Richmond, California, 1993. Right off Highway 80 on Cutting Boulevard, a small island of run-down buildings sits behind the huge cranes of the old Kaiser shipyards. Among these buildings, “The Tree” — Earl Watson’s Crabtree pool hall — still stands.
Years ago Watson, a 60-year old black man, was a pool hustler up in the Sacramento Delta, but after years of heroin abuse he’s left the playing to his sons. Jones, fathered with a peasant woman when Watson was a GI fighting in Korea, and TC, Watson’s adopted Chinese-American son, a pool-playing prodigy, nightly hold court at the Crabtree.
Jones hustles and TC plays. They take down marks, but this is TC’s limit. Everyone knows he doesn’t have the nerve to take on real competition. TC’s girlfriend, Lois, a white girl from Philadelphia, is the only source of order in a pool hall constantly disrupted by the internecine quarrels of father and sons. She manages the place and keeps Watson’s dubious finances from total collapse. She is also a thorn in TC’s side, encouraging him to broaden his horizons beyond this little smoky room, forgotten by time and neglected by fortune.
The status quo is threatened when Jones sets up a high-stakes match with Dorian James, a ranked tournament player with a shady background in Asian gangs. TC resists the match until Jones plays his trump card. He reveals that Watson is dying, that this is TC’s chance to set him up for a retirement which may be brief but which could at least be made more comfortable.
The stage is set for the most important evening in TC’s life. For the first time in years he begins to practice seriously. The night of the match, Dorian arrives an hour late. Now Jones reveals that he has covered the family’s wager — Watson’s entire life-savings — and is betting on Dorian himself. Then Dorian, seeking insurance, tries to use Lois to shark TC and break his concentration. There is a reason why achievement and crippling pressure go hand in hand. TC chalks up and breaks, beginning a match with everything at stake — out on the naked edge of disaster or triumph for the first time in his life.