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Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.

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Best of Fels
November: James of Brooklyn
November 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 1997]

He is to pool hustling everything that Willie Sutton was to bank robbing: unfailingly the best of a category, much revered by his alleged peers and well-liked and even admired by his victims. James Cassas, far better known everywhere as Brooklyn Jimmy, was one bona fide artist when it came to game-making, effortlessly convincing you that he was half your speed when he had you twenty barrels stuck. And that doesn’t even take into account his true ability, which was only a flicker under national class — yet disguised by demands of humongous handicap from virtually everybody he played.

The last time I had seen Jimmy was almost exactly 30 years ago, in my one and only visit to New York’s many-storied poolroom known as 711. He was seated on the corner of the table nearest the counter, swinging a leg and reading The Racing Form. So deeply was he enmeshed in his Bible studies that he didn’t even notice the purebred sucker he had fleeced of $15 10 years before, when the latter was but a tender, trembling teen. But now, miraculously, I had him before me in the flesh, still trim (he pitched double A baseball once), his first trip to Chicago since the early ’60s. I fought off the inclination to genuflect, and instead listened for hours to his sweet, street-smart chin music, liberally sprinkled as it was with “Know what I mean?” (I did), and “To make a long story short…” (he didn’t).

Jimmy has not had a cue in his hand for 12 years, and it is much longer than that since he has needed to. Despite his remarkable talent, pool never represented much more to him than an opportunity to raise money for his real passion, the racetrack. And one day things just fell into place: Jimmy scored $1.4 million, took it to New York’s diamond center, put it into action and has lived quite comfortably almost ever since. He doesn’t remember what his long run was (although he recalls that he went from a 30- to 40-ball runner to a runout player who tore off straight-pool hundreds, or one-pocket eights, or 9-ball nines, easily with the advent of plastic balls).

While his formal education is limited, his pool schooling is easily the equivalent of Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford in one. Johnny Irish, Jersey Red, Boston Shorty and many others were on hand to teach him that any single mistake, no matter how seemingly trivial, could cost you twenty minutes in the chair. The talent pool, no pun intended, in New York and New Jersey even before “The Hustler” was as rich as it has ever been; 200-ball runners could be turned up in every one of New York City’s five boroughs. It was the very last true hustlers’ era in which shortstop-and-better players could eke an existence out of disguising their skill and nursing their customers along, knowing they could pull the trigger at any time.

Jimmy’s specialty in the early days was in wheedling $40 or $50 scores out of guys who had come to play for 50 cents or a buck. A typical ploy went like this: Jimmy would either blow a game to a stooge (and that’s how he hooked me), or slough off a few games to his guppy of the day, then insist on, say, the 7 and the break from any opponent who played this side of Ray Charles. The mark would then promptly go 15 or 20 games in the hole, at which point Jimmy would announce that he was quitting.

“Whaddya mean, you’re quittin’? You got me stuck!”

“Nah,” Jimmy would counter. “I see what’s goin’ on here. I’m onto ya. You’re hustlin’ me. You’re gonna run up a decent tab, and then all of a sudden you’re not gonna wanna bet a buck no more; it’s gonna be $10 or $20 a game. I know the tyoe. I’ve seen you hustlers before.” At this stage, the sucker could be counted on to be struck dumb, if not comatose, in confusion, so Jimmy would continue. “And you know what? I’m gonna go for it. I can’t let you get even — I’m too smart for that — but I will let you play a couple games for $20, just so you don’t get hurt too bad.”

No scam was considered complete in Jimmy’s mind unless the mark was actually grateful for the splendid opportunity to stick his finger down his own throat. “Gee, Jimmy,” would be the usual response. “Thanks for the chance. You’re all right.”

Feeling like the guy in the joke who squanders his life savings on a trip to Tibet and climbs the Himalayas to seek out the guru and learn the true meaning of life, I decided to ask the question that had haunted me ever since I first heard of Jimmy’s legend: What was with the pulling-legs-off-flies tactic of making chumps give you a spot?

The first thing I noticed about his answer was that he smiled broadly first. “It was because I love seeing the larceny come out in other people.”

In other people?

“Sure. Don’t you think all those people were trying to fleece me too? Look here,” he said, shooting a well-tailored cuff to reveal an elegant watch. “There is no way on earth that I can sell this Patek Phillipe to a farmer. The farmer isn’t going to know from Patek Phillipe; he thinks watches are Mickey Mouses or whatever. But you give me a slick city guy who thinks he knows watches, and he thinks he can get the jump on me. That’s the guy I can probably sell a $12 knockoff to. Once I see his larceny. And pool’s no different. I never took the 7-8-9, or whatever, from anybody who didn’t think he was gonna beat my brains in with it. Know what I mean?”

Every East Coast player I ever asked has told me two things: Brooklyn Jimmy was the finest hustler they had ever seen bar none, and, away from the table, he was as nice a guy as you could hope to meet. I agree wholly with both contentions. But he still didn’t offer me my $15 back.