Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stardust Open – 1965 by Guest Writer Michael Vaught

One of my friends, Michael Vaught, who is 74 years young and plays on the Omega Billiards Tour, recently share with me a couple of things he wrote about from his trips in 1965 to some big pool events back then.

I asked his permission to post them via my blog, and he graciously said yes.

What is TRULY amazing about these two stories (today's will be about Vegas and the previous was about Johnson City), Michael wrote these only TEN years ago - yet he made the trips in 1965!!  He was around 21 years old and even 50 years later, he was able to recall all of these amazing details!


THE STARDUST OPEN – Las Vegas, 1965

This time, Jay and I drove to Las Vegas in his Caddy, and along for the trip also was our mutual friend Kurt Fankhouser, a good nine-ball and snooker player who was very good at “golf” played on a snooker table.  He was also a drummer in rock and jazz bands.

We got a room for something like thirty dollars a week that we took turns sleeping in when we couldn’t stay awake to watch pool anymore.  We could go to Sambo’s and have an economical pancake breakfast.  Yes, there was Sambo’s.  Vegas  was different then.  We hung out together and also went in different directions sometimes to watch different games, so we all had somewhat different memories of the trip.

Inside the Stardust there were tables located in a big ballroom and more tables in a couple of smaller rooms close by.  We were able to move around and watch all the action, which was incredible.  There were people playing five hundred dollar one pocket just to see if they liked the game.  I saw two guys playing one pocket with a blackboard pointer.  One guy got to use the rubber tip, and the other guy had to use the bare wooden end.  That was the spot.  I saw two other guys playing using just the shaft of their cue. 

I saw Irving Crane, Eddie Taylor, Eddie Kelly, Ronnie Allen, Boston Shorty, Cowboy Jimmy Moore, U.J. Puckett, Harry Pietros, Greg Stevens, Ritchie Florence, Johnny Ervolino, Handsome Danny Jones, Jack Perkins, Lou Butera, Cornbread Red, Harold Worst, Hubert Cokes, Cicero Murphy, Detroit Whitey and so on.  What a list.

We got to see 9-ball, one-pocket, and straight pool tournament matches, as well as the incredible, non-stop action everywhere.  Ronnie Allen made a one-pocket game where he played one-handed, and won so easily that the guy he beat broke his expensive cue over his knee, threw it down, and left.  Some kid in the audience ran out and picked it up, but didn’t get to keep it.  Hubert Cokes came over and asked for the cue – he wanted to return it to the losing player, who he figured would want it back when he cooled off.  The kid wisely didn’t give Hubert any problem.  That would have been a mistake. 

Eddie Taylor was beautiful to watch.  I saw him curve around one ball to hit a cross-table bank in 9-ball one game.  Danny Jones, playing Eddie in tournament one-pocket, made a shot where he banked into the side rail, came off and hit a ball, that ball hit another ball,  that ball hit the rack and made a ball into his pocket, and he proceeded to run out from there.  Taylor was pounding his cue on the floor in tribute to Danny’s shooting.  It was just some of the best pool I have ever seen.

Cowboy Jimmy Moore was showing off a little one time and executed the circular draw shot – the first time I had ever seen it done.  I was halfway across the room when I saw him shoot and the cue ball did this amazing thing.  I literally ran up to the table to see what was going on.  He did it three or four more times as I watched, absolutely astounded.  This was the shot that nobody back at OU would believe was possible when I told them about it.  I turned to a guy who was standing there watching and asked him what Jimmy was putting on the cue ball.  He said, “A ittle bit of left.  A lot of low. It’s just that stroke”.  Jimmy had a heck of a slip stroke. As a matter of fact, I started watching closely and a surprising, to me, number of players used the same type of stroke – some more than others.

I saw Jack Perkins get down to break 9-ball, straighten up, move the cue ball about an inch, get down again, fire, 9-ball on the break.  What did he know?  Just luck?

I watched Greg Stevens running out some 9-ball.  He hit everything with authority and straight into the heart of the pocket.  He had a shot down the rail where the object ball was in the middle of the side rail – it looked almost frozen - with the cue ball out toward the center of the table.  He smoked it in, down the rail, past the side pocket.  I don’t remember seeing him miss.  Later on he was shooting one-pocket, and I heard someone say, “Greg Stevens’ way to play one pocket is to run 8 and out”.  It looked like it to me.  After all these years, he is still one of the two or three straightest shooters I ever saw.   It’s easy to believe the stories I have heard about him.

