Thursday, August 26, 2010

Babe Cranfield, Mosconi and Long Runs

Reader Dave Capone sends in this note about the late Hall of Famer Arthur "Babe" Cranfield, who was one of only a handful of men who may have broken Mosconi's 526-ball straight pool record. I say "may," of course, because Cranfield's claimed run of 768 balls was never confirmed. Mosconi had plenty of witnesses for his 526-ball run and an affidavit on record at the Museum of American History to prove it.

But Cranfield made plenty of other long runs, including the 32-rack run apparently witnessed by Mr. Capone, as described below.  Billiards Digest columnist George Fels also notes that Cranfield once ran 420 balls in straight pool on a 5 by 10 table. Fels says this feat was witnessed by a crowd in Syracuse, New York, Cranfield's hometown.  A run that long would mean Cranfield plowed through 30 racks without a single miss. Most players can't run 30 balls, much less 30 racks. Cranfield also was the only player ever to have won national junior, amateur and professional titles.

So anyhow, that's Babe Cranfield. Here's what Dave Capone has to say about his star-struck encounter with him:

I went to Hollywood Billiards in Syracause N.Y when I was 19 years old. I walked in the first time and all the tables were open. I said to the person that was running the place that I would like a table. He said which one would you like and I said 'I'd like the one in the middle.' He told me that it was reserved for someone. So I took one two tables over. This older man came with his own billiard balls and took the table I wanted the first time. I started to watch him play and he was runing rack after rack so I stopped playing myself and started watching him play. I didn't know him at the time so I left and came back the following week and he was already there. I starting playing and he came to me and said (he was) getting bored (and asked if I) would like racking the balls. I got so excited because I was just starting to learn how to play. I said I would love to rack for him. I racked and racked and racked. I was counting the racks. When he finally missed, he ran a total 32 racks. I was amazed!!!!!  He told me his name was Babe Cranfield.  It really was a treat at my young age to have an opportunity to witness such a great talent.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The History of Sharking

Pool, as is noted in this great Sports Illustrated article that I've just stumbled across online, involves sustained waiting. "When one player is at the table, there is nothing his opponent can do except sit and hope that he misses," wrote Robert Coughlan in the April 4, 1955 edition.  "The player at the table, on the other hand, knowing that a miss will give his opponent a chance to make a long run and win, is under steadily increasing stress to keep pocketing balls. ... This can be a nerve-racking pastime."

This is why sharking can be so effective. Drop your cue at an opportune moment, stand in the line of vision of a shooter, excessive fidgiting: all of these can be effective ploys. The game rewards those adept at psychological warfare -- but in a manner that is not too overt. This is the definition of sharking. "Anything obviously calculated to rattle an opponent is against the rules, so players develop subtle forms of torture for one another," writes Coughlan. This is in contrast to hustling, where a player hides his or her true speed or deceives an opponent into a game he can't possibly win.

I've come across a great book on the topic of sharking entitled "The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship." It was written by Stephen Potter in a faux Victorian style, with "Gamesmanship" being the euphemistic term the author uses for sharking. The book is appropriately subtitled "The art of winning games without actually cheating."

I've gone through this book, Coughlan's article, and my own notes from Hustler Days and The Hustler & The Champ to create a list of pool's greatest sharking techniques.  Be sure to try these at your local pool hall. It's a great way to make friends.

*  The Annoying Body Noise Shark
A well-timed coughing fit, burp, or loud sneeze during your opponent's shot can put a player off their game.

* The Line of Sight Shark
 Writes Coughlan: When a player is shooting down-table, the opponent "may seize the moment to wipe his hands on a towel or shower them with powder, sight down his own cue or file the cue tip, start telling a joke sotto voce to someone sitting with him, or discover an itch that must be scratched vigorously." The showering-the-hands-with-powder shark was popular with Minnesota Fats.

* The Lauri Searchlight Shark
Pool legend Onofrio Lauri would polish his bald head in the line of sight of his opponent. Sometimes he would get it to shine so brightly that he could use it to reflect a dazzling light into his competitor's eyes.

* The Willie Mosconi Shark
Some very good players can destroy their opponent's game simply by assuming their regular haughty demeanor. Both Willie Mosconi and Ralph Greanleaf would exude such extreme confidence that their opponents felt like insects by comparison. Mosconi almost never lost during his mind-numbing exhibition years on the road. He said this was because his opponents needed to play above their regular skill level, but because they were so unnerved by him they generally played below it.

* The Minnesota Fats Shark
Your opponent on a roll? Stop the game to eat a sandwich. Repeat as necessary.

* The Nice Chap Shark
Also, from the Gamesmanship book: when playing a polite young player and one that has been well-brought up by their family, it can be useful to subtly implant the idea that it would be a rather rotten trick to beat an old man by too much. "Thereby the fatal 'letting up' is inaugurated, which can be the undoing of so many fine players," writes Potter.

* The Free Advice Shark
Give free -- but useless --  advice to your opponent. Potter says it can be as simple as telling him or her to "take it easy" before shooting. Also, telling your opponent to be sure to "look at the line" works well.

* Potter's Improvement on the Primitive Hamper Shark
The name of this shark, again from Potter's book, is admittedly ridiculous.  But the essence of it is to interrupt your opponent's flow -- "the hamper" -- but in a way that is seemingly meant to assist your opponent. For example, just as your opponent is in mid stroke, you can tell him to stop. Then, indicating some kids well on the other side of the pool room, say: "those damn kids -- walking across your line of sight."

Potter's book has plenty of hilarious examples of more sharks, including ploys that are useful in tennis and golf. Have your own favorite shark story? Send it in.

