Neophyte or not, when one thinks of the game of pool the names that come to mind are usually Fast Eddie Felson or Minnesota Fats. The former is a fictional pool hustler brilliantly portrayed by Paul Newman in the films, “The Hustler,” and “The Color of Money.” The latter was a real pool hustler, who cunningly leveraged the film, “The Hustler,” to become a globally recognized entertainer who occasionally sat beside Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” and whose TV matches against Willie Mosconi were emceed by famed sportscaster, Howard Cosell.
The movie, “The Hustler,” premiered in 1961. Thirty-five years later, Martin Scorsese helmed the sequel, “The Color of Money,” and Paul Newman won a Best Actor Oscar by playing a subterranean American folk hero – a pool hustler – in it.
“…steal my daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool” - Rod Stewart, “Maggie May(1971)”
Star power aside, both movies were critical and box office successes and proved that not only is there a global audience for pool lore and storytelling from a dramatic standpoint, but pool never stops being cool. It never stops being fashionable, it never stops piquing one’s interest.
When there’s a pool table around – at a bar – let’s say – and someone starts running the table – you notice, you watch. It’s fun to watch. It’s almost as much fun to watch a game of pool up close, as to play it. And if a pretty girl gets up and makes a few choice shots, perhaps leaning over the table and focusing on her cue ball target –well, every guy in the room will take notice and ask if they can play against her. Even for amateurs, the game of pool is seductive, highly competitive, enthralling, and a great way to meet people.
In “The Color of Money,” an aging Fast Eddie’s poor eyes and gray hair do little to distract him from playing the great love of his life – the game of pool. Like cards and chess, pool happens to be a game that you can play and compete in your whole life. Intelligence can supersede athleticism.
“Listen, in what other sport besides pool can a guy like Willie Hoppe win the world championship two times: at eighteen and 61? Like I said, pool's kept me young, you know? “ – Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna quoted in Bruce Wexler's feature article "The Shooters" published in the Chicago Reader October 14, 1977
Did you know that Sports Illustrated magazine used to have a section devoted to pool? Did you know none other than noteworthy magazine The Paris Review's Founder, George Plimpton, used to hang out with Minnesota Fats and watch him play in the late nineteen sixties? Not only Plimpton - but other members of the East and West Coast Intelligentsia, artists, celebrities and scions of business were enamored with the sport. Famed society columnist Igor Cassini, when escorted to his first pool room in New York City, said it best when he claimed "This is one of the most undervalued assets in America."
Let’s explain why pool hustling exists from an economic standpoint. First off, there’s just only so much money a pool player can make at a tournament. Tournaments - although highly lauded in Europe and South East Asia let’s say – are few and far between here in the US, and even for those lucky enough to get a payout – it’s not enough to make a living. There are also far more players than there are tournament entries. Competition is fierce, there’s no question; but there is something lacking in a tournament – great risk, danger perhaps. And that – combined with the ability to gamble and earn enough money to make a living – to keep doing what you love – is why you do it. Why you can’t just be a pool player; you have to be a pool hustler or a pool shark.
If you ask most players how they became great at pool, they won’t say it’s from playing in tournaments, they’ll say it’s from hustling and gambling on the road. Hustling encompasses different pool tables, rooms, geographical areas, American dialects, economic and racial backgrounds, and personalities. Roger Federer wouldn’t be a champion tennis player if he didn’t know how to play on clay as well as grass. A dome team wouldn’t be able to win a Super Bowl if they didn’t know how to win a game in Green Bay in January.
Hustling pool often involves a lot of time spent traveling, finding players, new and old, to gamble with and hope to beat out of money. You also have to find financial backers to put up the money, and then the players play for a percentage.
“Shark” and “Hustler” have negative connotations in the American landscape – and it has been argued distract from the legitimacy of pool as a great game. However, nine times out of ten, sharks or rounders are only playing other sharks or rounders. Even if the designated opponent is not a shark themselves, they are guilty of their own larceny for trying to win money from the shark. You can’t be sharked if you are not trying to shark someone yourself. For the most part hustling pool is just slang for playing the game of pool for a monetary reward, and in most cases, to earn a living among and from fellow sharks with the same goal in mind as you.
