[Ed. Note: George was nine months ahead on his Tips & Shafts column at the time of his death. Billiards Digest wouldn't deny his faithful readers the joy of seeing those columns in their rightful place on the last page.]
[Reprinted from November 1982]
The marquee sign still says "Open 10 AM to 1 AM Every Day," and it is still clean with no letters missing; but the door, which formerly offered the contradictory "Open 7 AM," now merely differs to say the more succinct "Closed." The windows upstairs are boarded, the phone disconnected and, for the first time in the twentieth century, billiards is without a room called Bensinger's.
Tributes to rooms gone under have been written before, of course: to New York's Ames, where "The Hustler" was filmed; to Allinger's in Philadelphia, once home to Ponzi and Mosconi at the same time; to a little-known room in Springfield, Ohio, immortalized as "The House of the 526." The writing is generally a lament of the room's downhill slide, but the authors are rarely of the billiards world, and thus they miss out on the grandeur that truly was when the name billiard room finally goes belly up.
Billiards' best-known rooms are mostly in the oldest parts of their cities, which means downtown. New York, as usual, did things a little differently; "downtown" there means something else entirely, and so it was the midtown area that claimed not one but three legendary caverns, Ames, Paddy's (better known as 711) and McGirr's, all long gone. There were so many heroic players of all games between the three rooms that it became simpler (and smarter) to reduce your awareness to a singe maxim: In New York, you can get hot and blow away the house champion, and some third-rate shortstop will jump up and clean your clock. There was plenty of action all across the five boroughs, once upon a time, but the midtown rooms got all the hushed tones when players would talk about where to go and where not to go. Any one of the names conjured up decades of tradition, great play and gaudy gambling.
Bensinger's was much the same way, except that the stakes were smaller. Fats brags of winning $250,000 billiard games there during the Depression, but I would ask that you consider the source. Closer to reality, the stakes were seldom stratospheric, at least in my time, which spans not quite 30 years. What the room was high in, if not star players and mammoth jackpots, was class. The windows were curtained, the carpets swept daily, the tables brushed at least as often as they were unoccupied, by table porters and maids who also took and brought you your coat, food and drink. Some of Mrs. Bensinger's paintings graced the billiards floor (separate floors for billiards and pool, you understand, at least when things were good); one of them, called the "Guardian Angel," showed just that, but was about half the size of King Kong, easily its redeeming feature. It was a gentle portender of things to come.
The biggest playing name in the room, from the 50's forward, was Joe Procita. But the brilliant John Chapman, also called "Lefty" and, later, "Cannonball," got his baptism there. Billiards Digest Associate Editor Ray Dooley was a city straigtht-pool champ (1959), played savage banks and 9-ball too, and even sported a playing nickname ("Shreveport"). An abrasive but marvelously talented player named Ed Laube haunted the place at both pool and billiards; he won a city championship (1949) and would go on to manufacture some of the most solid-playing custom cues in the game's history. Laube seemed to turn mellow as the room turned nasty and, with his vast knowledge of the game and its lore, was actually good company in his later years.
One player who never got around to mellowing much was Laube's buddy, the late Ray Maples, who completed the unfortunate parlay of being at once a plump loud lout and probably the steadiest money man in town. Of all the nights I ever spent in Bensigner's, none gladdened my heart quite the same way as the night David spanked Goliath. Maples picked on a solitary figure named Harry Paul.
Maples watched Paul run five or six racks, re-racking the balls barehanded each time, and finally bellowed, from four tables away, "Odd how you fun players can do that." Harry Paul, showing no more emotion than if an inquiry had been made into his uncle's health, calmly posted a $100 bill for stake money. A yard was a damn good bet back then, and the challenge seemed no more than further burden for those of us who root for the Davids and Mets and Cubs of life. But Harry Paul was also a graduate of McGirr's, with some juicy delicious surprises of his own. He silently whacked Ray Maples four games in a row, in a beating so merciless that a dazed Maples could only tell the story on himself years later. "Ah thought," he'd sigh, for the paddling did seem to send up a little shpritz of humility, "Ah thought ah was gettin' a funnnn player!"
But I saw Mosconi at Bensinger's, of course, and Hoppe, too. Harold Worst, Chamaco, Navarro - all were there. Some ran into buzzsaws: Ed Laube knocked off Worst, and an obscure black player named Dennis Slater sent Mosconi scurrying for the rack one day. Even the immortal Greenleaf went down once to a likable old free spirit named Isadore "Pony" Rosen.
My deepest pleasure came not from watching the competition, but from watching the night desk man, Harry Paul's friend Joe Batchelor, play alone. They said he didn't have the heart to play for cash anymore, but, aw Lord, could he run balls. Watching him spin off casual hundreds was a rich daydream of whole eras of playing greatness and aggregate fortunes gambled, a nightly summary of decades of skill and genius and nerve.
The best estimates say that there were over 40,000 commercial rooms in the U.S. at the game's peak, maybe one-fifth that many today, with only a handful slated for immortality (if that many). Some point to urban decay. Some theorize that today's society has increasingly less use for an "emporium," a place where men go to be away from women, and that surely was one of the poolroom's main roles. Only the game lives on, beyond the reputation and legends of its players and rooms alike. The names of the great rooms endure, too, not quite as long yet well beyond their active lives. It takes games as great as the ones they housed to outlive them.