True Road Adventures
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1970 Playboy Article on Johnston City by Craig VetterSHOOT-OUT IN JOHNSTON CITY . . . in which — after all the hustlers have traded lies and shots — Wimpy and Fast Eddie are left standing to play some no-forgiveness pool.
(This article first appeared in the November 1970 issue of the magazine)
There are some worlds in which the spoken truth isn’t welcome or necessary. Professional pocket billiards is one. In a room with a pool table and a couple of hustlers, the truth is a silly abstraction. Around high-stakes pool, everybody lies about everything, to everyone, loudly or quickly, but nonstop and with style.
And it works. A tight society of pool hustlers — the best 100 or so players in the country — hangs together, perpetuates itself, sees very many arguments, very few fights, makes inside jokes, has a jargon of its own, maintains a grapevine, works around a common gaggle of superstitions, has gentlemen and drunks. Young Turks and old pros, fat times and skinny, Rembrandts and Walter Keanes, watches new people arrive and old ones die.
The reason it can exist on a billion little lies is that the single unspoken truth it honors is the only one for which it scores points: That’s Euclid’s truth — Newton’s truth. Poke the cue ball at the right angle (there’s Euclid) and the object ball drops (that’s Newton). One point.
The lies after all, are designed only to get you a game:
“My game’s off. I been sick.”
“Yeah, well, I been up four days straight. I’m dead. I’d go to bed but I can’t find my hotel.”
“You shoot good tired.”
“Well I’m drunk too.”
“You shoot even better drunk.”
“Hell, I can’t even see the table. I’m blind for Christ sakes.”
“Yeah, and you shoot good blind.”
“Listen, I’m drunk, I’m tired, I’m sick. I’m having trouble with my old lady — and I’ll spot you three balls.”
“All right, rack ’em.”
The lies get you into the game, but only the truth gets the hell out with the money. Chalk, shoot, think, bank shot, roll, chalk, work the rack, chalk, shoot, until someone goes home with the truth in his pocket. All rolled up in a rubber band. Some go home with just the rubber band, and some lose that too.
It’s the little lies that get the press — but only because they’re so damn much fun. The truth about professional pocket billiards is its own classic and subtle drama which is built around a set of skills that takes a lifetime to master. The observer’s problem is that for every hour these men spend learning to play, they spend two hours learning to talk crooked about it.
Pool tournaments are a mixture of the truth and the lies. In the official games only the score means anything and it’s guarded by a referee, a scorekeeper and a standings poster. But the side games, the unofficial afternoon or late night action is generated by the network of lies. The hustlers meet for tournament play four or five times a year. There’s the Stardust tournament in Las Vegas for $35,000, the Johnston City meet for $20,000, the Billiard Congress for $20,000, and usually one or two others to get the sharks off their home tables in Houston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Philly, and get them together to work on one another. Because notoriety precedes most of these men into the pool halls across the country, the only real action they can get is among themselves.
The Johnston City, Illinois, World’s All-Round Pocket Billiards Championship is the oldest of the pro tournaments. Paulie and George Jansco started it 11 years ago in a room they’d built behind their Show Bar. That was in 1950 and pool was at its lowest ebb. The pros had of course, been playing all along, but for 20 years things had been lean — so lean that some hustlers had even learned a trade.
About 1940, pool halls around the country had begun to close for lack of business. Before that, pool in America had seen its golden age between about 1920 and 1930. Those were the salad days of guys like Al Miller. He was on the road at 14, hustling for a living and pocket billiards was a dude’s game.
“I remember about 1918, I was a teenager and got my first tailor-made Rambow. Beautiful thing, cost $7.50. Rambow was the best cue you could get. Still is, and a lot of guys use ’em. ‘Course, Old Man Rambow’s dead, but they’re still making the sticks. Back then, you could really hustle. Not that you can’t today but then . . . well, a lot of things was different. Around ’30, ’31, I was really shooting. I won four tournaments in Chicago and a couple in Philly and in ’32, I won the national. The halls were different then. They were like palaces. There was this one place in Detroit that had, like, 144 tables and girls racking the balls. And these places were for gentlemen only. You’d go in and a girl would take your hat and you had to sit down and be quiet, and pretty soon you’d get a table. The place was done in royal purple with brass rails and fittings everywhere and during the day you could get away with a sweater with velveteen sleeves. But at night, you had to have a tux. Only games we played then were Straight Pool and Rotation. There was no Nine-ball or One-pocket or even Eight-ball then. And the balls were Zanzibar ivory, much heavier, and you really had to smack ’em to move ’em around.”
By 1939, pool had a rotten name. It mattered little that the best of the players wore tuxedos and behaved like gentlemen. The public knew that there was a lot of gambling and cigar smoking and hoods who liked the game. When the War came, professional pocket billiards nearly disappeared.
Then, in 1961, The Hustler came out. That movie, along with the Jansco brothers and Rudolph Wanderone (“Minnesota Fats”) put it all back together. The second golden age of pool began. It was more widespread this time; there was less cigar smoking, and pool halls with names like Town and Country Billiards even began to attract the ladies.. The heroes turned out to be pretty much the same men who’d been the best 20 years before: Al Miller, Luther Lassiter, Irving Crane, and 20 or 30 others. But there were some flashy kids too — Danny Jones, Eddie Kelly, Ronnie Allen — and there was television and a new generation hungry for sports to watch and play.
In 1961, the first year of the Johnston City tournament, 13 guys showed up. “Mostly to catch George and me” says Paulie, “but we was tired of losing, so we let ’em have each other.” Every year, the prize money and the entries grew. The Janscos added another big room, and then the hustlers really came — like piranhas after some poor cow that wandered into the wrong river — but only to find one another. By 1963, the field was illustrious enough to bring ABC’s Wide World of Sports to cover it. The beer and bourbon — standard playing equipment — had to be served in paper cups, and the lights were a little hot, but ego runs high around the hustlers, and ABC went back for five years in a row.
The Johnston City tournament has more pool action than the Las Vegas get-together (which Paulie Jansco also runs, for the Stardust hotel). In Vegas, when two hustlers begin the courting ritual that’s designed to get them into a side game with the right odds, negotiations are likely to break down early and the two usually end up laughing together and losing their money — not to each other but to the house in a game of craps. Johnston City however, is a coal-mining town of 3,400 people so thoroughly tucked away from everything on the southern Illinois flatlands that to get there you have to fly into St. Louis, Missouri, 100 miles west. The three October weeks that the hustlers spend in town are more likely to be rainy and the only things to do are drink and play pool. The two are far from mutually exclusive and Paulie Jansco has them both sewed up.
The press always shows up in Johnston City. Over the three weeks they drift in and out, talking to the players (“How old were you when you started to hustle?”), buttonholing Paulie (“Whatever gave you the idea to start a hustlers’ tournament?”), searching for whatever’s left of Damon Runyon in America, looking for the color, trying to find out if “Boston Shorty” is really short and “Handsome Danny Jones” really handsome. Paulie knows what they’re after, and when they sit with him in the Show Bar, sipping Scotch or beer while he sips coffee (if it’s before five P.M.), they can’t write fast enough. Paulie is a reservoir of pool stories about the great pool hustlers.
“We like the hustlers,” he says. “We don’t cater to Straight Pool players so much or any particular branch of pool. But the hustlers are the best. This year Allen’s here, Kelly’s here. They’re probably the two best all-around players in the world. Lassiter’s here too, and it’s hard to bet against him. He’s won three all-around tourneys and has a good chance to win this one. Danny Jones is here; he’s the defending champ, but he’s got a crick in his neck this year. All the hustlers are here. They come looking for each other and the action is pretty good. The other night, two of them flipped a coin for $2,400; $4,800 takedown. The one that lost the flip immediately challenged the other to a game of Nine-ball for $2,000, which he also lost. He had a bad day.
“I get along with the hustlers because I understand them. But they’re temperamental as hell. You think movie stars are temperamental — ha, get around some pool players. They got be the world’s worse. I got a good example — I got 500 examples — but the year before last, Joey Spades was in Las Vegas. Now, in Vegas we get, like, 140 entries, double elimination, three divisions, and we have to play it off in 17 days, which means you got to play day and night. But Spades says, “Don’t put me on in the daytime.” I say, “Why not?” and he says, “I can’t bend my finger around the cue in the daytime. I can only bend my finger around the cue at night.’ So I look around and there’s no open windows or doors in the place and so I say, “How do you know whether it’s day or night when there’s no doors or windows and we operate strictly by electric light?” and he says to me in his most serious voice, ‘My finger knows.’
“And anytime a player loses, it’s never his fault. He was never outplayed and he never played bad. He’ll tell you the lights were bad or the table was bad or the atmospheric conditions were bad — like some kind of weatherman.”
“They’re a crazy bunch. Really nuts some of them. And they drink a lot. Some of them never get sober. But I’ve seen those guys where they were bumping into the corners of the table walking around it, couldn’t see the ground, and they’ll still shoot your eyes out. It’s a hard way to live, making money off a pool table, and it does funny things to a guy’s head. Most of my best friends are pool hustlers, but I still tell people when I get hot, ‘If I was a witch, I’d turn you into a pool hustler.’ They’re different from other people. They just want to be pool players. Take Al Miller — he’s a master electrician, but he don’t work at it. He’s content to be poor — not dirt poor, not most of the time — but you know, poor, and he has no ambition at all except to play pool.”
