Wednesday, June 15, 2011

PoolSynergy20: The Hustlers' Jamboree



I’ve been thinking a lot about Johnston City lately, especially given that the 50th anniversary of the Hustlers Jamboree is just around the corner.  For those who have never heard of it, the famous tournament started out as a tiny backwoods affair. Eventually, however, it grew into one of the most celebrated pool competitions in American history.   The first Johnston City event featured one-pocket only and almost no spectators. The last had nine-ball, straight-pool, one-pocket — and so much gambling that it was raided by federal agents.


I've written plenty about Johnston City over the last several years and as a consequence I've received several letters from folks who witnessed all the mayhem first hand.  For my PoolSynergy contribution this month I figured I'd turn those letters into gold. Our assignment was to describe what makes for a great tournament experience.  Who better to opine about this topic than folks who were present for America's great Hustler Jamborees?

But before we get going, let me first provide the Cliff Notes explanation as to why you should care about Johnston City. As noted previously, the first of these events was conducted in 1961. The last was in 1972. They were organized by the brothers George and Paulie Jansco and drafted off the popularity of The Hustler, the famous movie featuring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. The tournaments were noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which was their elevation of nine-ball as the official tournament game of pool and because they helped to establish Minnesota Fats as America's most famous pool player.  The tournaments were also the first significant pool events to bring gambling out of the shadows. In fact it was the gambling —and the romance that surrounded it —that attracted the national media to Johnston City.  Whether for good or bad, this is simply a fact.
Johnston City Sign
Ross Parker Simons, center, with his Dad and unidentified man.

For those who are unfamiliar with the events, I've written a retrospective essay in this month's Billiards Digest. You can find it here.  There's also plenty of information about Johnston City in Hustler Days and The Hustler & The Champ.  I maintain this Johnston City blog with plenty of anecdotes, pictures and video about the event, which you can find here. And just above I've reproduced a video of the famous Minnesota Fats holding forth in Johnston City.

And now on to the letters:


          Gary Carlson writes that in 1965 or 1966 he piled into a Chevy Impala with a friend and the two drove down from Decatur, Illinois to Johnston City. And that's where he witnessed the famous "toilet brush" incident.


I didn’t know what was going on — I knew nobody. The place was wall-to-wall packed. Difficult to see the action and it seemed somewhat disorganized. After watching endless 9-ball, we learned that the more interesting stuff was going on “out back.” I can’t recall (after all, this was about 45 years ago) if it was in a part of the same room walled off or a small building separate from the main room. I think we paid $5 for entry. It was north of the main building (which was like fifties deco), the latter which sat on the northwest quarter of the intersection. In any case, we were there only maybe a couple hours and the only memory I have was in this back room. I recall or heard of or saw “Jersey Red,” Eddie “Knoxville” Taylor, and “Big Daddy Warbucks” who I much later learned was Hubert Cokes. The match I recall was between Big Daddy and somebody else — I can’t recall who —seems like Taylor, but I’m not totally sure if Taylor or Red were even there that year and I just heard their names — but it was certainly Big Daddy. I also remember a LONG conversation about what the handicap would be. The game was going to be 8-ball and a race to something for $100 (good money back then). Now, instead of their bridge hand, Warbucks was to use his hat for a bridge and the other guy went into the toilet and returned with a big toilet brush."
 And here’s a note from John Rousseau, who read my Billiards Digest essay:

“I am glad I went to Southern Illinois during that period and got to go to Johnson City every day. Grades sucked but it was quite an experience on life. I was there that night thanks to my deceit and larceny. The tickets for the broadcast were very expensive so I bought extra tickets for the regular tournament as they had no date or reference to ABC. We made a stink at the front door when they refused to admit us when Jim McKay yelled out, this is f------ live, let the a**holes in!”

