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POOL WARSOn the road to Hell and back With the world's greatest money players
By Jay Helfert
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Jay Helfert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIN THE BEGINNING
The modern era of Pool began with the release of the movie The Hustler in 1961. This classic film by Robert Rossen starred Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie in the lead roles. It triggered a reaction among young men all across the country, who decided to pick up a cue and emulate Paul Newman's character, "Fast Eddie", and become pool players.
This influx of new players and fresh blood brought life back to a game that had been in the doldrums throughout the 50's. Pool had enjoyed remarkable popularity in the 1920's, with dozens of large palatial poolrooms to be found in cities across America. The Depression closed many of them, with a small resurgence during the Second World War. Following the war years, there was a gradual slide in poolroom business, and tournaments became almost nonexistent.
Then came The Hustler, and new modern rooms began popping up everywhere. This was a Godsend to existing players, whose livelihood depended on finding opponents to gamble with and win money from. The 60's became a time of relative prosperity for them, and new tournaments began to appear affording them another opportunity to make money.
The first of these was the aptly named Hustler's Tournament, put on by the Jansco Brothers in the Southern Illinois hamlet of Johnston City. What began as an exclusively One Pocket event in 1961 quickly evolved into an All Around tournament in 1962 featuring One Pocket, 9-Ball and Straight Pool. It lasted three weeks and attracted every self respecting pool player and hustler in the country.
Emerging on a parallel path was a close friend of the Janscos, a man known in pool circles as "New York Fats". He now resided nearby in the even smaller village of Dowell, Illinois. He had met and married a local beauty queen, and they set up a homestead, from which he branched out across the Little Egypt area of Southern Illinois in gambling forays.
THE MINNESOTA FATS SAGA
The Hustler was a great novel written by Walter Tevis in 1959. It told the story of aspiring pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson and his monumental match with "Minnesota Fats". The characters were based on fictitious pool players, created by the fertile imagination of Tevis. He had traveled around Ohio and Kentucky visiting the "action" pool rooms, and getting a taste of the hustler's life style. Then he made up his story.
Not so, said Rudolf Wanderone Jr. from New York City. I am the real Minnesota Fats, and he proudly proclaimed this news at a drive-in movie theater outside Johnston City, Illinois, which was featuring The Hustler. The year was 1961 and the theater was owned by Fat's buddy, George Jansco. Local media types thought this might make an interesting story, so they gave this boastful "fat man" some press. One thing led to another and pretty soon the national media picked up the story. It didn't hurt that the movie was a huge box office success.
Fats was helped by his sheer girth, and the fact that Willie Mosconi got on the band wagon and denied Wanderone's claims. Mosconi said that this fat man was actually New York Fats, not Minnesota Fats. If anything, these denials helped Wanderone establish some credibility as a hustler of some renown. The crafty Fats picked up on this and pressed his claims. He threatened to sue Tevis and 20th Century Fox who released the film. This led to counter claims by Tevis, and abject denials that he had ever met this New York Fats character. All these claims and counter claims were duly covered by the national media.
It finally had to be settled in court. The court battle made front page news across the nation for several weeks in 1962. In the end Tevis' version was concurred with by the court, but like it or not, New York Fats was reborn as Minnesota Fats. Wanderone continued to use that name the rest of his life, and capitalized on his celebrity in every way possible. Tevis went to his death bed claiming there was no such character in real life, but it made little difference to Fats' adoring public.
JOHNSTON CITY AND THE STARDUST
These were a series of memorable tournaments put on by George and Paulie Jansco from 1961 to 1972. The first Johnston City tournament in 1961 was strictly a One Pocket affair, with a small field of select players. It was won by Johnny Vevis, and the self proclaimed Minnesota Fats finished second. In the ensuing years it was played as an "All Around" event with One Pocket, Nine Ball and Straight Pool divisions. Due to the success of these tourneys, the Janscos were encouraged to start a similar event, held at the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas. This tournament ran from 1965 through 1973.
George Jansco was a man of great influence in his neck of the woods. Following his demise in 1971, his less well connected brother Paulie tried to continue the tradition, but was met with one setback after another. The final straw was when Federal agents raided the 1972 tournament, and arrested all the players for gambling. The Stardust tourney continued for one more year, before it too was cancelled forever. Both these tournaments, and their coverage by ABC's Wide World Of Sports, had fueled a resurgence in tournament pool.