And someone always asks, “Where’s Minnesota Fats?”
“Fatty? Oh hell, who knows. He was one of the instigators of this tournament and he played in the first couple, but he’s so busy with his exhibitions and television and his corporations that he usually doesn’t show up around tournament time. He lives about 20 miles from here, and we’ve been friends since ’39. He is the king of hustlers, no question, and I don’t mean just pool. He’s a born hustler, a fabulous person.
“I’ll tell you who Fats is. He’s got a Cadillac and the whole trunk is full of clippings, stories about him; you write something about him he’ll buy a thousand copies. Anyway, when he and his wife go on a trip, they have to take two cars, ‘cause there’s no room for luggage in Fats’ trunk and he won’t leave those clippings behind. One time he stopped at the side of the road and some guy was plowing a field. He got him over, introduced himself and he’s showing this farmer his clippings. He’s amazing. He and his big mouth have done more for this sport than anything.
“He’s also the best bite man in the world; better on the snap than anybody. He’ll borrow some money from you and make you go out and get some more so you can give it to him. I’ll tell you a funny story about him and Al miller. We’re in Norfolk and every day Fats bites Miller for a hundred. Every single day for six weeks. Well, there was this big crap game and Fatty got his tit in a ringer one night and he loses $4,800. Next day Al is there and we’re talking about Fats losing $4,800 and Miller really gets hot. He says, ‘That son of a bitch he’s been getting $100 a day from me for six weeks to eat on and you mean he had $4,800 to lose in that crap game?’ So now he’s looking for fats; he’s going to punch Fats in the nose. He’s standing there in front of the poolroom for about two hours just burning, and naturally, we’re rubbing it in. Miller’s so mad he can’t see anymore. He says, ‘As soon as the fat man comes I’m going to run over and fix his nose good!’ So Fatty drives up and Miller runs over, opens the door and jumps in the car and they sit there for about 20 minutes. Then they get out and Miller’s walking real dejectedly back towards us. We asked him what happened. ‘The son of a bitch bit me for another hundred,” he says. You got to be a king to do that kind of thing,”
“Is that stuff true?”
“Is it true?” says Paulie, “What did they send me, the religion editor?”
“Listen, the match tonight is going to be one of the best of the tournament. One-pocket finals; Lassiter against Allen. That’s going to be pretty pool. There ought to be a good crowd, because both these guys are popular. Ronnie Allen’s from L.A. and he’s flashy. Walks around the table talking to the crowd, laughing, making jokes, very colorful, dresses in that Mod style. And he’s very good. He’s favored and he ought to win. Young as he is, he shoots beautiful pool. His nickname is Fast Eddie, you know, like the movie. Everybody gets a kick out of him.
“Luther’s going to be way over his head against Allen in One-pocket. In Nine-ball or Straight Pool, Lassiter would eat Allen alive, but in One-pocket it ought to be the other way around. But it’ll be a good match. Luther’s a pro, he’s been playing for 38 years and when he goes down into that pit, he goes to shoot. No matter what, there’ll be some no-forgiveness One-pocket pool in there tonight.
“One-pocket’s a very specialized game. Very tough. Each player picks one pocket — either the right or the left at the top of the table [the foot spot end] — and then whoever gets eight balls in his pocket first, wins. What happens is it turns into a very tight defensive game, because any one of these guys could sink eight balls in seven seconds if they had open shots. So the trick is to keep your opponent from having a shot. You hide the cue ball: behind the pack, on the wrong rail, anywhere you can. Just so you leave the other guy nasty. That’s called playing it safe. It’s maybe the toughest game in pocket billiards, because you have to know how to shoot, bank, play combinations, perfect position; and hardest of all, you have to know how to shoot a safety. It’s a nervous game, gives every body those sneak-up kind of heart attacks. It’s beautiful.”
He was right. When the big room opened at 7:30, the crowd was there. It took the 500 or so of them about five minutes to bunch through the double doors and find seats in the grandstand that surrounds the pit on three sides. Those who couldn’t get seats stood and sat in the stairway aisles. The rest stood on chairs behind the grandstand.
In the pit, two very green, brand-new billiard tables with special overhead lights were getting a final careful brushing (with the nap of the green felt, called Simonis number one).
Behind the tables, up out of the pit on the side without a grandstand, some of the hustlers were drifting over to get a piece of standing room or a seat at the long folding table with the trophies on it. Behind that on the wall hung a huge elimination chart with the record of three weeks of pool on it. It looked like the professional pocket billiards’ family tree running nearly floor to ceiling, with all the great pool hustlers paired off against each other: “Handsome Danny” Jones, “Cuban Joe” Valdez, “Cicero” Murphy, Marvin Henderson, Al Miller, “Cincinnati Joey” Spaeth, “Champagne Eddie” Kelly, Eddie “Knoxville Bear” Taylor, Jack “Jersey Red” Breit, Al Coslowsky, Joe “the Butcher” Balsis, Billy “the Kid” Cardone, Joe Russo, Richie Florence, Bill “Weenie Beanie” Staton, Larry “Boston Shorty” Johnson, all dovetailing to the left until only six names were repeated, then four, then two: Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter and Ronnie “Fast Eddie” Allen, hanging one above the other with only a single line next to them to fill.
Allen came in the back door from the general direction of a marathon gin rummy game, walked through the milling hustlers in front of the trophy table and began laughing and saying hi and looking around at the crowd. His Mod clothes — flared pants, body shirt with loose long sleeves and long pointed collar — all were a contrast to the other players’. So was his age — around 30. Perched on top of his head, above an Our Gang-comedy face, was a vermilion corduroy cap that said even before he opened his mouth that he was insanely cocky.
The betting had started in the crowd even before Allen had arrived. Now it began among the hustlers. The odds were on Allen seven to five. Allen’s entourage — three or four madras-bell-bottom-Mod-mustachioed L.A. friends — was doing the negotiating and holding the money. Allen overheard a conversation in the front row between two guys trying to make a bet. He leaned over and said to the one who wanted Lassiter, “You want to bet? I’ll take your bet. What do you want?”
“Seven to five on a hundred.”
“Seven to five?” Allen is shouting now (the liar’s tone). “Man do you know who I’m playing? I’m playing Lassiter — Luther Lassiter — and you want seven to five?”
His pigeon, unconvinced, held firm. “I want seven to five.”
“Take it,” said Allen over his shoulder to one of his moneymen, a guy in squared-toed shoes.
Lassiter had stepped quietly through the crowd now and into the pit. He looked, as he always does, more like a troubled stockbroker than the seven-time champion of the world in Straight Pool. White shirt, dark tie, gray sports coat and short-cropped white hair — whiter than it should be at 50 years. There was some scattered applause as the crowd noticed him, but he didn’t look up. He took his Balabushka cue out of the case, twisted the two halves together, slid the case under table number one and sat down without a word on a stool in a corner of the pit. He sat there for five minutes (while the chatter and the betting continued) with one foot on the ground, and one foot on the crossbar, head tilted to the left and not moving: an overly calm portrait in a room that by now had the decorum of an auction barn.
A moment later, Paulie Jansco stepped into the pit and the room quieted, except for some coughing and a few last-minute bets. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said “welcome to the ninth annual World’s All-Round Pocket Billiards Championship. We’ve already crowned a Straight Pool champion in Joe Russo and a Nine-ball champion in Mr. Luther Lassiter. Tonight we’ll crown a One-pocket champ in either Ronnie ‘Fast Eddie’ Allen of Burbank, California, or Luther ‘Wimpy’ Lassiter of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The best four out of seven games will win.”
A referee is in the pit and the lights over table two have been turned off, Lassiter is still sitting quietly, eating ice out of a paper cup. As Paulie leavse the pit, Allen takes his arm and says,
“Wait a minute, wait — wait — wait. He ain’t getting his choice of the table.”
“All right, we’ll flip for it,” says Paulie.
“OK, that’s fine, but you don’t give the choice away, for Christ sakes.”
Paulie tosses a quarter, Allen wins and says, “The other table.” The referee sets two cue balls on it and Allen and Lassiter step up to lag.
Allen scrunches the cap into place on the back of his head, and then, smiling, he asks, “May I lag Mr. Lassiter?”
“Yes sir,’ says Lassiter in his quiet voice, “I hope it’s your pleasure.”
Lassiter wins, a rack of balls is set on the spot, he sights along his cue then takes a gentle break shot that pushes the pack towards the upper right pocket and leaves the cue ball nearly on the lip of the left-hand pocket, where Allen will have no shot except a safety. Allen is on the stool and engaged in a giggly, whispered conversation with two of his friends in the front row.
“Your shot, Mr. Allen,” says the referee.
He walks quickly to the table, looks briefly, bends, takes one stroke to line his shot up, and then pushes the cue ball through the pack, off the 6, off the 3, and leaves it buried on Lassiter’s side. A nearly perfect safe. There is a slight applause as he returns to the stool, a cigarette, a drink, and his conversation.. Lassiter walks to the table and around it slowly. He is taking deep breaths, blinking and shaking his head back and forth. There are two possible shots, but not very possible. He stands still, chalking his cue, taking both shots in his head. The only sound is Allen’s animated whispering. Lassiter walks on the other side of the table, takes another deep breath, then seems conscious of the time he’s taking and says softly, “This boy’s a genius — this boy is the best player in the world.”
