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By the electric green table with narrow pockets under a cone of light stands Hippie Jimmy, James Reid of Detroit, in his early 20s and one of the best nine-ball men of his time. Like the table, Jimmy is dressed in green, but a darker shade, close to olive. He has on tight knit flares and a matching green T shirt with beige embroidery at the neck. On the table sit the 15 garish balls that absorb a pool hustler's skill and maybe his dreams, racked into their triangle, ready to be broken. Hippie Jimmy holds in his hand a 57-inch, 20-ounce pool cue with steel joint, ivory inlays and gray silk-wrapped butt, every inch of it handmade by Bill Stroud of Joss Cues West in the clean air of Aspen, Colo., a million miles from this big poolroom in Dayton, Ohio.
It is between matches here in the third week of the Tournament of Champions, usually called the hustlers' tournament because the matches do not include straight pool, the game of such suit-and-tie respectables as Willie Mosconi and Joe Balsis. Instead they are divided among the three biggest gamblers' games: one-pocket, bank pool and nine-ball.
Jimmy begins banking balls. In the game of bank you must drive a colored ball to a rail and then into a pocket without kissing another ball in order to score a point. The first to score 23 balls out of three racks wins a match. More than three weeks of nightly matches here at Forest Park Billiards in Dayton, and if you win them all you are declared Bank Pool Champion of the World, or One-Pocket Champion or Nine-Ball Champion. Bank pool is Jimmy's weakest game, and he misses his first shot, but then he banks three in a row, misses again and runs four. Someone in the stands begins to applaud.
The six rows of bleachers are beginning to fill, mostly with ordinary-looking people. There are 62 professionals here who have paid up to $325 to play for $30,000 in prize money, and you might spot some of the hustlers by their sharp, mod clothes, men like Jim Rempe, or the cousins Pete and Jimmy Fusco of Philadelphia, or Bugs Rucker, or Ronnie Allen, the younger generation. But you could be fooled by some drably dressed middle-aged men like Boston Shorty, or Jersey Red, or Luther (Wimpy) Lassiter, or that country maniac of gamblers, Cornbread Red, all of whom look like Middle America but handle a cue stick as though it were the wand of Glinda the Good of Oz.
The main thing is, it would be unwise to play pool of whatever kind for money with anybody in this room. There are some serious people here.
Jay Helfert, Toupee Jay, comes in, small, agile and bald. The toupee is what he wears the second time he plays for money in a town on the road. He and Jimmy nod at each other. Joe Burns, who owns the poolroom, turns on the lights over the two other new tables in the tournament room. Three matches will go on simultaneously, featuring each of the games. On the first table Ray Martin, winner of the 1974 World Invitational in straight pool, will be playing nine-ball against Kenny (The Trucker) McCoy. Martin, who looks like a Country-and-Western singer with his glossy black hair and blazing loud shirt, says, "Freeze that rack tight, please. I break 'em like a girl, but I want 'em froze." Hippie Jimmy and Toupee Jay are lagging for their bank-pool game on the middle table, and on table three Luther Lassiter, looking like a fit, middle-aged golfer in his powder blue cardigan, is chalking up to play against Jimmy Fusco at one-pocket.
Joe Burns takes a microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, on the first table we have two of the finest young players in the game. In the red and black shirt is Mr. Raymond Martin...." Everybody is called "Mister," everything is formal, but later, after the games begin, a voice on the P.A. system says, " Pittsburgh John, telephone," and nobody laughs. The name evokes all those towns where the factory hands or the mine workers gather at Johnnie's Billiards or the Eight Ball Pool Room and Cafe for intense games of nine-ball for a dollar on the five and two on the nine. The towns where men like these—skilled athletes, fine players of one of the most exacting games in the world—must go and hope to win enough money to pay the bill at the motel. Maligned in fiction and folklore, the modern hustler is seldom a "pool shark," pretending ignorance of the game until the big money is down. He comes on as a good player, even as a professional, and depends upon the fact that not everybody realizes just how good a professional is. Men like Ronnie Allen sometimes go into a pool room and say, "I'm one of the best in the world and I'll play anybody in town for 20 a game." It's surprising, Ronnie says, how often someone is curious enough, or prideful enough, to try.
The modern hustler is in fact as much of an athlete as Jack Nicklaus, and his skill and ability to withstand pressure are in the same class. But since top tournament money is only a fraction of what it is in golf, these men are gamblers whether they like it or not. It would of course be foolish to say that none of them likes gambling. But they love pool. This tournament, formerly held in Johnson City, Ill., is perhaps the most lucrative anywhere, but the most a player can possibly win is $12,700. And to do that he would have to sweep all three divisions ($4,000 each for nine-ball and one-pocket, $2,500 for the less widely played bank pool) and thereby be declared All-Around Champion for an additional $2,200.
There are four rounds for every day of this tournament, including Sundays, at 5, 8, 9:30 and 11 p.m. And every morning at about 2 a.m. the hustling begins. They play pay-ball, six-ball, one-pocket on a snooker table, bank pool and jack-up pool for $200, $500, a thousand, going until dawn sometimes. But during these fast, big-money games one notices that it is the older generation that is more prominent: Jersey Red, Weenie-Beenie, One-Eyed Tony. The younger men are there, but they often seem less concerned with the money action. And less apt to say things like, "I'm Freddy Green, one mean jelly bean, and I came to play!" The young men watch. They play for money, certainly. But you feel that many of them would much prefer to show their hard-won skill some other way. Maybe they dream of a Monday Night Billiards on network TV.
One such serious young man is a plainly dressed, pleasant-faced player named Cecil (Buddy) Hall from Shreveport. During the first two weeks of the tournament he played quietly stunning pool in the three divisions and was the only player to remain undefeated in all of them. He beat Jim Rempe, two-time nine-ball champion of the world. He beat Hippie Jimmy. In the third week he lost at one-pocket to the Aspen cuemaker, Bill Stroud. A day later he lost a match of bank pool. Now, on the final Saturday night, Hall is playing Ray Martin in the nine-ball finals.