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Can’t Knock the Hustle

Earl Strickland, Scooter Goodman, and the struggle for the soul of pool

Scooter Goodman is not fucking around.

It’s easy to think he might be, the way he’s hopping around the table like a hyperactive kid, grabbing at his clothes, the exaggerated moans when he dogs a shot, woofing at the crowd to get down on him.

“Who’s betting on me? Is nobody betting on me?”

Goodman leans over and takes aim at the cue ball. THWACK. The five ball falls cleanly in the corner pocket. The thud is satisfying, as is the low rumble of the ball rolling under the table. Goodman stands up and paces around the table, eyeing his next shot like a lion eyeing his prey.

“Look at this shot. I’m gonna dog this shot. You could make this shot, but I’m gonna dog it.”

He leans over and lines up the cue.

“It’s not a tough shot. It’s an easy shot. The trick is to not think about $5,000.”

He smacks the ball with force, with confidence. It plops in the hole. The crowd roars with delight. Goodman stands up and starts pacing around again. He’s practically bouncing.

“I borrowed this stick. Can you believe that? I picked it up off the fucking ground, swear to God.”

He pops in the next three shots like he were punching the clock at the end of a long shift. Then he throws the stick on the table and reaches for the rack.

“Better keep making them on the break, boys,” he says as he racks the balls for the next game.

The game is nine-ball. Five thousand dollars a game. Goodman is playing two guys at once: a world-class professional named George Breedlove and a wealthy entrepreneur from St. Louis who shoots a little pool named Carl Bolm. Breedlove and Bolm are playing Scotch,1 and Goodman is giving up the breaks, a wild six, and the last four.2 Oh yeah, and Breedlove is required to shoot with only one hand.

Bolm walks up to the table to break. Breedlove whispers something in his ear like Bundini Brown. Bolm hammers whitey into the diamond like a goddamn bullet. They fly everywhere. Thud, thud. Rolllll. When the balls all come to rest, the six ball is nowhere to be found.

“On the snap, Carl!” George Breedlove gives his wealthy partner some dap as he squats down to rack the balls for the next break. Goodman doubles over.

“It’s so sick,” Goodman commiserates with the Scottish pool pro Jayson Shaw, who is sitting along the wall, watching. “Just give me a crack of daylight and I’ll run out on your ass. But we gotta do something about this break shit.”

There’s got to be 100 people watching at this point. They are standing on chairs, crowded in the hall outside the door. It’s 3:30 a.m. on a Friday morning at the Horseshoe riverboat casino in southern Indiana, and seems like every pool player in the world is huddled around this little bar-box table. In addition to Shaw, there’s Shane Van Boening, a clean-cut and well-mannered young man who is the top tournament pool player in America. And there in the front row, seated right behind the short rail, is the elegant and beautiful Jeanette Lee, the Black Widow, easily pool’s biggest celebrity.

A guy on the rail pulls a stack of hundreds from his pool cue case and hands it to Lee. She dutifully counts it and then whispers something to Breedlove. She’s holding the money for the game — and why shouldn’t she? In addition to being the most recognizable and trustworthy face in pool, she’s also one of the most respected pool hall gamblers in the world. Never mind that she’s also married to George Breedlove.

“Isn’t anyone going to get down on me?” Goodman hollers. “Cowards!”

“I got you,” says Van Boening. “A thousand.”

“Shane Van Boening is betting a thousand bucks on me! You see that?” Goodman bounces up and down. “You think the spot is bad? They miss on the break, I’m gonna run out every time. Every single time.”

Bolm breaks. It’s another wild one — this time the cue ball flies off the table. Scratch. Oh boy. He turns and looks at Breedlove with a mixture of regret and dread. Breedlove pats him on the shoulder reassuringly.

“Time to go to work,” Goodman says, the cue ball in his palm.

Scooter Goodman is not fucking around. This is more than just his job. This is his life. This is Derby City.

♦♦♦

The sportswriter Tom Fox wrote a 1961 Sports Illustrated story titled “Hustler’s Holiday in the Lions’ Den” that offered the world a glimpse into the private, secret world of pool hustlers (and introduced a theretofore unknown character who called himself Minnesota Fats). The occasion of the article was the inaugural Johnston City Classic pool tournament — a modest $5,000 one-pocket tournament in the tiny town of Johnston City, Illinois. The tournament was merely an excuse to get the players together. The tournament’s founder, George Jansco, knew that one-pocket was played almost exclusively by gamblers. If he could get the country’s best pool hall gamblers together for a few nights in a row, he knew the action on the side would be absurd. And he was right. If not for the Sports Illustrated article, nobody would even remember who won the tournament. But people would never forget the name Minnesota Fats; it would become inseparable from people’s image of pool.

Greg Sullivan used to go to those yearly gatherings in Johnston City, too. Today he runs the Diamond pool table company. He’s the founder of the Derby City Classic, a yearly pool tournament and gathering of gamblers just outside Louisville, Kentucky. The Derby City Classic was inspired by and modeled after those Johnston City hustler jamborees — a tournament where gambling wasn’t just tolerated, it was encouraged.

