opponent the unnerving feeling of slow suffocation. “He just never does anything silly to hand over games,” says 28-year-old top pro Jeremy Jones, formerly of Baytown, who now resides in Jacksonville, Florida. Says Dannie Holt: “He’ll run a hundred and twenty-five balls on you, then stick you frozen behind the rack without anything to shoot at. I mean, you sit around waiting for two hours to shoot and he leaves you absolutely nothing.”

Last April, in his comeback tournament appearance, Lane exhibited a new, faster pace and placed at the National Straight Pool Championship in New York, entering the finals undefeated before eventually losing to 28-year-old George San Souci. Earlier in the event, San Souci had lost to Lane by a wide margin, after which the up-and-comer described the experience as totally weird. “The guy doesn’t do anything spectacular,” he said. “No one thing impresses you. But somehow the balls keep going in the pocket, he keeps tearing apart the racks, and before you know it, you’re in a deep, deep hole. He’s definitely a great player, but great in a way I’ve never really seen before.”

“I’m much more of a finished player now,” Lane says. “For one thing, I have firepower, which I never had before. In the last few years I’ve learned so much about pocketing balls, addressing differences of the cue ball, some visual things—the theoretical stuff you can’t find in print. The learning process is never-ending for me. Rather than declining with age, I’m playing better than ever.”

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