Allen turns, smiling. “You want to bet on me, Mr. Lassiter, sir?”
Lassiter is still looking. He bends, strokes two or three times, and then says, “No sir, I would not,” and pokes a safe shot along the high rail. Allen is up and to the table. He looks, bends, shoots and walks quickly back to the stool.
“Fast Eddie,” says Lassiter, looking at the table again and shaking his head. “Boy, I wish you’d put me out of my misery.” After a moment he plays safe, and there is applause. He’s put Allen in a very bad spot.
Allen, at the table, looking at the trap he’s in, says, “Very pretty.” There is no shot and almost no way for him to play safe. Lassiter, on the stool, drops a cube of ice in his mouth and watches, Allen plays a table-long bank, down the rail and back up into the middle of the pack — where the cue ball buries itself. There is applause, the loudest of it coming from around the trophy table, where the other hustlers are watching a game they’re glad they’re not in. Allen has escaped the trap and left Lassiter in a worse one.
At the table again, shaking his head again, Lassiter looks for 30 seconds and then says, “I wish I had Daddy Warbuck’s head on my shoulders right now.” Herbert Cokes — Daddy Warbucks — is sitting on a folding chair in front of the cluster of hustlers, shaking his head no.
“I’m glad you recognize talent when you see it, Luther,” says Allen from the stool.
“Oh, don’t worry, I can tell from that cap alone, my boy, says Lassiter without looking up from his studies. There is laughter and Allen, smiling, tips his cap. Lassiter’s looking at a bank combination. It’s not a shot he wants to take, because a miss will leave the table to Allen. He bends in to shoot it, then straightens up again and chalks his cue nervously, then bends again and takes the shot. The cue ball leaves the pack, hits the rail, then rolls back into the pack where the 5-ball breaks out and runs for the hole. There is yelling and clapping before the ball drops, which it does. Allen is smiling, pounding his cue butt on the floor. Cokes is leaning forward in his chair, eyes shut, clapping, the crowd is still applauding and some of them are on their feet. Lassiter is smiling and looking at the table for his next shot.
His position is good and now he begins to work on the tight pack of balls like a gourmet over a duck. He breaks the 2-ball off the corner of the pack and straight in on a hair-thin cut, then the 3 straight in, then a bank on the 11, the 6 up the rail and in, the 4 on a bank and then a pause.
“Mr. Lassiter, shooting for two,” says the referee.
Lassiter is looking at a bank shot on the 15-ball. An easy shot, but there’s nothing afterward. He sinks it and then shoots a safety. There is applause as he sits down.
“Mr. Lassiter needs one ball to win,” says the referee.
Allen is up. He looks carefully at the table, moves around it, then leans over the 7-ball and puts his eye very close to it to see if it is touching the rail. The referee moves around, bends over it and says, “Not frozen.”
“Yeah, thanks, I know,” says Allen, “for all the good it does me.” Then he banks the cue ball the length of the table; it comes back and kicks the 7 a foot and in. There is wild applause and some spilling of drinks. This is the magic the crowd has come to see. Allen has an opening now and, unlike Lassiter — who usually sinks a ball here and a ball there, between safes — Allen’s style of play is called runout. Given an opening, he can sink the eight balls he needs to win without a miss.
He turns to the crowd now and announces, “The blitz is on.” And then with almost no hesitation between shots, he banks the 8 in, pokes the 1 straight in, the 13 along the rail, the10 straight in, the 9 on a cut, the 14 straight in, and then the 12 on a bank rolls toward the hole, bangs the rail and hangs up on the lip of his pocket. The sound of disappointment from the crowd.
Allen is smiling. He steps back and says, “Should have had a hamburger.” The winning ball is alone on the table in the upper left corner.
Despite the miss, there is no real shot for Lassiter. He is chalking, looking at the table. The one ball that’s left is dangerously close to Allen’s pocket and open only to a difficult cross bank. If he makes it, he’s likely to scratch. If he doesn’t he’ll leave it for Allen.
“Don’t miss,’ says Allen. And then as Lassiter takes the shot gently, the ball comes off the rail and runs towards his pocket. Allen stretches off his stool and says, “Will it go?”
“It will, my boy, it will,” says Lassiter. It does. The gallery is on its feet, clapping, and the hustlers are clapping, shaking their heads, laughing, exchanging money. Allen is smiling and shaking his head back and forth.
And the rest of the seven-game match followed the same rhythm — Lassiter refusing to leave anything open, playing very tight and then making shots where there weren’t any. One here, then safe for five minutes, then another, until finally there were eight down. Allen became quieter, and whenever he could eke out a shot, he turned it into a fast run of five or six. After he’d lost the first three games, he took off his little red cap in a moment of bravado for the crowd. They loved it. He won game four by making a ball on the break and running seven more balls in about a minute.
In the next game, Lassiter again controlled. He tied Allen up, never let him get warm, made his speed [ability level] inconsequential and his knowledge of the table impotent. All through the final game (it took half an hour), a drunk in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses who had timidly placed $25 on Lassiter with Allen’s men kept shrieking every time Lassiter made a shot or a fine safety. “Atta boy, Wimpy, did you see that? He never misses that cut . . . . Nice and easy, nice and easy, goddamn, look at that! He’s still the greatest, Chuck. Shit, come on Wimpy.” Lassiter never looked up at him (Allen did), nor did the still anxiousness of every move he made through all five games ever loosen. In fact, it got worse until he sank the last ball and the drunk had given his last whoop. Lassiter was shaking badly and breathing very heavily. The crowd stood, applauding, and he walked from the table to the stool where Allen sat smiling. Wimpy shook hands with his left, cue dragging on the floor from his right. He was smiling the smile he seems always to want to repress.
The next night, before a full house, Lassiter beat Joe Russo in Straight Pool, Nine-ball and One-pocket for the overall championship. Russo gave him little trouble. As their last game of One-pocket ended and the announcement of Lassiter’s championship was made, and the table lights were turned off, and as Lassiter tried to pack his cue between handshakes, Ronnie Allen stepped into the darkened pit and got $5,000 in $20 bills on table number one. He said nothing. Lassiter moved past him and through the crowd and then made his way into the restaurant that Jansco runs in the same building. None of the crowd left their seats and Allen stood talking with some of them — his money still on the table — as his friends were dispatched to find Lassiter . . . and work out the terms.
Al Miller and Lassiter were sitting together eating grilled cheese sandwiches when the first offer was made. Lassiter told Allen’s moneymen to go away. He didn’t want to play; but then he said he’d think about it.
“Give him a chance to unwind, for Christ sakes. He just finished playing,” said Miller.
They left and another man arrived. He had a Latin complexion, a dark blue suit and sunglasses. Lassiter and Miller knew him and he sat down.
“I’m tired,” Lassiter told him. “I’m just tired and nervous.”
“Why don’t you take something?”
“I do, it helps a little.”
“What do you take?”
“Compoz. C-O-M-P-O-Z. It’s supposed to calm you down.”
“Yeah, all right. Listen, they want to spot you two balls, for three hundred a game. Nobody in there has left their seats, Wimpy.”
“They all want to see me get beat. They love that.”
“Come on, Wimpy. They’re waiting.”
The man in the sunglasses was standing now. Miller finished his sandwich and said, “Tomorrow we’ll take off and play some golf. You can relax then. It’s all right.”
“Yeah, but I’m nervous. Nervous. I’m afraid I’m going to get beat.” He was wiping cheese off his mouth with a paper napkin and shaking his head.
“Come on. You been beat before, haven’t you?” said the man in the sunglasses.
Lassiter said yes, shook his head, picked up his cue case and the three of them went back to the pit room.
Allen was waiting, along with the crowd. At this point, the reporter’s eyes and ears became no good to him. Because finally, it’s no fun to resist the lies anymore, or to remain the only sober man in a room full of hustlers. They played seven games, or eight, or twelve; it depends on whom you ask. Lassiter won five and Allen won three, or they both won four. The played for $300 a game; or they played for $600. The backer in the dark glasses made a bundle, or he made a couple of bucks, or he lost heavily. Allen was drunk. Lassiter quit because his head was getting funny; he quit when Allen wanted to lower the spot. There was no referee and Lassiter played in his shirt sleeves instead of his coat. There was no scorekeeper, and the story of what happened got retold only by people who had a stake in how the story went: “I lost ‘cause Lassiter chickened out. “Allen couldn’t take the heat. I won a bundle.” “I came out about even. Lucky thing, ’cause Lassiter was starting to crack.” “Allen hadn’t slept for two days and he was so goddamn drunk.”
“Hey, Danny, you going to be at the Stardust in March?”
“Maybe we can play some Nine-ball.”
“Yeah, if my neck’s better by then.”
