Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Memories of Minnesota Fats

Minnesota Fats was a fixture in southern Illinois during the 1960s, which was the heyday of the Johnston City tournaments and the pool revival I described in Hustler Days. The famous tournaments were created by George and Paulie Jansco, who are both members of the One Pocket Hall of Fame. I got to thinking about George and Paulie and Fats after receiving a letter the other day from Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois. In it, Gary describes a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats. It was a small encounter, and yet the sort that appears to have taken on added meaning for Gary as he has learned more about Fats. That's because it quietly reflects some of the great qualities of Fats: he loved playing pool, he loved being around people and -- despite his hustler reputation -- there was a certain kindness about him.

Here's Gary's note:

From 1966 to 1969, I was a graduate chemistry student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I used to research my project from time to time during the wee hours and then go to a small hamburger place on the north side of Carbondale where they had 2 or 3 pool tables. I was usually the only one there and after a hamburger, I’d shoot some pool. I was only a fair player. One night (late 1968 – mid 1969), there was a guy sitting at the counter talking to the owner – I paid little attention to them. I had my hamburger, got a cue off the wall and began practicing.
Before long, the guy at the counter strolled over, watched a bit, and asked if I wanted to play a couple of racks. I said OK and asked if he wanted to bet a dollar a game. He laughed and said “A whole dollar”? I didn’t know if he was mocking me or couldn’t afford a dollar so I said “OK, how about 50 cents then”? He smiled and just said “Let’s play a bit for nothing and we’ll see what happens.” Well, he beat me several games with no trouble, shook my hand and left. The counter man said “Do you know who that was”? I told him I didn’t – and he told me it was Rudolph Wanderone – Minnesota Fats. I just said “Oh”. I had no idea who he was. Later, I saw a picture of him somewhere and realized who he was. Later still, I learned he was living not too far from Carbondale.
You asked for some remembrances of the man. That was mine. Recently I’ve read about him and from everything I understand, he was a pretty nice fellow.

Thanks to Gary. And, like he notes: I'm always looking for memories of the great ones. If you have one, send it in. If you'd like to learn more about Johnston City (or see another Johnston City video), check out my separate blog on the topic, which you can find here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New Online: The Chicago Billiard Museum

Just checking out a cool new site -- The Chicago Billiard Museum. Looks like it includes a long pool history timeline, images of historic tables, and links to Charles Ursitti's great record tables. The new site appears to be the work of D.B. Bond and Ms. Joanne M. Charron. They've also used plenty of credited images and data from the collection of Mr. Ursitti,  which he has graciously posted online for free. Mr. Bond, in an email message to me, explains that the museum was originally contemplated only as an online facility, although "as we speak, the feasibility of a physical location is being investigated and discussed. Nothing official yet."

I don't know too much about this site yet, although reading the introductory page I'm told that The Chicago Billiard Museum honors "the passionate men and women who dedicated their lives to the betterment of the games and the industry as a whole; from the players themselves to the makers of the tables and cues to everyone in between."

So far I've come across plenty of interesting tidbits, including photographs of Jake Schaefer's grave marker,  a 1910 article noting that "Local Hero Cap Anson is Broke" and photographs of famous pool players and handbills. For the collector, there's also a table gallery and a memorabilia section. And of course, seeing as this website is devoted to Chicago pool, there's also a section listing Chicago's pool manufacturers. "As a producer of billiard and pool goods, Chicago was the hands-down industry leader," the curators note.

The museum adds to the growing list of online resources devoted to pool history, including this blog, my site, and, of course, about a thousand cool videos on youtube and vimio. 

-- R.A. Dyer

Friday, June 25, 2010

Manny Pacquiao & Dancing with The Stars

Manny Pacquiao to the Rescue
What's needed to fix pool? I posed that question to readers a few weeks back as part of the online Pool Synergy project. Now that I've read through all of the suggestions, I've noticed at least two common threads:  that pool could use a deep-pocketed benefactor — albeit one that's in it for the long haul — and that pool needs to associate itself with a big personality.

