By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1987]
Back in the ’70s, there was an award-winning animated filmed called “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” which became a cult favorite. Barely 10 seconds long, it shows a lovely little Disney-like fawn happily grazing until a huge gorilla paw squashes it. Pool offers you almost the same scenario every day; it generally requires more than 10 seconds to act out, but you don’t have to pay any admission.
The proliferation of bar pool has produced an entirely new breed of sucker, for one thing. Coin-operated tables generate their own level of machismo — even laying one’s quarter on the rail to denote you are in line waiting for the table has a certain sort of territorial challenge to it — and there does indeed exist a vertebrate form of life who thinks it’s manly to go off for a few yards or a few thou, as long as you look cool doing it. This creature rarely has much trouble finding tormentors to accommodate him; and since he’s delighted to lose, sober or drunk, his victors are free to vary widely in skill.
There are bar pool hustlers around who wouldn’t even remotely consider playing in commercial rooms, on regulation-size tables. That is thought to be no great loss; the two games are more disparate than you think, and many top players of regulation pool do not make the crossover all that well. If really fine pool players are not eager for top bar players’ action, you can imagine the mismatches that occur when a true bar hustler ensnares a true schlemiel.
I was guilty of the same concept once — and only once — in my first billiard room. There was an unwashed dropout, Sherwin, who haunted the place yet could not find the end of the rail when his meager cash was on the line; his only parent was a deaf mute father, and their vigorous sign language arguments over whether Sherwin properly belonged in the poolroom or the schoolroom were all that was interesting about that dirty young man. Anyway, showing typical teenaged meanness, I made a straight pool game with Sherwin for his case two dollars: I was allowed to shoot only banks or combination shots until he got to 35 (going to 50), and then I could play straight-in. My own total was damn near 35 by the time his was, and I won the deuce easily, with Sherwin’s father watching. “Give back the deuce,” my best friend implored. “I can’t stand this. I’m gonna cry.” So, fighting back tears myself, I offered Sherwin his money back. His father waved me off.
But the game occasionally shows a wicked talent for evening scores like that; and I got mine, but good, a few years later at the hands of the infamous Brooklyn Jimmy. The memorably homely Jimmy was a mismatch against anybody, disguising his try speed — a flicker under world class — with Lon Chaney-like skill. And his lack of pride was a horrific complement to his awesome ability. A quintessential Brooklyn Jimmy act was to get his limited-in-talent opponent 10 or 12 games stuck, at a fin per, then rise up gorged on magnanimity to say, “Tell you what; I won’t let you get even, but I will play a few games for twenty so you don’t get hurt too bad.” And the opponent would gratefully surrender the 8 and the crack a few more times, thinking, “Gee, Jimmy. You’re all right.”
One of everybody’s favorite customers in the last incarnation of Bensinger’s was a player named Lefty Bob. A civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, Bob was low-key and exceedingly polite, and one of the few beginners I ever saw who wanted to matriculate directly to one-pocket. His game was so weak as to defy the creation of a handicap along conventional lines, so his opponents opted instead to play him even but give him odds on his money. The great Art Bodendorfer risked $240 each game to win $2 from Bob. With enough patience, you could run up a score of 20 or more games on Bob. But every so often, Bob might stick the cue ball someplace perilous and, at odds ranging from 50 and 120 to 1, unique pressures could arise. To see a top player desperately sweating out negotiations with Bob was to know the rare joy of those who insist on rooting for Gary Coleman over Mr. T.
Art Bodendorfer was involved in that sort of locksmithery more than once. There was another hapless gent in that room, a simple and gentle Italian whom everybody called Nine-a Ball-a. Nine-a Ball-a played slightly better than, say, Flipper, the trained porpoise, but he showed more caution with his cash than Lefty Bob. So Artie followed Nine-a Ball-a to the harness races one afternoon, watched him win a juicy pocketful and steered him to a nearby room where the talented John Abruzzo lurked. Bodendorfer was smart enough to realize that Nine-a Ball-a would be suspicious of anything as easy as an even-up proposition, so it was somehow more credible to suggest that Nine-a Ball-a would spot Abruzzo the 7. The outcome is not worth mentioning, but it didn’t happen fast. Abruzzo had to allow his countryman three or four innings on each ball. Bodendorfer had to walk a fine line between keeping a straight face and passing out from boredom.
As nice as it would be to report that life, and the game, caught up with Artie for his sins, that’s not quite the way it went down. A group of exchange students from Thailand was studying engineering at nearby Illinois Institute of Technology. They were all cracker-jack snooker players, and one of them captured Artie once and drubbed him 12 straight games at $20 a pop. While your heart may be leaping in silent joy at this point, I will point out that attitudes and ethics are a tad different in other parts of the world. And that young gentleman gave Art Bodendorfer the full $240 back, along with a deep apology; he had not meant to take advantage.
Life is imperfect.