Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ned Polsky Interview: April 14, 1998

A little more than 10 years ago I interviewed Ned Polsky, the late author of Hustlers, Beats and Others. We spoke about the 7-11 and Jersey Red and where pool's been and where it was going. Polksy himself had spoken to Red up at the 7-11 pool hall, in Manhattan, and the two became fast friends. The 7-11, as you may recall, was then one of New York's great action rooms.

I started thinking about my interview with Polsky recently when I realized that it was the 40th anniversary of the publication of his book. So here it is -- or at least, here's most of it. This interview was conducted on April 14, 1998. It has never before been published -- although I used bits and pieces of it for Hustler Days.

The interview is somewhat lengthy, so I'll divide it up. Also, in my transcript, I never wrote down my own questions. That means the following comments are Polsky's only, with a bit of my explaining material here and there, which I denote with italics. Because the interview is so long, I'm only reproducing the first section in this blog. To read more, you'll have to jump to the separate "Pool and Pool Players" blog.

Also, forgive the typos. I'm go through and clean this up when I can. OK, here's the first part:


He (Jersey Red) was the player that was barred in the 1963 tournament because of his profanity. In 1963, he was at his peak. He was one of my main informants, back in 7-11. He was on the road (a lot) and he was based up here. The main action room was in 7-11, in '62 and '63. He (Red) would go on the road.

He was regarded, probably, as the top one-pocket player. People used to argue whether it was Red, or Ronnie Allen, or Mark Henderson. This was in 1962 or 1963. A lot of people said that Red was the top one-pocket player in the country. Red was the guy who was absolutely fearless. He would spot anybody to get a game."

Polsky says that his interviews with Red that were reflected in his book were before Red moved to Texas, where he became entranced with his future wife and settled for good. "I lost track of him when he moved in the early 60s," said Polksy.
He said he referenced Red two or three times in his book.

Polsky, a student of both pool and sociology, said there are big differences between the pool room culture at the time of the interview (1998) and during Red's heyday, in the 1960s.


"There is more of a middle-class clientele. There are more yuppie poolrooms. And one thing that is very important here, and in the Midwest and the West Coast -- has been terribly important -- is Asian immigration. ... The Koreans -- they're big on carom billiards. And of course, there's a big change in pool, largely made by television. 14.1 is pretty much dead, and it's all nine-ball and to some extent 8-ball. Everybody wants the short, fast game. The TV producers do. There is hardly ever a straight pool tournament.

"I did research in several pool rooms, the main research was in 7-11. That was the main action room in the East. He (Red) was the resident hustler, or was one of the resident hustlers. Red was there, and Boston Shorty, although Shorty was on the road a lot. Johnny Irvolino. Cicero (Murphy) was there. ... (But) Red was one of the main people. Everybody thought that he could play any pool game, but pretty much his main game was one-pocket. That was what he was known for."

To Read More, Jump to the "Pool and Pool Players" blog

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Greenleaf in Delaware

There's a very brief article in this book about Ralph Greenleaf's 1926 encounter with a young Jimmy Caras. The article indicates that Ralph lived in Delaware for a time, and that his father operated the Royal Billiard Parlor at 8th and Market. The Great Delaware Sports Book is by Doug Gelbert and is available on Amazon.

Friday, May 15, 2009

And speaking of book anniversaries ...

Hustlers, Beats and Others is 40 years old this year. Anybody who cares about the history of pool -- and its significance in the national zeitgeist -- should track down this book. Ned Polsky, the author, was a New York sociologist who passed away a few years back. He spent a fair amount of time in poolrooms, observing the players in their element in the same way a cultural anthropologist might observe the interaction of any sort of close knit group. Polksy also writes about two of my favorites: Wimpy Lassiter and Jersey Red.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fifth Anniversary of Hustler Days

Marking the 5th Anniversary of the release of Hustler Days, Billiards Digest this month has reprinted an excerpt describing some of the childhood of Wimpy Lassiter. The excerpt isn't online, but you can can always subscribe to BD or ask for it at your favorite billiard retailer.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Time Magazine: Greenleaf and his Princess

There's a great story online from the Jan 1, 1934 edition of Time Magazine relating the story of Greenleaf's appearance in the world championship that year. Apparently Ralph was drunk and close to divorce. The story describes bruises on Greenleaf's head -- apparently from ashtrays hurled by his wife, the Princess Nai Tai Tai.