But pool tournaments aren’t what they used to be. They’ve been in trouble for a while now: numbers of entrants declining, prize pools dwindling, sponsors bailing, and organizers folding up shop left and right. There is no American pro pool tour. There aren’t even standard rules and regulations from one tournament to the next.

“I reversed it on everybody,” Sullivan says. “I made it where you’re a sucker if you didn’t enter.”

One thing Sullivan noticed in his years as a player was that a lot of his fellow players refused to enter tournaments for fear of getting drubbed by superior players in the first set.

“Nobody wants to come from Florida or Alabama or wherever for one match and go home.” Sullivan came up with the idea to have a buyback tournament, where players could rebuy into the tournament once they were eliminated. Then he made the matches races to three, so they were short sets. This made the death for weaker players quick and painless, but also added variance, so weaker players had a chance to get lucky and beat a better player and advance. “You take your shot against [pool legend Efren] Reyes and you’re not going to get embarrassed. Now I got players coming out of the woodwork.”

Sullivan also smartly made the buy-in for the tournament less money than the entry fee to just observe. That way people otherwise coming just to catch a glimpse of their favorite players would also take a stab at the event. At a certain point, anyone walking around the Derby City Classic who wasn’t entered in an event was either a coward, a sucker, or both.

The most important thing Sullivan did with his tournament, however, was to encourage and celebrate gambling.

“The first thing he did was to call the practice rooms action rooms,” says Freddie Agnir, writer for Inside Pool magazine. “That’s what they really were, anyway. But Greg was the first to actually call them that.”

Every pool tournament has a few rooms with tables for players to practice on. Traditionally, that’s where pool players would gather after the events wrapped up to gamble a little (or a lot) and maybe even settle some scores from bad beats in the tournament that day. At the Derby City Classic, there’s no pretense of practice. The action rooms are open 24 hours a day and are always packed with players on marathon sessions, money stacked up high on the lights above the tables.

Then, in 2003, Greg Sullivan had another brilliant idea — an award for gambling! He would bestow an award on the player, backer, or spectator who showed the most gamble, was involved in the most big-money action, and put on the best show for the fans during the tournament in the action rooms, as voted on by their peers.

“I wanted it to be a big deal, something people would really try to win,” Sullivan explains. “So I made it so winners would get their tournament entries and hotel rooms paid for for life.” With rooms at the Horseshoe running $150 a night for the nine nights of the Derby City Classic, this was no small proposition. “I probably screwed up with that one. It costs me more than any other prize in the tournament.” Still, it has had an effect.

“The guys in the action room, they do want to win the award,” Agnir says. “It covers a big nut for them. It means they stay in action more than they want to be. But that was the idea. Greg wants them to do that.”

The award was named for “Saint” Louie Roberts, the handsome and skillful gambler from St. Louis who was both fearless and entertaining to watch.3 Sullivan sought to memorialize two of Saint Louie’s qualities: He was looking for someone with gamble, sure, but also a showman.

“The big thing is the word ‘entertainment,’” says Agnir. “A lot of guys are in heavy action, but they aren’t talking about it.” To win the Louie Roberts Award, you need to make sure everyone in the building is talking about you. And that means woofing.4 It means advertising. It means playing the part of the hustler.

♦♦♦

“Hey, Dad, what do you say we pull in here and see if we can find a game?”

Ray Strickland was driving his 14-year-old son through Pasadena, Texas, on their way to Houston when they drove past a poolroom. They’d been living in Houston for less than a year, having moved there from North Carolina when Ray got himself a new typesetting job in the big city. The youngster had become so addicted to pool that he dropped out of high school. Ray was partially responsible, having introduced the boy to the game by taking him to poolrooms when he was only 8 years old. Still, he figured, why not see just what the kid is made of? Let’s see if little Earl Strickland can shoot big-time pool.

They pulled into the roadside pool hall parking lot and walked in. It was packed. Every table was taken. Thirty or 40 guys in the middle of the day playing pool in some random roadside pool hall in Pasadena, Texas. 1975 was a good year for pool.

Young Earl spotted a table in the corner where one guy stood knocking the balls around all by himself. Earl had $200 in his pocket, money he’d saved from the job his dad had made him get when he dropped out of school. He made a beeline for the older fellow practicing in the corner.

“You want to play 10 a game?” Earl said. The stranger didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, I’ll play you some.”

A few hours later, Earl and Ray were back in the car headed toward home. Earl was busted. Ray was pissed.

“You’re keeping that job, because you sure can’t play pool.”

“Dad, that guy was good!”

“The hell he was! I could have beat him!”

“I just got unlucky and picked the wrong guy. That guy had to be one of the best players in Houston.”

