Monday, February 24, 2014

A New Limb on the Fats Family Tree

Rudolf Wanderone — the many better known as Minnesota Fats — was the most famous pool hustler in American history. But how much do we really know about him?  Here’s a quick quiz.   But be advised:  some of these are trick questions.  

Which statements are true?

  1. The Minnesota Fats character in The Hustler, the novel by Walter Tevis, was based on Wanderone.
  2.  Rudolf Wanderone was born in 1913.
  3.  Rudolf Wanderone was married twice.
  4.  Rudolf Wanderone had no children. 
  5. Rudolf Wanderone had only one child, the famous rhythm and blues singer Etta James. 
  6. Rudolf Wanderone was a top-notch pool hustler.

Wanderone with daughter, Juanita.

This may come as a surprise, but all of these statements — with the exception of number 6 — are now in dispute.  This, despite what it says in Wikipedia and even what has been previously reported in my own books, like The Hustler and the Champ and Hustler Days.

New information has come to light, information that I’ve detailed in recent edition of Billiards Digest.  We now know that Wanderone  may not have been born in 1913, that he may have been married three times (not just twice) and that he had at least one child other than Etta James (and whether Etta James was his daughter remains an open question.) 

Here's the Cliff Notes version of what we now know:

Wanderone had a long relationship during the 1930s with a woman named Lucy Blanche Maria Wood, who gave birth to a daughter named Neva Juanita. Lucy Blanche died in 1959. Neva Juanita died in 2010. Wanderone was almost certainly Neva Juanita’s father, and he also may have been married to Lucy Blanche. This is startling because Wanderone never publicly acknowledged any wife prior to Evalyn Grass, whom he married in 1941. His second wife (or third, depending on how you count) was Theresa Bell. Also, the timeline of his relationship with Lucy Blanche puts into doubt his supposed birth year of 1913.

This new information comes to us from JustinVerhovnik, a hithertofore unknown grandson of Wanderone. Speaking to me for a January 2014 edition of Billiards Digest, Verhovnik said that the last time he laid eyes on his grandfather might have been in 1980, at about the time that Fats was divorcing Evelyn Inez. 

The story is long and drawn out, but I’ll try to relate more of it in a future blog post. You can also try to track down that January edition of Billiards Digest. Freddy Bentivegna likewise has included some detail in his new book, 'Encyclopedia' of Pool Hustlers.

-- R.A. Dyer

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Inflation-Adjusted Heart

Lassiter & Fats: Big Bets in Today's Dollars

9-ball genius Luther Lassiter
This is what Luther Lassiter said about Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 1940s: "Greatest pool town that's ever been. You had five or six people there who were really gambling. People had lots of cash, and players from all over the country -- anybody that played for money at all -- came to Norfolk."

Lassiter was a prince among the Norfolk hustlers during his World War II Coast Guard years. During one particularly memorable  straight pool match-up Wimpy took $5,000 from a club owner. You can read all about it in Hustler Days.

The size of that $5,000 wager -- and the heart Lassiter needed to win it -- got me to thinking. That amount of money is a lot, even today.  After all, many of the regional tournaments even now pay less for first place. Shane Van Boening  also recently won $10,000 from Mika Immonen, but it took him three days to do it. But Lassiter won his money during a single game in the 1940s. During those years $5,000 was a king's ransom.

You can find various inflation calculators on the Internet. Here's a link to one. It's from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics. So how much is $5,000, wagered in 1946, valued in today's dollars? According to the inflation calculator: $61,000! During a 100-point game of straight pool Lassiter's opponent was within just two balls of taking the cash. That's when Lassiter ran 92 and out. Talk about heart.

There are other references to historic wagers. For instance, Minnesota Fats won about $20,000 from Richie Florence and two others in Johnston City, back in 1971. You can read about that encounter in The Hustler & the Champ. How much would $20,000 be valued today? More than $117,000, according to the  inflation calculator. However, unlike Lassiter's score, it took Fats a couple of weeks to win all that money.

I've also came across a reference to a $250 wager between Alfredo De Oro and Charles Otis back in 1916. It was a private bet between the two players before their championship billiards match held in Havana, Cuba. In today's dollars, the wager would have amounted to more than $5,000. De Oro, then considered the greatest player ever, was said to have put up his own money. Otis was staked.