Here's an excerpt:

More astonishing than (Irwin) Rudolph's victory was the complete disintegration of handsome, suave Ralph Greenleaf, who had won the championship twelve times. ... It was the first game Greenleaf had lost in three years of championship play. All but two other opponents found him an easy mark. To pool enthusiasts the spectacle was pitiful, particularly the after noon when Greenleaf, always the well-mannered sportsman, appeared for his match with Jimmy Caras in no condition to play. Apparently drunk, he loudly protested that Caras had shoved rather than shot the cue ball in making one point. The referee waved Greenleaf away. When he continued to argue the referee disqualified him.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Banks Legend Vernon Elliott Dies

(Photo courtesy Steve Booth,

The family of Banks legend Vernon Elliott sadly reports that Vernon died the afternoon of May 9, 2009, after suffering a heart attack following several recent surgeries.

Vernon Elliott, like fellow One Pocket Hall of Fame member "Cornbread Red," was a tough country bred Kentucky road player from the old school. Except unlike Red, Vernon completely shunned the publicity of tournaments, never once playing in one. Like Red, Vernon's fearless hustling style took him all over the country, into even the toughest of poolrooms in the toughest of neighborhoods. He is often called the "greatest under-cover player of all time."

As a young man he developed as a player among the great bankers of the day in the banking capital of the universe, Louisville, KY. Among Louisville's banking legends were guys like Bob Bowles and Charlie Jones, where even Eddie Taylor was humbled now and then. A patient and observant player who could also win at 9-Ball and One Pocket, Vernon hunted the big game players, seeking out the "big score," which he was very successful at.

In a 2006 interview with Steve Booth, Vernon described it this way, "I'm going to tell you something pardner, I wouldn't let nobody play cheap; if they want to play cheap, they can get somebody else. I always made 'em bet. They always thought that I was just a damned old country boy, that I couldn't do nothin'. I got big action everywhere I went, damn near, because I always had that ability to make 'em bet. They didn't ever know my real name, because I wouldn't tell them, and I never played in a tournament, so they couldn't find out."

Vernon Elliott was born February 18, 1938 in Kentucky. He raised a family of six by playing pool and hustling his whole life, until he was finally forced to retire in the 90's after suffering several strokes. During his playing years, he was possessed of one of the most powerful pool strokes of all time, and if he couldn't get a game for the money he wanted, he had an array of impossible looking proposition shots that he could win at. Once he even cashed in with Eddie Taylor on a bank shot that even the great Taylor was convinced was impossible.

Vernon was inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame in recognition for Bank Pool in January, 2007.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

1976 World Straight Pool Tournament

Here's another great story from Coby Atkins. It's about the 1976 World Straight Pool Tournament:

It was in August, of 1976, when my friend, Joe, and I left central Pennsylvania, heading off to Asbury Park, NJ. There may have been hopes of catching Bruce Springsteen playing some blues in a little night club there, but our real destination was the PPPA World Straight Pool Championship.

I had never been to a Professional Pool Tournament, so, as an aspiring World Champion, this was to be quite the adventure. All of the great names I had grown to know as legends were supposed to be there: Luther Lassiter, Irving Crane, Steve Mizerak, Jim Rempe.

Asbury Park is actually one of the larger beach towns on the Jersey Shore. Even in 1976, upon entering this resort area, I had the strange feeling of having been thrown back into time. The clapboard beach homes and small retail stores radiated the 1940’s or 50’s. The atmosphere was nostalgic, but I had the feeling that the town had seen better days. After we secured our lodging for the next couple days, we headed to the boardwalk and the Convention Center, where the event was being held. The Convention Center jutted out from the boardwalk towards the ocean. The building was very “cool” with the ornate designs on the outside walls, particularly the fish sculptures.