A Shark out of Water
Donnie “Waterdog” Edwards, biographical news article
Don Edwards passed August 2006
This is a slide show on YouTube put together by Bill Porter at the Onepocket HOF dinner in Derby City in 2006. Bugs Rucker, Eddie Taylor, Gary Spaeth, CornBread Red and Freddy Bentivegna were inducted into the inaugural Bank Pool HOF. Bugs was inducted into the Onepocket HOF the previous year.
I was in New Orleans about 10 years ago. On Bourbon St they used to have an off-track betting parlor. It was in a bad section of Bourbon St, it’s not there anymore. Desperate to bet horses, I went there anyway. Once inside I realized that it was a real low class operation. Homeless types, bag ladies and various brokes filled the joint. It was the only place I have ever been in whereby you could bet as little as $1 to win. As luck would have it, I got off tremendous winner. By the 4th race I was $4k ahead. I started to get nervous because I suddenly realized just how much 4k would have to mean to people who had less than 5$ in their pockets. I didn’t dare go outside alone because the street was dark and dead empty. I called my partner, Wayne Hopkins to come and get me, and bring help. In the meantime a security guard appeared magically after the phone call and confronted me. I figured the guard was gonna say like, “Don’t worry sir, We know you got all that money. We protect high-rollers here. I got the gun and I will walk you out.”Instead he tells me this, “Listen sir, you are going to have to pull your pants up or leave, we have received complaints from the ladies here.” Huh? While I am somewhat famous for originating low-riding jeans and often baring a little crack, the fact that I was singled out for humiliation in this dump, and by a hideous collection of hags was unbelievable. I looked around all over the place and could not find any women who I thought could possibly be offended by anything. Wayne finally showed, and I zoomed, red-faced out of the joint — never to return.
I went to Oklahoma City in the early 70s and hung around Chester Truelove’s pool room at 50th and May. One-Eyed- Tony Howard from Hazard, KY was still alive at the time and he was playing there too. I was on the road with the famous tush-hog, Sugar Shack Johnny Novak, but OK city at that time was still the scariest place I was ever in. There was a “range” war going on between the North and South side stick-up gangs, and Sugar and I were in the middle of it. Everybody had a gun but us.
A very bad gunman named Boatware had stolen my Ginacue and Sugar Shack was terrorizing all the bars in town trying to find him and get the cue back. I knew how dangerous Boatware was, and my nerves were in a constant state of shock. For some reason it didnt affect my pool game, as a matter of fact I never played better in my life! It’s probably something a psychiatrist should study and look into. Finally, Boatware shows up at Trueloves, and has nine more brutes from the gang with him. They all had cue butts and Blackjacks, and Boatware had a .38 long. I figured this was it, and hoping maybe I could escape with a few broken bones.
To speed this up, Boatware called to Johnny, “You looking for me?” Johnny’s reply, “Yes, I certainly am. I want that cue stick back!” Boatware opened his shirt and flashed the .38 in his pants. Boatware, “You ready to die for it?” Sugar Shack, “Yeah, show me a bullet!” Crazy as Boatware was, he realized Sugar was even nuttier, so he took another path. Among the nine cohorts was a famous tush-hog from Arkansas named Dennis Parker. He was about 6’4″ and weighed about 240 lbs. Boatware, “You want the cuestick? He got it.” pointing to Dennis Parker. Goofy as Sugar Shack was, fighting some big gorilla was a better option than trying to outrun a .38 slug.
Sugar Shack, “You mean all I got to do to get the cuestick is whip him? Ok, I’ll meet him anywhere he wants, just him and me, and we will fight to the death for that cuestick!” Now big Dennis was no coward, but sanity was now starting to infect these lunatics. Fighting “to the death” for a piece of wood just didnt seem like a good idea. Boatware, now sensing that move wasn’t going to work either, next told Sugar to meet him out on some point on the highway about 9 PM and he would give him the cuestick. With that we all dispersed.
I begged Johnny not to go, I said it has to be a trap. He went anyway, met Boatware, Boatware gave him back the cuestick that he had stolen from me, said to meet him later at some action bar and he would dump his backer to us. We went, and he did (about $600), and we all would up getting drunk together. To close, now that all the horror was over, and the town was tame again, Sugar Shack wanted to leave, so we went back to Florida.
Now, about the earlier part when I said all that fear made me play my best: Old-timers know how good One- Eyed- Tony Howard and Norman Hitchcock played, I was robbing Tony Howard giving him his scratches dont count and he would play me 8 to 6. I was playing Hitch One Pocket on that real tough pocket table 10 to 8 — me spotting him — for thousand dollar sets! Now Tony is long dead, but Hitch is still alive(no longer) to confirm my story. They were both in Trueloves when Boatware came in with his boys. Boatware was later arrested in a shoot out with police at a motel and given a long prison term.
MORE SUGAR SHACK……
So. Carolina’s David Sizemore, played a nice game of 9 Ball, and had a reputation of being wild and crazy. He once cut a friend of mine, another So. Car. boy, David Gadsden’s throat. My friend was lucky and survived. In Johnston City IL, while playing the deadly, Hubert “Daddy Warbucks” Cokes, he missed a shot and smashed his cue stick. He was still carrying the jagged edge around while he ranted and raved. He came within a inch of getting his head blown off, as Hubert thought Sizemore might have been threatening him, and Hubert carried no less than three pistols on his person at all times. Lucky for Sizemore, a local grifter cooled Hubert out, saying David was harmless and was only mad at himself. Once Sizemore realized his mistake he dropped that broken cue like it was on fire and apologized to Hubert profusely.
Here’s the addendum to the dangerous, Sizemore, Johnston City connection. The same year Sizemore almost got killed by Hubert Cokes in Johnston City, David asked my old road partner, the equally dangerous, Sugar Shack Johnny Novak, to give him some money to play Gin in the back room of the Show Lounge. Johnny gave him $300 with the instructions that he could play anybody in the room except, Jersey Red. Jack Breit.
Johnny left for the bar and returned a couple hours later to find Sizemore playing Gin with, who else but, Jersey Red. He asked Sizemore how he was doing, David replied that Red was beating him, and had him on his last game. With that, Sugar Shack gave Sizemore a backhand that sent him flying across the room and crashing into the wall. When Sizemore got up, he did nothing but apologize. Many sweators who knew of David’s reputation warned me that he would sneak up on Johnny and get revenge. Knowing both parties, David, while a genuine lunatic, knew that Sugar Shack was a much worse lunatic, and was tickled pink to get off with just a ferocious slap and was content to end everything right there. Sugar Shack had a way to make many “crazy” people suddenly decide to become sane. Sizemore was eventually murdered while still a young man.
Verily, I will explain the circumstances behind the most money I ever played for. It was against the highest roller of all time, Archie Karas. Archie, at one time had the Horseshoe Casino in Vegas stuck for over 30 million dollars playing dice. I’ll explain how I had Archie fooled into thinking I was an eccentric billionaire. This is one of my secret road stories. It started with these guys that put a “spread” down for me to play and trap Archie Karas.
Archie the Greek, from Las Vegas. He was the highest rolling man of all time. You’ve all heard of Nick the Greek Dandalos? Well, Nick the Greek was like a nit next to Archie. Nobody in the history of the world has ever gambled like Archie Karas. There’s an article about his incredible exploits in Cigar Magazine. He was, like, $30,000,000 winner at the Horseshoe Casino. He got his start by playing Bobby Baldwin the manager of the Mirage Casino, pool on his nerve, ended up winning about a million, and then beat him for more playing poker. He even broke all the champion no limit poker players. They couldn’t beat Archie because money seemed to have no value to him, it was only chips. From there he went on to win about $30,000,000 playing dice. He had all the $5,000 chips in the Horseshoe. They even had to print a new chip for him, a $25,000 chip. Nobody gambled like this guy. He started dead broke and he got up to $30,000,000. But what goes up must also come down, and now he’s on the way down, he’s lost most of the money back shooting craps, he’s got a few million left, three, four, five million, so these certain guys laid a trap for him. They told him there’s a billionaire in Pennsylvania, an industrialist that likes to play pool and gambles real high — which there is such a guy. He was a billionaire gambling degenerate who was known to have lost zillions. Weiss was his name. Archie had been hearing about this guy for years. The hustlers told him they could get him a game with Weiss, the only kind of guy who could gamble his fee. So they got him to go to Pennsylvania, to this little town — and planted in that town is me. I’m Weiss, the billionaire. All Archie knows about this guy is that he is an eccentric, he doesn’t dress fancy, doesn’t wear jewelry, and that he’s a degenerate gambler. We meet, they introduce me and pass me off as Weiss, and so on. Then we go to the poolroom; we’re going to play some Eight Ball. I say, ‘Whatta you wanna play for Archie?’ He wants to kick it off at $40,000 a game! Archie has in his pocket $200,000 in $5,000 and $25,000 chips from the Horseshoe. The $25,000 chips were like travelers checks, you couldn’t steal them from him because nobody could cash them. He’d have to okay it to cash them in because he was the only guy authorized to have $25,000 chips. That’s what he had in his pocket instead of money. …So the first game of Eight Ball was for $40,000. He broke, didn’t make nothing, and I ran out. It was an easy layout. He reaches in his pocket and gives me eight $5,000 chips. I break, I don’t make nothing, he runs out. Another easy layout, I give him back the $40,000. Now I got a little shaky. I could beat him, I was a top pool player, but we’re playing for 40k a game and I don’t have a quarter! None of us had that kind of money. There ain’t no paying him off. What are we going to pay him with? We see-sawed for awhile and we ended up playing One-Pocket for 100k a game, and now I’m stalling. I have to stall to make it look good. I ended up beating him out of an even $100,000 the first night. He pays me off with four $25,000 chips.