It also appears that our brethren in the Philippines have been grappling with the same frustrations — and may have come up with a solution that ties together both those threads. In this story from ANH Sports, it's reported that boxing legend Manny Pacquiao stands as the top candidate to head the Billiards and Snooker Congress of the Philippines. The news site also notes that the Pacman will host a big-dollar 10-ball event in that country this weekend. That's a video at the top of this post of Pacquiao making a trick shot at Hollywood Billiards, back in June 2007. The video was taken by pro Max Eberle.

Is gambling the answer?
Earlier, I posted up some ideas about how to fix pool from Hall of Famer Nick Varner and instructional book author Freddy Bentivegna. Both cited the success of professional poker in noting that pool could benefit from a greater association with organized gambling. There are naysayers, of course, and some mention the ever-present possibility of, well, pool fixing. For instance, snooker legend John Higgins is in hot water in England for allegedly agreeing to throw games. And dumping, of course, is nothing new in pool — especially in the world of hustling.

Poker + Dancing With Stars = Pool Bliss
Several readers have provided their own suggestions. Terry McDermot laments that pool halls are closing everywhere. "It's a shame," says Terry, a Massachusetts resident who reports having to travel 30 miles or more just to practice on a nine footer. He offers the following suggestion:

"I think we need to take the same direction as the poker world and combine it with a Dancing with the Stars format.  In other words, get the common man involved with a Pro on a television show.  If you took an amateur and paired them with a Pro over a period of instruction time (like Dancing with the Stars) and had the pair compete against other pairs in different games it might get more people interested.  Of course, you would have to have a wide variety of Pro personalities and some interesting amateurs.  Maybe you could even have special weeks where you match Pros with celebrities.  I know the IPT and the Game Show Network tried a form of this, but I think if you mix in the background stories with the pool, more people will be interested.  Maybe throwing in a story or two of the pool greats of the past would help also."
And Jen Bensen, writing on the Pool & Billiard History Facebook page, suggests an idea for a new video game:
"I know there's countless games, but I don't think there's any that are APA or BCA approved. Have actual professional players in the game with their likenesses and style of playing. As you get further in the tourney against real players, nicer gear gets unlocked, such as sticks and gloves. Also, make the game online capable so gamers can play against each other."

-- R.A. Dyer

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Beard Saves Pool

How to fix pool? That was the theme of this month's Pool Synergy project. I posed the question to Hall of Fame player Nick Varner, whom I featured in my essay. You can read it here.  But Nick's wasn't the last word on the topic. I also received emailed and Facebook suggestions from several other people, all of whom offered great ideas.  And I spoke for a few minutes with my friend Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna, author of Banking with the Beard and The GosPool of Bank Pool.

For those unfamiliar with The Beard, he is one funny guy. The Beard is the teller of many great road stories, some of which you can read at his website, others you can read in his books (that you can find here), and some you can read at this separate Q&A at I teed up a few questions the other day about fixing pool, and he knocked 'em down. I've included a partial transcript of our conversation below. 

Q. What about deep pocketed promoters? Does pool need another Kevin Trudeau, or was he bad for the sport?

The Beard: Everybody attacked Trudeau. But the (pool world) never had tournaments like that.  Ever. They never had that kind of class. I went to a couple of ... the match games. He had Earl (Strickland) play Johnny Archer. ... They fu***d up the television, then ran it on the Internet. But it was a fabulous high-class deal, and everybody had a great time. It was done really, really well. There are so many knockers of Trudeau in the (Internet) forums but everybody ended up getting paid. Ninety-eight percent of the money ended getting paid off.

Q. So why didn't it work?

The Beard: They caught a bad break. When they changed the law where you couldn’t have Internet gambling — that was the whole deal. Trudeau was selling (the tour) to a billionaire from Shanghai and at the same time, the government passed the law — no more Internet gambling. They wanted to be able to bet on the pool games. When they removed that option, he (the billionaire) lost interest.

Q. Speaking of promoters — does pool need another Minnesota Fats?

The Beard:  Yes, pool doesn't have a character right now and we need another character. ... You've got to have somebody who's interesting. ... So you need someone with a personality, and the key is also that you have some money, so people show up to watch. ... Look at how poker took off with all those characters like Amarillo Slim. Those characters are what made the game.

Q. Does gambling help?

The Beard:  You got 500 guys enter (at Derby City) and that’s successful. People stay around for 10 days. That's an exciting tournament. Everybody loves it. Gambling is what makes it. 24 hours, until three or four in the morning, you can't get a table. They're all going.

