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.”

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