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

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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Johnston City & The Jansco Brothers

Here's another Johnston City video, this one featuring trick shots by Ronnie Allen, Champagne Eddy Kelly, Weenie Beenie and others. Jim McKay from Wide World of Sports hosts. The Johnston City jamborees began with the release of The Hustler, and lasted until 1972. They were organized by George and Paulie Jansco, who also created the Stardust Events in Las Vegas. The Johnston City events were clearly the most colorful pool tournaments of the 1960s, as they brought road players from all over. The closest thing to Johnston City these days are the annual Derby City events, which features plenty of action -- but on a much grander scale. You can read all about the Johnston City events in Hustler Days.

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.