Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Poll: Those favoring gambling in pool outnumber opponents by more than 3 to 1

But Plurality Say Gambling is a "Mixed Bag"

Is pool's long association with gambling good for the sport or bad? That was the poll question I asked several months ago as part of an earlier essay I contributed to the Pool Synergy project. I had found then that there were strong opinions on the subject, both pro and con.

For instance John Biddle, the Pool Synergy founder, believes gambling is bad for the sport. "Pool has a very active gambling culture that harms the sport and many of its players, limits it audience and turns off potential sponsors," he wrote in an essay, which you can read here.

But Justin Collett, founder of The Action Report, praises the drama of one-on-one action — especially if it features top players. "It really is no secret it is as old as time —people want the drama of a contest," says Mr. Collett.

So what do readers of this blog feel? Acording to my unscientific poll, a bit fewer than half believe that pool's association with gambling is both good AND bad. That is, 53 of the 111 online respondents — or 47 percent — described gambling as a "mixed bag."

However it was the gambling-is-good contingent who prevailed among those who came down forcefully one way or the other. Among the overall respondents, 34 percent said gambling is "great" for the sport. Those who said it was "awful" amounted to just 10 percent.

Looking at the raw numbers, we find that 38 people said gambling is great for the sport, while just 12 said it it's awful. That's a more than 3-1 margin for those who support the sport's association with gambling, as opposed to those who think gambling is awful.

One other note. Almost everyone believes that gambling has some sort of impact. Of all respondents, only 7 percent said gambling has no effect whatsoever on the sport.

-- R.A. Dyer

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Weight, Speed, Amos and Mike Shamos

Mike Shamos. You got to love him. The respected pool historian gives Billiards Digest readers a bit of insight this month about the etymologies of "weight" and "speed" — two words that at first blush seem to be merely modern slang, but in actuality have long histories. Shamos' observations about "weight" are particularly interesting. As any pool player knows,  "weight" can refer to handicap points given to an inferior opponent to even the odds. In this month's Billiards Digest, in a small item in the Wingshots section, Shamos explains that this definition comes directly from a common handicap in horse racing in which younger horses are required to carry weights to even the odds with older horses.  I never really thought about this before, but it makes perfect sense.

Shamos is a longtime columnist for Billiards Digest and curator of the Billiards Archive, one of the world's largest collections of pool memorabilia and books.  He's also author of The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards, a must-have for any student of the game. In fact, you can find even more about "weight" in that book, including this gem:
"The term is used ... with great effect in the film The Color of Money. Fast Eddy, played by Paul Newman, is hustled by a chubby character named Amos, played by Forest Whitaker. At the end of the session, when Eddie has lost a considerable sum, Amos asks him, "Do you think I need to lose some weight?" (Meaning: "Maybe you could beat me if I didn't play so well.") The line is an inside joke to pool players, but taken by layman to refer only to Amos' girth."
In this month's Billiards Digest Shamos also penned a great homage to author Robert Byrne on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Bryne is one of pool's most successful authors, having sold more than 400,000 instructional books. He's also a Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame inductee. You'll have to pick up this month's BD to read the full take-out on Byrne, although you can read my short interview with the author here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Alfredo de Oro: One of the Greatest Ever

If you've been following along lately, you know we've had on-gain off-again discussions here about the greatest pool players in American history. Several months ago we conducted a poll on the issue.  Willie Mosconi and Ralph Greenleaf received the most votes, which prompted a run-off. The voting is still open on the question. You can find the ballot on the panel at right.

But throughout this discussion there's been one important player who almost entirely escaped notice. That player is Alfredo de Oro, pictured above. De Oro is largely forgotten these days, probably because his spectacular career occurred before living memory and because his exploits were overshadowed by the very colorful Ralph Greenleaf, who followed close on his heels. But de Oro was among the first inductees into the Billiard Congress Hall of Fame. He also mounted a championship career that would rival that of Greenleaf or any of the other lions.

De Oro played both three-cushion and pocket billiards — and excelled at both. According to his short bio in the BCA's Official Rules and Record Book, de Oro first gained the pocket billiards crown in 1887 and then went on to win it 31 more times. I'll say it again: He won it 31 more times. By contrast, both Greenleaf and Mosconi won the pocket billiard title fewer than 30 times apiece. Not only that, but de Oro also held the three-cushion title ten times between 1908 and 1919. Harold Worst also excelled at both sports, but not with de Oro's dominance.

