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Rage, grief and despair haunt the pool halls, and, of course, especially the tournaments. Lauri once hurled a whole case of balls through a wooden partition in Scranton. Irving Crane, when he lost the championship in 1942, broke down and cried inconsolably. The late Andrew Ponzi, when he lost, often made speeches to the audience protesting against the injustice of it all. Seeded players have thrown their cues into the audience like javelins, ground the chalk underfoot, or broken their cues across the table. Even Mosconi has been known to pound his cue butt on the floor in exasperation, and at least once to have splintered it against a table leg. "Pool players," a Billiard Congress official has commented, "are quite sane on any given day in June, but get them to a table and they go nuts."
The explanation for this probably rests on the fact that big-time pool involves sustained solitary performance and sustained waiting. When one player is at the table, there is nothing his opponent can do except sit and hope that he misses: to hope, as Irving Crane says, that "the guy breaks his arm or falls down or something." Since runs of 50, 75, or even 100 balls are not uncommon (Mosconi has run 100 or better thousands of times, and last year in an exhibition he ran 526, a new world's record), this can be a nerve-racking pastime. The player at the table, on the other hand, knowing that a miss will give his opponent a chance to make a long run and win, is under steadily increasing stress to keep pocketing balls. Thus the nature of the game puts a premium on self-control and on skill in psychological warfare.
The latter cannot be overt, for anything obviously calculated to rattle an opponent is against the rules, so players develop subtle forms of torture for one another. Coughing or belching at the moment before a shot, whistling—absent-mindedly—a little tune, or blowing one's nose are on the border line of propriety. When a player is shooting down-table—that is, toward where his opponent is sitting—the latter has more opportunities to use imagination. He may seize the moment to wipe his hands on a towel or shower them with powder, sight down his own cue or file the cue tip, start telling a joke sotto voce to someone sitting with him, or discover an itch that must be scratched vigorously. Onofrio Lauri has been accused not only of polishing his bald head with intent to confuse, but even of using it like a searchlight reflector to focus a beam of light on his competitor's eyes. Mosconi usually disdains such small ploys in favor of one he learned from the great Greenleaf. This is simply to appear so supremely confident, indeed so arrogant, that the enemy's morale is shattered from the first moment of play, a method which naturally requires the skill to back it up. Yet even he feels the same inner tensions: he has sometimes bitten his tongue so hard that he drew blood. During a major tournament he loses about eight pounds. In 1940 Irving Crane came down with scurvy and pellagra from tournament-tension and resulting loss of appetite.
Pool players should be a short-lived lot, but the contrary seems to be true. Alfredo De Oro, the Cuban Wonder, played a sharp game until his death at 86, and some of today's experts are in their 60s or beyond. Moreover, the best players invariably have started young. Mosconi, for instance, who was born in Philadelphia in 1913, was able to start as a mere tot, since his father owned a five-table hall and the family lived on the floor above. He became, as he says, "a child protege," and at seven was playing exhibitions at English Tommy's, one of the city's leading rooms, against a girl of his own age named Ruth McGinnis. Later on he gave exhibitions in towns near Philadelphia. When he was 16 his father became ill, Willie lost his job as an upholsterer's assistant and to support the family turned perforce to pool hustling or, as it is also known, sharking bets.
Pool players are well known for their sporting instincts, and their willingness to bet, combined with their warmhearted feeling of fellowship with visiting players, at one time supported scores of roving experts. Posing usually as harvest hands or traveling salesmen, they would drop in at a local hall, stir up a game, nurse the victim along and finally walk off with whatever assets he might have on him. Some of them worked up amazing stunts. One man who had a wooden leg was almost always able to find someone to bet that he could not jump onto a pool table with his good leg from a standing start. He could. Willie's chief asset in sharking was his youth and his delicate, blue-eyed (his mother was a Reilly) look of a Raphael angel: it was hard for the older, more experienced customers to imagine that this cherub could hold his own. But he could. One night in Philadelphia, in a game of One Ball beginning at 10 p.m. and ending at 7 a.m., he convinced a sport called Fatty Pincus by relieving him of a wrist watch, a diamond ring and $900.
This kind of talent naturally led him into tournament play. In 1933, at the age of 19, he came within one ball of the world's championship, which was won by Erwin Rudolph. He gave up sharking then and went to work for Brunswick-Balke-Collender as an exhibition player. It took him another eight years to win the championship (in 1941) but he has held it most of the time ever since. Two things, he thinks, have contributed most to his education. One was a barnstorming tour he took with Greenleaf in the summer of 1935. He had already played Greenleaf, his boyhood hero, several times, and in fact had beaten him in the 1933 tournament. But now he had a chance really to study him and learn from him: the insolent confidence, the perfect grooming, the gentlemanly airs, all of which—along with Greenleaf's marvelous skill in playing position—became a part, of Mosconi's own equipment. He also profited, in a reverse way, from his idol's weakness, alcohol. Greenleaf could play brilliantly whether drunk or sober, but there were times when he could not play at all. Once in Pittsburgh, it is related, he was introduced with an unusually fulsome tribute ending with "...and, gentlemen, I now give you the great Ralph Greenleaf!" Whereupon Greenleaf, dressed as usual in tuxedo, stepped forward, bowed and collapsed gently to the floor and went to sleep. Mosconi smokes heavily and drinks coffee by the quart but he almost never touches alcohol.
His other teacher was Sylvester Livingston, who made his living in the summer as a bookie and in the winter as advance man for a string of touring pool players, of whom Mosconi was one. Livingston, he says, taught him what is known politely as the competitive spirit, or the will to win. "When you've got the knife in, Willie," Livingston used to admonish him, "twist it." Mosconi took to the lesson quickly and has never forgotten it. Irving Crane says of this quality: "When he gets you down, that's when he tramples on you. He's a tiger at the table."
Thinking of his next title defense, Mosconi said recently, "I almost hope I lose. It would give me more fight." Then he soon added a comment fully in the tradition of this grand game: "People remember who wins. They don't care about the guy who finishes second. Nice guys don't win. I hate to lose and I hate a good loser."