Every Friday at 3 p.m., “Doctor” Robert Ramsthaler gets into his red pickup truck and heads to Main Street Bar & Billiards.
He is not there to drink. He’s there for therapy — “billiard therapy.”
“It’s geometry and motion, but it’s also an excuse for people to gather and talk about life,” Ramsthaler said. “In Britain, they have teatime. In Mexico, they have siesta time. In America, what do we have? More coffee or another drink.”
For Ramsthaler, billiard therapy is an escape from the daily routine that allows people to learn something in a social setting while enjoying themselves.
“It’s called play pool,” he said. “It’s really all just for fun.”
But Jennifer Alonso, a UF Counseling and Wellness Center psychologist, said billiard therapy is plausible. She defined therapy as “the act of examining your personal habits and identifying if there are alternative ways to do things that could make your life more healthy.”
Ramsthaler’s groups meet twice a week, every week, for no charge to learn how to shoot seemingly impossible shots.
But people often leave with an understanding of things much bigger than winning a game of pool, he said.
This has kept Tom Miller, the first official patient, coming back for two years. Miller said when the two started playing pool, he’d leave conversations thinking, “Actually, that’s amazing. This stuff should be in a book.”
Miller is now writing that book and still attends nearly every session. The book, to be titled “Billiard Therapy,” will contain about 100 pages of philosophy Miller has collected from Ramsthaler during the therapy sessions.
Miller said many of the ways to handle situations in billiards apply to life. In pool, it’s easy to take a shot you know you can sink, Miller said, but you learn to stop and think about whether the shot will leave you with a better opportunity down the road.
Ramsthaler didn’t attend school to be a doctor, but he said if “the streets” gave away Ph.D.s, he would have one in billiards.
In the inner-city neighborhood he grew up in, he said it was often safer on the streets than in the hallways of his middle school.
He regularly spent all five mornings of the school week hiding from truancy officers until the pool hall opened its doors at 11 a.m.
“It was a safe place, and sometimes I’d stay until 10 p.m.,” he said. “In the neighborhood I grew up in, the flowers were afraid to come out.”
He said growing up in a ghetto helped him learn that much of playing pool is about having an attitude — something he calls “swagger.” He said when you look like you know what you’re doing, you start to believe that, and it becomes true.
Miller walked up to a pool table in the smoky front room of Main Street Bar & Billiards when Ramsthaler asked, “Dude, what’s with your attitude?
Miller, slightly taken aback, replied, “What attitude?”
“Exactly. Get one,” Ramsthaler said. “Now, grab a stick, and let’s play a game of pool.”
A version of this story ran on page 9 on 10/2/2013 under the headline "Playing billiards provides therapy, life lessons for locals"