It was a tough balancing act, stalling enough to be credible, but I couldn’t afford to lose. However, I was a good “lemon” man in those days, so it was just another hard days work. …Now it’s over, and we go up to the counter to pay the time. We were playing in a little bowling alley, a cheap joint, and the time is only $21. For the finale, I short-armed him on the time! I’m $100,000 winner, but I’m also an eccentric billionaire, I have to play the part all the way through. So I started patting my pockets and looking bewildered. I’m patting like I can’t find $21, I’m slow-drawing out on him. He finally says, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got the time.” I’ve got him so f**king hooked, he paid the time! I said, “Oh, thank you Archie.”…Anyway, it was a hell of a deal because then we had to stall around before playing again because we wanted to get those chips cashed first.
We’ve got to cash those chips and get our money in case he manages to find out who I am. We sent a guy back to Vegas to cash the chips. Archie had to call The Horseshoe Casino to okay it. Next, I told him that I had to fly to Japan. We had to let time elapse, that’s why I said I had to go to a big business meeting — that would supposedly get me out of the country and give me an excuse to not play. I didn’t want to play more until we got our cheese.
…But we got the okay, and we got the money cashed and then we played again, and he lost another $100,000. But the guys that set the operation up weren’t too smart; they weren’t experienced scufflers, real lemon hustlers. They’d set it up nicely but they didn’t really know how to take it off. He ended up paying off $200,000, but he still owed $800k, which we never got because they didn’t know how to collect. When Archie went back to Vegas these guys screwed it up. They acted too guilty about it. You have to act like a legitimate thing occurred. I’m supposed to be Weiss, and I had Archie convinced that I was Weiss. To Weiss 800k wasn’t such a big deal. I won $200,000, so what? I’m supposed to have lost millions. But they dogged it real bad when it came to collecting what Archie owed, they were too timid about asking for the money. They were supposed to be standing good for it, so the normal reaction to his not paying should have been outrage. …So then he eventually got suspicious and started asking around about this guy that plays One-Pocket, wears glasses, and limps. Pretty soon, someone says, “I know that guy, that sounds like The Beard from Chicago.” So our scam got busted and we didn’t get the rest of the money. But it was one of the great cons; he was really hooked. I laid a great stall down. At one point in the game, they were trying to get him to quit because they didn’t want him to owe too much money. But he said, “No, no, his leg is going to give out on him any minute.” He thought my bad leg was going to give out on me cause it looked like I was really suffering. I was in pain, my leg was screwed up. I was in a lot of pain, but so what? I could play for days like that. You see, I got turned out by some good lemon men. I hung around with Bunny “Pots and Pans” Rogoff, and a guy named Hollywood Jack, and some other real good lemon men. The great Jack Cooney was another. They were great lemon men. It’s called the lemon, because an apparently favorable situation eventually sours for the sucker. So that’s how that story ended. I never ran into, or talked to Archie again until last Jan (2007) when Harry Platis put me on the phone with him. He accused me of being a publicity seeker for releasing the story. I told him that I did wait about 15 years before I told anybody.
Bunny The Rogue aka Pots & Pans
An interview with Bernard “Bunny” Rogoff by Randi Givens © 1993.
R Givens: How did you get your nickname?
Bunny Rogoff: I got the name because when I was about 3 they dressed me up like a rabbit during Easter. That’s when my family began calling me Bunny. It just stuck.
RG: So you had a nickname before you started playing pool.
BR: Yeah, but my nickname playing pool was Pots and Pans.
RG: How did that happen?
BR: It was my first trip to Johnston City and I was hustling cookware. I
stopped in the Show Bar about three days before the tournament and
some guy offered to play for $40 against the cookware. I was paying
$20 for the cookware, so the guy is laying me 2-1 on the money.
Willie Mosconi can’t beat me giving odds like that. Anyway, I beat the
fellow out of the $40 and we began playing for $50 cash instead of the
cookware. I won $500. His name was Louie Reed. He was an oil millionaire
from Ducoin, Illinois. After I beat him, he shook my hand and bought me a
drink. “Man you are the greatest. Where are you from,” “I’m from Pittsburgh,”
I told him. “Well, I don’t know about that, but you my man, are the
Pots and Pans Man.” That name has stuck with me ever since. That
happened over 30 years ago and I’m still known as “Pots and Pans.”
RG: What kind of cue do you use?
BR: I always use a house cue off the rack.
RG: What do you look for when you pick a house cue?
BR: Well, I usually sneak my own house cue in.
RG: How did you get started playing pool?
BR: When I was 14 years old, I was walking up the street and I heard
clicking noises. I looked inside and in the back of a barbershop there
were three tables side by side. When the barber wasn’t looking, I
walked in the back. It fascinated me when I saw the balls. There was a
fellow about my age practicing, so I started playing with him. The owner, the barber, didn’t know I was back there. Finally, he came back and
saw us playing. I was playing his son. Anyway, they invited me back
and that’s when I started playing.
RG: Were you immediately interested?
BR: Oh, yes. I was fascinated right off the get go. Not only that, I
had been hanging around with a bad crowd, so it did me a world
of good. I might have got into some drastic trouble if I hadn’t
discovered pool. I was from was the Hill District in Pittsburgh,
a middle class neighborhood, but there were some gangs and kids
getting into trouble. Pool took me away from all that.
RG: That runs contrary to the image of the game. Pool is
supposed to lead people astray, not the other way around.
BR: Right. But, pool kept me out of trouble.
RG: How did your game develop?
BR: My Dad used to give me 50¢ for lunch and I’d hook school
on Fridays. We used to go to the movie, but that opened at 11
in the morning and the pool hall opened at 8. There were other
kids there too and we used to play pool. If you didn’t win, you
didn’t eat and you didn’t go to the movie. So I got under pressure
at an early age, if you know what I mean. I became acclimated to
gambling and playing under pressure.
RG: How did your game progress?
BR: It took a couple of years to become a good shooter. But more
than being a good player, I knew how to get good games.
RG: So within two years, you began playing good?
BR: Yeah. Well, I played my best pool when I came out of the Navy
when I was about 22. I went in the Navy when I was 17. I was in from
1944-46. I came out for a year then I went back in. I put in five years
altogether. I played my best pool when I came out after my second hitch.
RG: What kind of games did you play then?
BR: Mostly 9–ball and 8–ball.
RG: Did anybody teach you how to play?
BR: Nobody showed me anything. I learned by watching and playing
with good players. Anytime I could play a good player, I’d do it. But
they never showed me anything. I just watched them. Of course, I never
gambled with the better players.
RG: If you had an instructor would you have progressed faster?
BR: Oh, definitely! You have to have a certain amount of aptitude,
but it’s more practice than anything.
RG: So you reached a professional level when you were 22?
BR: Oh, no. I just played my best 9 ball at that age. I didn’t really
learn until later on. About five years after that I learned safety and
all of that. Up until then I just played runout 9 ball. Of course, they
never played one foul then. It was all pushout.
RG: What’s the difference between pushout and one foul?
BR: When you play push out you have to be a real good shotmaker.
More so than in one foul.
RG: Did you ever play other games like 3 cushion billiards?
BR: I hit ’em around once in a while, but I never really played the
game. Mainly because the 3 cushion players never bet unless
they were champions.
RG: You have a reputation as a great game maker. Tell us about it.
BR: Well, I hustled pool all my life, but I always worked. I was selling
Mirro Cookware. I would bring the cookware in and set it on the
table and show everybody my business card. I’d tell them the stuff
was left over from the home show and that we normally sold them for
$60, but because they were left over we were letting them go for $40.
I’d never say anything about playing pool. But most of the time someone
would challenge me to play for the cookware. They’d put up $40 and
the cookware only cost me $20. They were giving me 2-1 on the money
and hardly anyone can beat me that way. You’d be surprised at the
people who couldn’t even run three balls who tried to win that cookware
set. Occasionally, I’d run into good players, but it didn’t matter because
they were giving me 2-1 on the money. But most of the time I’d catch
people who couldn’t play at all. I never mentioned gambling or anything.
I would approach them, tell them what I had and start for the door if no
one seemed interested. One of the guys would always say, “Hey, I’ll play
a game of pool for that cookware.” So that was my gimmick to get people
to play. I sold a lot of cookware too. I was underselling the stores. I was
making my expenses with the pots and pans, but I made more on the pool
tables. Selling cookware meant that I always had money in my pocket, so
I was never under pressure. I didn’t have to worry about going broke
because I always had merchandise to sell.
RG: Tell us about your disguises.
BR: I used to use a truck driver’s uniform with a big wallet on a chain. I got
a truck driver’s uniform from Sears. I’d come out of that long wallet with
a $20 bill and people would think there were thousands in there. I don’t
know why that is, but people think there’s a lot in one of those big wallets.