Q. What else?

The Beard: I got some ideas.  We had this idea for Quantum 8-ball, which is where you play 8 ball with nine balls. (The Beard goes on to explain the rules for the handicap game. I'll provide further explanation in a separate post.) There's not going to be interest in playing ... if there is too much disparity between Mickey the Mope and Bustamante.

Check back soon for more description of the Beard's handicap games, plus more suggestions from other readers about fixing pool. I've also got a few of The Beard's autographed books available.  Go here for more details.

-- R.A. Dyer

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Judge Roy Bean was a Brunswick Man

These are pictures of the the famous Jersey Lily Saloon, located in Langtry, Texas. One was taken in the early 1900s, the other taken during a family outing about six weeks ago. This place is so remote, even the tumble weeds have tumble weeds. Nothing but desert, mountains, cactus and dirt. The Jersey Lily is pretty much all that's left of this west Texas ghost town. That, and the Texas Parks & Wildlife tourist center marking the site.

The Jersey Lily is the famous court house and saloon where none other than Judge Roy Bean held forth. For those unfamiliar with cowboy lore, Roy Bean was the somewhat larger-than-life "Law West of The Pecos." He was a businessman, showman, and famous teller of tall tales. In that regard he reminds me somewhat of our own Minnesota Fats.

And that brings us to the subject of pool. What does an Old West figure, a man made famous in a Paul Newman film and TV shows, have to do with our fair sport? Well, as it turns out, Bean had a table in his saloon. The table wasn't portrayed in the famous John Huston movie, but the table was there nonetheless. That's a picture of me with what's left of it — the iron legs — inside the old Jersey Lily.

I'm told by folks smarter than myself that these are legs associated with a Brunswick Monarch, which has been described as the "King of Pool Tables." One knowledgeable person tells me that the tables, when restored, can fetch upwards of $100,000. Monarchs of varying styles were apparently manufactured by Brunswick between 1845 and 1875.

I went online and found a couple of websites devoted to the Brunswick Monarch. The image just above is taken from a website maintained by John Sears, who restores vintage tables. The similarity of the legs to those in Langtry is unmistakable. Sears has bought and sold several Monarchs over the years and tells me that the restored table featured in the photo just above went for $165,000. You can see more photos of restored Brunswick Monarchs here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pool Synergy 8: How To Fix Pool

This month's PoolSynergy topic is "How to Fix Pool." Consider that our sport's top money winners would rank dismally low if they were playing golf of tennis, that TV coverage is rotten and that the tours are either non-existent or in disarray. So what to do about it?  We've got a number of excellent contributions this month.

About Pool Synergy
But first, a quick review. Pool Synergy is an online collaborative effort of pool bloggers, each of whom agrees to write about the same topic on the 15th of each month. This is the project's 10th edition. Previous Pool Synergies have covered playing tips, historic players and controversial issues such as gambling.  The topics are selected by the Pool Synergy host, a position that rotates each month. (This month, it's me.)  If you want to participate, contact John Biddle at the,  or whoever happens to be the host that month. Also, feel free to opine on your own blog or Facebook page about a Pool Synergy topic. Anyone with an opinion should weigh in.  The idea is to get a general conversation going about issues important to our sport. And spread the word! Press the share button, or post a note on your own page.  

The Contributors
And now on to the essays. First up is one entitled "A Modest Proposal," from new contributor Maximus Snarkinous. Maxiumus (not his real name) is the sometimes controversial author of the Pool Cue News & Review blog. "The professional pool player cannot eek out a livable wage," he writes. "Billiards establishments are closing their doors throughout the country. Change is imperative." Go to his blog to read more. You can find his essay here.

Mark Finkelstein, a contributor with, says pool needs is a face lift. "The 'problem' with pool is that no corporate sponsor that I know would want to fund a player called 'Kill 'em Dead Kid' wearing a backward baseball hat and playing cheap sets with a sucker," he writes. You can check out his full essay here.

Melinda, the author of the Pool Is A Journey blog, responds in a completely different way. She argues that our sport is not really in that bad of shape. "When I first read the topic my immediate reaction was, 'pool is broken? 'I can be an annoyingly optimistic person at times, though, and I completely admit that, so maybe that is why I have this attitude, what is there to fix?" Get Melinda's take on the question here.

