SI Vault
Jack Olsen
March 20, 1961
"Either you're closing your eyes to a situation you don't wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the calibre of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.... Ya got trouble, my friend.... And the next thing you know your son is playin' fer money in a pinch-back suit.... That game with the fifteen numbered balls is the Devil's tool."
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March 20, 1961

The Pool Hustlers

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There are some hustlers who are so good that they will not hesitate for a second to challenge three-cushion champ Worst or pockets champ Willie Mosconi of Haddon Heights, N.J. Usually these brave hustlers come out second best. But not always. Just after Worst won the championship, a whole school of pool sharks swam into his home town of Grand Rapids to hustle him. "One guy came into the pool hall wearing a Gulf Oil uniform," says Worst, "and told me he had a station on the other side of town. He said he wouldn't mind a little nine-ball for $20 a game. It was fantastic. He'd break the balls and then make them all. Then he'd break the next rack and run out again. I looked at his hands and they looked awful smooth and I said, 'They must be making tires smoother these days.' By that time he had $200 of my money, so he just laid down his cue and said, 'Anybody can buy one of these uniforms,' and he walked out."

Worst got sweet revenge on a Canadian hustler named Frenchy who hove into Grand Rapids and beat the world champion 14 straight games of nine-ball at $2 a game. Frenchy evidently reckoned he was on to a good thing and returned to the pool hall two weeks later with a real grubstake: a sack containing $300 in coins. They agreed to play for $10 a game, and Worst began one of the most phenomenal runs in the history of the game. He would break the balls and make them all in one quick turn. He won over and over again while Frenchy counted out silver. "It would take me 45 seconds to win the game and him 10 minutes to count out the $10," Worst remembers fondly. "He'd still be counting out the $10 when I would break and make all the balls again, and he'd have to start counting all over. I won all his money and then I had to play him for the sack so I could get it all home."

There is no joy greater for Worst, a cool, bland competitor, than hustling a hustler, especially when the hustler has no idea of his identity In 1951, when Worst was 23 and the world's fourth-ranking billiards player, he was sent to Seattle by the Army. One night he won a small amount of money shooting pockets with a hustler, and then the man suggested they play a little three-cushion billiards. Worst knew that the man was the best three-cushion player in the Northwest, "He walked me to the billiards table," Worst says, "and I said, 'Hey, what's this?' I said, 'Look at that. There's no pockets!' He explained the game to me and showed me some shots. Then we made a big bet and I beat him 25-3 in 17 innings. So then they brought in another hustler, this one from Alaska, to handle me, and I made a big killing on him. In all, I won $2,700 in five weeks. 1 lived in a $200-a-month apartment with glass walls and everything, just off those hustlers. Then I went to Japan, and on the way I was robbed for every cent I had So I got a $40 advance on my pay and in three weeks at Camp Drake in Japan I made $1,800 on the pool table. Guys were lined up to play me, and new ones were coming in every hour. They just couldn't believe I was as good as I was."

Worst, out of context, may sound like a blowhard; in fact, he is a mild young man who has a precise evaluation of himself and does not hesitate to express or discuss it. He is equally aware of his limitations. There are, for example, certain hustlers he will not play, because they are superspecialists in their own games, and too good for him. One is Rags Fitzpatrick, who travels out of Washington, D.C. Rags once hustled a man out of title to a restaurant, and is regarded by those on the inside as the world's champion exponent of the peculiar hustler's game known as one-pocket. Another is a Negro known as Detroit Slim, whose specialty is a game called banks, wherein all balls have to be banked into the pockets. Still another is Don Willes of Cleveland, regarded by Worst as the best nine-ball player in the world. Cornbread Red, a young hustler of about 23, is on the verge of becoming as good as Worst in the game of eight-ball. "He sent an emissary saying he'd wait for me in Pontiac for a little $25 eight-ball," Worst says, "and I suppose I'll play him some when the snow melts a little"

There is no other sport in which you will find this confraternity of shadowy superstars, all of them known only to one another, and all of them slinking about from place to place talking sotto voce, pretending they are somebody else, and insisting that they are really not very good. They are emulating players like Tommy Hueston, who in another era made a million dollars hustling by using a different name in every town, playing down his talents, and never visiting the same place twice. Another well-to-do hustler was Major White, who is described by one of his peers: "The major—I don't know where he got that name. He was never even in Coxey's Army. He used to travel in bib overalls and an old straw hat. To make it look extra good, he'd take a straw out of that hat and put it in his mouth and come Hoosiering into the pool hall asking them to explain the game to him. They'd start off playing for a drink, and the major would leave with every nickel in the joint plus the cash register."