Ross Parker Simons in 1965 with Boston Shorty.
Ross Parker Simons was just 13 when he want to Johnston City. That’s a picture of him on the right and above. Here's what he has to say:

“When I was 13, my father took me out of school is Wisconsin for a road trip to Johnston City and the Jansco Brothers 1965 tournament. I don't recall my mother's reaction, although she couldn't have been too mad as she packed a cooler with fried chicken and seven ounce bottles of Schlitz for the overnight drive. ... Although I don't recall much about the games, I knew good pool and remember that Harold Worst was impressive.  Looked like a haberdasher and shot like a machine.  I also liked to watch one pocket.  What's funny about the picture of Boston Shorty now that I look at it is his bored sneer... like beat it kid.  But I don't remember anyone being rude to me, even the imperious Daddy Warbucks.  Saw Handsome Danny Jones there and he was, in fact, quite handsome.”
You can read more at this Johnston City blog, including some recollections of Karen Fox, whose husband co-authored the autobiography of Minnesota Fats. And if you were old enough to remember Johnston City, please drop me a line.


Before I sign off, I would like to leave you with this last thought. I believe it's high time that George and Paulie Jansco, the late promoters of Johnston City, were inducted into the Billiard Congress Hall of Fame. They've already been inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame, but now it's time for them to be honored by the BCA. If you agree (or even if you don't) send a note to Billiards Digest or your favorite pool magazine.

About PoolSynergy
PoolSynergy is an online collaborative effort by pool and billiard bloggers, in which each agrees to write about a single theme. PoolSynergy submissions are published simultaneously by each of the participating blogs on the 15th of every month. To read a list of the other fine contributions this month, check out Mike Fieldhammer's excellent Billiard Coach blog, which you can find here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Memories of Hubert Cokes

Johnston City Sign
Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois who wrote recently about a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats, also sends in this note about stumbling into a poolroom owned by George and Paulie Jansco, sometime back in the late 1960s. The Janscos were the creators of the famous Johnston City tournaments, which I write about in Hustler Days. Carlson appears to have stumbled into a game with Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes, although his memory is a bit fuzzy on the point. He says they appeared to be off their game and ended up spending a good part of the evening arguing about the spot. That's a picture of Daddy Warbucks, below, although he's standing there next to another young fan. Right above this post I've included a picture of the Johnston City sign.


You can read the rest of Carlson's note, below:
Prior to the experience with Fats, maybe it was 1965 or 1966, I lived in Decatur, Illinois and was finishing up my bachelor degree in Chemistry at Millikin University. A buddy of mine who I played pool with said we should go down to southern Illinois to watch a major pool tournament. So, we piled into his ’58 Chevy Impala and away we went. I have no idea how he learned of the tournament, but the drive took longer than I had anticipated.
Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes history
I didn’t know what was going on — I knew nobody and certainly didn’t see nor hear anybody named "Minnesota Fats." The place was wall to wall packed. Difficult to see the action and it seemed somewhat disorganized. After watching endless 9-ball, we learned that the more interesting stuff was going on “out back.”I can’t recall (after all, this was about 45 years ago) if it was in a part of the same room walled off or a small building separate from the main room. I think we paid $5 for entry. It was north of the main building (which was like ‘50’s deco), the latter which sat on the northwest quarter of the intersection. In any case, we were there only maybe a couple hours and the only memory I have was in this back room. Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed with the caliber of play – but what did I know? I thought I saw people just as good back in Decatur. I used to watch Don Tozer play there. Anyway, I recall or heard of or saw “Jersey Red,”Eddie “Knoxville” Taylor, and “Big Daddy Warbucks” who I much later learned was Hubert Cokes. The match I recall was between Big Daddy and somebody else – I can’t recall who – seems like Taylor, but I’m not totally sure if Taylor or Red were even there that year and I just heard their names – but it was certainly Big Daddy. I also remember a LONG conversation about what the handicap would be. The game was going to be 8-ball and a race to something for $100 (good money back then). Now, instead of their bridge hand, Warbucks was to use his hat for a bridge and the other guy went into the toilet and returned with a big toilet brush. As I said, the play was unremarkable. I expected long runs, “magic” shots, etc. I was young.
Now I regret that during 1966-1969 when I was in Carbondale, I never bothered to even go back there to watch again – even though it was just east a few miles. Curiously, I did play in a band and we actually played a couple of gigs there at that location. I’ve forgotten the name of the place. It might have been “Janscos."