By the 1970's professional pool players had several major tournaments they could compete in each year. Surrounding each of these events was some healthy "back room" action, where the real money changed hands. Before I go any further, let me share with you a list I compiled long ago chronicling the winners of these memorable tournaments.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
There were many memorable moments that took place during my various expeditions to the "Wonderland" of Pool, circa 1960's. Some of them I reminisced about in my short lived column for the National Billiard News, entitled Diary Of A Pool Hustler. I will give these columns an 'encore' appearance here, and throw in one about the Dayton tournament for good measure.
This first one appeared in the National Billiard News in 1974. Please remember, I wrote these over thirty years ago. Errors and typos remain intact.
"Never Never Land"
When I was a young man courting the pool table way back in 1963, I talked a few of my friends into taking a trip to Johnston City. Johnston City, Illinois was that magnet of a small town that hosted the annual Hustler's Pool Tournament. I had heard of what was happening there and I didn't want to miss a thing. When we got on the road I wouldn't let them stop to eat. I was in a hurry, no doubt about it a pool freak heading for Mecca.
In ten hours we were there. But where.... the middle of nowhere, Illinois. It took a genuine pool room detective just to find the place. A small building just outside the town limits under a neon sign spelling out Jansco's Show Bar. We pulled into a sardine type parking lot, packed with cars from all over ... at least thirty different states.... and the shudder of expectation of what was happening took over my entire being. At this point my memories are rather blurry, but there are indelibles imprinted on my mind and I can still see the crowds of people, hear the noise and feel the excitement.
We all crammed into the tournament room and tried to get a glimpse of the four top players doing battle on the two tables set side by side. I don't remember who played but it was the time of the Knoxville Bear, Squirrel, and Luther Lassiter was top dog. I loved every minute of it.
When the matches ended the spectators and players moved in the direction of the 'practice room'. This was an adjacent building that must have been a converted garage. Not at all impressive on the outside but on the inside pure gold nine ball, a player's paradise. With wall to wall people eyeballing the wizardry of players who were legends in their own time.
On the first table to the right of the door, Ronnie Allen was playing Mr. Cokes "one hand up in the air" One Pocket for a thousand a rattle. Next to them was the match that took five years to finish. Bill Staton, the Weenie Beenie man, and Harold Worst the best man to ever pick up a cue in my book, were trying to beat a seemingly impossible proposition game, getting ten to one odds on a hundred dollar bet. And in the back room of the same building Cuban Joe was playing Jack Perkins a three thousand dollar session of One Pocket. If that's not delicious enough, for dessert we had a ring nine ball game ($50 a man) featuring some fair country shooters like Jimmy Moore, The Bear, Boston Shorty, Detroit Whitey and New York Blackie.
Almost too much for a 19 year old pool nut to stand, but still savoring every ball click. I joined a crowd of about twenty guys cozying back and forth from room to room trying to keep tabs on all the games at one time. Looking back in retrospect, I feel we were all part of something real, no pretense on the part of any of the players, a genuine shoot out, no holds barred. It was a tough game for me at the time, I had difficulty making more than four balls in a row.
Ronnie and Cokes were the big attraction. A brash, cocky kid from California by way of Oklahoma against an old war horse from everywhere and anywhere. Ronnie was flashy and daring, playing loose and wide open, seemingly oblivious to the pressure of the high stakes. With all eyes focused on him, Ronnie seemed to gather momentum and he obviously welcomed the mass adulation of the crowd. Cokes was placid and quiet, much like a shrewd General surveying a battle plan. Old Hubert was in complete control of himself and his game. Regardless of his obvious age he had an overwhelming presence about him. The combination of his stature, dignity and low key power of intelligence made him the dominating figure in the room.
Through the sheer genius of his vast experience he held the onrushing Allen off game after game before he finally quit from exhaustion. Cokes was on the short end three games and Ronnie had made a score but it was a split decision on who was the better of the two.
In another part of the action room, Harold Worst was giving the proposition game entrepreneur fits, making one amazing shot after another. With Beenie coaching him on problem shots how could he go wrong? Just listening to their patter on which shot to shoot, how to hit it and where to go afterwards was an education in itself. Beenie might say, "Make the six ball with a little low left english, dive under the fourteen and slide around the eleven ball, catch the end rail, tickle the nine and stop for the ten next." Wonder of wonders, Harold would do just that and say, "Is that okay Beenie?" Needless to say they busted the guy and he hasn't been back since. His proposition game beat all the other players but Harold and Beenie sent him home for good.
Meanwhile the Cuban was going off for a telephone number in the back room. Solid Jack Perkins did him in. He ran eight and out so many times I lost count. Of course in later years the Cuban was to become one of the game's most consistent winners.