The author of the p00lriah blog has a two-pronged approach for fixing pool. He calls it the "Texas Two-Step." But to learn the dance steps, you'll have to check out p00lriah's blog. You can find his essay here.
John Biddle, founder of the Pool Synergy project, believes that there's not much that can be done at the fan or player level. In order to fix pool, the promoters need to step up.  "As in all other successful (as a business) professional sports, the businessmen are the team/league owners and the players are just well paid employees," writes Biddle. His essay, entitled "Fixing Pool — An Outsider's View," can be found here.

Samm "Cherry Bomb" Diep takes the long view. She notes that The Hustler and The Color Of Money, two great pool movies, both sparked revivals. Now, 25 years later, is it time for another great pool movie? You can read Samm's essay at, her pool blog. Here's the link.

Gail Glazebrook, the 2010 BCAPL Women's Open National Champion and the woman behind the "Confessions of G Squared" blog,  writes that the environment, image and presentation of pool has to change. She also discusses the impact of her ongoing web series that follows her pool team, Kiss of Death. "Highlighting the personalities, blood, sweat, tears and DRAMA of pool.  ... We just have to put it on the menu," writes Glazebrook. Check out her essay here.

Billiard Coach Mike Fieldhammer offers us a three-step method: improving playing conditions, pool eduction and professionally run tournaments.  Fieldhammer is the man behind He says he's been doing all he can to stop the downward spiral of pool. You can find his essay here.

Michael Reddick, the man behind the Angle of Reflection blog, notes that billiards is arguably the largest participation sport in America — bigger even than football or even baseball in that regard.  And yet pool players earn much less than players for other sports. "How do we change the billiard industry to increase revenues and support larger payouts (or salaries) for the upper echelon players?" asks Michael. You can read the rest here.

 As for me?  I posed the "How to Fix Pool" question to Hall of Famer Nick Varner, as well as Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna. In the last several weeks others also have posted up great suggestions about fixing pool on my Pool History Facebook page, or have sent me emails. My essay this month focuses primarily on Varner's comments, but I'll be sure to loop back soon and write about many of the other suggestions I've received. You can find my essay here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Pool Synergy 8: Mika, Tiger and Nick Varner

Mika Immonen's prize earnings last year totaled $238,320 — admittedly a pretty good haul for pool. That made The Iceman pool's top money winner for 2009. Also that year another athlete by the name of Tiger Woods won $10.5 million. Actually, the precise figure was $10,508,163. Getting out my calculator, I find that golf's top player won 44 times more than pool's top player. And of course this doesn't figure in all the money Tiger made from his product endorsements. If you add that cash, the gap would be much wider.

The money difference between golf's No. 1 and pool's No. 1 may not be all that shocking given what we all know about Tiger Woods. He is, after all, the most well-paid sports figure on the planet. But if one continues looking down the PGA's money list — and I'm talking about very far down —you come to a man named  Jose Maria Olazabal. Olazabel is ranked 185th on the golf tour. Given his standing, it's likely that many of you may never have heard of Mr. Olazabel.  But even this no-name golfer, a man ranked a measly 185th — even this guy made away with more money than our No. 1.

Similar comparisons can be made with tennis players, poker players — hell, even bowlers sometimes make more money than pool players. This, in a word, is pathetic. Something definitely is not right with our sport.  But is this lack of money a symptom of pool's malaise or a cause? And what can be done to fix it?

Welcome back to Pool Synergy, the monthly online forum on our sport's most pressing questions.  This month's topic: "How to Fix Pool." We have fine contributions for our latest edition from John Biddle, Mike Fieldhammer, Samm Diep, p00lriah, Gail Glazebrook, Mark Finkelstein, Pool is a Journey blogger Melinda, Michael Reddick, and the snarky Pool Cue News & Review guy. As I'm this month's host, I've also created a separate page summarizing all the great essays and showing where you can find links to them.

Dancing With The Stars?
The ideas for fixing pool have been flooding in ever since I announced this month's topic. Folks have suggested everything from Dancing With The Stars TV programming to a new video game. I've also interviewed a few pool experts, including my friend Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna, the author of several popular instructional books. I'll continue to post up all those suggestions in the days to come. But for today's essay, I turn to none other than Nick Varner, the eight-time world champion and Hall of Fame inductee. Nick is one of the most easy going guys you're likely to meet. But you can sense the frustration just below the surface when you ask him about the state of American pocket billiards.

