I Played Illegal Pool with Mobsters in Communist Romania
The biggest stars had nicknames like the "Butcher" and the "Barber," while my manager wore grenades on his belt.
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Especially during the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, our Eastern European dictators and leaders could be absolute hypocrites. One example of that hypocrisy was the way in which the Romanian Communist regime treated billiards—a game it considered a symbol of Western decadence, and so banned for normal Romanians, while dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu continued to play away.
The regime's issues were less about the game itself, and more about the potential for gambling that it offered. So while billiards wasn't officially illegal, there were just no pool tables made available to normal Romanians. The only places you'd find them were in the Romanian hotels and clubs designed for foreigners and the country's elite.
That led to a unique type of dissidence—underground pool venues where people played for money. The most daring enthusiasts only played for high stakes with foreign currency, and went only by their nicknames, like the "Cripple," the "Butcher," the "Sailor," and the "Barber."
I got in touch with one of the last survivors of that era in illegal pool, Valerian Atomulesei. Atomulesei was nicknamed "Vali Carambole" after carom billiards, the kind of billiards where the table doesn't have any pockets, a game popular among Romanians who didn't have access to the luxury pool tables in hotels.
VICE: Where and how did you play pool in the Communist era?
Vali Carambol: In those days, there were three places in Bucharest with pool tables—all in Communist clubs and institutions for foreigners. They weren't the pool tables you know now—they had no pockets in the corners, but small pins and holes in the center of the table. The only place that had the kind of tables you see today was the Intercontinental Hotel. You had to insert a dollar to play with that table, so it was illegal for Romanians. But I knew a guy who worked there, and he let me play for free.
How did you get into playing pool if it wasn't available to normal Romanians?
I worked at the Ministry of Tourism, in the department that owned and operated those tables with pins and holes in the middle. I traveled around the country to deliver, install, and fix them in clubs for foreigners and the elite. That's how I met all sorts of pool players who taught me how to play.
And when did you start playing for money?
In 1979. I was losing a lot of money at first, so I had to be careful not to get caught by the authorities [under Communism, Romanians all received exactly enough money to live on]. We also played for meals, watches, salami, bacon, wine, whisky, and vodka. The true mobsters played for apartments and cars. If we played for money, we used our winnings to pay for dinner at fancy restaurants, and the winning team always had to buy drinks for everybody. You were never able to spend it all, though, because you couldn't legally spend that much money at once in a Communist regime.
Who were the great players of the era?
You couldn't beat the old farts who only played for money. But if you paid them a bit, you could practice with them. They all had nicknames, like Cornel the Barber, who was the manager of a hair salon in a very fancy area of Bucharest. Or Petrică the Sailor—every time we played together, he would take my money and joke that his back was aching from his heavy wallet. But most people who played were directors and managers of those clubs: salon managers, union leaders, and apartment block managers—the Communist upper class. Gambling was illegal, but that didn't stop anybody.
Did you ever get in trouble with the police?
They were never able to pin me down for playing for money or gambling—although there were snitches who could report you, and they'd have the cash as evidence. They could even lock you up just for suspecting that you were gambling—I did get arrested a few times because of that.
How did that happen?
Well, the first time it happened, I was working at an amusement park—a place with a few rides, ping-pong tables, and a club where some people could come and play. When Ceaușescu came for a visit, his men raided the entire park. We were supposed to keep the pool club closed, but we didn't because we were in the mood to play. Seven or eight of his guys broke down the door, confiscated our money, and took photos as evidence. After that, they arrested us.
What did they tell you?
They threatened us with six months in jail. They argued that I had encouraged gambling, but I had hung signs all over the club explicitly saying, "No gambling allowed!" I spent a night in jail, and the next day, we went to court. I was released immediately after—I was an employee of the park, so they let me go. During another raid, later on, I was told to empty my pockets, which were stuffed with money. I lied that the money was from the club revenues, since I worked there. They confiscated the money and let me go. My boss then went to the police and got the money back.
How much money did you have when the regime fell and you didn't have to be so secretive about it anymore?
A lot, but I lost it almost instantly—my house was broken into in the early 90s, and all my money was stolen. Thankfully, I had a house and a car and a pool cue. In the 90s, the familiar pool tables with pockets started to appear in Romania. I opened my own billiards club in that same former Communist amusement park I used to work at and called it the Atomic Club. I bought a carom billiards table for $700 at the time. And I ordered a pool table from Belgium, which was about what I would have paid to buy a one-bedroom apartment at the time.
So what was the scene like after the fall of Communism?
The stakes were low, all over Bucharest, especially between '94 and '96, when poverty and unemployment were at an all-time high and corruption was rampant. We used to play for all sorts of currency—it didn't matter what. I even played for Dutch guilders. When I heard of a place that only had one pool table but much higher stakes, I went there at 6 AM and booked it for the whole day. The British and Irish expats who usually played there were very annoyed that I took their table, but had no choice but to play with me—at $20 a match. The winner got to stay at the table, and I remained in the game almost the whole day.
Playing for money illegally, weren't you ever afraid about pissing off the wrong person?
Not really. We had a team and played for money in different cities. We had a manager in Bucharest who had our back. He would call teams we'd play on our behalf. We never played with gangsters unless we knew it was all safe. This one time, in 1999, we were at an official tournament playing for the $5,000 prize, but the people there blocked us from playing, so we called our manager, who's the kind of guy who wore grenades on his belt ironically. He just came in the club and shouted: "Hey, those three over there are with me! If anybody dares to bother them…" They didn't bother us and we won the tournament.