So I’d go in and flash some Money. I had a real good gimmick for getting
people down. If I saw two guys playing for $5 a game, I’d watch them for
a while to make sure I could win. Then I’d go up to the table and challenge
them for a drink. The guy would say, “Hey, we’re playing for $5 a game.”
So I’d walk away from the table and wait about ten minutes before
I went back and challenged them for a drink again. People would get
indignant. They’d say, “We’re playing for $5. If you want to challenge,
you’ve got to play for $5!” That’s when I’d put the move on them. I’d say,
“I don’t gamble, but if you want to bet, I’ll go you one for $55.” Then I’d
turn around and walk back to the bar like I was bluffing. All of a sudden
they’d come right out with the money and play for $50. A move like this
is very strong because you originally wanted to play for a drink and
then you came back asking to play for $55. It’s a hell of a psychological
move. If people have money, there’s no way they won’t play in that spot.
They always stop you before you get back to the bar.
RG: You are one of the master psychologists of game making. Could
you tell us about that?
BR: I learned those moves from watching people who couldn’t play.
They were suckers. They were the ones who came up with the moves.
I had been playing for $10 a game and had a sucker come up. We told
him “We are playing for $10 a game.” So the guy says, “Well, I’ll play
you one for a $100.” But the guy was bluffing and when I agreed to play
he would just walk away. That’s where I got that move from. The only
difference is that I wasn’t bluffing. The players thought I was trying to
save face when I didn’t back down. RG: I must admit that it’s one of
the best tactics for starting a money game that I’ve ever seen. I busted
a few joints using the same method.
RG: Tell us more about the action you got into.
BR: I got trapped one time in Miami. I have a gimmick where I put a
patch over the guy’s eye and spot him the five and the break playing
9–ball. If the guy plays my speed, I figure to beat him like that because
you can’t judge distance and depth. It throws you way off. So I’m giving
this black guy down in Miami the five and the break. I play him safe
on the end rail and boom, he pops the eight in. I figured he must have
lucked the ball in. The next game, boom, he pops the five in from the
end rail. That’s when I realized my mistake. I told him, “Man, if you want
to play anymore, you have to put the patch on the other eye. I know you
are blind in one eye.”
RG: One-eyed players seem to cut the balls pretty good.
BR: They shoot good. the only thing they can’t do is long distance shots.
I know people with one eye and they can’t shoot long shots. It tires them
in a long session. RG: 8 ball has always been the main game in bars.
What do you think about 8 ball?
BR: I always wanted to play 8 ball because if you play 9 ball with a
mediocre player you lose when you don’t run out from the 4 or 5 ball.
But in 8 ball you never have to run more than three balls to win. You
keep blocking the pockets and make sure they can’t get out. That
way you don’t expose yourself.
RG: Do you have any advice for playing 8 ball?
BR: I break and look at the table. If in my mind I wouldn’t bet even
money that I could run out, then I don’t even try to get out. I’m talking
about playing with a good player. Against a person who can’t play,
I never try to run out from the break. But against good players, unless
I can bet even money that I’ll get out, I won’t even try. It’s like playing
checkers. If you are one ball up and you keep trading off, when
you come down to the end you’ll get the first shot to win the game.
You try to get his balls off then you play safe. I like to make my
opponent’s balls and leave my balls where he has no shots. Now
he can’t win because I have too many options for playing safe.
8 ball is the best game in the world to play. Actually, one pocket
is the best game, but very few people play it. 8 ball is played
everywhere. When they came up with one foul 8 ball that was the
best thing that ever happened to the game because I play a lot of
RG: What do you think about call shot 8 ball?
BR: You get too many beefs with that game. A guy will say,
“You hit the wrong ball. It didn’t go the way you called it.” There’s
too many arguments when you have to call everything.
RG: How long were you on the road?
BR: Off and on, my whole life, except when I was married.
I was still hustling, but I stayed in Miami and worked as a bellhop.
I did that for 15 years. I didn’t make any road trips, but after work
I’d go around the bars a lot. RG: Who were some of your opponents?
BR: Well, no one ever beat me playing 8 ball in a bar. Not when I
was playing my best. Of course, I didn’t go around looking for
champions either. I ran into some good players by accident, but
if I knew a guy was a strong player I wouldn’t mess with him.
I trapped a lot of people getting odds. I was real good at that. I’d
try to get the last ball off or something like that. I’d put on a little show
with somebody. I’d spread and they’d beat me the first game. I’d act
like I was scared and end up getting a couple of balls off. This was
years ago, so they didn’t know what balls off meant. Even strong
players didn’t know the strength of getting balls off in 8 ball.
RG: Tell us about putting out a spread.
BR: I’d have somebody who knows me go in there and play the
guy we’re trying to catch. They’d play for $5 a game or whatever.
Then I’d come in with my routine about wanting to play for a drink.
So I’d get down with my buddy for a $105 and have him beat me
in front of the guy we’re trying to catch. I’d let the sucker hold the
money. So my buddy says, “OK I’ll give you the last two balls.” I
say, “No, I’ve got to have the last three.” So in the second game
my pal beats me real bad. I’m not playing at all. Then he shoots
at my ball and plays a safety. Now this is years before they played
one foul. So he shoots my ball to play safe and I start screaming
that he doesn’t play fair. He beats me that game and I quit.
So my friend says, “Alright, we’ll play so that if I hit your ball, you
can put the cue ball anywhere.” I’d say, “No, you shot my ball. I
quit.” So then the guy we’re trying to catch jumps up and offers
me two balls off. I say, “OK, but if you don’t hit your ball, I can set
the cue ball anywhere.” Like I just picked the idea up from my
friend. If we play that way, I can beat the guy with no strain.
With the last three, there’s no way you can lose on a bar table,
unless you fall dead. With the last two off, there’s a chance a
champion might beat you. But with the last three, I ain’t never
been beat. I trapped Keith McCready a while back. He gave me
the last three balls and went broke. That’s strong. But on a big
table you can still lose. I learned how to play 8 ball from the blacks
in the Hill District. They knew all the moves.
RG: What’s the difference between 8 ball on a big table and a
BR: There’s not a big advantage in getting balls off on a big table
for me because I don’t figure to get out. You have to run out. You
can’t stall on a big table because the balls are open. They aren’t
clustered. Because the balls are a lot more congested on a bar
table there’s a lot more safety play. On the bar table, if you don’t
get all the way out, you’re going to lose against a good player.
The biggest mistake is trying to run out when you can’t get out.
You may look like a champion and lose. The guy who moves well
may not look like he can play, but he wins.
I played a black guy called “Country.” (Charles “Country” Monroe
from NY) He played strong 8 ball. He played where you could shoot
at any ball. You could shoot the other guy’s balls in and there was no
cue ball in hand. He robbed me like that because if you play shoot
at anything, there’s no advantage in strategy. When we played by
my rules, he had no chance. A guy came down to Miami from Canada
when I was playing good. I was playing snooker everyday on a 6 x 12. I
played by his rules where the cue ball doesn’t have to hit a rail and he
robbed me. Then we played where a ball did have to hit a rail
and he couldn’t beat me. It’s just what you’re used to playing.
to be continued… end of part 1
Bunny The Rogue aka Pots & Pans
An interview with Bernard “Bunny” Rogoff by Randi Givens © 1993.
RG: Do you have any guidelines for playing 8 ball?
BR: Don’t try to run out and try to make your opponent’s balls. I play combinations with my balls to make his. Get his balls off to where he has nothing to hide behind. Then you have all the opportunities to play safe. That’s strong. I have a rule for playing people that can’t play at all. I believe that a first impression is a lasting impression. Anything you do immediately after you make a game will be remembered. Like if I win the toss to break, I might let the cue stick fly. Just let it go when I break the balls. Look like an idiot. Sometimes I come back and run the cue stick into the side of the table. You get everybody in the joint laughing at you. I’d give them the impression that I was helpless, not all there, or a drunk. Here’s another good move. When you don’t play cue ball in hand and you play from behind the line on scratches, you don’t put the cue ball up near the line the way everybody does. You put the cue ball back near the end rail and shoot from there. (Bunny illustrates the idea with an a object ball a couple of inches from the foot rail about a foot from the pocket. A moderate cut shot.) If you put the cue ball on the line and make the shot, they figure you can play a little. But if you act like an idiot and put the cue ball on the rail and make the shot, they won’t think anything of it. It doesn’t matter if you make it because you were an idiot to put the cue ball in a bad position. That’s a real strong move. I’ve used it a hundred times.
RG: So your main concern was concealing your speed?
BR: Right. Exactly. I was making people bet more than they wanted to. That was another thing. If you get a $5 player to betting $50, he’ll stay with you because he knows in his mind that he plays better than you do. But he’s dogging it because of the big money. He can’t play his game. I’d make them overbet so they’re not playing their game. But in their mind they know they are the better player. That’s what keeps them playing.
RG: Do you have any advice for playing on bar tables?
BR: Follow the ball for position instead of drawing it. Of course, it’s harder to follow a ball three rails than to draw it most of the time. It’s easier to draw a lot of the time, but people who can’t play don’t realize that. You scare them off when you use draw. When you start drawing the length of the table, they get leery.
RG: Tell us about the scores you made over the years.
