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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NOT LONG ago, an Internet colleague (to use the term terribly loosely) published an agonizing rant because I had somehow forgotten that his mentor, Bob the Destroyer, was never quite the same one-pocket player again after Joey the Gigolo broke his jaw. If those names suggest a junior high-school production of “Guys and Dolls” (or “Family Guy,” for that matter), that is not the case; these were bona fide pool players in New York in the late ’50s, and a fairly broad consensus considered the Destroyer (real name Myers) to be even more accomplished at one-hole than the far better-known Jack “Jersey Red” Breit.
Now I will readily confess to not giving a gnat’s fart in a typhoon about the specific timeline during which some imbecile got violent over a pool game. Indeed, I’d be astonished if the number of people who were concerned with such a dandy detail exceeded one. Still, what’s fair is fair, so here it is for posterity, once and for all: Joey the Gigolo was single-handedly responsible for Bob the Destroyer’s losing his mantle as New York’s finest. There, now.
But I will also confess that the Gigolo, about whom I know absolutely nothing, did intrigue me briefly. He is assuredly not the first to raise a pool bankroll merely by re-directing his blood flow; knowing Chicago insiders will recall a corpulent cue maker who staked an earlier existence that way. But let’s assume that Joey came by his moniker legitimately. That would mean that his working hours would be pretty well dictated by the dalliance herself, so any other employment (except more of the same) would be out of the question. In those fleeting moments when the lady required space, she’d presumably pat him on the head (above the neck) and send him out to play, with his new toy of folding money. Whether Joey’s clientele ranged to include Park Avenue society matrons is not broadly known; a poolroom and its inhabitants would be approximately as welcome on Park as a synagogue would be in Pakistan. But imagine the good lady’s private musings if her liege ever announced that he might just need a new stick. Especially if he added that he was considering a source named Paradise.
So how do pool players churn up a stake, except by waiting for deep-pocketed (and often naïve) backers? The two Brooklyns, Johnny (Ervolino) and Jimmy (Kassas), relied on an obsession with equine thoroughbreds; both men were known, in their New York hustling days, to regularly quit winning pool sessions because the track beckoned. Ervolino was a superb handicapper but a horrific money manager, and although he did make decent dough as a blackjack dealer in Vegas later in his life, he pretty much scuffled most of his days. Jimmy, by contrast, built his roll up to close to a mil, and then immediately invested that in a parlay with New York’s bustling diamond trade, where it increased manifold. Ervolino was considered world-class at 14.1, and the few who had ever seen Jimmy trot out his best swore he was just an eyelash underneath that, yet both men were trap artists in the poolroom. Jimmy customarily demanded handicaps from even the most ungainly of non-players, explaining later, “I love to see the larceny come out in people.” Ervolino carefully picked those exceedingly rare spots where he would show true speed, such as in situations where the backer would likely kill him if he did not. But neither man cared a fig for pool except as an access to racetrack betting tickets.
The walking putrefaction who called himself Detroit Whitey sold his own kids to raise a roll, although it would be nice to think that was a one-time proposition, and it’s not unimaginable that he subsequently dumped the ensuing match anyway. Whitey was so vile that to merely use the male pronoun in creating any relevant sentence is to over-praise that male creature considerably. He was a wretched drunk who would dump even backers who had done him life-saving favors; he cheated; he sharked (including getting his German shepherd to growl on hand-command in the middle of an opponent’s backswing); and he stiffed any and all debts shamelessly. That this revolting mound of human flesh was extremely skilled at pool — no one has ever claimed to best his record of 10 consecutive racks of 10-ball, achieved in a six-handed $50 ring game yet — is the sort of black eye from which the game may or may not ever recover.
It’s an old story just making the rounds now, but the late “St. Louis Louie” Roberts once funded himself by pawning the same cue to multiple investors in the manner of “The Producers,” only sans “Springtime for Hitler.” Instead of that tender ditty, the investors were treated to yet another exhibition of Louie’s God-awful game-making skills. Lou, managing to hold on to the stick for the match, gave away the mortal nuts yet again and predictably got drowned. As the backers closed in simultaneously to claim the cue and recoup their losses, Louie, no fool he, simply demolished it as though in anger. Only at that point did the investors learn the identity of their hitherto-silent partners, but what could they do? After all, where exactly was the crime? Nobody in that ring of all-world schmucks had lost any more than anyone else.
Players who raise a pool stake through honest labor? You’ll find more white rhinos in Texas. But what you’ll also find in Texas is perhaps the great gentleman gambler Billy Incardona, who, apart from his sports betting and stellar video commentary, has landed financially on his feet more times than the entire acrobatic troupe of Cirque Du Soleil. Long may he cash.
They’re some cunning rascals when they need dough, those pool players. For all anyone knows, the same diligence and creativity applied to less frivolous causes could probably have cured dread disease and achieved world peace by now. But then, after all, they are pool players.