Joe Sebastian was a hustler who always played in a plain black business suit and almost always won. But Sebastian suffered from a touch of overconfidence. One night he challenged Willie Mosconi to some nine-ball for money. Now, Willie Mosconi is the recognized champion of straight pocket billiards, but nine-ball has its subtleties and nuances, and Joe Sebastian knew them all. Besides, Sebastian had a backer; it was not his money. Mosconi won the lag and broke the balls. Before Sebastian had even picked up his cue, Mosconi ran the table and pocketed the nine-ball and the bet. Winner breaks in nine-ball; Mosconi broke and ran the balls again. He performed this feat 11 times in a row, taking Sebastian's backer for a total of $300. The unconcerned Sebastian told the backer to bet another $300 on him. The backer warned him, "Joe, I think we oughta pull up."

"Pull up?" said Sebastian. "Why, you ain't seen what I can do yet."

West Coast hustlers—and victims—still talk about Tugboat Whaley, who used to wear a greasy old hat and explain that he was just a retired tugboat skipper looking for a friendly little game. All he had ever skippered was a pool cue, but the dodge worked, and Tugboat would be considered a nice old guy until he would run 100 balls off the break and disappear with the money.

The most famous hustler of all was a man who went under the name of Titanic Slim Thompson. Titanic hustled anything and anybody. When he had exhausted the pool-table possibilities with a mark, Titanic would waltz the man outside and lay him $3 to $2 that the sparrow on the left, over there, would fly away before the sparrow on the right. What the mark didn't know was that Titanic had read everything there was to read about sparrows, could tell a male from a female and knew that the males almost always flew away first. Once Titanic bet a bunch of the boys that he could throw a pumpkin over the Connor Hotel in Joplin, Mo. He showed up with a baby pumpkin the size of a baseball and won the bet. He liked to play license numbers, betting with a mark on whether the next one to come along would be odd or even, and one night in Chicago he hired 25 cars and drivers to come along Randolph Street in a predetermined order, a gambit that enabled him to relieve a particularly wealthy mark of several large bills. When hustlers talk about Titanic Slim their voices drop to a respectful tone, like Sammy Davis talking about Frank Sinatra. Titanic was the best all-round hustler in history, as even he will admit today at his home in Tucson.

But the name that strikes genuine fright into the hearts of present-day hustlers is Jack Foreaker of Detroit. Foreaker is one of the few players who hustle three-cushion billiards, a game of trapezoids and parallelograms so complicated that it is not even attempted by the average pockets player. Legend—and Foreaker—have it that he once made a standing offer to play the brilliant Willie Hoppe for 510,000 and Hoppe would not take him up on it. Nor could Foreaker get satisfaction in the regular tournaments, since he was barred from official matches because of some misadventures in his past. This reduced Foreaker to hustling, at which he became such a name that hardly anyone would play him and he was forced to offer huge handicaps or play left-handed. Harold Worst remembers Foreaker well. "When I was 17, a sponsor took me to a three-cushion match in Chicago just for the experience. He gave me $50 side money and told me to play with it, but not to play a guy named Foreaker because I had no chance against him and neither did anybody else. So I walk into Ben-singer's pool hall and a guy walks right up to me and says, 'You want to play?' I said, 'I'll play you three-cushion for $25.' He says, 'O.K., I'll play you 25 points—13 points left-handed and 12 points right-handed.' Well, I had just got through playing left-handed for eight months so it hit me just right. He walked over to the rack to get a cue, and I was standing there waiting for him and a guy came strolling right past me—a real poolroom detective—and without breaking stride or changing his expression he said out of the corner of his mouth, 'Foreaker!' And he kept right on walking by. So I ducked out. At that time Foreaker was the greatest left-handed right-hander in the game. He would have slaughtered me."

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