The Almighty Dollar
"Our economy is driven by the almighty dollar, whether you like it or not. You think anybody would be watching Tiger Woods if he was playing in the local golf club for $1,500? No way."  Nick, a Kentucky resident, speaks with a syrupy drawl. He's been watching pool and playing it for years. And as the owner of his cue company, he has a stake in getting our sport back on track.

"Folks don't see a future for this game, except from a hobby standpoint," he says. "There's no way to make living. The best players in the world, they're struggling — and it's a shame. ... So there's no reason for a young kid to aspire to become the best in the world. Nothing is going to change the image of the sport, except big prize money."

And, so what's the key to bringing more money to the sport? Varner has a few suggestions. First, obviously, a deep-pocketed promoter always helps. But Varner also suggests, perhaps somewhat controversially, that fans should have an ability to gamble on matches. "If you could bet on pool matches, I think that would be phenomenal," he says. "That would create a lot of interest. People that knock gambling need to take a strong look at poker."

Another interesting idea from Varner, and one that I haven't heard discussed much, is for more team play — but with teams from distinct geographical areas. Imagine a domestic tour, but with groups of players representing individual American cities or states. In the Mosconi Cup, it's the U.S. versus England. With Varner's idea, it would be Texas versus New York, or Los Angeles versus Cleveland.

Varner calls the Mosconi Cup one of pool's most exciting events. He has participated both as a player and as the U.S. team captain.  "That's what we need," he said. "To really make this game (successful) we need to figure out how it could be economically feasible to have teams like in the NBA or the NFL. We could have state teams. This creates a geographic fan base. Right now there isn't a whole lot of team stuff going on. But with a Georgia team versus Florida, say, that automatically hits us like a college sport. This (attracts) the sports fan."

Nick, a two-time national colleagiate champion,  says more support from universities also could help. After all, it was his participation in tournaments sponsored by the Association of College Unions International that started Varner on his tournament career.  He said the ACUI tournaments have been around since 1940s, but in recent years universities seem to have moved away from pool. "A lot of universities are going a little different way these days," he explains. "The emphasis back before was on lifetime sports — bowling and billiards, things you can participate in for all your years. But now health fitness is getting a lot bigger. A lot of universities have made their game rooms a lot smaller."

So, these are Varner's ideas in a nutshell:

1. Thumbs up to organized gambling on pool
2. Regional teams
3. Support at the university level

Check back here in the coming days for Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna's suggestions, as well as suggestions from other pool fans. Also don't miss the other Pool Synergy submissions this month. Have your own ideas? Feel free to comment here, or at the Pool & Billiard History Facebook page.

-- R.A. Dyer

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Upcoming PoolSynergy: How to Fix Pool?

I'm the host for this month's PoolSynergy project, which goes live on July 15th.   If you're not familiar with PoolSynergy, you can poke through this blog to find some of my recent contributions. They're typically marked with the PoolSynergy logo, displayed just below. Or you can click here to read one of my recent contributions about pool and folklore.

PoolSynergy was founded by John Biddle, the man behind The Pool Student's Blog.  This is is how it works: each month online writers with an interest in pool and billiards agree to write about a common theme and then post their contributions on the 15th.  There's a different host for PoolSynergy each month.  (This month it's me.) It is the host's responsibility to post links and descriptions for a selection of the essays on his or her own website or blog. However, you don't have to submit essays to the host to participate. Just write about the theme on your own blog or Facebook page. The idea is to get a general conversation going about issues important to the billiards community. If you want to participate in a more formal way, shoot me an email or contact John Biddle at the pool student's blog.

This Month's Topic

This month's PoolSynergy topic is "How to Fix Pool." Consider that our sport's top money winners would probably rank around 150th if they were playing golf, the TV coverage is spotty and the tours are either non-existent or in disarray. So what to do about it? If you have a good idea about this topic (or even a bad one) post it up on your blog or Facebook page on June 15th. You can also post up comments here or on my pool history Facebook page, which you can find here.

And tell a friend. Press the share button on your Facebook page, or get the word out to your pool buddies on Twitter.