[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 December 1996]
While few men ever got the last ball in on him, even fewer got in the last word. Jack "Jersey Red" Breit would yap happily away at you even as he peeled your bankroll like the skins of an onion, running all manner of hundreds, nines, and especially eights, on tables that appeared to have been designed by de Sade. While Webster's boasts few more overused words than "great," consider this: pool has never been played better by as many people than it was in New York City through the 1950s. The standards were so high as to make the game barely recognizable; brag that you tore off a hundred-ball run someplace and the likely response was a yawn and a bored, "Who'd you run them balls on?" In at least three of Great Gotham's five boroughs were phenoms who could run 200, and for the cash, too. (Two hundred-point games were the norm. Anything else was considered too easy.) And in that three ring circus gone berserk, all those bona fide players, all that frenzied action, Jack Breit was just about unanimously considered the best of the best. Use your imagination as to how good that must have been.
Like most of pool's acknowledged immortals, Jersey Red was baptized in the era of clay balls and 5-by-10 tables. New York's toughest action rooms, like the many-storied 711, also had those tables fitted with pockets so narrow as to defy legality. "Put two balls side by side in those pockets, you couldn't pull 'em through with six weightlifters," attests Vince "Pancho" Furio, a legit shortstop himself back then, but Red still drilled the balls home like he was dropping grapes into the Grand Canyon.
Handicaps? Red accepted high-rolling action in which he was forbidden to chalk his cue (but he customarily mesmerized the opposition with his chatter while sneaking ringer cues out of the rack; his one-session record is four clandestine cues). One-pocket spots on the order of 16-to-8 were not uncommon. Perhaps most outrageous of all was Red's reduction to silly-putty of the champions' diversion called "front to back," which is, in essence, one-pocket played diagonally. The player with the back pocket customarily gets the break, plus half the game. (In other words, four balls on eight, or, in some cases, five on 10 or six on 12.) Red would take a back pocket and give the pigeons those kinds of odds!
The game, the spot, the opponent, the equipment, none of that made the slightest difference - Red just ran out. And he was colossal fun to watch; the palaver never stopped, but everything else about his game was fearsome. Had he stood any lower over the cue, he'd have had to talcum his chin; had he held the cue any lower on the butt, he would have been applying the one- or two-finger grip normally reserved for Wedgewood teacups; his best playing rhythm was Butera-fast. If Red couldn't beat you on sheer ability, he'd either out-talk you or scare you to death. The only money player who ever held an edge on Red - that he will admit to, anyway - was Hall of Famer Luther Lassiter. Of course, no one ever out-gabbed Red.
"His pure ability was incredible," recalls Eddie Robin, one of the great cue-games teachers in the world and a former national three-cushion billiards champion, who at one time was actually inferior to Red at that game, too. "The first time I ever went into 711, he was giving any kid he didn't know 9-5 and the break, and I didn't think there was anybody alive who could play me that way. But he was just Houdini. He got out from anyplace. I never had a chance; I never saw anything like it. I played him a session of straight pool once where he was giving me something like 125 to 75, and seven games in a row he ran 50 or more to get out when I needed no more than seven and as few as two! And if he had been willing to give up pool for about a year, he could have played world-class billiards too."
Jack Breit's awesome playing peak preceded the game's first modern day quest for respectability. Following the great film, "The Hustler," there was a brief spate of new commercial rooms in the early '60s, and a tad of notoriety for professional tournament play. No less a forum than the mighty Sports Illustrated covered the colorful hustlers' convention in Johnston City, Ill., and even more loftily, championship straight pool competition was revived in New York City. So snooty was the tonality of that event that both Red and the splendid Cisero Murphy were snubbed, the latter because of his color, the former because of his colorful past on the pool grift. At the time, the pair may well have been the two best straight pool players in the world.
When they were finally granted admission a year or two after that meet's inception, Murphy achieved his celebrated championship-on-the-first-try-ever, but Red had a bad case of Bridesmaid's Syndrome in tournament play. He played well enough, finishing as high as third and running 129 one year, but he seemed uncomfortable with the neckwear and especially with the silence. Red like a racket, sweators, involving himself in the action all around himbut this wasn't 711. This was carpeting and chandeliers and scorekeepers and darkness and polite applause, and for the first and only time in his life, he was a skooch out of his element at the game of pool.
In the mid-'60s, Red forsook his beloved Jersey and Manhattan for Texas and has been a Houston resident ever since. Today, however, the opponent for Jack Breit to deal with is chemotherapy, and it is becoming harder for him to get that last word in. Celebrity player fundraisers have been held, and will continue to be; masterpiece cues, including one by the famed Richard Black, are being auctioned or raffled. The chance to win a collector-quality cue is not nearly as important as the chance to do a nice thing for one of the most entertaining players ever, and, almost as directly, for the game.