MALDEN — Since his teens, Mazin Shooni has had a love affair with three-cushion billiards, a game of surgical precision played on a pocketless table and with just three balls. He hones his skills at his Massachusetts billiards hall, then travels the country, and sometimes the world, banking on making those resin spheres collide.
The game is his lifeblood, but it is also his livelihood. His earnings on the competitive circuit helped pave the way for Shooni to open Amazin Billiards, his crown jewel on Faulkner Street, one of the last genuine halls in the Boston area.
The business is a refuge for a colorful cast of dedicated shooters looking for a place to unwind and strike. Many ended up at the Malden hideaway after their go-to spots, such as World Class Billiards in Peabody and Big City in Allston, closed down. The players speak of the hall with near-reverential appreciation, knowing that if it shuttered, they’d be hard-pressed to find another joint of such caliber, community, and class.
Shooni was born in Baghdad and moved to Detroit when he was 5. By 12, he was frequenting pool halls with his dad. A decade later, he dropped out of Wayne State University to chase billiards tournaments across America. As his four older brothers embarked on careers in medicine, Shooni kept shooting.
“It’s been good to me ever since,” Shooni said of his first true love. In his four-decade career, the 58-year-old has racked up 100-plus tournament wins and in one month won 87 straight rounds.
Three-cushion billiards revolves around getting the cue ball to strike the two other balls and also hit the side of the table three times. Do this and you’ve caromed. Carom once a turn and you’re likely of national caliber. Carom twice a turn and you’re world-class. Shooni once hit 18 in a row, conveniently during the national championship in 2006, which he won.
It’s a niche game, far less popular than the pool practiced at dive bars. At Amazin Billiards, Shooni has four tables devoted to the game, and once he gets rolling on one of them, it’s hard to get him to stop.
On a recent Thursday, a lanky fellow known exclusively as Sweet Money sipped a soda and watched in awe. A regular named Louie Figueroa, or preferably Screwy Louie, set the balls up at seemingly impossible angles and demanded Shooni give the arrangements a go. One shot required the ball to boomerang off the same cushion twice. He nailed it.
“The man’s phenomenal. He’s got the eye of an eagle. Two eagles!” Screwy Louie shouted.
To watch Shooni prepare for a shot is to watch a mathematician at work. With a custom-made $1,000 cue shimmying in his hand, he’ll envision a grid on the table, assess the angles, and measure the velocity and spin necessary for the collisions to culminate in a point.
“I’m going to try to come up with a solution that is extremely simple,” he explained while scanning the table. On the off chance he misses, Shooni mumbles, “Slight miscalculation,” and recalibrates for success.
Shooni and his patrons look after the tables with the same neurotic passion they use to ace a shot. Amazin Billiards boasts 10 Brunswicks for pocket billiards, four Gabriels for carom, and a new Chevillotte for snooker aficionados.
“We’re all aware that Mazin makes no money through this, so we all try to help out. Because if he closes, then what are we gonna do?” said Suad Kantarevic, a Cambridge real estate agent who started playing pool in Croatia and fled to Boston as a refugee in 1998. He now spends his Thursdays shooting at the hall, pausing play every three rounds or so to grab a towel and clean the cloth.
No beers spill onto these tables, for there are no beers sold at Amazin Billiards. Any moisture that does happen upon the imported Greek nylon, which is replaced twice a year, is quickly evaporated by the table’s internal heaters. The shooters at Amazin Billiards religiously apply chalk to the tips of their cues so residue piles up fast. The house cues in this hall go largely untouched. Most players bring their own handcrafted two-piece sticks inside cases akin to arrow quiver bags.
Because of zoning restrictions, Shooni can’t acquire a liquor license. Kantarevic called this is a blessing and a curse. Booze can be financially fruitful, but its absence keeps Amazin Billiards from spiraling into a run-of-the-mill barroom, where two-for-one deals can spill onto the tables and dilute the competition.
Since much of the local competition is now concentrated at Amazin Billiards, its leagues abound with skill. In the Thursday night eight-ball league, a single scratch spells defeat, and it is not uncommon for someone to run the table, or hit every single shot, for much of the game.
The back stories and nicknames of this eccentric cast of sharpshooters are as colorful as the balls they rack.
Ed Der Kazarian earned the moniker “Dr. Death” for his killer precision, as well as the fact “that you’re dead by the time he finally takes a shot,” his teammate joked. The Six-Finger Assassin, birth name Cleiton Rocha, boasts lethal skill in addition to an extra appendage on his hand. Billiards professional Tom McGonagle is also the author of a 2008 romance novel dubbed “Right on Cue.” Until his death last winter, Bassel Dorsett lugged his oxygen tank up the building’s steep front stairs and around Shooni’s billiards tables.
Pamela Fialho and Lida Mullendore anchor a small but mighty female contingent. Fialho mastered the game while working at her grandfather’s pool hall in Beverly. Before 2011, Mullendore had no real interest in pool but she kept walking past a bar with the same group on the billiards tables week after week. She finally asked, “You look like a bunch of fun people. Can I join your group?” Soon she was running tournaments.
Since billiards is all about angles and solutions, success at the table requires an eye for geometry. A decent cue and a love for the game also help.
Bienvenido “Benny” DeJesus has all three. The South End native taught himself how to play pool at age 7 on a Brunswick in the basement of an after-school center in the neighborhood. When the older kids started lifting the cues from the pool room, he resorted to snapping his mother’s broom, whittling it down to a taper, and using asbestos from the ceiling pipes as chalk.
DeJesus has since upgraded to a maple and ivory number handcrafted by Abe Rich, a cue maker and former Dachau prisoner who churned out top-notch sticks from a tiny Palm Beach workshop until his death in 2008.
Each of these players knows billiards is a game on life support. Pool once was popular enough to inspire a pair of Oscar-winning Paul Newman films: 1961’s “The Hustler” and its 1986 sequel, “The Color of Money,” directed by Martin Scorsese. And the smoky, shadowy dens in which the game was played were so unruly they sparked age limits, alcohol bans, and gambling restrictions around the country. Nowadays, even in Chicago, the setting of Newman’s films and a billiards hotbed, the number of pool halls has dwindled from hundreds to just dozens.
Of the remaining legitimate pool halls in the Boston area, few count on the game to pay the bills. Founded in 1987 as an upscale billiards parlor with 39 tables, no beer, and a dress code, Jillian’s on Ipswich Street in Boston has morphed into Lucky Strike Social, a glitzy 70,000-square-foot entertainment mecca. Boston Billiard Co. in Nashua, N.H., is now primarily a casino. Flat Top Johnny’s in Cambridge features a bevy of Brunswicks, but its central Kendall Square location and bar status mean beverages and burgers can often come before billiards.
But if by some stroke of luck, you stumbled into Amazin Billiards on a league night — a nearly impossible proposition given the lack of signage — you’d believe the game was booming. Amid the spread of pristine pool tables, you’ll spot the young and old, the American-born and immigrant, the doddery and spry, all clutching cues, poking fun, and sometimes on a run. And within this sea, there will be Amazin Mazin himself, buzzing about his beloved hall and casting his magic on the resin balls.