Have a story about a particularly memorable wager from yesteryear? Send me the details, and we'll plug it into the inflation calculator.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fats in Johnston City

Minnesota Fats was a fixture in southern Illinois during the 1960s, which was the heyday of the Johnston City tournaments and the pool revival I described in Hustler Days. The famous tournaments were created by George and Paulie Jansco, who are both members of the One Pocket Hall of Fame. I got to thinking about George and Paulie and Fats after receiving a letter the other day from Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois. In it, Gary describes a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats. It was a small encounter, and yet the sort that appears to have taken on added meaning for Gary as he has learned more about Fats. That's because it quietly reflects some of the great qualities of Fats: he loved playing pool, he loved being around people and -- despite his hustler reputation -- there was a certain kindness about him.

Here's Gary's note:

From 1966 to 1969, I was a graduate chemistry student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I used to research my project from time to time during the wee hours and then go to a small hamburger place on the north side of Carbondale where they had 2 or 3 pool tables. I was usually the only one there and after a hamburger, I’d shoot some pool. I was only a fair player. One night (late 1968 – mid 1969), there was a guy sitting at the counter talking to the owner – I paid little attention to them. I had my hamburger, got a cue off the wall and began practicing.
Before long, the guy at the counter strolled over, watched a bit, and asked if I wanted to play a couple of racks. I said OK and asked if he wanted to bet a dollar a game. He laughed and said “A whole dollar”? I didn’t know if he was mocking me or couldn’t afford a dollar so I said “OK, how about 50 cents then”? He smiled and just said “Let’s play a bit for nothing and we’ll see what happens.” Well, he beat me several games with no trouble, shook my hand and left. The counter man said “Do you know who that was”? I told him I didn’t – and he told me it was Rudolph Wanderone – Minnesota Fats. I just said “Oh”. I had no idea who he was. Later, I saw a picture of him somewhere and realized who he was. Later still, I learned he was living not too far from Carbondale.
You asked for some remembrances of the man. That was mine. Recently I’ve read about him and from everything I understand, he was a pretty nice fellow.

Thanks to Gary. And, like he notes: I'm always looking for memories of the great ones. If you have one, send it in. If you'd like to learn more about Johnston City (or see another Johnston City video), check out my separate blog on the topic, which you can find here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Friday, April 9, 2010

Childhood home of Minnesota Fats

At the upper left is a photograph of the apartment building where Minnesota Fats grew up. It's in upper Manhatten, the neighborhood of Washington Heights. I managed to track down its location and take this photo during a trip to New York City in the summer of 2005. I knocked on the door but nobody was home. I used the research from that trip in The Hustler & The Champ, which also describes Fats' rivalry with Willie Mosconi. Some years later I made contact with one of Fats' nephews, Doug Corwin (shown at upper right), whose mother Bertha Wanderone lived with Fats at this home. Doug also provided me some really cool childhood photos of Fats, which you can find by clicking through this Untold Stories column.

-- R.A. Dyer

Friday, January 15, 2010

Fats vs. Mosconi: The Great Pool Shoot-Out

You read it about it The Hustler & The Champ. Here's the video proof of the most watched pool match in U.S. history. Picture and sound quality is pretty lousy, but it's the only copy out there that I have come across. You can read about the pool match in detail in my book (that's it there to the right). The famous televised pool match was put together by pool promoter Charles Ursitti and the guys from Wide World of Sports.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Billiard Tales and Folklore

This is the second of a series of posts written in coordination with other online pool writers. It's part of the Pool Synergy project hosted this month by Samm Diep's Look for more installments in the future.

Our PoolSynergy topic this month is “Billiard Tales.” As part of my contribution I'm giving everyone an assignment. Find a poolroom in your area popular with the old timers and sidle up next to a few of them at the bar. It’s important that you find at least two or three of these guys sitting together. Four is even better. And I’m not talking about the middle-aged guys, I’m talking about the really old ones, the guys who have been around the pool halls 30 or 40 years at least.

Buy them a beer if you want, or just sit quietly. And then wait.

I guarantee you that within the first half hour you’ll start hearing stories of who took whom and for how much, or about the time some shark came to town, or about the big score by the local champ. Some stories will be verifiable, others not so much. I’ve even heard deadly serious tales of the supernatural.

To me, the form of these billiard tales is just as interesting as the content. That is, it's not what the stories are about, per se, but how they're communicated. The oral tradition is key. Most of the great old stories never get written down, never appear in newspapers -- and they grow in the telling. These stories pass from older players to younger ones, and as long as the community remains intact -- e.g., as long as the poolroom remains standing and the same men and women continue to frequent it -- the legends remain alive.

Now here's a thought. Bear with me, but I think it's true. I believe these boozy recollections have a lot in common with the colorful stories that might get told by village elders around a camp fire. Listen to the old timers and you'll hear tales of heroes and villains and especially tricksters. Oral tradition (according to my quick research on Wikipedia) refers to the "transmission of cultural material through vocal utterance.” The oral traditional also has long been associated with folklore. I would argue that many of the stories told by old-time pool players are part of the folkloric tradition, but of an urban sort.

