The FTB interview with Robert "Bobby" "Cotton" LeBlanc
PHD: Thank you for being our first Pool Hustler interview. We're honored! My Dad was friends with you and your sister so I know he'd be pleased. He believed pool hustlers were gunslingers with pool cues. I believe they are the folk heroes of subterranean America and want to give them their due here on Freddythebeard.com. Let's start with where you grew up and how old you were when you first played pool.
RLB: Well, Cat I was actually about 13 or 14 in Memphis at a bowling alley called Poplar Plaza Bowling alley. I played 24 hours a day. In 1960s 90 percent of the action was in bowling alleys. Started playing for money at 15.
PHD: Who were your pool mentors growing up? What was the best advice you were given when it came to winning at pool?
RLB: Main person Richard Austin - taught me dice, cards and pool. He was one of the best players in 60s and 70s. He took me under his wing when he was 25 and I was 15. A great card mechanic and high roller. I'm sure your Dad knew him.
PHD: What's your favorite game to play?
RLB: When I was traveling for 30 years, bar tables with giant oversized pool balls. I had the advantage. Joe Salazar, Wade Crane and Boston Joey were also great on bar tables. He was one of the best bar table players of all times.
PHD: What's the best way for an amateur to improve their game?
RLB: Well, you need to learn to play all the games. Banks is real important, straight and one-pocket as it then it helps you win at all games. If you only know 9 or 10 ball you're knowledge is limited and you're missing out.
PHD: My Dad said "pool hustling is dead" in an interview in 2014 and Sports Illustrated writer and biographer of the late Kid Delicious, "Running the Table," L. Jon Wertheim said kind of the same thing in his NYT editorial, "Jump the Shark." What kind of fun are pool hustlers missing out on today that you and my Dad, Freddy the Beard took full advantage before cellphones and the internet?
RLB: Well, there's so many reasons for the difference between the old days and now. In the 60s there were no cameras and pool hustlers were like Clint Eastwood coming into town and everybody was like "who was that guy?" There was mystery. It's not as fun as it was back then.
PHD: What were your favorite pool halls to play in?
RLB: Probably in 60s and 70s - I loved Bensinger's in Chicago in the basement. Artie Bodendorfer owned it I think. Upstairs in Houston the LeCue every world champion played there and the Rack in Detroit (Oak Park) millions of dollars went through there. High rollers. I really miss it back then when the halls had big tall back chairs to watch the games intently - there was no music playing or sushi to eat, you were lucky to get a coke and all you heard was the sound of balls clicking. I miss the old days because you couldn't interfere with a game or knock players while they were playing. You had to leave them alone and stay quiet. I don't think there's any place like that left anywhere.
PHD: I know there's Steinway in Queens and Buffalos Billiards in Louisiana. Chicago still has Chris's Billiards and Red Shoes.
RLB: The Sports Palace in New Orleans on Jefferson Highway was also an old school place.
PHD: What cue do you play with?
RLB: I have a cue I bought in 1974 after I went to Alaska and was in Seattle and played with Wade Crane's cue and bought the same one he had -a Jos now called Jos West that's when they all worked together. They had 2 shafts and paid 240 then. Which was a lot back then but I still play with it. There are so many good cue makers now I cant keep track.
PHD: When did you know you "made it" as a pool hustler?
RLB: When I turned 20 I started playing real good. I had just been in a bad car wreck that killed 2 of my friends and I started watching Jay Swanson play pool and I tried to be real serious like him and my game went way up and I beat world champions. I don't know if you ever succeed at being a pool hustler. I played world champions my whole life like Larry Hubbard but also easy guys. Maybe Jack Cooney is the most successful pool hustler of all time. I played a lot of gin because of card mechanics. I played Jack Cooney and he said people think I play a lot of good cards and I don't. I knew Barbara since she was with Jimmy Reid. She got shot and the bullet is still in her. Someone tried to rob her and she wouldn't give the money up. The bullet is still in her butt.
PHD: What's the largest amount of money you ever won and what's the largest amount of money you (or your backers) lost?
