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The southern Illinois town of Johnston City, one mile north of Dog Walk, 19 miles northeast of Wolf Creek and 28 miles west of Muddy, seems hardly the place for an international tournament of any kind. But assembled in this gaunt little coal center last week was a convocation of champions past and present. There were New York Fats (above), Weenie Beenie, Boston Shorty, Tugboat Whaley and the Knoxville Bear, not to mention Connecticut Johnny, Tuscaloosa Squirrelly, Iron Joe, Johnnie Irish and Daddy Warbucks.
They were there to play in the first "World's One-Pocket Billiards Tournament," with $5,000 in prizes. They couldn't have cared less about the prizes. These nonpareils of the pool hustling art were there to hustle each other. The tip-off was the name of the game—one-pocket. This variant of simple pool calls for each contestant to sink all his shots in one corner pocket. It is played only by hustlers.
The hustlers' holiday was sponsored by the Jansco brothers, George, 46, and Paulie (sometimes called Joey), 43, who operate a restaurant, nightclub and pool hall in Johnston City (pop. 3,900). The brothers put up a $25,000 building to house the tournament.
Money breeds money in the hustlers' world, and George Jansco, who once operated a handbook, was not opposed to a little action on the side. There was a flood of bets and side bets in Jansco's Cue Club, a modern concrete-block structure fronted by a pink neon sign spelling out "Members Only." The "members" were the hustlers (and their backers), a close-knit organization of men who thrive on high stakes and egotism, live in shadows, speak in whispers.
The spokesman for the Loyal Fraternal Order of Pool Sharks was a roly-poly 250-pounder called New York Fats (Rudolph Walter Wanderone) who thrives on high stakes and egotism but lives not in shadows nor speaks in whispers. Fat Man is short (5 feet 8), with a shock of brown hair, a 52-inch waist and a philosophy to fit all occasions. He announced that the Johnston City promotion drew 14 of the "best one-pocket players in the world," and added modestly that he was once the best of the best.
"I was the automatic champion one-pocket player of the world," Fat Man proclaimed. "They never had any tournaments. I always had to give great odds, most of the time two balls. The great champions would never play me. They dodged me at all times."
The hustlers listened when the Fat Man talked. They laughed and poked fun at him. But when an outsider asked questions about the hustlers, they let the Fat Man do the talking. He's the sharks' public relations man.
There are no "marks" in Johnston City. The hustler is on his own. It's hustler against hustler and every man for himself. Everybody hustles Fat Man. Everybody wants a piece of Fat Man.
"You wanna play, Fat Man?" says Danny Jones, 29, the handsomest of the hustlers.
"Yes, I wanna play," answers the Fat One. "I sure do wanna play, but I wanna play for money. I sure didn't come to play for a beef stew."