Some of my favorite Billiard Tales involve Minnesota Fats. In them Fats might be razzing an event promoter about the dress code, or cracking wise about the straight-laced "fun players," or gleefully robbing a tournament player during a high-dollar gambling session. These stories typically pits Fats against some symbol of the conservative billiards establishment.

As is the case with many trickster stories from folklore, Fats in these stories becomes an amoral and comic figure confronting the hypocrisy of the status quo. The billiards establishment would portray our sport as a clean-cut endeavor where no one ever gambles and where the dress code is strictly enforced. Minnesota Fats would portray it for what it really is. As a classic trickster, Fats confronts established authority, lies, and can act in amoral ways. But he also becomes an ironic symbol of truth.

I used to live in San Jose, Costa Rica. I remember hearing stories there about a hustler named “Pichitas” -- about how he would send well-dressed businessmen packing, or how he created this great shot from nowhere, or how he became a master of the 5 by 10s. I even remember the Pichitas "origin myth" -- in that stories were told about how he got his name (which, by the way, translates to “Tiny Dicks.”) These stories were told with something approaching reverence and at first I thought they were specific to Latin America. But I later discovered that they could have just as easily been told about Wimpy Lassiter or Jersey Red or U.J. Puckett. In each case, the players are portrayed as heroic or trickster figures, and in each case the stories are passed along directly through word of mouth. I also recognized in each case messages about the "culture" of the pool room, in that they would communicate lessons about such matters as gambling etiquette, attach value to certain sorts of figures and heap ridicule on others, and define the language common to members of the "tribe".

And so that brings us back to this month's assignment. Go sidle up to the bar, order a drink, and spend some time listening to the old timers. If you hear something good, remember it, and pass it along. Better yet, send me your stories and I'll post them up on this blog or use them as a fodder for a future Untold Stories column.

Some of the best Billiard Tales have never been written down. This puts them at risk for being lost forever. But through the magic of the Internet, we can now share the wisdom of our village elders with the world.

You can read a bit more about these ideas in The Hustler & The Champ. If you have your own old time story, send it to me at

Monday, November 16, 2009

Introducting PoolSynergy: an online collection of pool writing

Check out the first edition of PoolSynergy, contemplated as a monthly collection of great pool writing from the web. Poolsynergy the brainchild of John Biddle, host of the website. This month's theme is "Strategy,” and it features contributions from eight writers, including myself. Here's a brief description of these first contributions, with links to where you can find them.

*Samm Diep, well known for her blog The Tip Jar, talks about how she improved her game when she took another look at using the side pockets instead of the corners in her peice Corner vs. Side.

*Approaching the topic of strategy from a different perspective, Mike Fieldhammer, a BCA Certified Instructor,challenges conventional wisdom in Strategy: Should it Change Based on Your Opponent? Mike’s piece shows you how to gain an advantage at the table and win more often by taking your opponent’s abilities and style into account.

*In Offensive Safeties in 8 Ball (works only in IE), Joe Waldron makes clear that safeties aren’t just defensive shots when you have nothing else, but can play a strong offensive role as well. Waldron is the host of Pocket Billiards Review, which is always filled with insightful articles about the mental game.

*Also about strategy at the table, John Biddle’s article Thinking Your Way to More Pool Victories can help you raise your winning percentage. John is the man behind the PoolSynergy project.

*"FastMikie” McCafferty’s wise and insightful post The Impossible Dream talks about the role pool plays in your life strategy. Mike writes at Diary of a Pool Shooter, the longest continually running blog about pool.

*Gail Glazebrook’s post, The Deliberate Attack, gets you to think “How will I beat you” and then gives you an approach to follow that works for her. Gail’s blog is confessions of g squared.

*Mark Finkelstein, a BCA Certified Instructor and instruction columnist at the hot new pool website NYC Grind, helps you take an objective look at your game in his piece, Assessing Ability … On the Road to Effective Strategy.

*Melinda, in A Strategy to Manage the Mental Side of Your Game, helps us to keep our head in the game from the very beginning and recognize issues that need attention before it’s too late. Melinda, who calls herself a wanna-be pool player, lives and blogs in Texas at Pool is a Journey.

*I round out this month’s edition with my contribution, Minnesota Fats: The Quiet Thrashing. It's a story about several gambling sessions between Fats and Richie Florence, during several weeks in Johnston City back in 1970. That's an old picture of Fats at the top of this post.