“There’s gotta be 10 million people in this city, son.” Ray couldn’t stand his son’s ego and his ridiculous excuses. He’d just lost all the money he’d earned in the last several weeks to an old man. Yet the boy still believed he was one of the best pool players alive. “You mean to say he’s the best pool player out of 10 million people?”

They rode on in uncomfortable silence. Soon after that, Earl would pack up and leave home for a life on the road hustling pool. A few years later, he’d meet that old man again at a tournament in Houston. He’d find out the old man’s real name was Jack Breit. Most people knew him as Jersey Red. He was the best pool player in Texas. At one time, he was quite possibly one of the best pool players in the whole wide world.

Earl Strickland would win back that $200 and then some. As a money player, he conquered the poolrooms of Texas, and then went on the road to become one of the best pool hall gamblers in the country, living what he described as “the ruthless life.”

“I made a good living,” he said, “but that’s why I lost my way.”

In 1980, at the age of 19, Earl entered his first pool tournament at a bar in Houston. He won, naturally. But something was different. The other players, the spectators on the rail, they all stood up and clapped. It caught Earl by surprise.

“I had never experienced people cheering for me,” he said. When you clean somebody’s pockets in the poolroom, the most gentlemanly of gamblers will shake your hand and tell you how well you played. Most of the time, people resent you for winning when you’re playing for money. But this — this was better than money. “This is what I want.” Earl Strickland gave up gambling and started entering tournaments. By 1985 he was a national champion. By 1988 he was a world champion. By the 1990s he was one of the highest-paid pool players on the circuit.

“I helped him with his taxes once back then,” said Jay Helfert, author of the book Pool Wars. “He was making at least $200,000 a year in endorsements.”

In 1996, a promoter who was starting a brand-new pro pool tour offered a promotion to players: Anyone who ran 11 consecutive racks in tournament play would win $1 million. Strickland did it at the tour’s very first event, winning a million bucks and bankrupting the tour before it even got started. He was 34 years old and on top of the world.

Today, Earl Strickland is the house pro at Steinway Billiards in Astoria, New York. “I’m not rich,” he says. “I have no money. I get up every morning and run seven miles — you’d think I was rich. I do 600 sit-ups. I come here and practice for four hours on the 5-by-10.”5

As the house pro, Earl is provided an apartment and eats in the restaurant for free. He’s paid a modest salary. He gives lessons to customers. “I’m kind of like a Minnesota Fats guy,” he says. “People come here just to see me. They come to talk to me. They come to take a picture.”

Strickland understands all too well that his situation has changed dramatically in the last 20 years because pool’s situation has changed. “It’s not dying completely,” says Strickland. “It never will. But professionally it’s in a bad situation. I’ve never quite seen it like this.”

More than 50 million Americans play pool on a regular basis, according to L. Jon Wertheim’s Running the Table. Yet this is maybe the worst shape the sport has ever been in. More detrimental than just dwindling tournament fields, it’s the shuttering of pool halls, the disappearance of pool on television, the absence of any endorsement deals for top players. It isn’t at all clear how such a beloved game can be in such dire straits. But it is.

To hear Earl Strickland tell it, pool has one thing to blame for its failure to develop into a proper sport: hustlers.

“It’s been put in that position by the public. They won’t let the image of the hustler go.”

It makes Strickland angry when he tells people he plays pool for a living and they assume that means he’s a “pool hustler.” He blames the 1961 Paul Newman film The Hustler. “The Hustler did more damage than good,” he says.

“You look at the movies — if there’s a bad scene, it’s in a poolroom. They’ll show a guy getting hit with a cue. They do so many things to trash the game that it can’t have a chance.”

Strickland believes this bad image is more than just unfair, it also belies a broader contradiction in sports — the popularity of far more nefarious games like boxing and poker. “I don’t understand why they’d go to a boxing match and sit around and idolize the boxers — the actors, the famous people — I can’t for the life of me figure out why those kind of people aren’t around me when I’m playing pool. What I’m doing is more intellectual. I can’t understand why we only have blue-collar people around the most intellectual game.”

Earl Strickland. Photo courtesy of David Thomson/mediumpool.com

Earl Strickland. Photo courtesy of David Thomson/mediumpool.com

On a Tuesday night in January, a standing-room-only crowd of blue-collar people has packed into the spacious Queens pool hall to be around Strickland while he plays pool. He’s all decked out in a Steinway Billiards suit vest. He’s taking practice shots on the only 5-by-10 table (the one he asked the club to buy). He’s not the only draw, however. Many of the fans also came to see his opponent, the 59-year-old Filipino they call Bata — Efren Reyes, the greatest pool player alive.

Reyes started his pool career around the same time as Strickland, although Reyes was playing in the Philippines through most of the 1980s and wasn’t internationally known. When Reyes did come to the United States, he pretended to be a Mexican migrant named Cesar Morales. He played under this alias in poolrooms and tournaments across the country, beating top professionals out of thousands of dollars while giving them three games on the wire.6 It’s even said that “Cesar Morales” beat poker legend Amarillo Slim Preston out of $200,000.

