By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1997]
The first time I ever met Reno, he stiffed me for $30 with the prehistoric, "I must have left my wallet at home" dodge, and I was properly enraged, not over the money but his brazen lack of creativity. Thus, I made restiffing a keen priority; and once that was accomplished, I rarely took the worst of it from him again. The victimization took place principally over straight pool, but even at three-cushion and one-pocket, about which I knew next to nothing at the time, it seemed predestined that he come in second. It made for an interesting reversal of roles: Reno had a stalwart roster of customers to whom he virtually never lost, while I scoured the universe in frenzied search of somebody else I could beat. Originally, I told him my name was "Wisconsin," perhaps the only peep of loyalty I ever showed my alma mater, and when Wisconsin met Reno, most of the time the cash stayed east of the mighty Mississippi.
Actually, Reno was something of a menace to the typical workingman because watching him suggested that pool hustling was far, far easier than it really is. His talent was quite minimal, yet he was in constant demand by an unending stream of utter idiots. Dual aspects of his appeal, I suppose, lay in his flexibility and availability; he played any game you could name, and his attendance at the last incarnation of Bensinger's would have done a cum laude student proud. Reno both opened and closed the place most days, even during the summer months when you could generally fire a cannon through every poolroom in town without inflicting so much as a flesh wound.
Reno was such a reliable fixture at Bensinger's, in fact, that you felt insulated from the abject humiliation of entering an empty room. Rain or shine, early or late, you knew you would be no less than the second patron on the premises, and you could do one hell of a lot worse for company than Reno. Even if I couldn't coax him to the table, he bet sports year 'round, and well, thus was consistently good for intelligent conversation. And since there will always be those of us who seek out a poolroom not for profit but for a respite from life, you could carry around a nice warm feeling about Bensinger's. At the very least, there would be Reno, who never hurt a soul, never cheated on his wife and raise two nice kids who went all the way through school. There's not a room in this galaxy that couldn't use a dozen Renos.
His sometimes occupation was as a house painter, and while he did not get nearly as much work as he would have liked, those who did employ him swore they had seen few men work harder. It was as though Reno were taking up the slack from how easy he had things in the poolroom; there was no sucker too helpless to exploit and the pool proposition he would not dabble in for those suckers has not yet been conjured. I played him a session of bar-table pool once, where we both played using our stick backwards, cueing the ball with the bumper end, and that was tame compared to the ground rules he accepted among his regular customers. His speed playing one-handed did not lag much behind what he could do with both hands.
Since he was so rarely extended at pool, he was a natural for the advent of bar action in the early '60s, and even affected truck driver overalls for awhile to enhance a semi-ingenious appearance. One prospect who bit, perhaps too eagerly, was a behemoth named Ed O'Bradovich, who was for many years a bulwark for the Chicago Bears. Peeved at finding himself nine dollars stuck, Ed lifted Reno off the floor one-handed and pinned him to the wall with the sweet pronouncement, "If I find out you guys are hustlers, I'm gonna take your head off."
"Al," Reno rasped, still suspended, to his partner Tall Al, who was similarly costumed but so skinny he looked more like an oil dip stick than a driver, "Bet an extra deuce next game."
"Not me," Al stammered in terror, seeming to understand the situation more clearly.
But for the most part, peace reigned when Reno played. He could probably have maintained his lamb-killing ways for another 15 or 20 years were it not for sociology. Bensinger's, once it left downtown Chicago, still legitimately qualified as an action room for its first 10 years on the north side of town. Then the neighborhood changed dramatically, and tough young kids became the staple of the room. Serious players and customers alike began drifting away. The room died an agonizing death in the late '70s, and Reno was without a home base.
He did surface briefly in a new room called the Chicago Billiards Cafe, but that place had a totally different tonality and clientele. For the most part, the only real action available was me, and I had him generally cowed to submission by then. One day he donated the last $100 he ever would, and from that point he appeared dressed not for pool but for job interviews. He was then in his early 60s, with house-painting assignments and most everything else slipping away from him.
As he rarely had so much as a cold in the 25 years I knew him, most were surprised to hear that Reno had keeled over and died, but I was not; his despair was easier for me to read than most. I was also one of the few who knew that despite his moniker, he had spent a grand total of 30 days in that Nevada city, and only then on a vagrancy charge. There wasn't anything gaudy or flashy about him in the least, and in missing him, the name sounds more incongruous than ever. Reno. Lee Roy Poklacki. Lee.