-- R.A. Dyer

Memories of Minnesota Fats

 
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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Minnesota Fats: The Quiet Thrashing




This is the first of a series of posts written in coordination with other online pool writers. It's part of the Pool Synergy project at www.poolstudent.com. Our first topic relates to pool strategy. Look for more installments in the future.


Strategic thinking is often associated with men and women of great dignity. Think Kasparov wordlessly sacrificing a rook for checkmate in three moves, or Napoleon – without panic – wedging his army between two opposing forces in order to defeat both. Pool also has had its share dignified strategic thinkers -- players like the unflappable Allison Fisher, for instance, who was named in 2005 as one of the world’s 50 smartest people. Or there’s the great Efren Reyes, the reserved one-pocket genius.

But what about the loud-mouthed and the brash? Pool has plenty of those sorts too. And believe it or not some of the greatest strategic moves in pool – especially with regards to getting action — have been executed not by men of quiet deliberation, but by those oafish players that so commonly dot our history.

Take for instance Minnesota Fats, one of pool’s great gasbags, a man who never made it through high school and may even have been illiterate. (You can get a sense of Fats' ridiculous schtick in the video at the top of this post.) At least outwardly Fats exhibited none of the reserved grace typically associated with great minds. However, one of my favorite examples of strategic thinking is attributed to Fats.

Here’s the story. Back in 1970 Minnesota Fats was in Johnston City, Illinois making games with Richie Florence, a young player then considered one of America’s best. Florence was flush with cash from a recent score in Alabama. He would have been about 25 years old. Fats was pushing 60.

Witnesses recall that the two players started cheap, maybe $100 or $200 a game, with Richie giving Fats weight. They said Richie was probably beating Fats to begin with, but not by much. That's because every time Richie got hot, Fats would interrupt his shooting by insisting on a bathroom break or by getting a sandwich. Fats also whined incessantly about the spot, about the playing conditions, and about the knucklehead railbirds. Anything to interrupt Richie's concentration.

After a few hours of playing like that, Fats quit, declaring he’d had enough. But he also promised to come back the following night. This, then, was where the real hustle would begin. Because instead of showing up at the appointed hour, Fats called in the next night with some bullshit excuse. He wouldn't be making it in, said Fats -- but maybe he'd come by the following night.

Now, Fats would have known when he placed that call that Richie, then in the spring of his youth, would not simply go back to his motel room to sleep. The wise and sage Fats knew with something close to 100 percent certainty that Richie would instead continue partying, possibly for the entire night.

The next night Fats left Richie waiting again. It was only after a delay of some hours, only after letting Richie drink and gamble unchecked for a while longer, it was only then that Fats showed up again to demand a game. And even then Fats kept interrupting Richie's shotmaking with his multitude of bathroom breaks and phone calls and white bread sandwiches.

Witnesses said this went on for two weeks, with Fats coming in at unpredictable intervals, fresh as a baby. The older player may have even been calling his poolroom spies to discreetly get a handle on Richie's shape. If Richie was playing too strong, Fats would wait a bit longer. When Fats came in it was a simple matter to taunt the less experienced player back into the trap.

Every night Fats won several hundred dollars, but generally no more than a $1,000 or so. For high rollers, it didn't seem like much. But by the end of it, Fats had extracted $20,000 from Richie Florence. “Fats played him like a child, that’s what happened,” recalled Ed Kelly, an eyewitness to the quiet thrashing. “He got Richie doing what he wanted Fats to do, see? Fats was a champion of it.”

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 www.poolstudent.com 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."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lassiter & Shorty in Johnston City

video
Here's another great video of Wimpy Lassiter and Boston Shorty playing one-pocket in Johnston City, Illinois. It's from ABC's Wide World of Sports. Lassiter won everything there was to win at Johnston City. You can read more about the famous tournaments an the newly renamed Johnston City Hustler Tournament blog. (It was formerly the George Jansco blog. Same content. Just more stuff.) That's a picture of Shorty, on the left, with fan Ross Parker Simons in 1965. You can read more about Shorty at Onepocket.org, which has inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Shorty also won big in Johnston City.