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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
February: Undercover
February 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1994]

There were probably not more than six men alive who had any chance of beating Northern California’s Jack Cooney at one-pocket; and until recently there were probably not too many more that even knew who he was.

Cooney may be the best of the fascinating sect of pool players who elect ultra-low profiles, or, as they call it, “undercover” status. A tiny circle within an already-small spiral, they sport few if any nicknames, they play no tournaments, they don’t talk much about their spots or their scores. One the youngest among them regularly plays 9-ball, because that game invites too much luck and more importantly, too broad a market; if it is played at all in undercover mode, it will be by the session, not by the game. Straight pool takes too long, skill at it cannot be masked and few will bet high enough at it anyway.

While the advent of bar tables gave rise to a whole new school of hustlers who don’t even need to frequent commercial rooms, the fat is that undercover players were around for decades before that. One cannot count Orie Anderson, of the early 1900s, who masqueraded in drag for years as “Frances.” The creature is disqualified from true undercover stature because she/he played exhibitions, not money matches. But the ’20s, which, with their Charleston dance, flapper dress and turned-down hose, raccoon coats, President Harding and prose like, “Oh, you kid!,” seem to have been the Decade of National Silliness to begin with, ushered in a spate of honest-to-goodness Masked Marvel players. Some wore white, some wore black; all went around on a challenge-all-comers basis for money only. How could they not have been identified? They might have had their faces masked, but they could not cloak their height, build, voice, cue or playing style. Perhaps the epidemic silliness of the generation knew no limits; it’s at least equally likely that the marketplace for these players got its collective jollies over the mystique of it all, and just plain didn’t want to know.

The Great Depression was another breeding ground for the undercover players, largely because the poolrooms that were able to survive were so heavily populated. A popular gag line was “Poolroom Burns Down; 5,000 Men Homeless,” and the hustling possibilities simply couldn’t be ignored. Any pigeon who could afford better than 200-points-for-a-bowl-of-soup was considered fair game. If he was willing to take on endeavors as idiotic, fool-hardy and outright dangerous as dance marathons just to make a little bread, surely he could be coaxed to the pool table, and the undercover set was smugly waiting for him. Hustling may have been raised to its highest art in that decade. The game of one-pocket was created then; so were many exotic hustles, and, of course, undercover practitioners.

Perhaps the first legitimately great undercover player was the late Don “Cincinnati Kid” Willis, who, despite the moniker, was really from Canton, Ohio. He never entered a tournament, never had his picture in the paper and never missed a ball. And he insisted most of his money was won at cards and table tennis. Once referred to by the wonderful author John Grissim as “a combination of Ozzie Nelson at home and the Sundance Kid on the road, Willis raised seven kids and put them all through school, lived well, paid his taxes and had universal trust and respect among those peers willing to acknowledge his existence.

Another low-profiler who wasn’t even much into leaving home was Texan Gene Skinner. He simply issued an underground challenge to the entire network of American poolrooms: Come to Texas and pick any five pool or billiard games out of the rulebook. Skinner proposed to pick five of his own, for a sort of cue sports decathlon; first to win six games takes the cash, minimum bet $25,000. Skinner found no takers, nor even polite inquiries for his offer during the four years he held it out. But he did risk modest publicity with an authenticated one-pocket win over Willie Mosconi, and blew away Rudolph “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone as though he were using a fire hose instead of a cue.

In Chicago, the great Art Bodendorfer would not only not leave Bensinger’s, but could not even be lured away from his favorite single table in that room, and one-pocket was about all he would play on it. Amidst the occasional distraction of drunks, slobs and rats the size of miniature dachshunds, Artie didn’t just leave the cue ball behind the other balls; he left it frozen to them, inning after inning.

A hustler named Don DuQuoy once tailed Mosconi through five or six cities, waiting for a one-pocket opportunity (he eventually got it but lost the hill game); the late Luther Lassiter, early in his career, was not above bib overalls, complete with a lick of straw for his mouth, to muddle his identity. Until the last year or so, Utah’s Mark Tadd played few tournaments but booked fewer losers; Johnny Archer swore there was a young black player that gave him fits but would not leave Georgia; New Jersey has a swarm of undercover-ers, many of whom seem to be named Vinnie.

Jack Cooney and the entire undercover breed are really a throwback to earlier eras when men, whatever they did, were made more attractive by how little anyone knew about them. Zorro and the Lone Ranger lead the list, of course, but they were fictional. The aforementioned Sundance Kid, on the other hand, was quite real (actual name Harvey Longbaugh; Butch Cassidy and Etta Place were real too); and the marvelous movie about them provides a summary of undercover existence that you hear all the time in poolrooms, referring to unfamiliar players of merit, slightly altered to singular tense: “Who are those guys?”