By the 1990s, Efren Reyes was well known among the pool community and started playing tournaments under his real name, seemingly winning them all. Unlike Strickland, Reyes didn’t play for the glory. At the inaugural Derby City Classic in 1999, he won the “Master of the Table” award for best all-around player. At the ceremony he refused his trophy. “I play for money,” he said as he accepted his $25,000 check.

Tonight, however, Bata and Earl don’t look like a couple of millionaires. They look a little old, a little hunched over, a little slow. They are calling this match “The Last Showdown,” an ominous title if ever there was one. There is excitement around seeing the two legends play each other, but an acknowledgment that they are past their prime.

The match is three games for $3,000 apiece, each a race to 17.7 Straight pool, nine-ball and 10-ball, all on a 10-foot table, Strickland’s specialty. Because of the extra length, players need to make long shots. It’s harder to sink balls on the break, too. On a 10-foot, the more skillful player should have a greater edge. The luck factor is diminished. On the 10-foot Strickland plays on every day of his life, he holds a sure advantage over Reyes. A lot of people were still picking Reyes to win. It could be because of how it went down the last time these two men faced off, for considerably more than $9,000.

That was 1996, when Strickland and Reyes were matched up in an exhibition in Hong Kong called “The Color of Money Challenge.”8 They played nine-ball for three days, a race to 120 games, $100,000 winner-take-all. It was the biggest prize in the history of pool at the time. By day three, Earl was ahead by more than 20 games. Reyes went on a phenomenal run of 17 straight games and ended up taking the lead and winning the match 120-117. Strickland completely fell apart, both on the table and emotionally, getting hot and arguing with the judge, with Reyes, and with the fans. It was true to form — Strickland had developed into a pool villain, a player fans loved to root against.

“I caused some antics here and there,” he says. “The audience started turning on me.” Strickland had a hair trigger, easily provoked. His “antics” became a common sight at pool tournaments, but they were on unique display during the Mosconi Cup matches throughout the early 2000s.

The Mosconi Cup is pool’s largest event. The yearly contest is a team competition between the United States’ and Europe’s top players. The European fans relished messing with Strickland, and he gave as good as he got. He picked fights with fans, told a judge to “shut up,” cursed during TV interviews, and even once famously snapped his cue in two after dogging a shot. English champion player Daryl Peach called Strickland “the scum of the earth.” In 2009, the U.S. team dropped the aging Strickland from the team.

Strickland never stopped playing, never stopped running seven miles a day, and never stopped practicing his game. By 2012 he was winning tournaments again. And after a victory in last year’s 9 Ball Championship at the Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York, he was invited back on the Mosconi Cup team. He delivered the fans all the expected ornery, hot-under-the-collar woofing during the match. He also gave them some top-notch pool. Even though the Americans lost the cup to the Europeans, commentators agreed Strickland wasn’t to blame for the loss, playing solid pool alongside the unflappable Shane Van Boening.

“Our players played bad,” Strickland says. “I wish I hadn’t even been on the team.”

An aging former champion prone to self-destructive outbursts attempting a second-act comeback? Earl Strickland’s transformation to a real-life Kenny Powers is nearly complete.

At Steinway Billiards, the score on the wire is 12-10, Strickland. He won’t sit in his seat while Reyes shoots. He prefers to stand and jaw with the fans seated nearby. Steinway Billiards is more than just his home court, it’s in many ways his actual home. And these are his people.

Reyes is his own kind of larger-than-life character. They call him “The Magician” because of things he can do with the cue and the balls, and even at 59, he still has a lot of that magic in him. Still, he looks every day of 59. It’s unlikely Reyes runs seven miles a day.

He hunches over the stick and takes a shot. Whiff. He misses. But it wasn’t a flubbed shot. He just played safe, putting whitey near the rail where Strickland wouldn’t have a shot at the eight ball, one of several safeties Reyes has played throughout the match.

Strickland bounds over to the table and takes a look. There doesn’t seem to be a shot. He circles back around and checks out the table from another angle. Maybe he can play safe back? He circles back to the other side again and cocks his head. Ordinarily, Strickland has a reputation for playing fast. He loses patience with other players who take a long time circling the table like this, searching for the perfect shot. If he’s lagging, it’s because he knows there’s something there. It just takes a minute to see it.

“Side pocket.”

Strickland points his gargantuan cue at the side pocket. The crowd gasps. A couple of people applaud before he even takes the shot. Looking at the table and the angle on the cue ball, it isn’t at all obvious to me how he plans to put the eight ball in the side pocket. But that’s how magic works. When the magician says he’s going to make the elephant disappear, you know without a doubt he’s going to do it, even though you don’t know how. Strickland isn’t a hustler. He’s a shot maker. He doesn’t play on the lemon.9 He walks right up and says, This is what I plan to do to you.

The eight ball goes right where Strickland said it would. Abracadabra.

