"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."
They call themselves things like New York Fats, Meanie Beanie from Baltimore, Cornbread Red, the Eagle, the Hawk, Bay Eye, Tugboat Whaley, Cowboy Weston, Wimpy, Mexican Eddie, Bignose Roberts and Rotation Slim. They hate to give out their real names, and they loathe publicity. They live in a subterranean world of stealth and anonymity, shadows and half-tones, tricks and deceptions. They are pool hustlers, and the aim of their calling, as one of them put it recently, is "to lift people up by their pockets."
It is fundamental in the pool-hustling trade to go to the men's room when somebody pulls out a camera. "If people find out my name and what I look like," says a hustler, "I won't be able to get no more action." The hustler usually poses as just another amateur player doing the best he can. He stooges from one town to another, hustling the locals into games for larger and larger stakes, then blows town fast as soon as he has made his killing, not to return until his name and his face and his stroke are forgotten and the whole routine can be repeated, maybe three or four years later, with a new set of suckers.
Far more than the Willy Lomans, the hustler lives on a smile and a shoeshine. He contributes nothing to the gross national product. He performs no social services. He isn't even counted in the census. He stands just above the pickpocket on the ladder of social prestige. And yet he is a man of consummate skills. He not only must be a good pool player, but he must be able to shade his game to barely win on almost all levels and still make it look as if he is always doing his best. Otherwise the hustle is over before it begins. He must be a method actor and a psychologist, a salesman and a ham. His contemptuous remarks must be calculated to goad the "mark" into making foolish bets, but they must not insult the mark right off the premises. The hustler might simply say, "Well, I thought I was playing with a sport." Or, "No guts, eh?" Or, "Whyn't you put your money where your mouth is?"
As a last desperate move, the hustler may sometimes even admit that he is better than anybody around. Usually there will be someone who cannot stand such braggadocio and will challenge the hustler to "one little game" for the honor of the home turf. Such "honor" is bought dearly. A master hustler can walk into a strange pool hall and be spotted immediately by everybody in attendance as a hustler, an out-and-out hustler and nothing but a hustler; everybody will back away from him in horror; nobody will play him or talk to him; and two days later he will leave with all the money on the premises and several postdated checks.
The world of the hustler is as different from the wholesome American norm as the Mindanao Deep is from Lake Erie. Walk in here, now, and see; up these squeaky wooden stairs and around this corner, and here it is, the pool hall, in all its aging, anachronistic splendor, not much different from what it was when Shakespeare was having his characters say, "Let us to billiards," and Van Gogh was painting pictures of pool halls in brilliant reds and greens. There are the same old men sitting along the wall, looking out of vacant eyes through steel-rimmed glasses, wearing ill-fitting double-breasted coats and nonmatching pants rolled up twice at the cuffs, the whole outfit purchased "out of pawn." Old men sucking on pipes and ragged cigars. Hustlers call them "poolroom detectives," because they slay at their posts day and night and soon learn everything that is going on: what hustler is in town, who made how much from whom, who is off his stroke. Poolroom detectives know all. Scattered among them here and there, noxious weeds among harmless weeds, are young sharps in corduroy coats and dark-colored shirts and sunglasses, all the better to case the room and ferret out the known and potential marks. The business of these young men is arranging matches and hustles, and they are called "bird dogs." They know who is ripe to be taken, who has "an X on his back." Poolroom detectives get nothing but entertainment; bird dogs get a piece of the action. And the only sound is the gentle click of the balls, the squeaking of a cue tip as it takes chalk, and the hiss of a cigarette butt as it hits the brass cuspidor.
Now, the idea of a young man going out into the world with nothing but an extra shirt, a sharp tongue and a pool cue to scratch out a living in places like these strikes some sort of responsive and admiring chord in the financier and the day laborer alike. He is David and Goliath, Robin Hood and Roger Touhy all rolled into one. Look at him. Here he comes now, that fascinating rogue, with the trace of a sardonic smile on his lips. He just climbed out of a roomette on the Super Chief, but when he is asked he'll have a story ready about how he was up all night riding the rods from Newton, Kans., and how he's down on his luck, and would anybody like to shoot a little game of one-pocket for a quarter, just a quarter, because that's all he can afford? So the game will start, and the hustler will lose, and lose again, and tomorrow he'll lose at a dollar a game, and the next day he'll get old Mr. Thomas, the investment broker, into a straight pool game to 150 for $5 a ball, and wham! That hustler'll run out on his first turn while old Mr. Thomas stands there helplessly and a little crowd gathers and the hustler will take his $750 and disappear into the men's room and never come back. This semilarcenous life holds a snake-charm appeal for all of us, and that is why the pool hustler will always have his patsies lined up for him, because deep down every pool-playing American man feels that he has the stroke of a champion and, given enough practice, could have hustled Ralph Greenleaf, let alone that bum that just got into town from Kansas City and hasn't even got a clean shirt.
This pride in one's own stroke is a secret weapon of the man who hustles you. That's why he begins by insulting you, knocking your style, goading you with the classical hustler's remark: "You better make this shot, or it's Katy bar the door," meaning he'll make all the remaining balls on his turn. Hurt pride makes you bear down and miss, and you find out he was right—it's Katy bar the door, and now you're madder than ever and ready to double the bet and be had.
There are more full-time pool hustlers than golf hustlers or tennis hustlers because there is no other way to make money out of billiards talent. The world's champion three-cushion player, Harold Worst of Grand Rapids, Mich., makes his living selling children's shoes; his international crown is worth only a few thousand dollars a year in exhibitions and fees. Contrast this with the $75,000 a year Pancho Gonzales makes as tennis champ, or the $80,968 Arnold Palmer made in 1960 on the golf circuit. In pool you have to hustle to make money, and to hustle you have to stay out of the limelight or nobody will play you. Worst found this out the hard way. Although never a full-time hustler, he had made a few trips around the country as a knight of the cue, and he could always get a game and make a buck. But after he won the world championship in Buenos Aires in 1954, Worst found himself persona non grata in the same pool halls where he used to play for fat stakes. Some even had his picture on the wall, lacking only a number. "It really hit home to me," Worst recalls, "one night in San Francisco. I had a guy ready to play me snooker for $40 a game. He's walking to the wall to get a cue and just then an old friend of mine hollers the whole length of the pool hall, 'Hey, Worst, how'd you come out in that international championship?' I hollered back, 'I won, you jerk!' That hustler who was gonna play me $40 a game just walked right past the rack and out the door."
Watching one hustler hustle another hustler is one of the great adventures of spectatorship. First come the exploratory games for small stakes, with each hustler intentionally missing easy shots, scratching often and complaining that it is just not his day, his stomach is bothering him, his glasses need changing, he has a lot of personal problems on his mind, the light is bad and the table "rolls off" to the left. Once the big bet is made, however, either hustler is likely to run out on a single turn, and all personal disorders are left behind.