BR: The most I ever won was $10,000 right here in Las Vegas. As much hustling as I did, I should have won more than that at one time or another. I just wasn’t at the right place at the right time. Once I was playing a guy in Carlsbad, CA, who owned a bar there. He was a golfer who loved to play pool. I was playing for $600 a game. That was the most I ever played for. I got to drinking too much——this will probably never happen again—— he quit me because he didn’t want to take advantage of me.
RG: You overdid the act.
BR: I was there by myself and I was betting 20 guys on the side. I had the money in a telephone book on different pages and got too drunk to keep track of all thebets. The owner wouldn’t take advantage of me and he quit. When I counted my money I was only $300 up. If I had someone to take care of the bets or I hadn’t got so drunk, I could have made a real nice score.
RG: I met you when you were hustling around Chicago.
BR: That was one of the best cities I ever played in, that and Detroit. They were the best. You didn’t have any hassles. I got in very few fights or anything in the bars at that time. Nowadays, I wouldn’t go near those bars.
RG: Did you have many fights hustling in bars?
BR: For the amount of time I spent in bars there were very few. I knew how to avoid them. I could talk my way out of it. And I didn’t play when I thought there might be trouble. I had a gimmick when there was big money in a bar where there might be trouble. I’d go in and lose a few games and tell the guy, “I’d really like to play some more, but I’ve got to meet somebody at Joe’s Bar. Usually the guy would agree to play over there. So I’d move the game into a safe place to play. If I’m winning, I buy the house a round of drinks, so if something comes up somebody is going to stick up for me. Another thing, never call a bad hit when you are beating people. If it’s close, give it to them. I got out of a couple of bars by calling the police. I told them there was a guy with a knife who just stabbed someone. When the police came, I’d walk out with them. I never told them the guy had a gun because they wouldn’t come near the joint. With a knife they don’t worry so much.
RG: You used to wear a beard. Did you ever hustle the same players twice because he didn’t recognize you with or without the beard?
BR: I beat a guy three days apart one time. I played in a tournament in Macon, Georgia and I beat a salesman called “The Razorblade Man.” I had the beard in the tournament and I beat him. Three days later, I shaved the beard off and he didn’t recognize me, so I beat him again when I ran into him in a bar.
RG: What was the best disguise you used?
BR: I found out that the best way to go into a poolroom is in a sports coat with a briefcase, like you are a businessman. Now they think you have money. With a truck driver’s uniform, they might figure you had $500-600. The other way it might be unlimited how much they think they might win, if you put up a good front.
RG: What did you do when you ran into a strong player?
BR: I’d lose a couple of games and quit. Most of the time I knew who I was playing, but occasionally I’d run into somebody who could play and I’d just quit.
RG: A lot of players who hustle in bars have drinking problems.
BR: Most of them. I used to tell myself that it was good to drink because you’re putting on an act and win more money. That’s bullshit. Yeah, I drank too much. I thought it was an act. I found out it wasn’t an act when I started hustling bars that didn’t have pool tables. The pool interferes with your drinking because you’ve got to stop to shoot. I haven’t had a drink in seven years. I saw that it was doing me no good.
RG: What about breaking in 8 ball?
BR: If you have a knack for breaking from the side, that’s the best break because you’ve got a real good shot at making the 8 on the break. You hit the second ball. I’ve seen real good players who didn’t have a knack for that shot. It’s a little tricky. You’ve got to have the right snap. On the right table you might make the 8 two out of ten times. That’s quite an edge.
(Here are more of Bunny’s War Stories and Tales of the Road):
Norman Howard, aka “the Jockey,” and I were on the road travelling to the tournament in Johnston City. I said, “Hey, Jock, how about driving for a while. I’m getting tired.” A few minutes later Jock said, “Wake up! I can’t see! I can’t see!” “What’s wrong Jock,” I said. “There’s snow on the windshield.” Jockey answered. “Why don’t you put the wipers on?” “Oh, I thought they were just for rain,” he replied.
The next day we were in Cumberland, Maryland and Jock’s playing a radio announcer who’s giving him the 8. Now, Jock’s supposed to beat the guy even, but he can’t make a ball. So I say “Why don’t you quit and play him some more tomorrow. You’ll beat him with the 8 and then beat him even.” “I ain’t quitting. I can beat him. I know I can beat him.” Jockey yelled. “You’re quitting,” I said. “No I’m not,” Jockey argued. “Oh, yes, you are. You’re quitting,” I insisted. “What makes you think I’m quitting,” he said. “Because if you don’t, when we get to Johnston City and your first match comes up, while they’re announcing it over the microphone I’m going to tell them about the windshield wipers.” I replied. Less than a minute later Jock was in the rack.
Kilroy (Roy “Kilroy” Kosmanski) and me were on the road and he was posing as an executive opening tomato-canning factories. I had the truck driver’s uniform and a beard, so they never connected us anywhere.
Kilroy was telling everybody stories about building tomato factories so often that he actually got to believing it himself. After we took off the money, we’d go to the outskirts of town or down the road a ways to eat so they wouldn’t see us together. After a while, Kilroy got to the point where he wouldn’t sit with me. He’d take a booth and make me sit at the counter because he was an executive and didn’t want anybody to see him associating with a truck driver. How do you like that?
I was visiting Pittsburgh and a guy named Tex told me about a bookmaker taking bets out of a steelmill. “If you can get him to the table, he’ll lose some money. The only thing is that there is a little heat in the bar. So we’ll have to send a couple of guys in there to get you out when you win the money. I thought that was fair enough, so I said, “That’s alright. Give them a third.” I played the fellow for $40 a game and took him off for $800. So we left the bar and cut up the money. After we gave the guys who helped us their third they left and I asked Tex, “I didn’t see any heat in there. What’s the story with giving these guys a third. I didn’t see any trouble whatsoever.” “The heat was those guys who took you out of the place,” Tex said. “They were going to rob you if you didn’t give them a piece of the action.”
I was on the road with Earl Shriver and we stopped in a small town in Virginia. Earl was dressed in a sports shirt and slacks and I wore the truck driver’s uniform with the wallet on a chain so I wouldn’t connect with him. We went in a bar and I sat at one end while Earl went down to where they were playing. There were three guys playing for $3 on the five and $3 on the nine. Earl was sitting there watching and before long one of the players walked over and said,” Man, I put too much english on that shot.” “Yeah, that happened to me the last time I was playing Jack. You see Earl had picked up the names of the players while he was sweating the game.
A few minutes later another guy comes over to Earl and says, “Bill’s really shooting good today.” “Yeah, Bill’s playing alright today, but I played him a while back and he didn’t shoot that good,” Earl responded. Fifteen minutes later I looked back and Earl was in the game and the bet had been raised to $5 on the five and $5 on the nine. In less than an hour, Earl busted the game and walked out with all the money. Then I heard the players saying, “Do you know him?” “No, I don’t. I thought he was a friend of yours,” the first player said. “No I never met the guy before. I thought he was your friend.”
Bucky Fair took me to Hendersonville, N. Carolina and I beat this guy who owns a music shop out of $200 and he heads for the rack, asking me for the 8 and the 9. Giving this guy the 8 is a real tough game and I don’t have to win, so I don’t like it. So we go down to Greenville, S. Carolina where there’s a guy called “Grinder.” Now, it so happens that neither one of us can beat the Grinder, but the Grinder isn’t around. He’s out hustling somewhere. I get on the phone and call Hendersonville, where I won $200 the day before. I get the Music Man on the phone and pretend to be the Grinder. “A man passing through told me there was some action up there yesterday.” The Music Man said, “Yeah, a guy was here and we played for $20 a game. We broke even.” The guy wouldn’t admit to losing the $200, but I was acting like the Grinder so I said, “I’ll be up there around two or three o’clock. If that guy shows up, you’ve got part of the action.”
So we head back to Hendersonville. As soon as we hit the door, I asked the Music Man to play some, but he asked for the 8. “Man, you know I can’t give you the 8.” I told him. Then the Music Man said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ve got some business to take care of, but I’ll be back around two o’clock and we can play some then.” “I don’t think I’ll wait,” I said, heading for the door. “I’m heading on.” Before I made it to the door, the Music Man called me back. “I’ll play some for $5.” “That ain’t no good. We played for $20 yesterday, so we’ve got to play for at least $10,” I told him. “OK. We’ll play a few for $10,” the Music Man said. Now this guy is waiting for the Grinder to show up, but the Grinder ain’t never going to come. The Music Man kept looking at the door and meanwhile I win another $300 for a total score of $500. That’s not bad.
It sure beats working in the steel mill. I did that for seven months too. I couldn’t stand it though, all that working like to ruin my stroke.
Interview with Jimmy Mataya by Randi Givens 1991
PRETTY BOY FLOYD SHOOTS FROM THE HIP an interview with Jim Mataya by R Givens © 1991
R Givens: How did you get started in the game?
Jim Mataya: I used to hang around a boxing gymnasium and they had a pool table there. You played until you lost. I was ten or eleven years old. I’d watch the big guys play and wait for my turn. Naturally, I’d get beat and wait thirty or forty minutes to play another game.
RG: What attracted you to the game?