“It ain’t no fun if you don’t get to make some shots,” Strickland says.

The crowd at Steinway Billiards is on its feet cheering.

This is what Earl Strickland wants.10

♦♦♦

There are three main events at the Derby City Classic: bank pool, nine-ball, and one-pocket. Strickland has yet to win a title at Derby City, which may suit him just fine, given his ambivalence about the tournament’s celebration of all things gambling. That hasn’t stopped him from trying. “I’d just like to win one division,” he confesses. “It isn’t set up for me. It’s too short of races. It isn’t conducive to me playing well.

“We’re just going to fucking go. I’m going to be humiliated again. Pool is just one humiliating ordeal after another.”

Greg Sullivan agrees with Strickland that the Derby City Classic isn’t the best place for him to win a title. “This tournament is not a professional tournament. They’re in a situation that’s not really the best for them. And I know this.” The same condition that brings in lots of amateurs to the Derby City Classic, the higher variance in the race to three, is the same reason a player like Strickland has a tougher time winning.

“Diamond doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing,” crows Strickland. “They’re only in it for the amateurs. They’re not in it for the pros.” Given how tough it is today for pro pool players to scrape together a living, one could understand Strickland’s frustration. “They just want bodies, not talent. I’m trying to sell talent, and they’re trying to sell bodies.”

Even though they get large fields, Sullivan points out that “the cream always rises to the top.” Year after year, Derby City Classic events are taken down by top players. This year would be no different.

Strickland wakes up early on the morning of the one-pocket finals. The night before, he finished third in the banks division, his highest finish ever at Derby City. The $1,900 prize combined with the money he won from his match with Efren keeps him in the top 10 of money earners for the year. This morning he’s knocking balls around, practicing by himself. There’s a crowd of people standing nearby watching him practice. Strickland turns around and addresses the railbirds.

“If pool was properly respected, you guys would have to pay to watch me hit balls,” he snaps.

“We did pay,” one of the spectators reminds Strickland.

“Did you guys hear what happened last night?” one of the players watching Strickland on the rail asks.

“You mean that guy jumping off the boat?”

In the casino the night before, a 22-year-old Louisville native named Ramonte Johnson snatched 13 $1,000 chips off a roulette table and made a run for it. In a scene right out of the Keystone Cops, security chased him from floor to floor through the casino. The chase eventually ended outside on the third-story deck of the ship, where Johnson leapt off into the icy waters of the Ohio River down below.11

But that’s not what everyone was talking about the next morning at the Derby City Classic.

“Shit, no! Scooter lost $40,000 to that rich guy from St. Louis. In one game!”

“One game? That kid has balls.”

“It’s easy to have big balls when it’s someone else’s money you’re playing.”

“Wait. Someone jumped off the boat?”

Elsewhere, in the tournament’s “Accu-Stats Arena,” they’re getting the table set up for the most talked-about match of the tournament — the one-pocket finals. One-pocket is a difficult game. It plays slow, with lots of safeties, intentional scratches, attempts to sink your opponent’s balls, and other particular vagaries of the game. It requires strategic thinking and setting up shots two or three turns ahead of time. It’s popular among gamblers, and the best practitioners often play for very high stakes. The two finalists tonight are Reyes and 40-year-old professional Shannon “The Cannon” Daulton.

Efren Reyes. Photo courtesy of David Thomson/mediumpool.com

Efren Reyes. Photo courtesy of David Thomson/mediumpool.com

In addition to being the first ever “Master of the Table” winner at Derby City in 1999, Reyes is the most successful player in the history of the Derby City Classic. He has 14 total titles, and six of them are in one-pocket. He hasn’t won a title since 2010, though. He hasn’t won a tournament anywhere since 2012.

The match wouldn’t be nearly as grueling as his three-day battle in New York with Earl Strickland: a simple race to three, with the added benefit of a rebuy if Daulton managed to win the first race.

After giving the first game to Daulton, Reyes wins the next two matches to put himself on the hill.12

In the hill match, Reyes makes a decision that illustrates the intricacies of one-pocket.

After a solid break, Daulton scratches. Reyes surveys the table. He has an easy shot on the two ball in his pocket. But he hesitates. Taking the ball would put him ahead, but the shot would leave the cue ball in a position to give him nothing on the very next shot. Reyes decides not to shoot the gimme, and instead puts the cue ball in a trap.13 The shot seems unremarkable. He just pops the cue ball into a clump of balls near the rail, barely even tapping it. But the crowd cheers. Who turns down an easy ball in one-pocket? Only the best.

Daulton tries to play a safety on the next shot and leaves Reyes a look at his pocket, a crack of daylight. As Reyes labors to lift himself out of his chair, the capacity crowd murmurs. They know it’s over.

Reyes runs five, six, seven. Tough shot for eight. He leans over the table and makes his short body get long for it. It goes in. A well-deserved standing ovation for a living legend.

