By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1984]
It was hardly the first time two pool players had agreed on “one more game,” but Nick and Iz had true nobility on their minds. The two men were friendly without being friends, and despite decades together in the same room, had seldom gone head-to-head. The after-hours, loser-pays-time game they planned, on an ungodly hot sticky June night in Chicago, had the lofty status of The Last Game Ever At Downtown Bensinger’s. It was their way of toasting the room and the game and the years.
Iz’s existence was such that I was probably the last person on earth who called him Iz. To everybody else, from the pool world to what little old-country family he had left, Isadore Rosen was simply “Pony.” Nor was that sobriquet earned by dint of long hours toiled in research libraries, either. Harness races beckoned a good six to nine months of the year; the rest of the time, Pony was able to keep a few dollars in his pocket. But if they were running, Pony was going; and if he was going, he would go bust. A fairly reliable handicapping system would have been to eliminate Pony’s pony first. “I can’t win a bleeping bet,” he would exclaim nightly, and always there was the same childlike amazement in his voice. Although the ponies kept him broke, in a way they kept him going too. He did not figure to score big in the poolrooms ever again; without the horses, Iz would have had no dream.
Not that he was without talent. After all, Pony Rosen sent Ralph Greenleaf himself sheepishly to the rack once, even if he did have to be told whom he just beat. For $10 or less, he may have been one of Chicago’s all-time best all-around players, expert at not just every pool game, but billiards and snooker too. I called him Iz instead of Pony because I’m not much for nicknames, and besides, I thought he had the respect coming. “Isadore” is a name of pride, meaning “rabbi” or “physicist.” Iz Rosen was a friendly guy; he even liked to pat and pinch when he could get away with it. And he had a funny grin and a familiar little shpritz of Yiddish for anybody else he could pick out as Jewish, as though to say in code, “Imagine, one of the Chosen People making his living this way.”
For all his skill, Pony was not that deeply enamored of tough action; yokels were far more his dish of kreplach. And with Nick, he held a definite edge. Nick Demos was a family man and stand-up working stiff who put in 10-hour days on the loading docks for Railway Express before he came to the once-great room, which was most nights. Often he would show up just as Pony was leaving for the admission-free last three races of the night, thereby creating a little counter-culture replica of day and night shifts.
Nick was one of those guys who just kept hanging in there, whatever it was he did. Small for a dockworker, he had nevertheless been around rugged physical activity all his life. Sports at Harrison High, three years as a lineman in the war, four-hour pool sessions after 10-hour workdays, you could count Nick in. A much less gifted player than Pony, feisty Nick still savored tough action much more, although he frequently got more than he gave. Annually, Nick would enter the city tournaments first and finish last. The fabled and feared Cornbread Red, replete with truck driver overalls and open-thumb bridge, captured Nick one night; the houseman discreetly tried to steer Nick away to safety, but he hung in there. “Whaddya mean?” Nick sneered. “I’m ahead of ‘im!” Later he was not.
And if there was no action, he would play with, and learn from, his friend the great Joe Bachelor. Joe was self-conscious about turning Nick into a rack boy, with meticulous 100- and 200-ball runs, but Nick insisted on all-out or nothing, occasionally fashioning a 40 or 50 of his own. And if Joe was out, Nick dove deep into squinty-eyed practice, scrunched down behind clear-rim glasses, upper teeth showing. He hung in.
Maybe the two men had visions of playing the room’s finest game of all time as a last hurrah that night. But that was only a dream, like Pony’s nightly quixotic quinellas. The 1962 summer was one of the most uncomfortable in Chicago’s memory; and now the heat and humidity were strangling the no longer air-conditioned room as they had the city. Nick hit a few practice racks while Iz visited the gent’s room, and he could see the moisture glistening on the balls, each shot sending up a little rooster tail, as if fleas were water-skiing beneath the balls.
And that cost Iz his edge. Playing with Joe Bachelor’s personal set of waxed-nightly pool balls had taught Nick a thing or two about balls that skid. The long run of Downtown Bensinger’s Last Game was little more than one rack, but it belonged to Nick. Digging in one last time, Nick Demos hit the balls a little harder, cut them a little thinner and allowed for a little more cling, and he beat Pony Rosen. (Pony refused to pay the time, citing Nick’s practice racks, thus salvaging the place’s last hustle if not its final victory.) It was an upset that would have been talked about for days if anyone else had been there. But there was only the night manager, totaling up, and Bensigner’s was all out of days.
Iz lasted about another 10 years, dying appropriately for a hustler, keeling over midway through a cheap one-pocket game with the best player in town. And Nick went on questing formidable foes until he was put in the chair for good by multiple sclerosis. Once more, Nick couldn’t win but wouldn’t quit either, and he hung in there, continuing to live life with a 5’x10’ heart.
Nick and Iz couldn’t do it that June night, but now and then men can bring out the best in the game. Much more often, it’s the other way around.