-- R.A. Dyer

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pool Synergy 10: Don "Cincinnati Kid" Willis

The two out-of-towners are relatively short men, in their thirties, the unfortunate age when the paunch begins to show. Neither carries a pool cue. They've appeared unannounced and unexpected in a back-water pool room, which they immediately size up.  Who in here has some gamble to them?  They get a table. They rack for nine-ball. They start shooting.

"Remember how I beat that boy down in Nixonton," says one, a bit over loudly.  He makes his shot, but it wobbles in. "Kid never had a chance." He blasts in another ball, but the shape is awful. "Look at that," he says, admiring his own game. "Ever seen anything like it?" He keeps shooting, keeps boasting. He makes some balls and he misses some. He plays passable pool. Not great pool, but passable pool.  And yet he keeps on. The boasts keep getting bigger. Louder. Remember this? Remember that?

And then here it comes. Here it comes. He looks over to the local boy at the next table.  Hell, I bet I can even beat this guy right here, he says. Hey buddy you wanna play?

Maybe the local says yes and maybe he says no. Maybe he has these strangers pegged as hustlers, or maybe he has them pegged as hapless and helpless braggarts.  It doesn't really matter. This is how it starts: A few games a passable pool, a few boasts, some loud taunts. And then the trap is sprung. In less time than one might expect the challenge is met. Some hot shot local will approach the strangers or someone will call in a ringer from the pay phone. Hurry down. Bring your stick. When the hustle works just right, when the know-nothings are loud enough and the locals are sufficiently irritated, whoever steps up will have some gamble to him.

And then it's all over.

This is the Big Hurrah hustle, performed regularly over several years by Wimpy Lassiter and his road partner Don Willis. That's a picture of Willis at the upper left and Lassiter at the right. The task we've been assigned for this month's Pool Synergy edition is to write about a pool player's support network.  As this blog is devoted to pool history I've decided to devote my essay to Don Willis, Lassiter's long-time wing man.

Lassiter, of course, is a man that all serious pool players should already have heard of. He dominated the Johnston City tournaments during the 1960s and is still considered by many as the greatest nine-ball player of all time. Lassiter also won and lost a fortune in Norfolk during his World War II Coast Guard days.

Willis, however, is much less known. He eschewed tournaments, and not until his later years would he even consent to be photographed for publication. I describe him here for the sake of thematic convenience as Lassiter's wing man, but that really is to sell Willis very much short. He regular beat the great nine-ball player and took occasional scalps from other giants, including, supposedly, both Ralph Greenleaf and Willie Mosconi.  Willis was an intimidating player. As Lassiter once said: "If I ever had to have someone else shoot pool for my life, win or lose, live or die ...  the man that I’d have shooting for me is Don Willis." Now that's a support network.

The so-called Cincinatti Kid was born on May 1, 1909. Like Lassiter, he began playing seriously during the Great Depression, as a teenager. His long partnership with Lassiter began shortly after venturing into Lassiter's hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, during a road trip. Willis challenged Lassiter to a game of nine ball, on Lassiter's home turf, and then had the temerity to beat him. Lassiter was so startled by this outcome that he immediately befriended the Ohio-native. They then spent the next decade and a half together.

"I think my best friend is Wimpy Lassiter," Willis told author Thomas Fensch, for his 1970 book The Lions and the Lambs. "What a team we were. We were together for 15 years. In 1959, he came to Canton and stayed a year. We practiced together and played together. We never had our own cues when we were out on the road. It used to be when you came into a new house with a cue under your arm, everyone’d say, ‘who’s this guy with the cue?’

"We just out-shot everyone. We never lost either -- never left town broke. Sure we were down low at times, but there was always someone else to play."

Willis was a master of all sorts of proposition bets, such as running backwards, making basketball free throws, and making wing shots.  Twice during his life he made 42 in a row. "They called me Wing-Shot Willie," he once said.  He was also a card player (which came in handy plenty on the road), could juggle three pool balls and the chalk, and play an excellent game of ping-pong and horseshoes. "I’ve even also won bets on the proposition that I can't name in order the 130 largest cities of the U.S. There are 130 cities over 100,000 population. It’s easy."

But Willis never was a tournament player. He said he'd rather play a nobody for $7 than a world champion for nothing. That's where Willis found the fun of pool -- in the gambling. "I never practiced just for the sake of practicing. I always wanted to play -- to play someone," he said. In the pantheon of pure action players, few were better.   Playing the Big Hoorah hustle, he could beat anybody. Anybody who stepped up.  And then after he had wrung the last dime from one sucker, Lassiter would step up and beat another. The pigeons didn't stand a chance.

"Lassiter was the one who said I had the heart of a lion and I think that’s the best thing anyone has said about me," Willis told auther Fensch.

Willis died on March 2, 1984, at the age of 74. He and his wife Mary were parents to six children and had 13 grandchildren.

You can read more about Don Willis in the excellent retrospective at the Greater Canton Amateur Billiard Association website, which you can find here.  (The picture of Don Willis at the top left was retrieved from that website, although it was originally published in the Army Weekly, on Oct. 27, 1944.) Author John Grissom also penned a fine essay about Don Willis in his book Billiards. I found that essay reprinted here. I also have a section about Don Willis in Hustler Days, and Robert Byrne describes Willis in his 1996 book, The Wonderful World of Pool & Billiards.

As for Lassiter, he's also referenced extensively in Hustler Days. The picture of Lassiter, at the upper right, is from that book but was originally published in Billiards Digest.

-- R.A. Dyer