High above the arena hang banners with all the past winners, many of them bearing Efren Reyes’s name and smiling mug. Higher still above them all hang the 10 banners with the winners of the Louie Roberts Action and Entertainment Award. It’s by design that they are the highest banners in the room. They feature names like Alex Pagulayan, Scott Frost, and Chris Bartram. Even big-time, squeaky-clean tournament professionals like Shane Van Boening and Jeanette Lee hang there alongside the other rascals and hustlers. Hustlers like the 2009 winner, Scooter Goodman.

♦♦♦

“I’m running late.”

A 13-year-old Fred “Scooter” Goodman and his buddies were waiting outside a multiplex in Huntington, West Virginia, when Goodman’s mom called to tell them why she wasn’t there waiting to pick them up.

“Can you find somewhere to wait for me? I’ll be there in an hour.”

One of Goodman’s friends piped up. “My brother’s friend is probably playing in the pool hall across the street. We can go hang out there.”

Goodman agreed and told his mom. She agreed, grateful there was somewhere indoors Scooter could wait for her, without any clue of the gravity this moment would hold for her son’s life.

The boys knocked around the pool hall for a while, goofing around on a bar table while a weekly tournament got started in the back. The owner of the joint approached the boys with a proposition.

“You kids want to play in the tournament? I’ll let you in for free.” Perhaps he did it as a gag. Perhaps he was trying to get the boys hooked, so they’d come back for more. Whatever the reason, the boys quickly agreed.

It was a break-and-run event, and Goodman found himself heads up with one of the best players in town for $500. The pool hall owner pulled the guy aside.

“Split it with the kid,” he pleaded. The railbirds agreed. The kid didn’t stand a chance, but he should get a little something for making it this far. What glory was there in beating a little kid?

The hotshot sauntered over to the kid and grins like a smart-ass.

“You’re on your own, junior.”

Goodman nodded dutifully and started chalking his house cue. He got down over the cue ball, reared back with the stick, and bang-slammed that cue ball into the stack. The nine ball shot toward the corner pocket like it was being pulled on a string.

It was 1997. Scooter Goodman was 13 years old. He had $500 in his pocket. He had taken those words to heart. You’re goddamn right I’m on my own.

Goodman hit the road as soon as he could. Just like Earl Strickland, Efren Reyes, Jersey Red, and countless other players before him, Scooter Goodman became a teenage road player. He started popping up at pool tournaments and in action-rich poolrooms around the Midwest and Southeast, running with a crew of colorful young pool players who have all been gambling since they were teenagers. Young players were just drawn to Goodman. It may have been his larger-than-life personality, his fearlessness, or his cutting poolroom wit. It could have been his success. While Goodman often played with backers’ money, he was known to back many of his friends on his own.14 Whatever the reason, Scooter Goodman soon found himself the Pied Piper of pool hustlers.

Goodman will gamble on literally anything. Flipping quarters, pitching pennies, throwing rocks at signs. If he can’t get anyone to take his bet, he’ll offer to take the other side, just for the action. He has a special knack for feats of athleticism, and has figured out how to earn money on propositions like shooting 3-pointers or throwing footballs. An older regular in the action room has taken to calling him “Titanic Tank” after the famous hustler Titanic Thompson. Despite being Titanic’s clear spiritual progeny, Goodman had no clue who the hell that was.15

Like Thompson, Goodman has a knack for figuring out complicated odds and probabilities. He understands how to negotiate spots in games that are fair, but most important, he knows how to negotiate spots that seem fair but give him an edge on his opponent.

scooter-goodman-one-pocket-features

Scooter Goodman, circa 2009. Photo courtesy of onepocket.org.

“That’s my favorite part, the negotiating,” Goodman said. “That’s where you win. If you negotiate and you play your best and you lose, you lost in the negotiations, not on the table.”

Like every other big-time pool hall gambler, Goodman never misses the Derby City Classic. A regular fixture at this event from the very beginning, he’s been coming to Derby City since he was 16 years old. Every year he and his friends would post up in the action rooms all night, never even venturing in to watch the tournaments, let alone enter them.

“I don’t ever go down there,” he explained. “I can’t win a tournament. I can win up here. In here I can match up.”

For all the tension between the pool purists and the gamblers, it is this point that is the strongest argument for the appeal of gambling on pool. Earl Strickland says that only 10 guys can win a tournament, and usually he’s right. But when two people face off in a money game, it all depends on how they “match up.” It all depends on the spot.

In the world of poolroom gambling, figuring out the spot for any particular game is more than half the battle, and the action room and the hall outside are filled day and night with the chatter of players negotiating spots. “Play me $50 a game and I’ll give you the eight and nine.” “How about we play one-pocket, a race to 11, 8-6?” “Give me all the breaks and you can have the last four.”

“He will bet high for someone as small in stature as he is,” Freddie Agnir says of Goodman. “He will come with a lot of cash. He’s high-rolling. But he’s not world class. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a damn good player and he makes games really well.”