JM: It seemed pretty interesting to me. I had a lot of fun with the game watching the balls roll around. Along about that time the movie “The Hustler came out and a lot of people began to be attracted by pool. At that time I was impressed with pool anyway, so I figured I’d give it a go.
RG: Did the “Hustler” have a big influence on you?
JM: Yeah, I guess so. I was about eleven or twelve years old.
RG: How did your game develop?
JM: I started to play in tournaments when I was 15 and being around all the good players for so many years helped me learn. I had a natural ability to play the game, but you have to learn things about the game. Tournaments helped a lot, playing all the top players.
RG: What was the hardest part of the game to learn?
JM: Hmmmm. When to quit, I guess.
RG: What do you mean?
JM: (laughs) You get into a lot of individual battles away from the tournament scene and no matter how bad someone would be beating on me, I’d never want to quit. There’s times you should use your head a little better. You might end up with more money that way.
RG: Was an instructor instrumental in developing your game?
JM: Yes. I had a guy in New York by the name of Bill Amadeo who helped me a lot playing straight pool when I was about 17.
RG: How did he help your game?
JM: He taught me what balls to shoot first. I could shoot anything from just about anywhere, but that ain’t the way you play the game. You’ve got to have a little insight into what you are doing. Thinking ahead and so on. He taught me the right shots to shoot. It’s more than a game of hitting a ball into the hole. You’ve got to have an idea of what you are doing, a little road map in your mind.
RG: How long did it take to reach a professional level?
JM: It didn’t take me long. I won my first major tournament when I was 17.
RG: When did you know you’d make it as a pro?
JM: When I was about 15. I won my first tournament when I was 15. From there on I knew I was going to play pool all the time. I won the World title when I was 21 and again when I was 22.
RG: How important is topflight competition for maintaining peak performance?
JM: It’s real important. It keeps you ready to fight. When you are playing guys where when you miss you aren’t going to get another shot, it’s a little different than playing someone who is not on your level. The minute you run into somebody that’s a force you are going to be in trouble, if you haven’t been doing a lot of battling with top players. It’s just like a fighter. He can spar with bums all he wants, but it’s a little different when you’re going for the title. Tough competition helps a lot. It helps keep you razor sharp.
RG: What’s your best game?
JM: 8–ball, 9–ball, straight pool.
RG: Any distinction between the games?
JM: No any one of those three. It doesn’t matter.
RG: How well do you play straight pool?
JM: I’ve run hundreds in straight pool.
RG: What’s your high run?
JM: About 200.
RG: That’s very good.
JM: Well, straight pool is not all that hard once you learn a few things about it. It’s not as hard and as gruelling as 9–ball. In 9–ball, you’ve got to make shots the length of the table and shoot bank shots and cut shots, where in straight pool you always play for the little easy shots. Straight pool is a good building block for any other game. You learn a lot from the game, but it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. It ain’t near as tough as 9–ball.
RG: How would you compare the players twenty years ago with those today?
JM: A champion is a champion. They all do the same thing. They get the job done. You give them a shot and they are off to the races. The only thing different today is there is more competition, more people playing. So you’ve got a lot tougher road to go in these tournaments compared to years ago. The players are becoming more educated all the time, so it’s tougher to win because of the upgrade in the competition. And like I say, the game today is 9–ball instead of straight pool.
RG: What’s the biggest difference between a good amateur and a professional?
JM: The education of the game. Knowing when to play safe. Knowing the right shot to shoot. Having a road map in your mind of what to do. Most amateurs and beginners just shoot the ball in and take what’s left. They don’t think ahead. Well, they think ahead, but they don’t think the right way. It takes a long time to learn how to play the game the right way. If you are just a shotmaker, that’s a good tool to start with,but to improve you need to learn things from the game and you learn by playing a long tie and from people helping you.
RG: How can average players improve their pattern play?
JM: Unless someone explains it a little bit, it’s hard to pick up on your own. It’s hard to understand hat they are doing, unless you have it in your own mind. A guy might run four or five racks of 9–ball and you might say, “Well, he’s a good shotmaker,” but there’s more to it than that. You don’t want your cueball flying all over the place. Of course, in 9–ball, sometimes you can’t help it. But you don’t want to move the cueball around too much.
RG: What causes most misses among experts?
JM: Taking a shot for granted. sometimes you miss because you take a shot for granted. As far as tournaments go, you just dog it because of pressure.
RG: Is pressure a big factor?
JM: Sure it is. That’s the number one factor. When I practice, I play as good as anybody that ever lived. Never miss a ball. Get out there in a tournament and it’s a different story. A different story when you got pressure on you. The mental trip is half the battle. You’ve got to somehow relax yourself. If you don’t, you are in a lot of trouble.
RG: A handful of players like Varner, Strickland and Davenport dominate the pro tour. What sets them apart from the rest of the pack?
JM: They handle the pressure better than a lot of people, They know the game real well and they’ve got a lot of natural ability. When you win, you gain confidence. A pool player without confidence just can’t win. When you get on their level all you want is a shot. As soon as you get a shot, you know in your own mind that the game is over. When you get that type of feeling, you are there. Mentally, your concentration has to be there. You’ve got to want to win. Winning’s got to be the most important thing to you. When the good players play, it’s just a question of who’s going to get the shots and who isn’t.
RG: Why can’t the women beat the men?
JM: they don’t have the education of the game. Twenty years ago I watched them play and it was boring. It’s not like that anymore. the women play good now. They have the capability to shoot balls in the hole, but now they have to learn how to play the game. Men have been playing the game for centuries; women have only been playing for 25 years where they’ve got good competition. They’re learning things from the men when they go to tournaments. The women can’t beat the men because they don’t have the education of the game, but once they do there’s no reason they can’t compete with the men. They don’t have a powerful opening break, but after that there’s no reason why a woman can’t play as well as a man.
RG: What do you think of jump cues?
JM: I think they should be barred from the game. It doesn’t take any talent to use a jump cue. If you have to masse your cueball or go three or four cushions to hit the ball, it takes an education, but they pull out these jump cues and it takes no talent as far as I’m concerned. It takes a lot of skill away from the game. Instead of practicing with their jump cues, they ought to practice some billiards. Then they could learn something that really helps when you’re playing with rules where you have to kick at the ball. The rules really favor a good billiard player.
RG: What do you like about the pro tour?
JM: When I was young, I used to like the competition. I like being in competition. I’ve been competing for 26 years. Now I want to get paid for it. A fighter can go out there and get knocked out in ten seconds and pick up ten million. You play a pool match and if you lose you don’t get paid. I don’t like that at all. Neither do any of the other players. Pool tournaments are real simple. If you don’t come in 1st or 2nd, you go home a loser. It’s too tough. There’s no game tougher than pool. Of the non-physical sports, pool is the boss of all games. When you have to beat the best in the world to pick up five or ten thousand, it’s an insult.
I’d like to see how good the golfers played if they didn’t get paid for losing. There’s no pressure if you’ve got to make a putt to win $200,000 and if you miss you get $120,000. Hell, you call that pressure. Get up there when you’ve got to shoot a shot nine feet rail to rail and you get nothing if you miss. that’s pressure.
RG: How do players survive on the tour?
JM: They get backers. They hustle around a little bit. If there’s a tournament somewhere, I don’t care if it’s on the moon, they’re going to it. Whatever it takes to get there, they’ll do it.
RG: The snooker players in England succeeded in getting money into their game.
JM: They succeeded because they have gambling. You can bet on it. They’ve got legalized bookmakers thee just like going to the race track. People can turn on their TV and bet on a match.
RG: What can be done to get the game moving?
JM: We need a sponsor. We’ve got the tour. We’ve got the players. We can put on the greatest show in the world for them, but until the big money comes along what good is it?
RG: 7-UP and some other major corporations use pool in their commercials, but I don’t see them promoting the game or sponsoring any players.
JM: Sure, pool players have been getting used and abused their whole life. Take a look at the commercials on TV involving a pool table. They have a model come in who can’t even hold a cue stick. Who wants to watch some guy from Mabelline that can’t hold a cue. It’s boring. If they had a professional doing it the right way, it’d be the kind of commercial where people wouldn’t turn the station. That’s the difference between being smart in the marketing business and being an idiot. If those advertising executives want a commercial that’ll be talked about, send them to me. I’ll make the most talked about commercial in history.
RG: Do you think pool has an image problem?
JM: They say that pool has a bad image, but I don’t understand that. Watch Tommy Lasorda on TV. If you can read lips, I don’t have to tell you what he says every three minutes. The same way with all those referees, coaches and players—nothing but filthy language. They’re all on drugs and everything else. They can’t read, can’t write, can’t spell their name, but that’s OK because there’s big money involved. That’s where America is full of baloney. Anything that’s got money involved, they’re all for it. They don’t care about the fact that you’ve been in prison or that you are a dope head. As long as there’s money involved, it’s OK. They dog pool players because there isn’t any money involved. If there was some money in the game, they’d think pool players were the greatest people who ever lived.
1982 Forest Park Billiards Dayton OH. Nostalgic Slide Show set to a moving musical backdrop. 3.26 min from the famous photographer/archivist Bill Porter
One the great tourneys ran by Joe Burns and Joe Kerr. This is the tourney that
Denny Searcy broke everybody playing payball.