Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine


Spitball Charlie
Artist on a canvas of green felt

by Jim McCarty

When Charles Darling shoots, balls find the pockets as if by magic. "Spitball" Charlie is a trick shot billards artist who holds court in Washington, Mo.

You don’t want to shoot pool with Charles “Spitball” Darling. You especially don’t want to shoot pool with him if money, your car, your cue stick or the World Artistic Pool Championship are on the line.

Charlie, 52, burst on the trick shot scene by winning the world championship in 2001. But hundreds of others learned the hard way years ago — this guy is good.

He got that way by doing what mothers warn their kids not to do. He hung out in pool halls, specifically the now-defunct Jim’s Pool Palace in Pacific where Charlie grew up. “I hung out there all the time,” says Charlie, who now lives in Washington. “I couldn’t get enough pool. I had a real knack for it.”

By age 14 there were few contenders who could sink an 8 ball against Charlie. Adults who challenged him went home without their paychecks. Charlie soon found he had to travel farther and farther away to play.

“Franklin County got a lot smaller as I got better,” he recalls. “When I was 15 I had to go to St. Louis to find a game.”

Construction workers Charlie knew would set him up in high-stakes games. “The subject of pool would come up on the job. They would say, ‘I’ve got this 13-year-old kid who can whip you.’ That weekend I would be off playing.” He rarely let his friends down.

In the early 1960s Charlie played many different games. Snooker was a favorite, as were more obscure games you don’t see played a lot today. One game was called Kelly. Players drew numbered balls from a leather bottle. Then they would try to sink the ball with their number on it. Another game, cribbage, required sinking two balls with numbers adding up to 15.

“These days people play 8 or 9 ball,” Charlie says. “Years ago people played more of a variety of games. There are probably 100 or more games you can play on a pool table.”

Charlie took his pool skills to college. As an art education major at the University of Missouri, he discovered Mizzou once had a pool team. “The old boy in charge said, ‘We just let it drop, no interest in it.’ I said, ‘You have some interest now’ so he reinstated it.”

Charlie traveled along with Mizzou’s chess, bridge and bowling teams to two Big 8 tournaments each season. “I was the University of Missouri pool team,” Charlie says.

Charlie's nickname Spitball comes from his ability to launch the cue ball with his mouth.

While in Columbia Charlie learned a trick that would earn him his nickname. Columbia Billiards brought in a man from Tennessee for an exhibition. The man’s hands were crippled so badly he could not hold a pool cue. Instead, he spit the cue ball from his mouth to make shots.

“He was making some real simple shots,” says Charlie. “The thing he ended his show with was spitting the ball out of his mouth and going five rails and hitting the ball in.”

Charlie was pretty sure he could do better. “I found I could fit the ball in my mouth. The next day I got on a table and tried it and I made it on the first try. I kept trying it and the rest is history.”

Today Spitball Charlie wows customers at his downtown business, Washington Billiards, with an amazing show of spitball tricks. Spitting the cue ball from his mouth, he can make half a dozen shots that would be nearly impossible with a cue stick.

While the spitball antics are for fun, Charlie also is a wizard with a stick in his hand. In between tending bar at his pool hall he spends hours honing his trick shot skills, often walking around the table knocking down shots with one hand. The table nearest the bar is where Charlie holds court. Its green felt surface is pockmarked with tiny dimples caused by massé shots — taken with the cue stick held vertical in order to make the ball curve.

His feats on a pool table defy the laws of physics. One shot has him place the number 1, 2, 3 and 4 balls on top of four beer bottles. He then banks the 5 ball off the back rail. Before the 5 returns he moves across the table and sinks the first four balls in order. The last falls just as the 5 ball passes between the bottles and drops in the pocket.

For some shots the cue ball reverses direction or curves around another ball. His “swish” shot requires shooting five balls into the corner pocket without them touching the table. Another trick has the ball bank off the back rail, leave the table through the bridge and roll across the floor to knock a ball off a beer bottle.

Charlie practices his shots when not waiting on customers at Washington Billiards.

Charlie uses anything he can find in the pool hall to set up trick shots, including cue sticks, ball trays, the rack, pennies, beer bottles and bottle caps. Even wrappers from a fast-food hamburger get used in a shot that has the ball flip out of two bags before hitting the pocket.

Charlie used shots like these to win the 2001 World Artistic Pool Championship. He was third in 2002 and sixth in 2003 at a match held in Kiev, Ukraine.

In October he will be one of eight people invited to a trick shot event held by sports channel ESPN. This will be his second time in the ESPN competition.

“I played in it last year and hopefully I will win it this year,” Charlie says. “I’m going in with a win-the-thing attitude.”

In the ESPN event players take turns shooting. Their opponent then has two chances to duplicate it. “If someone’s got a shot I haven’t seen I have a good idea how to make it. There’s nothing out there that scares me,” Charlie says.

A win in the Oct. 1 match might spell a new career, Charlie says. The match will be repeated on TV more than 100 times. And that would give Charlie enough exposure, he thinks, to take his act on the road.

Meanwhile Charlie plans to spend September practicing his shots 6 to 8 hours a day. “I do it over and over again,” he says of his practice sessions. “It’s like being in a nuthouse.”

Charlie holds court at Washington Billiards located at 3rd and Jefferson streets in Washington. He can be reached at (636) 390-8498 or charlesdarling@sbcglobal.net.

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