“I can play the best in the world up here as long as they give me enough weight,” Goodman says. But sometimes Goodman’s the one giving up the weight. Like last night, when he played Carl Bolm, the millionaire, heads up. Bolm’s considered a whale in the pool world. He plays for big money, and he reportedly plays pretty badly. Still, it’s not easy to make a game with him. He doesn’t want to just donate. He likes to have a shot. When he flew in to this year’s Derby City Classic on his private jet, many lined up to get a game with him, but only Goodman succeeded at making one.

Goodman secured $10,000 from a backer who was anxious to make a score against Bolm. If anyone else had offered Bolm a spot he figured he could outrun, then it’d be that person. Instead it was Goodman. He may not be world class, but he’s a lot better than Carl, so Goodman gave up all the breaks, the wild six, and the last four in a race to three for $10,000.

Goodman won the first game easily. Bolm asked to press.16 Goodman asked his backer and the backer agreed. Eventually the set went hill-hill, and Bolm wanted to press again. Scooter didn’t want to do it. The backer said sure. When else would he have such a great shot at $40,000 of Bolm’s money? Never!

In the final set, Goodman was faced with a shot for $40,000. He lined up the shot and … missed. Just barely missed. Bolm then made an incredible bank shot on the six to win it all.

It was the largest sum of money ever bet on a single game in Derby City Classic history. Sure, there was the time that Jack Cooney and James Walden played a race to 100 for over a week straight for $50,000 a piece, but that was a race to 100. This was a single game. Not even a whole game, since they made the bet after the break. It was like flipping a coin for $40,000.

That was all prologue to tonight’s showdown. Bolm’s giving Goodman a shot at winning the money back, but this time Bolm’s got George Breedlove on his team, even if he’s only getting one of Breedlove’s arms. The spot was worse for Goodman. But it was still a bite at the whale.

Goodman makes his ball in hand after Bolm’s scratch. He’s set up nice to run the table, and even says so, before immediately missing a difficult shot. The crowd moans for Goodman as he drops his head into his hands. Breedlove walks over to the table and holds his cue over the balls, gripping it with one hand on the fat end and struggling to hold it steady. He awkwardly taps the cue ball and it careens into the five ball sitting right on the lip of the pocket. Kerplunk. Easy ball.

Bolm picks up his cue and stands over the short rail. Breedlove stands behind Bolm and instructs him on how to make the shot.

“Drive it right into the slate.”

Bolm holds the cue stick upright like a sword he’s about to plunge into Scooter Goodman’s heart. He thrusts it down with a great fury. The cue ball leaps from the table and sails right over the eight ball and lands on the other side, a straight trajectory for the money ball. They collide. Bolm is overwhelmed.

“Let’s settle up,” he says to Breedlove.

“Sure thing,” Breedlove says instructively. “But now they’re gonna want to play for more.”

They turn around and Goodman is standing right behind them, arms crossed against his chest. He’s not interested in woofing anymore. He’s not interested in entertaining the crowd. It’s 4:30 a.m. and he’s not fucking around.

“We’re gonna play for more,” he says. He pulls a knot of hundreds from his pocket as big as his fist. His eyes narrow. His face tightens. His boyish grin long gone.

♦♦♦

The tension at Derby City between the upstairs action players and the downstairs tournament players isn’t anything new. Just like Earl Strickland today, in the 1950s the pool world had Willie Mosconi, maybe the single greatest pool player of all time, to lecture them about the evils of gambling. Mosconi hated the image of the hustler and resented the national fame of Minnesota Fats, a player who couldn’t carry Mosconi’s cue stick but whose popularity (and appearance fees) dwarfed Mosconi’s own.17

The 1950s was an inverse of today’s game. Back then, the road gamblers came off the road to play in tournaments. It was the only way for them to make any money. Poolroom games dried up because guys started getting married after the war and gave up gambling and loafing about. Today, gambling is the only way a strong player can earn a decent living at the game. Consider this: The average game in the action room has anywhere from $500 to $3,000 in the middle for one of two players to take down. In the tournament room, a guy has to battle through 300 players to take down a top prize of somewhere around $10,000. And there are only three bites at that apple. The action room never closes.

The winner of this year’s “Master of the Table,” another Filipino player, named Dennis Orcollo, earns somewhere close to $20,000 a year in endorsement deals, according to Jay Helfert. “And that’s pretty good!” Helfert says. “The only guy who’s making more than that is probably Shane [Van Boening].” Both Orcollo and Van Boening hang out in the action room at night.

“Without a pro tour and a way for these guys to earn a living playing professionally,” laments Helfert, “they’ll always need to depend on the gambling.”

Greg Sullivan has made up his mind where he comes down on this issue, and he’s unapologetic about it. “There’s four Indiana Gaming Control Agents here monitoring what we do at any given time.” There are “No Gambling” signs posted all over the walls in the tournament hall and the action rooms. Sullivan believes the gambling between two players is at least tolerated if not legally permissible. The side action and bookmaking among spectators? Not so much. While officially Sullivan won’t condone it, he does say he will defend it. “If they ever decide to arrest any of my players, I’ll shut it all down. What would be the point?”

