Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
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I MISSED the little guy at Derby City this year (which doesn’t mean he wasn’t there), although I miss his era more. He rarely spoke to anybody, yet seemed to have plenty to say when spoken to, which didn’t happen much either.
Between his derby hat (how apt!), cane, inch-square mustache and mincing steps, it was pretty clear that Mr. Bernard Rogoff, originally of Pittsburgh (“Don’t you dare call me ‘Bernie’!”), was doing his best impression of Charlie Chaplin. But the DCC is all about pool, not the movies, or silent movies, or trivia (or silent-movie trivia, for that matter), so hardly anybody noticed except for the occasional pitying shake of the head, or cared much once they had. But I did, and it took me back, not to Chaplin’s day — how old did you think I was? — to the time when the banty-rooster of an ex-hustler and I met.
That would have been just about 50 years back, in Chicago. “Call me Bunny,” is how he introduced himself, leaving me some years to learn his better-known hustling moniker, Pots and Pans, which he actually once sold door-to-door. At Bensinger’s in the early ’60s, though, everyone was calling him “Castro” anyhow, and for good reason. He wore a squared fatigue cap plus a full beard, and smoked a cigar that appeared to be half the size of his cue, his commitment to disguise, or role-playing (or identity crisis) as strong then as now. He told me that when his pool sojourns took him to Miami, the local Cubans took him for Fidelísmo himself and were quite ready to declare him their ruler.
Now Bunny Rogoff has never been a great player, nor anywhere within shouting distance; 50 years ago you didn’t have to be, to make pool profitable. It was the time of “Never show your true speed,” and Bunny didn’t have much to show for openers. He had only one real game, 9-ball, and he was good enough at it to fool people into thinking he wasn’t, playing caroms and kisses a lot of the time and pretending they were lucky shots.
Back then, once you had taken down the cheese at Bensinger’s, your action in Chicago’s other predominantly white rooms was pretty well queered. So when he wasn’t beating most of the decent 9-ballers in town, with one highly notable exception, there was time for us to talk.
I learned that it was a pool player for much higher stakes, Paul Brusslov of Detroit, who first put Pots into the pots business. Brusslov, whose own playing nickname, Jew Paul, still ranks as one of the most tasteless in cue-games history, made a white-collar living selling kitchenware when he wasn’t betting thousands in Detroit’s notorious Rack & Cue. Unlike his ward, Brusslov disdained 9-ball, much preferring golf or one-pocket on a snooker table; he took on the fabled Cornbread Red (Billy Joe Burge) at that many times, not infrequently to his sorrow. Bunny, however, had no stories I ever heard that involved his winning any more than $500; it’s quite possible that he never did.
There are only two conversations that I recall clearly, though. One took place when he actually steered me into a much older 14.1 player who competed regularly in the city tournaments. I was in my early 20s then, all I could really do was pocket balls, and I was apprehensive.
“No, you can beat him,” Bunny said.
“What, you’re in with him? You get a piece of whatever he beats me out of?”
“Shut up. Look: I don’t think you’re some great player or anything,” he said, understating the case by a factor of 10, “but you can at least play your speed for the money. He can’t. For him, you’ve got enough. All you have to do is bet more than $5.” Thus buoyed, I ran 49 and 35 back-to-back, this on a 5-by-10-foot table yet, to relieve a highly disgruntled tournament straight-pool player of $10. Afterwards I attempted to thank Bunny for the pep talk.
“You shoulda been betting him $25,” he grunted. “I did.”
The other discussion took place just a few years ago, in Louisville. This was a good 45-plus years after the fact, so he did not remember the $10 straight-pool game. Neither did he recall the time he took on Chicago’s fabled Javanley “Youngblood” Washington, easily one of the three best black players the city ever produced. Fatigue cap, beard, cigar and all, Bunny got annihilated.
“I think I mighta lost a couple racks,” he muttered.
“No, Bunny, you mighta won a couple racks while he was winning 20 or 25. Not that I remember you winning that many. The bet was $15 a game, and you went stone empty. Case closed.” That turned him surly. I had already been sternly advised not to call him anything other than Bunny or Pots, and now he made it clear that instead of talking pool, I was going to have to sit through a few ancient jokes too. Bunny fancies himself quite the raconteur.
“Guy told me that for three bucks, he could show me how to save my hair. So I fork over the three bucks, and he hands me a cigar box.”
“’A cigar box’,” I groaned. “Sweet Jesus, Bunny, Man was beating that one out on hollow logs.”
“’Hollow logs’?” he whined, almost as though in pain.
“Don’t change the subject,” I said. “Tell me how you matched up with Billy Incardona or Jimmy Marino or Bernie Schwartz,” naming Pittsburgh’s three best-known pool players by far.
“Too old for the first two and not good enough for the third,” he snapped. “And that black guy di’n’t beat me that bad. And you shouldn’a made fun a my joke.” He folded his arms, sulked thoughtfully for a few seconds, and stomped off in tiny Chaplin steps. And that was the last I have ever seen of Mr. Bernard Rogoff, originally of Pittsburgh.