RL: I remember everybody who has beat me. The amount I lost seems like nothing to today's guys. Andy Oguine beat me, Flyboy beat me, $6000 the most in one session. Not that much. Mostly I bet my own money. Most I won I was in Detroit I beat Cleatus for 40K which seems like nothing for that place because James Christopher won 500K and so it seems like a drop in the bucket.
In Chicago I remember Bensinger's, North Shore Billiards and The Billiard Café. I knew Bugs(Hall of Fame Leonard "Bugs" Rucker) pretty well at the black pool rooms in the 70s and he helped me make games and he was a good guy. He was the best banks player in the 1970s and his one-pocket was up there.
I've played thousands of pool games and if I count my favorite on one hand your Dad was one of my favorites. He was a riot and he would say the craziest things. We only played for like 50 or 100 a game but I would laugh til I cried. He was a trip.
I played Paul Jones at The Rack in Detroit.
PHD: The Rack is in The Encyclopedia! Tell us about how your life story became Pool Hall Junkies?
RL: I was hanging out at the Hollywood Athletic Club a place where every movie start hung out on Sunset Boulevard. It was an old athletic club with 50 foot ceilings and an Olympic swimming pool in the basement. I met Mars Callahan(19) and Chris Corso(45) in 1981 and the 2 of them wrote a script based on my stories of me traveling all those years. Over the years they had to rewrite it ten times and it ended up being completey different from my original stories. That's why I wrote the book "Confessions of a Pool Hustler" to tell the real stories. I did enjoy making the movie and got to be in it for five minutes and perform the trick shots.
PHD: My Dad played at ye old Billiard Den in Hollywood with Brooklyn Pancho and Little Frankie. They were there when the Manson murders happened.
PHD: Where do you like to play pool now?
RLB: Well, I live in Vegas and Mark Griffin opened a place called Griffs on Decatur which is the nicest place by far. I've been playing more poker lately.
PHD: Why are pool hustlers special and important to pool players everywhere? My father thought that the worst thing pool ever did was try to sanitize the culture and the players. He said Fats didn't look right in a tuxedo.
RLB: I agree 100 percent with your Dad - I've met CEOs people from every walk of life and when I tell stories about gangsters and hustlers they love it. Keep the action going. You'll never have another Cornbread Red or Freddy the Beard. There aren't any characters around anymore. I was raised with these guys. I bring them up when I'm doing my commentating because I keep them alive in their hearts. Freddy has to be in peoples' hearts forever, If you talk about Chicago, you have to talk about Freddy. I went to his 4Bs club and watched him play Mike Siegel one pocket there and I thought this guys got some heart.
PHD: The 4Bs club was in the middle of nowhere. A producer was in town and stood outside watching pimps in fur coats pull up in huge Cadillacs and said, "if I tell people what I've seen here, they'll never believe me."
RLB: It was special back then - I mean back in the day you had to ring a buzzer in Detroit which had a peephole and they had to approve you to let you into the place!
PHD: Do you think you will do more commentating?
RLB: Yes, at Westgate and probably bar table. It's tough action everybody playing so good. I think I play as good now its different the motivation to want to play. Not as much at the desire. If the prize money. I can still play as good as when I was younger.
I don't like the senior tournaments I want to play the best. No offense, but I don't want to match up with a guy in a wheelchair.
PHD: That's the beauty of Derby City is that you never know who you will be matched against. I've had so many guys tell me they couldn't believe they got to play my Dad there. It's a great experience for both players.
RLB: In Vegas we used to go to Fat Boys house for one-pocket playing with Artie for months but he's been out of the scene for two years. They talk about Archie Karras being the best gambler but Artie is probably the smartest guys who ever played pool - alongside (Billy) Cardone and Jack Cooney. Artie was betting millions a day, and overseas. The Feds went to his house and said if you turn in some people you can keep the money in your safe and you're not going to prison. But he wouldn't do that. Not many people would choose to go to jail. Luckily, no one would mess around with Artie. Pretty easy stretch. He's triple smart. If he played one pocket in one-pocket. He matched up good.
For more on Robert LeBlanc, please read his excellent book, "Confessions of a Pool Hustler" available on our website!