Without Derby City, there’s no gambling. Without gambling, there’s no Derby City.

♦♦♦

It’s after midnight on the last night in Derby City and a crowd has started to form around the bar box again. It isn’t Goodman and Bolm this time. They’re standing just outside the door arguing. The game everyone is railbirding tonight is between a 13-year-old kid and a man in his thirties. They’re playing nine-ball, a race to seven, and they’re playing even. More spectators than not are betting on the little kid. Everyone loves an underdog.

Goodman is pleading with Bolm, who won’t even turn around and face him. “Let’s play five thousand a game.” Bolm stares straight ahead at the little kid shooting on his tiptoes and ignores Goodman.

Eventually, Goodman takes his case to Bolm’s entourage sitting nearby. “I’ll post $30,000,” he says. They want to see the money. Goodman walks away and makes a phone call. Moments later, his backer comes gliding up the escalator with three banded stacks of hundreds in his hand. He holds the money out for Bolm’s buddies to see, turns around, and heads back down the escalator as quickly as he appeared.

“Only thing is,” Goodman begins, “we gotta fix that break shit. You guys robbed me.”

He suggests they can keep the spot from the night before, but he no longer wants to let Bolm have every break. Breedlove demurs. Goodman is livid.

“You guys fucking robbed me! I’ll play you fair for any amount of money! I got more gamble in me than anyone in this building!” He’s storming around the hall, spitting mad.

“You can keep your millions,” he snarls at Breedlove. “And you can keep your billions!” he shouts at the back of Bolm’s head. “You robbed me!”

Breedlove and Bolm eventually disappear down the hallway in a hurry, no doubt in search of another game. Goodman heads off down the elevator. The crowd watching the game cheers.

Down 5-2 in a race to seven, the kid manages to win five games in a row. His reward? A hundred bucks. He takes the money and hands it to his backer, who peels off a couple of bills and hands them back to him.

Thirteen-year-old Seth Niepoetter has never gambled before in his life. He is ushered out of the action room by a pack of well-wishers, all pounding his fist and slapping him on the back. He sits on a bench outside the action room, an ear-to-ear grin showing off his braces.

Then, like an apparition, the Black Widow appears. Jeanette Lee sits down right next to Seth and puts her arm around him. She looks like a comic-book superhero in her skintight black leather getup.

“You’ve got a lot of heart,” she tells Seth. “But don’t end up like these other pool players. School comes first. Go to college. Pool is something you can have fun with, but don’t think it’s going to be your job.”

Seth nods, dumbfounded in the presence of this radiant celebrity.

“I’ve got a summer camp for kids,” she tells him. “And you can apply. It can really help you improve your game.”

In “Hustler’s Holiday in the Lion’s Den,” someone asks Minnesota Fats for the definition of a hustler.

“A hustler is anyone who has to make a living,” Fat Man says. “A champion golfer who plays a match for money is a hustler; a guy who plays pool for a couple of bucks at the Elks Club or a bowling alley is a hustler, too.

“You go in the world’s finest clothing store and the salesman hustles you. He puts you in a size 30 suit when you need size 50 and he tells you you look beautiful. And if you don’t watch the guy he’ll convince you it’s such a bargain you can’t pass it up.”

There are dozens of games you can play on a pocket billiards table. We should just call them all billiards. Instead we call them all pool. The name pool initially referred to the pool of money wagered on the game. Gambling on billiards became so common, so ingrained in how the game was played, that the word we used to refer to the wager became the word we used to refer to the game itself.

Earl Strickland and Scooter Goodman have likely never met each other across a pool table, and they likely never will. Yet they are forever connected in this symbiotic relationship. Each dismisses the other, despite needing him to survive.

Goodman and Strickland don’t have to agree on what makes pool a great game. To one, pool is the purest skill game where the best player should always win. To the other, pool is the purest gambling game where anyone can beat anyone given the right spot. They are both right.

Greg Sullivan dreams of two, three, many Derby Cities — an international professional pool tour with events from Atlantic City to the Far East, all based on his model of play. Goodman and Strickland should hope he succeeds. If he does, it will not only be because of Sullivan’s vision of a modern-day Johnston City, where gambling is just another ring in the circus. It will also be because of his hard work and dedication to that vision — his hustle.

Pool may be on the ropes, but like Strickland said, “It ain’t no fun if you don’t get to make some hard shots.” To the hustlers go the spoils.

♦♦♦

Illustration by John W. Tomac.

Filed Under: Pool, Scooter Goodman, Efren Reyes, Earl Strickland, billiards, minnesota fats, george breedl, jeanette lee, carl bolm

david_hill_headshot-e1388980172458

David Hill lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and the New York Times. He writes sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater.

Archive @ davehill77

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