[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 June 1992]
He was just like the bubbling vat in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of Disney’s famed “Fantasia”: ask Ernie Presto anything about billiards - anything - and he was impossible to turn off. Systems or stories, playing or players, Ernie would immediately immerse himself so deeply as to get lost and take you right with him, engrossed in his swirling molten lava of love.
What else could possibly motivate him to make it a point of taking on every single national champion over a 60-year stretch? To offer open access to that encyclopedic knowledge to everyone from intimates to virtual strangers? To turn his entire life over to a game which could repay him only spiritually?
Ernie did not trust everything to his warehouse-sized memory, although he demonstrated often enough that he almost certainly could have. Instead, he logged the results of every single game - exhibitions, tournaments, pastime - by opponent and score; if pressed, he most likely would have been able to call out the highlights, too. No doubt his proudest single endeavor was a two-hole loss to Willie Hoppe, but with typical modesty, he preferred to broadcast that he was 0-24 lifetime versus that immortal. He considered it a deep honor and privilege to come to the table with champions of his beloved game; outcome and actual score were puny trivia by comparison.
Included in his memorabilia is a receipt of payment for 20 lessons from another legend, Jake Schaefer Jr. (for the eyebrow-raising price of $100, this back in 1945), and Ernie Presto no doubt studied less formally with other greats. Besides Schaefer, Welker Cochran and Augie Kieckhefer were Chicago habitue at one time or another, and besides, there was an ongoing parade of other U.S. champions from whom to glean. What Ernie brought to their parties, in addition to his endless devotion and insatiable quest for knowledge, was his profession of civil engineer, which couldn’t have hurt his mastery of angles in the slightest. Ernie Presto helped construct some of America’s more famous highways, notably the Al-Can in Alaska, when he wasn’t making inroads into billiards.
As Ernie aged, the times rose up here and there to test his love. First, there was the downward spiral of his beloved Bensinger’s; when that room left Chicago’s downtown district, it permanently relinquished any claim it had on majesty. The noble hall that once reserved an entire separate floor for billiards relocated on the north side of the city with eight or nine tables intact out of what had once been thirty-plus. That wasn’t bad; good players were still reasonably abundant, and tournament play, at both city and regional levels, survived, too. But billiards and pool were no longer sectioned off from one another, thus Ernie had to endure the gradual infestation of tough young kids, drunks and slobs. When Bensigner’s finally folded its dirty tent in the mid-’70s, Ernie and the other diehards migrated northwest to an unpretentious room with six slow carom tables. Those tables played longer than Ernie’s Al-Can Highway, but the players’ loyalty was astounding: the same men in the same place at the same time, seven days a week. You literally couldn’t get a table, and until a falling out with management, it appeared Ernie Presto had his sneak preview of heaven.
If there ever breathed a woman who had the potential to compete for that kind of love, Ernie never found her. He had many siblings, he had his work and he had his game; that was plenty. The only element he lacked for total fulfillment was a student to whom he could truly pass the torch; and he even found that, in his last decade-plus, in Chicago’s volatile Bill Smith. The young man was working on his own system of categorizing shots according to spin, speed and stroke selection, and at last Ernie had found a rich concerto of ability and ambition to which his own voluminous knowledge could play a valid counterpoint. For his part, Smith played a dual role as brilliant protg (he went on from that cosmic liftoff to set most of the American Billiard Association’s playing records) and a surrogate for the son the elder man never had, wept unabashedly at his mentor’s passing and delivered a dazzling eulogy that did both men honor.
A few years before he died, Ernie Presto was interviewed by a local hack (a term I surely hate to use for a writing colleague, but the young woman earned it in spades), who could find no better story angle than to portray him and his friends thoroughly falsely as petty, back-biting, bickering old codgers. One nice old guy got a look at himself in print and promptly had a stroke and died; Ernie suffered only slightly less, mostly ostracized by his peers, often sitting alone in his new haunts, an empty-by-day room, his siblings long gone, no one to compete with or, perhaps even better, relate stories to. I had the privilege of the man’s acquaintance for the better part of 40 years, yet never once asked him to play; I tend toward a purist view of things, and it seemed to me that his love for the game deserved my respect, not my intrusion.
They were shaking their heads and saying, “It’s only a matter of days,” for months before a diabetic coma finally took him; he had long since proved that no mortal force was going to set him down. It might have been serendipity, but Ernie Presto was aptly named. There was, indeed, something about the man that was earnest and magical at the same time.