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.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An interview with Karen Fox, widow of Minnesota Fats biographer Tom Fox

Karen Fox, widow of Tom Fox, attended the first Johnston City tournaments with her writer-husband in 1961. Both Karen and Tom worked at the Evansville Courier and Press, a newspaper published from the hometown of backroom legend Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes. Tom Fox would later help Minnesota Fats pen the "The Bankshot and Other Great Robberies," which was republished by Lyons Press in 2006.

What follows is a partial transcript of various interviews with Karen Fox, the first conducted in August of 2000.

"Tom was a sports writer at the time, and he was a very good newsman, as well as being a good sports writer. Somebody called at the sports desk at the Evansville Sunday Courier and Press, and told him that this great Evansville Indiana pool player, Hubert Cokes, an oilman, was going to be participating in the tournament. They said that Tom, with his love for characters, should go to Johnston city, and watch Cokes play.

And this guy, on the phone, said that Cokes was a heavy money-player.

He and I had just started dating, and we had just seen The Hustler a couple of weeks before he got that call. He could not believe that out in the middle of nowhere, in Southern Illinois, were all these incredible pool players. They had this really good tournament room, with good acoustics, and bleachers, in the back. There was a concrete block room where, after the tournament was over, there were heavy-duty gambling. And Tom knew it was a national story.

We got to see it first hand. You know, television has a way of sterilizing stuff like that. ... But what we saw was pure, and raw, and real. There was a moment in time, a freeze frame, that we had that privilege to see. Those guys were incredible characters.

Oh my god, it was awesome. When tom started going over there, he took a bunch of us the 90 miles from Evansville. It was a drive. I worked at the paper too. We had just met. And he e took a whole load of us over there. He had a station wagon. It was so far, that (eventually ) everybody else stopped going, but I loved it."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The 1960s Hustlers' Jamboree and George Jansco's Minor League Baseball Stats

The internet is amazing. Here's a site that references George Jansco's minor league baseball stats back in the 1930s. Notice that the site references George's nickname as "Wimpy" -- which was the same handle used by Luther Lassiter. Odd. Also looks like George had a career batting average of .291. Not too shabby.

For those who don't know, George Jansco was the promoter (along with his brother Paulie) behind the Johnston City hustler jamborees during the 1960s. Lassiter dominated the colorful events, which also featured Jersey Red, Boston Shorty, Ronnie Allen, Harold Worst, Handsome Dan and of course Minnesota Fats. I've attached a YouTube video at the top of this post that features an interview with Fats at one of the southern Illinois tournaments. That's a picture of George Jansco at the upper right. You can find more historic pool videos here. (Freddy "The Beard' Bentivegna also has amassed a cool collection of online videos.) You can read more about George Jansco and his jamborees in Hustler Days.

Friday, August 7, 2009

America's Best Ever Pool Player? You Decide

Who is America's best ever pool player? The poll on the top right of the pool history blog lists some all-time favorites, including recent Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Archer. I've left Willie Hoppe off the list because he was known as one of the best-ever billiards players, as opposed to one of the best-ever pool players. Neither have I included one of my personal favorites, Efren "Bata" Reyes. As he's from the Philippines, I figured I'd save him for a future poll of the greatest international players. I've also tried to get a good mix of players from different eras. (Van Boening vs. Greenleaf?!) Vote early. Vote often. I'll leave the poll up for awhile. Also, if you have a write-in candidate, feel free to comment at the bottom of this post. I'll tally up the write-ins later, along with those listed on the ballot.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fats, Du Quoin and the G-Men

John Croessman, the publisher of The Du Quoin Evening Call, wrote to me a few years back about Minnesota Fats. Du Quoin, as you may recall, was where Fats and his first wife Evelyn called home for many years. This is a small anecdote, but it's colorful and so I figured I'd post it up. Fats had some trouble with the IRS during his later years in Du Quoin -- but he always kept his sense of humor about it.

Here's what Mr. Croessman wrote:

I was a close friend of Minnesota Fats for many years. When he wasn't playing pool he would collect meat scraps from local butchers and feed dogs all over Du Quoin and Dowell. One of his favorite haunts was a place called Perfection Restaurant and the local KFC. I ran into him in the Kroger store one day and he told me, "You see that man following me? He's IRS. I've got so much money he's following me to make sure that nothing happens to me!"

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pool as Folklore

Here's a site worth noting: The Folklore of Pool & Billiards. An undergraduate student named "Wayne" (I wish he would have posted his contact info) has been working on a project for his University of Wyoming American Folklore course. As part of that project, Wayne has created the site and posted some of his work on it.

For his project, Wayne observes that:

the dynamic world of billiards is just a densely saturated ground for studying folklore, for numerous reasons. For one, the pool ritual just easily meets all the main criteria necessary in order for it to be considered as folklore. In other words, pool is communal, creative, and relatively subversive (also, it is often deviant and non-institutional in origin). What is more, these universal folkloric characteristics (that one must find to study a folkloric material) are so vividly obvious in pool that they are just very easy to withdraw from this lore.

I see no mention of Hustlers, Beats and Others on the site, which also might be useful. Another good source is Charles Lemert, author of Muhammad Ali, Trickster in the Cultural of Irony. I interviewed Lemert for The Hustler and the Champ, and his observations about pool (and Minnesota Fats particularly) definitely would be relevant to Wayne's research project.

Friday, April 24, 2009

White Shoes and a Black Caddy

Kentucky resident Ian Joslyn writes:

A few years ago, when I was in high school I was looking around on ebay and found a 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood Limo. I looked at the types of cars all the time because I love the old Cadillacs. The Fleetwood is my favorite. What really caught my eye was the fact that it was advertised as Minnesota Fats' car. This was of interest to me because I love to play pool. I play even more now than I did then. Well I showed it to my parents and said I would really like to have it. Knowing that I would probably never get it I kind of forgot about it. With out my knowledge my mom contacted the owner and bought the car. She went to Nashville Tn, which is a few hours southeast of Paducah KY, where we live, a few month later and picked up the car. They current owner of the car and Minnesota Fats' second wife T-Bell was there to greet her. The took some pictures and she brought the car home. It was given to me the night before my senior prom. I have now owned the car for about 2 years. I thought you might be interested to see the pictures of this car. I also own a pair of Minnesota Fats' shoes from the seventies.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Player

Reader Jeff Stanley has come across this poster of a film "The Player," featuring Minnesota Fats. I have never seen the film myself, and neither has Jeff. He was wondering if anybody out there has a copy.

Jeff also has come across eight lobby cards from the film. "I don't know if this is the full set, I hope so," writes Jeff about the lobby cards.

"I have only seen one of the cards for sale before and was amazed when I saw all 8 for sale. To tell the truth, the guy didn't really know what he had. So I grabbed them."