Pool hustling is also closely aligned with the American Dream – the Horatio Alger story. You can make a name for yourself, climb a ladder and make money if you work hard. The best part about being a pool hustler is the power of reinvention. The pool room is a meritocracy that rises above race, ethnicity, economic background and especially age.
Don’t we all want to reinvent ourselves to our better self –our super ego – the Captain America hidden within us? Wasn’t that Stan Lee’s point? Why he’s making millions of dollars and multiple movies a year? Because everyone wants to believe they are special and that they can rise above their circumstances and become super? That we all have innate talents and skill sets that might never get noticed by an untrained eye?
A hustler, with the right discipline, determination, chutzpah, can get rich quick, or lose it all any day of the week…
No one knows Peter Parker is actually Spiderman. But at night, he takes on this other persona, and is extraordinary, a hero, a piece of folklore. But most people just think he’s a poor orphan from Queens.
That’s what I’m trying to get to – pool hustlers are mostly Peter Parkers – who come out at night – not in costume, but with their weapon of choice – a pool cue – and a new name – and become something extraordinary, something special.
Cards vs. Pool
Much fanfare has been given to card players and sharks in America. From televised card games on cable channels to the cult hit film, “Rounders (1998).”
Most poker players don’t go on the road the way pool hustlers do. They’ve have casinos to ply their trade. Pool hustlers have to enter the heart of Americana to ply theirs. Whether it’s at a bowling alley in a tiny southern resort town, the Boys and Girls Club in Jersey City, or the local dive bar, there is action almost everywhere, all types, and speeds. People play pool for money, just like cards. America is filled with places to play pool.
There’s also something special about any sport which casts one opponent against another. Pool is NOT a team sport. Pool is a lot like tennis –and the most mainstream example closely aligned. It’s a game that’s psychological as well as physical. Remember the famed 2001 US Open Agassi vs. Sampras? Tie breaker, after tie breaker until one athlete changed the direction of his fate and nearly destroyed the will of his opponent – just like a superhero, just like a prize fighter. This type of game happens nearly every night in a pool room. And there’s no blaming your offensive line when you get sacked like in football. It’s all on you – that’s pool.
Plus, there is a financial obligation of a player that is not found in any other sport as you must put up your own money to participate and gamble with. What if years ago the players and managers of the once loveable loser team(note: now World Series Champions) - the Chicago Cubs - had to gamble a portion of their own salaries on every game they played? Wouldn’t they play differently? Wouldn’t they give every game their all? Wouldn’t they have won the World Series already? Wouldn’t they have come back - guns blazing- after Bartman stole an out from them in game 6 against the Florida Marlins - if they knew if they lost they couldn’t eat dinner that night? That they would have to walk or take the bus home from Wrigley Field? That their car might get repossessed? The same can be said of politicians – they certainly wouldn’t green light such big checks if they were being withdrawn from their own bank account. Imagine the pressure! That’s pool.
In sum, one might argue it’s much easier to find an A game when your own tookus is on the line. That’s the differentiator in the sport of pool. And why pool hustling is important and why its value is so beyond a simple entertainment of balls on a table being shot into pockets.
Pool players might be the least spoiled athletes in America, and yet have to exude high levels of strength, intelligence and confidence while risking their own cash.
In a card game, yes, it’s all on you; however, one can feed on the group dynamic and learn a lot about competitors on the faces of the players within the group. There’s an advantage playing cards if you have the ability to capitalize on it. You don’t have this tactic in a game of pool.
Poker is a billion dollar business with recognizable names like the late Amarillo Slim, but did you know that Slim was also a top-notch One pocket pool player? Whereas most of the action for poker is in a casino, one can find a pool table and play a game – for money – or just for fun – almost anywhere in America. That’s why its America’s game, just as much as baseball and football. The UK has Billiards and Snooker, and we’ve got pool. Rounders are poker players who travel and hustle for cash, and well, pool hustlers are their kissing cousins.
