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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: Johnny, Marching Home
November 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 2000]

It’s been said, often enough, that you don’t choose pool; pool chooses you. In John Ervolino, then, the game probably made its ultimate casting call. It’s not just that his straight pool was national class at a time when America was virtually the only nation playing the game, and it’s not merely that he was one of the greatest hustlers ever. In looks, demeanor and even voice, Ervolino is pool.

The man is so street smart that he even had the good sense to be born in Brooklyn, in the spring of 1935. The setting and date have pool significance because his formal education did not extend into the ’50s; instead, he went whooping and hollering into streets that surpassed all others in the world when it came to teeming with pool life. In Ervolino’s formative period, the late ’40s, and for the next 20 years or so, the New York metro area was pool’s version of Mecca (with the added advantage of already being east). Two hundred-ball runners could be found in each of the five boroughs, with a healthy surplus in New Jersey. And the suckers; O, Lord, the suckers, and in delicious droves, as innocent in the poolrooms of Times Square as they were at the hands of the three-card-Monte dealers and Rolex salesmen just outside them. A player of Ervolino’s speed, even as a teen, could make thirty or forty dollars a day practically just for falling out of bed.

The less he cared about the game (his real passion was horseracing, and to this day he claims to know more about it than any living human), the better he seemed to play — but only for money. Like his dear friend, the late Jack “Jersey Red” Breit, and a few others in a small sub-sub-culture, Ervolino was ferocious for the cash but only lukewarm in tournaments. He won a few straight-pool invitational events in and around New York and competed in several U.S. Opens with undistinguished results. But he did not warm to the pomp and circumstance, nor to the dress codes, and least of all to the silence, which locked down one of the deadliest weapons in his arsenal: his voice.

Ah, that voice. Always a throaty croak (insiders called him “The Velvet Foghorn,” borrowing liberally from the late jazz singer Mel Torme; at that, certainly more creative than “Brooklyn Johnny”), its pitch has risen with the years, rather than deepening as might be expected. Today he sounds a bit like a streetwise Walter Brennan. But he was (and still is) a Rickles-class needler, always managing to bring off his scams without getting his prospects too angry to participate. “I can tell you’re no player,” he rasped at a selected schmo once, “I can tell by the shape of yer head.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” the befuddled mark managed. “What’s wrong with my head?”

“I di’n’t say nothin’ was wrong with it. I just said it ain’t a player’s head, is all. Good players got certain shaped heads. I do. You ain’t. It’s dat simple,” Ervolino explained, massaging the mark’s scalp as tenderly and expertly as any qualified phrenologist would. “Looka dis here. How do you even expect to play? Lumps! Bumps! Bah! It’s hopeless.”

At that point, the prospect had determined that what he had on his hands was not a qualified phrenologist but a certifiable loon and agreed to pool combat. He departed a few hours later, somewhat fortified by the notion that there might be something to this head-shape business after all.

Despite a nearly universal reputation for skullduggery at pool for stakes, Ervolino is immensely enjoyable company away from that arena. He has a keen sense of human nature, an even better sense of humor, and, of course, a gazillion stories to tell. Divorced but a deeply loving father of two adult daughters, this tough old bird has survived both a stroke and double lung surgery and seems aware that the cocktail hour of life will be announcing last call soon. In that regard, he has reached an odd pact with one daughter who has married. “Make me a grandfather for two years,” he requested of her. “Just two years with one grandbaby and I don’t give a bleep what happens to me after dat.” Tender and raffish at the same time, the plea captures the man better than any outsider ever will.

But a spark still burns, and at the just-completed BCA U.S. Open 14.1 event in New York City, Ervolino was a constant fixture, guaranteeing anyone who would listen that his failure to qualify for the tournament cost its promoters at least 400 paid admissions. In a brief, friendly one-pocket scuffle on the practice table with ace cue repairman Ted Harris, he fully restored the image of the ’50s, with tough action, rooms so smoky you couldn’t see the wall, and chatter, chatter, chatter. “Dis guy’s smokin’ funny cigarettes!” Johnny jabbered. “Dis guy’s nuts! You’re dead now. You hear me? Dead. Dead! If you ain’t dead from here, I’m quittin’ pool.” And with an elegant little one-rail kick that barely traveled a few inches, he transformed a passive 6-6 layout into one which would almost certainly win the game for him. On a nearby TV monitor, Mike Massey, one of pool’s all-time showmen, was doing his thing inside the arena. It was a wondrous clash between dominant personalities of two distinctly different eras; it was also no cinch determining who was more entertaining.

If your pool obsession is such that you gaze at the skyline of any strange city and wonder where the hustlers are lurking, then this is the man you’ve probably been fearing all along. But he still has an incredible grin, and he flashes it at me with a cheery, “You take care a y’self, George,” and toddles off merrily into the Manhattan streets, vaguely in the direction of the Times Square area where once he was king. Seen through a pure pool-lover’s eyes, New York City is, finally, truly New York City once again: Brooklyn Johnny’s come marching home.