De Oro was born in Manzanilla, Cuba on April 28, 1863. That's a copy of his passport above. (It's incredible what you can find online.) According to a quick bio I found on Wikipdedia, de Oro's first public appearance as a professional was in the fourth US National Fifteen-ball Championship, held in New York, February, 1887. By my calculation, he would have been 23 years old. He died in 1948, two years before Ralph Greenleaf.
-- R.A. Dyer

Friday, May 7, 2010

Keith McCready, Jay Helfert and Pool Wars

I have to confess that my introduction to Keith McCready came in a movie theater. Touchstone Pictures released The Color of Money in 1986, the year I graduated from college.  I had just moved to Costa Rica and I remember going to see the film with a couple of other expats.  I really enjoyed the smoky rooms, thought Tom Cruise and Paul Newman were dynamite, laughed at Iggy Pop's cameo.

But one of the real revelations for me was McCready. I didn't know anything about professional pool at the time, but I could tell, instinctively, that McCready was the real deal. He looked like a pool player. McCready, in the film, had that vaguely side-arm stroke — not as side-armed as Greenleaf's, but neither like an amateur's. And McCready shot fast. By the end of The Color of Money I found myself rooting for McCready's Grady Season's character over Tom Cruise's Vincent.

My friends and I emerged from the darkness of the theater and immediately went hunting for a pool room. We eventually stumbled upon a place called Center Pool, where I proceeded to luck in a few balls.  I  may even have nerdishly uttered some McCready catch phrases. Oooh, the impossible dream. It keeps getting worse and worse, doesn't it? And it was precisely then that I became hooked on the game.  I remain hooked to this very day.

So why this trip down memory lane? Because I just picked up Jay Helfert's great book, Pool Wars. It's subtitled "On the Road to Hell and Back with the World's Greatest Money Players." The subtitle is particularly apt, given that Helfert here has collected stories about Charlie the Ape, Ronnie Allen, Cuban Joe, and of course Minnesota Fats. Helfert writes about brawls and sleeping in pool rooms. He has some wonderful old pictures of a crazy skinny Earl Strickland and Buddy "Rifleman" Hall.

But what got my quick attention was Helfert's recollections of stakehorsing McCready, and Helfert's experience with Martin Scorsese and The Color of Money. The author recalls how Scorsese came out to Barry Behrman's Q-Master billiards to research the film. It was there where the famous movie director discovered McCready as he was going head to head with Danny Medina in a backroom matchup. "They were playing a race to eleven for $1,500 and Keith was in full gear, laughing and joking with all the onlookers," recalled Helfert. "He was both brilliant and hysterical at the same time, and I could tell Scorsese was enthralled by him."

You'll have to get the book to read the rest. But know that McCready, at least very early in his career, was one of the most feared money players in the nation. In that sense he was not so different from his character in The Color of Money. That's what makes those scenes with him so cool. You can tell he's not faking it.

To pick up your copy of Jay Helfert's Pool Wars, check out his website at jayhelfert.com. And if you haven't seen the Color of Money, do so immediately.

-- R.A. Dyer

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Weenie Beenie talks about Cleo Vaughn

 Here's an excerpt of an interview I conducted a few years back with Bill "Weenie Beenie" Staton. Some of this, as I recall, ended up in Hustler Days. Staton references in this interview his hot dog stand. That's a picture of the last of his hot dog stands at the top of this post.

Earl Shriver, Squirrel (Marshall Carpenter), Daddy Warbucks – they were all out in Arkansas. Minnesota Fats was there too. It was 1960. And I beat every one of them. I did. Some of them gave me spots, like they used to give me, but I had improved a bit. This was Blytheville, Arkansas.

What attracted them was this guy. Everybody went out there to play him. He was a bookmaker, and he had a lot of money, and he spread it around. He was a winner. I started playing him. He was the one who attracted people there. Daddy Warbucks, Hubert Cokes. Squirrel was there. And Earl Shriver was there. They all congregated there. There was action galore.

I like to say I made over a million dollars. (That’s because) I won $27,000, and I went home and wanted to invest it. I told my lawyer that I won this money, and I wanted to invest it. He said, ‘Bill, you have to declare that on income tax.’ So, I declared it on my income tax, and then built a little hotdog stand. It was 12 foot wide and 20 foot long. It’s still located in Alexandria, Virginia. The way I figure I made $1 million is from the rent I’ve been collecting all these years.

-- R.A. Dyer