Well, sir, it has been almost two years now since I was in a strange pool hall. Most all of the time I go down to old St. Elmo's on Brook Avenue in Norfolk where everybody knows me—and nobody will play me. It's all right; I always have to practice alone. But this one time two years ago I ambled into a tiny, old, beat-up place in some West Virginia town and I was shooting a few. Nothing fancy. Suddenly it got real quiet in there, and I kind of glanced around and caught them all looking at me. Finally someone sidled over and said, "Hey, boy. You kin really play this here game." And I sort of shrugged and said, "Well, hell, I'm only just practicing." And I waited for them to maybe get their money out. But they all just stood around there with their hands in their pockets a lot, and that is what I am here to tell you. It has got so you can't sneak up on anybody anymore.
Now, I have been a pool shooter all my life, man and boy. A shooter. Do not ever confuse that with hustler. I have got nothing against hustling, if that happens to be your game, but even the hustlers will tell you that I am not one. I am strictly a money player, which is something else again, and I will play you for money, marbles or chalk. I mean, I come from out of Norfolk, which used to be the pool-shooting hub of the whole world, I swear, and they had more gambling there than's ever been. But they also produced a generation of gentleman pool sharks. Weren't for pool maybe I could have been a millionaire. But you do what you can in this old world, and that is the way life is.
Long time ago I used to stand there and peek over the lattice work into that cool-looking darkness of the old City Billiards in Elizabeth City, N.C. And I heard the sound of those old ivory balls going "pock!" Man, there is no other sound in the world nice as a ball dropping into a pocket. And it seemed as though the place had a special sort of smell to it that you could breathe. Like old green-felt tables and brass spittoons and those dark, polished woods. Then a bluish haze of smoke and sweet pool chalk and, strongest of all, a kind of manliness. All through me I could feel something else, I didn't know what, but it seemed like a fine, lazy tension in the air. I was 13. And that did it.
Maybe pool shooters are born. Mama always wanted me to study and become a doctor. Daddy was a mill foreman making $62 a week, and mostly he wanted me to do the chores and grow up to be a something. Neither one of them ever wanted me to shoot pool. Uh, uh. But by the time I was 15 years old I was shooting maybe seven, eight hours a day, and people had already started to back away from me. I had a little bit of money in my pocket, and the game had me up tight.
Oh, sure, I played some baseball. In fact, it was at some little old ball game that I once ate 12 hot dogs and drank 13 Cokes and Orange Crushes, and everybody fell to calling me Wimpy. But still I began playing pool in my old plaid knickers that buckled right below my knees, and I had a slingshot hanging out of my back pocket.
And you know what happened? Wasn't long before I was hanging around down at City Billiards and looking in the back door at that beautiful blackness. It finally got so I looked like a piece of the furniture down there, and nobody even noticed I was under age.
I'll tell you, those were the days. By the time I was 18 or 19 the word got out, somehow. And those well-dressed strangers with their slick hair and clean fingernails began to drift into town from all around and try and get me. All the good old boys at City Billiards thought that was pretty funny. I could always get up plenty of local money to back me, and we would shoot those strangers loopy-legged and leave them just enough to catch the bus out of town and split the winnings.
Stakes got pretty high, naturally. But I sure wasn't losing much, because if I lost it came out of my share of the pot. Still, I was all of 21 years old before I ever had a whole $100 all to myself. The thing is, I had played for $100 many times and it had made a man out of me. A pool hall, remember, is a meeting place where men gather to talk and shoot a few games, and it is the closest thing to a gentlemen's club you are ever going to find in this country, I'll tell you.
More money that was at stake in a game, more it made me fight. It still does today. And by the time I got to Norfolk, around 1945 or so, I was really shooting high and handsome. Gambling for big pots. I mean, you talk about discipline. Well, maybe milking a whole herd of cows every morning or keeping the woodbin full is good for your soul, but I swear, ain't no tougher builder of men than $50 Freeze Out. That is where each guy puts $50 in the pot and you all take off your coats and settle down to shooting some serious, uninterrupted pool, and first guy to get 10 games ahead takes it all. Ten games builds a lot of tension, I'll tell you. I can remember one time when it took me 18 straight hours to get 10 games ahead, and I was so disciplined you couldn't stand it.
Guess I'll always be a natural-born clutch player and not a tournament or exhibition man. Why, I had never wanted to enter any tournaments in the first place, because I just knew that it would get so that everybody would recognize me, and I wanted to be able to sneak up on them. Or have them try and sneak up on me, which is almost as good. But I finally got talked into it, all right, and maybe you know what happened; I won a whole lot of matches around the country, Johnson City and all, and I lost a few too and I won the world championships in New York City in 1963, 1964 and 1966 and 1967.