[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 April 1993]
"Son, if a man ever wants to bet you that he can stand on his head and spit shaving foam into your ear from 20 yards away, don't take him up on it, because all you will have to show for your bet is an earful of shaving foam."
I don't mean to suggest that I heard that advice from my own father; somehow or other, he missed that one. But "Never bet a man at his own game" has been around for generations before I was born, even longer than Nelson Algren's immortal, "Never eat at a place called Mom's; never play cards with a guy called Doc; never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are worse than you own."
Pool, of course, provides the world with a near-inexhaustible supply of audacious souls (some would merely say "dumb") who will challenge any or all of the above. But inasmuch as we are not concerned - not primarily, anyway - with food, cards or sex on these pages, let's take a semi-embarrassed look at the concept of a man's own game.
Pool hustling and the propositions to be found therein have been around not quite as long as the game itself, but at no time and place were the pigeons plumper than in Norfolk, Va., during the early days of World War II. Sweet, sincere young men who had never known guile in their lives were turned loose for overnight and weekend passes with pay in their pockets, love in their hearts and the firm belief that man was good, life was sweet and they were about to be sent to fight the Japs and be carved into sushi anyhow, so what the hell?
Then came the hustlers, with a stunning burst of creativity, born unto the new marketplace as necessity is to invention. As the late Danny McGoorty put it, "you couldn't stumble over somebody in the gutter without hearin', "Excuse me; here's your ten bucks."
Among the more popular propositions of that period which I saw carried into the late '50s, and even dabbled with myself, was to play the guppy 50 to 1 or maybe 2, the stipend being, needless to say, that the ball or balls in question be deposited in one side pocket, sometimes either one. Almost anybody who knows his cue's tip from his butt can easily protect against such a shot ever being available; still, they had to call in the MPs to control the howling mob of suckers waiting to be played 50 to 1.
From there, it was one small step for man, but one giant step for hustling to introduce the back-pocket version of one-pocket. You can probably discern the game from its very name: suckeur de jour gets one of the corner pockets at the business end of the table, his tormentor gets the opposite corner at the opposite end. The moves and nuances of this proposition are more strategic and cerebral than you'd think, unless, of course, your customer is one of the Jukes family
(in psychological parlance or myth, generations upon generations of congenital idiots), and how the Jukes did flourish when this game was born! So many different players were able to hand out this handicap that there's actually a consensus as to who was the best at it, and it's close to unanimous: Jack "Jersey Red" Breit, who even offered it to good players. An award-winning article on Red, published around 1960, asserts that Red even had customers whom he played 11-3 or 12-2 that way.
Morons also queued up, no pun intended, in vast numbers to be played rotation backwards; that is, the moron gets to shoot at the highest numbered ball on the table while the player professes the usual way.
Did any of these incredible come-ons ever lead to good, legitimate pool? Sure. Many, many players, including Richie Florence in his teens, were able to bet that they could run, say, 50 balls starting with break shot/cue ball in hand. And at the fecund room called the Golden Cue in Queens, the late Mike Eufemia's sponsors would happily host your wager that their stallion wouldn't run 200 before the joint closed; for once, takers were few, but those few usually went home lighter, rationalizing, "It's worth it to see a guy run 200."
At the last ghostly, ghastly incarnation of Bensigner's, there was a nice old guy named Al Ramsey who simplified the same format to a single shot: object ball on the rail at the first diamond, cue ball half a diamond in back of it and about a ball's width from the rail. He then proposed to bank the thing cross side. Since Helen Keller has been said to make the shot six times out of 10, he spiced up the affair by shooting it one-handed; when the chumps wore thin, one-handed and on one foot; for the last vestiges of chump-hood, one-handed, on one foot, with one eye closed. The only times I ever saw the courteous Ramsey miss this shot were when I bet him at it. I made him switch feet and eyes, thereby entwining both halves of his brain like vipers courting, and he never did understand where his modus operandi had gone awry.
In the same room, the best player was easily the nerveless Art Bodendorfer, and he gave away some monstrous odds, playing one blue-chip client one-pocket even up on the game by $240 to $2 on the money. (I saw him won 100 games in a session that way once.) The same hapless gentleman also accepted the one-pocket proposition that Artie had to shoot at the object ball nearest the cue ball, wherever that might be, and was drummed upon as though he were Ravel's "Bolero". After innumerable drubbings, he was overheard to sigh and offer this time-capsule quote: "I may have to give up hustling pool."
A fine action film of the early '60s, "The Guns of Navarone", spawned a whole legion of imitative films based on the Those-Poor-Devils-Don't-Have-A-Chance premise. It makes you wonder with which hand the author played one-handed pool.