In the nine ball ring game Cowboy Jimmy Moore was smooth stroking rack after rack. Fresh players kept coming into the game to replace the departed financially embarrassed losers. No one could slow the Cowboy down that night, for he was playing super pool from beginning to end and took them all down good. He shot so well the other players barred him from anymore nine ball action that year. That's the greatest trophy a money player can brag about.... When they don't let you play there is nothing more to say.
This second piece is from the same era, the mid 70's, and it's about the most memorable hustler of them all.
That's right, Cornnnn Breaddddd Reddddd.......Pool hustling entrepreneur. A magician with the lip and the stick. Red will play and he will bet high. He'll bring money out of all four pockets anytime he can get the action. Red is in his own league, a gambling superstar! Tales about him permeate the pool world. The pool players grapevine has carried accounts of his exploits to the farthest reaches of this country. Who is this character behind all these stories?
He's a wiry fortyish man with a close cropped headful of red hair. His body is slightly bent in a pool player's crouch even when he's standing. Sort of like he's ready to play anytime. His personality is a blend of Okie and Midwesterner, but his style is distinctly his own. Red really lays down the conversation. When you rap to him it's no holds barred. Any facet of your life may be brought out in public for examination, if Red's mind gives his tongue the message. He holds nothing back. Red tells it like it is, in spades.
Using a combination of the variances of the English language, he expresses himself verbally as well as anyone I've ever seen. Anybody can understand the meaning and intent of his words, although the way he delivers them is pure Cornbread Red. His moods are as changeable as a gambler's fortunes. He can gravitate from being your best friend to your worst enemy and back again in the course of a sentence. That's how strong Red puts it down ... Top Speed!
And his wide open style carries over naturally to his pool game. Red gets completely loose on a pool table. Pool is a piece of cake to him. It's his shortcut through life. He's found the secret. It's true in life just as in pool. Stay loose and relaxed and everything seems easy. Get tight and things get tough. Red is at ease with himself, he's the master of his own destiny.
The Cornbread Red approach to life is best exemplified by the following two excerpts. The first recalls a time in Las Vegas when Red's balls-out gambling style busted the crap tables at the Stardust. The score was unreal, too much to count. So what did Red do with his newly found fortune? He went directly to the men's clothing store in the hotel and proceeded to buy all his friends (that included everyone present) anything they wanted. The store ran out of clothes before Red ran out of money. That is the classic Redbird philosophy for investing his money. And who is to say, it may pay the greatest dividends in the long run.
The second incident took place in Detroit, Red's home base. A hot shot young nine ball player from out West (guess?) came to town with a flush backer. The sky was the limit. The word went out that the kid wanted to play Red $1,000 nine ball. Red's horse called him at home and woke Red. He explained the situation to Red and wanted to know how to handle it. Red asked him how much they had. The reply was $10,000. Red said okay, tell the kid he would come down to the room right now on one condition. They play $10,000 a game! Needless to say when the kid heard this he couldn't find the door fast enough. Just the thought of a $10,000 game of nine ball turned him to silly putty.
You better believe it. Ole Corn's as clever as a politician and reckless as Evel Knievel with a one ton heart to make it all work. He's got an act you don't want to miss.
Okay I got one more for you.
"1974, The Dayton Tournament"
Nobody who was there will soon forget it. Everywhere you looked there were luminaries of the hustler's world. Wimpy and Canton Don cutting up with Detroit Whitey over there; Jersey Red and Shorty reminiscing over here; Frisco Jack and Richie at the card table; Bugs and Youngblood burning up some banks; Two Hippy Jimmy's knocking heads at Nine Ball; and in the feature of this Ten Ring Circus was Ronnie, trying to fade the graduates of Cochran's School of Pay Ball. And the prize pupil, Magna Cum Laude Denny took it all down in the end.
It was the last few gypsies trying to get a respite from the straight 9 to 5 world that was overwhelming the land. But it was the same world that gave birth to these gypsies and that fed and clothed them. As long as the basic structure of society promoted personal greed, then the Professional Gambler (Gypsy) was guaranteed a haven. He would always have a spot to go to and a mark to beat. A mark was anyone, anywhere, who because of his own fears decided to take a chance and lost.
Dayton in 1974 was a condensed version of what was happening all over the country. It was an opportunity to gather together and sharpen our teeth. It was a cram course for the rookies and a refresher for the veterans. Everybody learned, some just paid a higher price for the knowledge.
Excerpted from POOL WARS by Jay Helfert Copyright © 2012 by Jay Helfert. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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