A handbook for pool hustlers

A handbook for pool hustlers"In a strange room, by far the best way to stir up some action is to spend a day losing money while the local boys are watching…"

Danny McGoorty was a pool hustler whose heyday was in the 1920s and 30s. He told his stories in 1970 to Robert Byrne, who wrote McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler. The following excerpts are from chapter five, called "Handbook for Hustlers." McGoorty died of cancer in November 1970 at the age of sixty-seven.

When you are hustling, naturally; you never make a long run. You never show what you can really do. I got to be a good hustler, and if I had been a little smarter about broads and booze I could have made a decent living at it. As it was I was usually broke and was always having to take some goddam job for a few weeks to bail myself out. Pool hustling is a very tough line of work. If you expect to make anything you not only have to be a good player, you have to be a psychologist, an actor, and a thief as well…

There were quite a few of us hustling at the same time, so we had to split up, spread out, make different moves. One would go southeast, another south, another north, even though north meant going all the way to Wilson and Sheridan. You couldn’t just hang around on street corners or the cops would vag you. You had to keep on the go, carrying a newspaper with a few classified ads circled so you could say you were looking for a job. Standing on a street corner you better have a bus transfer in your hand.

So we kept moving on our routes, going from room to room. In case a mark wandered into a place when we weren’t there, one of our bird dogs would phone us. I had a bird dog in almost every "action" room who would tip me off for small change. If a couple of us were sitting in a room when a mark walked in we would sometimes draw straws to see who got first crack at him. There is one thing I want to throw in here. In all the hustling I’ve done I’ve never seen what you would call a code of ethics. Unless they are teamed up in some kind of swindle, hustlers are usually strictly out for themselves. I’ve had them come right up to my table when l am playing and say to my mark, "You gonna keep playing him? You got no chance in the world." Trying to spoil my action, trying to get the guy for themselves.

Marks aren’t easy to find, and once you get hold of one it’s quite an art to make the biggest possible score. There are a million tricks. You never make a tough shot, unless you can make it look lucky. Miscuing five times in a game of rotation is par… not just any miscue, but a miscue that leaves no shot. Miscuing properly, so that it looks accidental and so that the cueball goes where you want it to, is a tough thing to learn. But it is a good weapon, even in billiards, where you can get a good leave without being charged with an intentional safety.

If the guy looks like a real dummy; I might play left-handed, or use a crooked stroke, or stand with the wrong foot forward. Instead of making a solid, professional-looking bridge for the cue with my left hand, I might just lay it over the back of my hand – the "fuck-knuckle grip," we used to call it.

Unless you are fishing for big game it is no good to carry your own cue into a room. The small fry button their pockets when they see a guy screwing a fancy cue together. In the big Loop rooms there was no need for a private cue… the house cues were beautiful and kept in perfect condition. lf you are in some jerkwater town, where the house cues are mop handles and broomsticks, then it is nice to have your own cue, but you don’t carry it in – you send somebody else in with it first, who then "loans" it to you later. Or you can do like Johnny Irish, or The Eufala Kid, or Washington Rags: stick the cue into the shithouse through the window, then come around and walk in the front door without it. Anything but walk in with it.

Sometimes it is a tricky proposition to get a mark to play for money at all. A way that worked many times for me was to offer to play a game of rotation "for fun." I would set him up for the one-ball, and when he made it I would hand him a dime, saying that by "for fun" I meant a dime on every odd ball. Not many guys could turn down that dime. Once they took it, naturally, I could go ahead and make the rest of the odd balls.

If you have time and can afford it, it pays to lose a dollar or two before starting to win. There is a risk connected with that, though. I walked into Kieckhefer’s one day and Sam, a junky that hung around there, rushed up to me all excited.

"He’s in the can, he’s in the can…" he said.

"Sam," I said, "calm down. Who is in the can?"

"A mark… a mark is in the can. Let him win the first game and he is good for a hundred."

I had only four dollars to my name at the time, but I took his advice and dropped the first game for a deuce, which wasn’t easy; because the guy could hardly play at all. I had to jump the cueball off the table, miscue, hit the wrong ball, every fucking thing to lose. When he finally slopped in the game ball, he picked up my money and walked out of the joint! That finished me with Sam. After that I never gave him change for a wet match. I learned a lesson, though, and that was to win the first game, making it look lucky. Then I could throw a game on the other guy’s money…

You can work a room for two or three days if you aren’t known, or even longer, climbing up to the better players as the bums drop off. But when you finally get to the local shark you still have to hide your stuff, because the guys you beat the day before might wise up and get a little unhappy if they see your true speed…

In a strange room, by far the best way to stir up some action is to spend a day losing money while the local boys are watching. When you come in the next day they’ll jump on you like a bunch of horny monkeys.

Myself, I never seemed to have the money to invest in a losing day. Often as not I would have a snootful of booze and challenge the best player in the joint right off the bat. Now that is not as stupid as it sounds, because the town champ almost has to call your bluff if he wants to hold his head up with his cronies, and you can play for good stakes right away instead of fooling around with nickels and dimes.

Some hustlers l knew were terrific actors. You would swear they were drunk, or sick, or just learning to play. Tugboat Whaley used to put on rain gear, rubber hat and all, and say he was a tugboat captain who had just retired on a nice pension that he didn’t know how to spend. Wimpy Lassiter, before the tournament prizes got big enough to draw him into the limelight, dressed up like a hillbilly; with bib overalls and a piece of straw a foot long hanging off his lip. That was his hustle, pretending he just fell off a hay wagon…

There usually are two or three guys going around the country pretending to be rich Texas cattle ranchers ready to lose a bundle. Here’s how that act goes. The hustler walks into a room and stops just inside the door. He is wearing a two-hundred-dollar buckskin coat, a ten-gallon Stetson, and fancy hundred-dollar boots. He makes a big show of lighting a cigar as he looks around, maybe using two or three big, kitchen matches. When he is sure everybody in the joint is looking at him, he shakes out the match, blows a long funnel of smoke, and says: "Well, boys, I came to play." lf that doesn’t generate some business he can try counting his money; which always seems to work like magic. He goes over to a table that all the customers can see and lays out his cash, making piles, starting with the fifties and hundreds, working down to the fives and tens, until there is beautiful money all over. If there is anybody in the room who can hold a cue, he will want to take a crack at some of that loot, and if he is chicken he will want to see somebody else do it. There will be guys grabbing phones and flying out the doors and windows, trying to get hold of Toledo Slim or Marvin the Mailman, anybody who can play a lick. It’s the sight of the money. It does something to people. They do things they shouldn’t…

McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler by Robert Byrne, Amazon>>

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