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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
 
December: Jack and John
December 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from September 2000]

One of the great honors I’ve had, in all my years around the cue games, was to make the late Jack “Jersey Red” Breit’s “goodbye-call” list. Doomed by lung cancer, Jack still wanted to thank me for all the coverage I’d given him; then as earlier, Red loved attention. And since I knew that he literally and figuratively did not have much time, I tried to focus our brief by highly welcome conversation on this question: If the game had been on the square, who would have won between you and Johnny Ervolino?

The question is not unlike inquiring into whether Paul Bunyan could have kicked Ole the Swede’s booty, or Hercules could dust Goliath, or whether Magic Johnson had it all over Larry Bird. Red and Johnny were alone at the top of the food chain during the most fertile pool-hustling era the game has ever seen. Never before or since has the game been played so well by so many as it was in New York and New Jersey through the ’40s and ’50s and probably even later. There were plenty of prime suckers to whom you could cavalierly assign five of the six pockets; there were shortstops who could have cleaned house anywhere else in the country yet were still permanently relegated to mere shortstop status here; there were 200-ball runners in each of the five boroughs. And still no one — no one — could beat Red at one-pocket or Johnny at straight pool…provided they wanted to play.

Hence the criticality of the first eight words of my question to Red. Neither man was a total stranger to pool chicanery in his career, although Red lacked Johnny’s notoriety at the shady art. One story had an irate backer flattening Red immediately after his first miss in a $40 one-pocket game and threatening him with death if he lost (which he discreetly did not). But Ervolino was far less predictable than that; backers went home cursing the day he was born yet returned soon after to stake him again. Some would not put money in unless they knew that there was muscled money in with them, which was not infrequently the case. But the pure playing talent of both men was well beyond question. The general consensus — since it was hardly the first time I had posed the question — was that each man was slightly better than the other at his specialty: Red was the better one-holer and Johnny the better straight-pool player. But there was so much underground hype about how they didn’t seem to be playing the same game in New York, and how good and deep the playing fields were, that it was hard to visualize the best of the best. And absolutely magical to see, if you were that lucky.

Despite their brilliance, neither player particularly distinguished himself in tournament play. Ervolino had a definite lead there, winning a number of prestigious invitational 14.1 events in and around New York City, plus several titles including an all-around once the Jansco Brothers shifted their hustlers’ jamboree venue from Southern Illinois to Las Vegas; Red’s best was a pair of seconds, in a New York State event and the 1970 BCA U.S. Open. Neither man had much use for neckwear, both detested quiet, and Red, while a quite genial guy, had a potty mouth that would make Marines wince, thus it was hard for both men to be themselves and thus play to their potential under tournament decorum. When the Billiard Room Proprietors’ Association of America (BRPAA) ran invitation round-robin 14.1 tournaments in New York in the early ’60s, both men were snubbed, Red for his mouth and hustler’s reputation, Ervolino for his spectacularly checkered past. But one year in Johnston City, Ervolino overheard the late Luther Lassiter lamenting that he (Ervolino) was probably going to let his buddy Red win their match so Lassiter would trail in the round-robin competition; he rallied from 149-118 down to win by two balls, fixed Lassiter the kind of dead-eyed stare his people have been known for from time to time, and snarled, “Don’t you ever say that again.” A sheepish Wimpy did exactly as he was told.

As late as 1967, the knowledgeable observers of pool’s inner circle were willing to state that Ervolino would be the best player in the world if he would only give up horses; in the summer of that year, he played Eddie Taylor in three exhibitions at Queen’s Golden Cue, including bank pool, and dusted him in each one. At that point, he was only the best money player on a playing roster that included Joe Balsis, Danny Gartner, Onofrio Laui, Mike Eufemia and other all-timers. Red was gone from New York by then, he was in Chicago the weekend of the JFK assassination and Texas bound shortly thereafter, where he would stay. Ervolino’s westward migration took him back to Vegas, where he would know the first and only steady non-pool employment of his life as a blackjack dealer; he did not miss a night’s work in years.

Red’s answer to my question generally confirmed the consensus: “Well, we were mostly friends and only gambled a very few times. But straight pool would have been a very, very tough game for me; he was really a top player. After that, I don’t like to brag, but he didn’t have enough of a break to stay with me at 9-ball. I was a good two notches above him at billiards, and I taught him how to play one-pocket.”

I never did ask Ervolino for his opinion on that particular matter. What he did tell me about his friend had to do with the one time he visited Red’s gravesite in Houston. This hard-bitten survivor of the streets, the poolrooms, a stroke, and double lung surgery spontaneously broke down in tears and begged to be taken back home immediately.

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