When Joe and I approached the Center, I spotted a little luncheonette right next door. Looking in the window, there was Luther Lassiter sitting at the counter, alone, eating, of all things, a hamburger (Wimpy?). Thus was the start of one of the more memorable weekends of my life.

It was Friday, around lunchtime, when we set foot in the Convention Center. The doors were open and there was no fee to enter because the matches would not begin until late in the afternoon. Standing in the middle of the arena floor, I was in awe, looking around the room, imagining all of the spectators watching the action. Plus, not knowing who some of the players that were practicing, I became an instant judge, speculating on who were the real shooters. The one I became fixated with most, had the most jerky, punchy stroke I’d ever seen, but he never seemed to miss a ball. Later, I learned that was Allen Hopkins.

On the arena floor, I met Bob Meucci. He not only explained to me how good the cues were that he made, but also that the night before, when Hurricane Belle had blown through during the opening round of play. At one point during that round, the doors were thrown open by the wind and the balls on some of the tables had actually been moved from the force. On one of those tables, Steve Mizerak was playing a match. Bob related that it was early in the game and Steve had just run a rack or two from his opponents miss on the first shot of the game. Since the matches were refereed, Steve was given a choice of moving the balls back to their previous arrangement, as best as he could recollect. Agreeing to replace the balls, Steve continued on with his run until he reached 150 and the game was over.

To me and everyone else I spoke with, this was Steve’s tournament to win. No one was said to be playing better.

Now, to my story. There were many memorable matches. The one that sticks in my mind the most was Jim Rempe and Larry Liscotti.

Larry had been beaten by Mizerak in the round of 4 in the winner’s bracket. Then, in the match for the hot seat and a spot in the Finals, Mizerak dispensed of Rempe, too.

The match between Rempe and Liscotti is the one that has always left me wondering the proverbial, “What if?” Throughout the tournament, in each game these competitors played, they would hit their opponents with steady runs in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, rarely giving them a good shot or anything to get started. I was a Rempe fan, an ol’ Pennsylvania thing. But Liscotti had been showing his intelligence and courage to make clutch shots in each game he played. I remember the stands being very full for Sunday’s Sessions. Many of the spectators were openly betting on the matches. The winner would play Mizerak, again, for the title.

As I recall those moments, a play-by-play would go like this:

Liscotti wins the lag and runs 50 some off Rempe’s break. Rempe picks up a few balls after a safety exchange. Then Liscotti runs another 50 or so to stake a commanding lead. Rempe then gets back to the table and begins to get a nice run going. Liscotti has about 107 balls in the game to 150. Rempe is on a run of 74 or so and has more than 100 total points. On the last rack, Jim gets a little squirrelly on a couple shots and ends up with his break ball just off the short rail at the foot of the table. Jim’s cue ball position is underneath the rack and he has to use two bridges, one stacked on top of the other, in order to reach the shot. All that needs to be done is pocket the ball and the cue ball cannot avoid hitting the stack, if the ball is pocketed. The entire arena is very quiet as Rempe prepares to pull the trigger on the shot. After a couple warm-up strokes, Jim pulls the cue back and with perfect timing, a pretty white handkerchief floats down from the spectator seating in direct line of Rempe’s vision. The stroke is delivered, the ball rolls towards the pocket, but it is not to be as it stays up staring back at Jim from the jaws of the hole. Immediately, Rempe stands up angrily and points his cue at the spectators sitting where the dreadful handkerchief had fallen from. Without hesitation, 3 or 4 men get out of their seats and head toward the runway. Rempe was always a gentleman, but he is very upset about the distraction. Of course, nothing can be done. Rempe had attempted the shot, legally struck the ball, but it didn’t go in.

History tells us the rest of the story. Liscotti runs out the game and then, shocking the many Jersey supporters, defeats Mizerak twice to win the Championship.

In the annals of pool history, this was a special tournament and a special time for all who were involved, and especially for me.

By the way, Cue Ball Kelly had been refereeing many of the matches. I saw him very late that Saturday Night, at a street corner while he was heading to his hotel room. When I asked him who he thought might win, he pretty matter-of-factly said, ”Larry Liscotti! He is seeing the patterns the best!”

--Coby Atkins