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 And if you haven't seen the Color of Money, do so immediately.

-- R.A. Dyer

1 comment:

Pool Cues said...

I´m a big fan of pool, so certainly appreciate this post.

The book looks very interesting, and a real billiard player can probably get out a lot of it.

Great post!