Friday, November 26, 2010

1918: De Oro versus Otis in Havana

Otis and De Oro step off the steamer, docked at Havana.
Alfredo De Oro, perhaps the greatest cue sports player of all time, met Brooklyn native Charles Otis during a world championship match in Havana in 1918. I've reproduced just above a front page news article that chronicles his arrival in Havana. It appeared in El Mundo, then the principal newspaper in Cuba.  I love the old bowler hats.

It was said that the old lion was ecstatic about his return. Living then in New York City, De Oro had not set foot in Havana for 25 years. A local newspaper man accompaning De Oro on a quick tour of Havana reported that he was  struck speechless by the startling transformations then underway in the Capitol city.

The venue for his match with Otis was the Payret Theater, a regal stone structure built in 1877. That's a picture of it just below. Raised seats were set in the orchestra pit, and more were placed on the stage. Audience members also took seats in the front sections of the theater, as well as in the balconies. The president himself, Mario Garcia Menocal, was among the 2,000 in attendance. It was Menocal who would pin the championship medal, pictured above at right, on the the chest of the eventual victor.

Look for upcoming Untold Stories column about the dramatic contest in Billiards Digest.

The Payret Theater, the venue for the championship match, was built in 1877.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The History of High Rolling

Lassiter & Fats: Big Bets in Today's Dollars

9-ball genius Luther Lassiter
This is what Luther Lassiter said about Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 1940s: "Greatest pool town that's ever been. You had five or six people there who were really gambling. People had lots of cash, and players from all over the country -- anybody that played for money at all -- came to Norfolk."

Lassiter was a prince among the Norfolk hustlers during his World War II Coast Guard years. During one particularly memorable  straight pool match-up Wimpy took $5,000 from a club owner. You can read all about it in Hustler Days.

The size of that $5,000 wager -- and the heart Lassiter needed to win it -- got me to thinking. That amount of money is a lot, even today.  After all, many of the regional tournaments even now pay less for first place. Shane Van Boening  also recently won $10,000 from Mika Immonen, but it took him three days to do it. But Lassiter won his money during a single game in the 1940s. During those years $5,000 was a king's ransom.

You can find various inflation calculators on the Internet. Here's a link to one. It's from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics. So how much is $5,000, wagered in 1946, valued in today's dollars? According to the inflation calculator: $56,000! During a 100-point game of straight pool Lassiter's opponent was within just two balls of taking the cash. That's when Lassiter ran 92 and out. Talk about heart.

There are other references to historic wagers. For instance, Minnesota Fats won about $20,000 from Richie Florence and two others in Johnston City, back in 1971. You can read about that encounter in The Hustler & the Champ. How much would $20,000 be valued today? More than $107,000, according to the  inflation calculator. However, unlike Lassiter's score, it took Fats a couple of weeks to win all that money.

I've also came across a reference to a $250 wager between Alfredo De Oro and Charles Otis back in 1916. It was a private bet between the two players before their championship billiards match held in Havana, Cuba. In today's dollars, the wager would have amounted to $5,000. De Oro, then considered the greatest player ever, was said to have put up his own money. Otis was staked.

Have a story about a particularly memorable wager from yesteryear? Send me the details, and we'll plug it into the inflation calculator.