"Even when you thought Berger liked you," said Hank, his reliable houseman, "you were never quite sure. He would be glad to do little favors for you that always seemed to end up helping him more than you. But there was a point at which he drew the line. The day you asked him for money was the day you ceased to exist."
Soon a debate arose among us as to whether Berger was a fool, a fraud or a genius. Most of the turkeys who lost money to him daily considered him a fool. They had no conception of the skill with which he manipulated them on the pool table. Hank and I felt Berger was more of a fraud than anything else, although we differed slightly as to just how harmless a fraud he truly was. Increasingly, I had begun to see Berger as a somewhat harmful influence on us, although I could never articulate my reasons for such a belief. Hank disagreed. "Who has Berger ever really hurt?" he would say, and I would be forced to admit that I could not cite as an example a single person, or any instance in which Berger had been truly destructive. We both did agree, however, that Berger was certainly not as shrewd as some of the more impressionable regulars, such as Speedo, believed. Speedo was Berger's Boswell. He attributed to Mort's slightest word or deed genius of the highest proportions. "Did you see that?" Speedo would whisper breathlessly as Berger miscued on an easy money-ball shot. "A brilliant move by Mort Berger," he would add, shaking his head in admiration. "Typical of him, though. Typical." And when the next shooter sank that same money ball and Berger was forced to dig into his pocket, Speedo would shrug confidently and say there was a hidden purpose behind Berger's miscue that the rest of us mere mortals could never hope to fathom. "You just wait and see," he would warn.
The principal reason for this confusion as to just who or what Mort Berger was could be attributed to the manner in which he tossed off maxims without the slightest explanation. He left them uncompleted, cloaked in mystery, little half-truths that seemed to mean more than they did. Berger left us to debate their significance without any hint as to whether they were deliberate stratagems or foolish accidents. By far the most mysterious advice he ever imparted to us emerged one day while he was regaling us with stories of the various pool halls he had frequented through the years. "If I learned one thing from those places," he said, "it was this." He paused dramatically. Speedo strained toward him as Berger continued. "Never shoot pool in a strange joint unless you go to the men's room first." And then he left us and went into his office.
"Now what do you think that is supposed to mean?" said Hank. We agreed it was an idiotic piece of advice. It was not until some time later that Hank and I learned to appreciate its hidden brilliance. We were playing in an expensive Chicago game with two beefy, unshaven adversaries in a strange pool hall in upper Fairfield County. We had already lost $10 apiece, although we had not had to pay a cent yet. It had been agreed to settle up at the end rather than after each game. "It would be too messy tossing dollar bills on the table after each game," said Hank. I agreed. Now the situation was becoming very messy, indeed. Hank missed a shot, cursed and then came over to me. "Let's get out of this game," he said. "We're not going to beat these guys."
"We can't quit," I said.
"Why not?" he said.
"Because I don't have any money," I said.
"Oh," he said faintly and collapsed on a stool. His arms went limp, and he was muttering to himself. "They'll kill us," he kept mumbling. "They'll kill us."
I told him not to worry and get worked up. I would think of something. "Like what?" he demanded.
Then I remembered Berger's mysterious advice. "I've got it! Is there a men's room in this place?" He pointed to a door. "Listen, I'm going in there in a minute and I'll climb out the window and head for the car. After I've been gone for about 20 seconds you follow me."