When a card player isn’t at a casino or at the racetrack, he’s at the pool room. It’s a place where one can sit back and watch and learn. A pool room is a safe venue for gamers of all types to congregate and gamble.
Why The Beard is the Successor to Minnesota Fats
Minnesota Fats has been gone a good long while now, and although he did a tremendous job being an ambassador for pool, the time has come for a new ambassador to be anointed - someone who spends almost every second of every day promoting all things pool. And who better to accept this role than a player who grew up under Fat’s tutelage, has traveled far and wide across America for the last fifty years, gaining first-hand knowledge from the masters and treating pool as a highly respected science that it is?
You can be a great athlete, a great player, a great scientist, but personality is important. That’s what made Fats so popular. He was a remarkable talent, but he also had a great personality. He was a great storyteller. People wanted to be in his company and just hang around him to get a laugh, or to get a few tips of coveted pool insight. Personality, respect, and screen presence is often hard to find in an athlete.
But here we have someone as book smart as he is street smart, who isn’t regurgitating second and third hand information on the history and current state of pool, but was there – in the room – watching the story and legend unfold. Trusted pal of the lady players as much as the gents, and who is able to deliver the story back to an audience –with the charm and wit of Tony Soprano after a very good day at the track?
Let me introduce The Successor to Minnesota Fats, The Foremost Pool Scientist of America – Freddy “The Beard” Bentivegna. The Keeper of The Flame that is pool hustling. Who recently helped break the first new story on Fats in many years – that Fats’ real daughter, Juanita, has been discovered, and was thanked personally for the scoop by pool sports writer R.A. “Jake” Dyer in his Billiard Digest article.
Beard was the man top players around the world came to for advice and nurture; he’s in the Bank Pool Hall of Fame, he was the emcee of the One Pocket Hall of Fame dinner, and a lauded sports commentator. He was a freelance contributor to Billiard Digest and Inside Pool magazines. He was a fan favorite pool commentator for Accu-Stats. He was the author of two bestselling instructional books, “Banking with the Beard,” and “The Gospool of Bank Pool,” and the accompanying DVDs, “Banking with the Beard-the movie” and “Banks that don’t go but do.” He’s the guy people of all backgrounds, regardless of pool knowledge, congregated around to hear stories and hilarious and unique one-liners. It’s the same exact attention Fats earned in his day. And Fats was a super star.
The Beard’s last book, “The ‘Encyclopedia’ of Pool Hustlers,” is a catalog of subterranean, authentically American, folk tales of the world of pool for the last fifty years. This page turner will open the eyes of any sociologist or American studies professor interested in the history of American gaming. It chronicles life on the road in the second half of the twentieth century, and gives the mainstream world ownership of uniquely American folk heroes. Just like a door-to-door salesman selling his wares on the road, the great pool hustlers sold their pool prowess to pay the bills and hone their craft. The rounders of pool are pool hustlers – that’s why they’re important.
Read the Beard’s latest book, and take a journey into a world of Supermen and Lex Luthors, of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroes, of Alis and Fraziers. Learn about our American heritage. Of how men and women made a living doing what they loved and created their own unique myths and fairytales. How these men and women related to the fabric of America including celebrities, politicians and businessmen. As stated earlier, pool is always cool.
And hear first hand from The Beard, through his unique vernacular of a Bee-Bopper and road man from the South Side of Chicago, tell stories often stranger than fiction that will titillate and delight. His maturity and reverence is perfectly balanced with his slapstick Fats storytelling found in every interview he’s ever done – whether in print, TV or radio. He speaks in rounders - to the next level - secret codes and language that are found in his ‘Encyclopedia.’ Freddy ‘the Beard’ was one of the last old time pool hustlers.
Freddy ‘the Beard’ Bentivegna – admired by many; Champion of America’s pool hustlers and their unique history, and a role model for a life well-lived.