It was billed as the world's first International Pocket Billiards Championship—straight pool dressed in a tuxedo under glass chandeliers, all ballroom posh and hush, and pained expressions all around when someone asked if the international entry from Puerto Rico wasn't the same Tony Montalvo who used to hustle nine-ball in Spanish Harlem? "Well," they said, "he was born in Puerto Rico." No matter. Three of the other entries were bona fide imports, and if they didn't win last week's tournament at the New York Hotel Commodore, it was only because they had never played the game before.
Hold on a minute. Never?
"That's right—never," said Eddie Charlton, Australia's world open champion of snooker.
Rex Williams grinned as he nodded. He's the world billiards champion from England. "I didn't even know the rules of the game," he said. "A couple of times during a match I wasn't sure of the regulation and I had to guess. It's a hard way to learn a game, in world competition I mean."
The third foreign entry was Kazuo Fujima, the champion of Japan, but his game is rotation. He played his first game of straight pool in a world tournament two years ago, which gave him a slight head start on Charlton and Williams. By contrast, Irving Crane, who won the championship, has been playing straight pool (any ball, any pocket) for 43 years.
Williams and Fujima each won two of their 15 games in the round-robin competition; Charlton won three. "If those Englishmen would learn how to put English on a ball," said Cueball Kelly, the trick-shot artist who was one of the referees, "they'd wipe out a lot of these guys." No one expected any of the threesome to win even one game, and their record was considered remarkable. But Charlton was so annoyed by his performance that he bought a pool table and is having it shipped to Australia. (Snooker is played on a larger table—six by 12 feet—with smaller balls and the pockets smaller and rounded.)
"This game is not as exacting as snooker," Charlton said dryly. "I might even say it's a bloody kid's game."
For his victory, Crane earned $4.000. The day after the tournament ended, Williams returned to England where he'll play a seven-week challenge series for $7,200 in addition to $240 appearance money for each match. In the United States pool professionals pay to enter tournaments, pay all their own expenses, rarely win as much as $8,000 in a single year, and usually end with a net of zero. "The promoters have everything their way," said one U.S. pro. "They know we'll play because we love the game—that we'd play for nothing. And not because we expect to make a living at it."
"What the American professionals don't realize," said Charlton, "is that this is a business. You're not just a pool player or a snooker player but a businessman. I wonder if they know this?"
He and Williams were sitting at a small table in a room next to the one where the tournament was being put on. Here a practice table had been set up, and at the moment Joe Balsis, who later would run 150 straight balls against Luther Lassiter, was sharpening his stroke. Nearby, Lassiter, who is the major attraction of any pool tournament, was waiting for his turn on the table. Thirty people were watching Balsis. Inside, less than that number were watching a game in progress. "That's what I mean," said Charlton. "They are giving it away for nothing. The fans get overexposed. It's like overeating. After awhile they won't come to see you play because they've seen all they want."