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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BROOKLYN JIMMY TEACHES
(from April 1998)
SOME OF US are both either slightly ahead of or behind our times, and in my case, the timing was a bit of both. Not that the timing was completely unlucky; after all, I was a college freshman for the birth of rock music, and how many better-timed events of significance can one hope for? But as grateful as I am to be around for today's pool explosion, I do wish, in a formless way, that I could have been around for other of its heydays.
And as long as we're fantasizing, the place to be would have been New York, especially through the '50s. With three major rooms in the Times Square area alone, Manhattan and all the neighboring boroughs trotted out playing rosters that could send you into cardiac arrest before you ever assembled your cue. As played by New York and New Jersey's crème de la crème, pool didn't even seem like the same game, and such was its popularity back then that many, many strata of players existed, each with its own select clientele of customers.
At the bottom of the evolutionary chain was the bum who barely played well enough to beat the seemingly endless total shmoes he could ensnare. Above him, tournament players and legit money players together looked down on him more or less accurately as some sort of amoeba; but he was able to survive, if barely, and he is indeed survived in bars, but not poolrooms, today. At the top, the very best tournament players rarely if ever gambled, and the very best money players, too well-known to depend on walk-in action, usually got it on by appointment only. So with only those magnificent fins breaking the surface of the water, the real feeding frenzy was taking place just beneath it: sensational players who vastly preferred little or no reputation , and could get down all the time, with jerks or the plentiful very-good players alike, and still win the money without ever violating the time-honored hustlers' code about never showing your true speed.
In short, never before or since has pool been played so well by so many, and nobody, but nobody, put the entire ability-plus-con package together better than Brooklyn Jimmy Cassas. His sole interest in the game he played so brilliantly (actually, a flicker under national-class, at least in the money-player ranks) was as a fund-raiser for the racetrack, a far more quixotic form of gambling, and remarkably he flourished at both. Dazzling as he was as a player, he was nothing short of radiant when it came to game-making, and he took that same conservatism to the track too. The handicapping system that ultimately helped make him rich does not deal with actual winner-picking so much as it does with protecting oneself from "false favorites," which is precisely what he made everybody over himself at the pool table. Jimmy took on real players in the toughest rooms, but only when he absolutely, positively had to - he has been known to go to the post with "Boston Shorty" Johnson even-up - and guys who barely knew which end of the cue was intended to greet a ball. What they had in common was, they all thought they had him by the short-and-curlies, and they virtually all lost. Brooklyn Jimmy built decent pool winnings into eye-opening horse winnings, then parlayed those into a genuine fortune in New York's diamond center, and not surprisingly, some pretty decent stories have emerged.
"I was dating a waitress in the richest resort in Boca Grande, Florida," he says, "A place there Bouviers and Kennedys and all their pals stayed. They had an old pool table, and my girlfriend thought we could stage a little exhibition, you know, maybe do myself some good. So they found a local pro, and we gave this informal exhibition, barely even announced, where we did some trick shots for a small crowd and played 75 points of straight pool, and I happen to run 70 and out. A little later, I feel a hand patting me gently on the shoulder. It's a much older man.
'How much would you charge for pool lessons?' he asks.
'I will give you two one-hour lessons for $1,000,' I say.
'Outrageous!' he screams. "The tennis pro only charges $40!'
'The tennis pro,' I explain, 'is a tomato-can. If he was any good at tennis, he'd be out on the circuit playing it for important money. What he would not be doing is hustling a bunch of rich dreamers in plaid shorts and black socks with man-tits down to their knees. Better hustlers than him I see on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, have beaten some of the best in the world at my game. I will teach you the kind of things that I depend on for my survival. You should make the price of your pool lesson many times over, the very next time you and your friends get together to play. But your tennis pro is just prostituting his body. I won't do that.'
'Outrageous,' he says again, and he walks away. An hour later, I feel the same pat on m shoulder. 'I'll take those two lessons,' he says. A few hours after that, he hands me the thou and tells me, 'If you ever need a thousand dollars again, now you know where to come for it.' And I have gone to Storrs, Connecticut, six separate times since, to see and teach that man, or re-borrow and repay that money."
I admire the texture of that story; rich in street-smarts, it still takes in pride and discipline and worldliness and camaraderie. Brooklyn Jimmy has long since ceased to need pool hustling, or even to give thousand- dollar lessons. He has passed the ethic of price and discipline along to three sons, one a college freshman, the second a Marine, the third an Army Ranger and the finest sniper that elite force can offer, having inherited his father's hand/eye co-ordination too. Jimmy last held a cue in 1985; the suckers are all broke, gone or dead, and he has a chauffeur to take him to the track daily after half a day's work at the diamond center.
Which only proves once again, as though further proof were needed, that a man has to have his standards.