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


Samm said...

Thanks for always adding your style to the PoolSynergy each month. Your stories are truly endearing...

John Biddle said...

Great story. It's hard to imagine Wimpy's wing man being nearly as good as the master himself. And after getting hustled by one of them, who could believe the other guy was that good too? Hard to see how they ever had a bad week, except that they may have given up too much weight.

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Anonymous said...

My father who was quite the pool player played Willis in the 60's... His description of Willis was.. "This little guy walks in.. Grabs a drink and starts spouting off.. I'm the greatest 9 ball player in the world.. Who wants to say they played the greatest.." Needless to say it didn't end well for my father.. Actually it never even really started as my father didn't even get the chance to shoot! 9 or 10 games is what he seems to recall it being...

Willis would hang around with many famous people too.. Especially Los Angeles pitcher's Dean Chance and Bo Belinsky..

Sometimes the stories become bigger than the believable.. But in this case, I believe that' is not the

Anonymous said...

My father played him in the 60s.. Didn't even get a chance to shoot.. Seems to think he ran 8 or 9 racks.. 50 years ago, but he still remembers it well.. Came strolling into the pool hall boasting.. " I'm the greatest 9 ball player in the world.. Who wants a chance.." He said he was as loud and as obnoxious they come, but was by FAR the greatest pool player he had ever seen!

Unknown said...

As a kid in Cuyahoga Falls, I used to play poker in the basement of a pool hall. Willis used to play with us sometimes as he was sweet on the lady that owned the pool hall. Thing that always struck me, was how he always ended up winners but never made big plays. Just consistent.

I knew then his nickname was the Cincinatti Kid and always thought the movie was somehow about him, but perhaps that was just coincidence. I can find no info that Jessup (the author) knew about him.