Evidently, this was also the dawn of the new one-shot-ball-in-hand rule in 9-ball.  I listened to the players talking about the rules,  and U.J. Puckett was complaining about it some and played around with it a bit.  This was in a tournament match in the back room.  He was playing a local player whose name I don’t remember.  What he did was break 9-ball safe.  I have never seen it since.  He just scraped the side of the one and hardly disturbed the pack.  This was before the rule about 4 balls hitting the rail. His cue ball hit the side rail, then stopped right behind the pack.  Only about half of the one was sticking out to be hit.  His opponent missed, and U.J. had ball in hand.  He froze the cue ball to the one, shot through it – maybe or maybe not a foul – smashed the rack, and made the 9.   An interesting sidelight of that afternoon was that Sonny Liston came walking in with a couple of people.  He evidently liked pool.  I saw U.J. go over to meet him and shake his hand.  Sonny was very well dressed in a suit and looked good.

I have always been a fan of players who could draw the ball well and here was Harry Pietros, supposed to be the best  in the country.  I heard more than one player comment about his draw shot as he played in tournament matches.  He was showing off in one of the back rooms and this is what he did:  He put a ball right in the far corner pocket, and the cue ball one inch off the far back rail.  He said, “How far back do you think I can get the cue ball from there?”  He wasn’t allowed to hit the rail by the object ball – the cue ball had to come straight back from that position.  He started shooting it and said, “I’m bettin’ that I can reach the end rail! ”.  Unbelievable.  He was shooting basically a table-length jump/masse shot.  Once the cue ball flew off the table and hit the big drapes over the window.  That would have done some damage.  That’s how hard he was hitting the ball.  Finally he jacked up and caught it just right and the cue ball rocketed back to the center of the table.  It didn’t get all the way back to the end rail, but I could see then that he could actually do what he was willing to bet on.  Wow.

There was another guy who liked to kick 3 rails around the table.  He would spot one, two, three balls on the spot, keep the cue ball in the “kitchen area” on the same end of the table, then kick three rails around and try to make all the balls in a corner pocket in a given time frame, number of shots or something.  The balls would spread a little on the first shot then he would keep kicking 3 rails around, nudging them here and there until he made them all.  He really knew what he was doing – I saw one of the balls get pretty far up the rail away from the corner pocket and he was able to bank 3 rails around and cut it back down towards the corner.  I didn’t see him get very much action, though.  I saw him trying to get Eddie Taylor to bet.  HE said, “Come on, Eddie, kick the balls with me.”  Taylor, with a drink in his hand and a grin on his face, kicked his leg up a little ways and said, “Kick the balls?” But he didn’t want to play.  Guys like the 3-rail man don’t set up games where they lose, and Eddie knew that.  He probably knew the guy already.

We got to see one of the biggest money games ever while we were there.  I didn’t know at the time that it was practically historic – I just knew it was by far the biggest game I had ever seen.  One guy was called Sutton and was from St. Louis.  He was playing Larry Perkins, who I just knew as Larry while we were watching.  They were going at it, playing one-pocket for five and 6 thousand a game.  After one game Sutton said, “OK, we’re covering everything up to seven thousand this game.”  They played all night and as I understood it, Sutton won about twenty thousand that night.  Later on I heard that Sutton actually got cleaned out after days and days of playing, but I thought he won the night that I watched.  I noticed that he was good at making a ball right in the pocket and leaving you corner-hooked.  He was partners with a dark-haired young player he kept calling Vernon.  I heard Vernon was a very good player also, which was no surprise.  Sutton kept calling himself, “Sutt the Sucker”.

 Once, when Larry was taking a break, one of the spectators, a tall, lanky man, stepped up and offered to play a quick one for a thousand.  They played, Sutton won, and the guy paid his thousand and went back to his seat.  That was Amarillo Slim Preston.  He played pretty good, too.

I watched Irving Crane, who was classic in every way, play beautiful straight pool, running 84 before a scratch.  He made some great shots out of the pack.  He played super 9-ball, too.  Funny thing, the tables being used had pockets that would sometimes reject a ball that was hit perfectly in the center of the pocket with some pace.  It would just come right back out on the table.  Crane had to hit one shot pretty hard to get position, hit it perfectly, and the ball came out on him, costing him the game and match.  He didn’t talk like a Deacon in the restroom after the match.

I saw Lou Butera run sixty balls in about a minute or two, it seemed.  He was something to watch – very entertaining.  Eddie Kelly, with his great left-handed stroke, was, like the rest of them, great to watch and admire.  I saw Eddie hit a break shot in straight pool where the cue ball was very close to the rack.  He jacked up, hit it, and the cue ball powered its way through the rack, all the way to the end rail.  There was a gasp from the audience as he did this.

I was watching Cowboy Jimmy Moore practice straight pool and of course he was great to watch.  When he finished a rack, he just gathered the 14 balls together on the end rail, frozen together, and then with a quick, deft movement pushed them all together up towards the spot, where he would stop them in exactly the right place.  He was racking perfectly without a rack.  I never saw anybody else do it.   Once when he drew the cue ball back and kicked a ball over into perfect position for a break shot, he glanced over at me and gave me a little sly smile.   Jimmy was cool.

We returned to Norman and told everybody who would listen about what we had seen.  Within a year or so, Jay was in the Army and I was in the Air Force.  Kurt was still in school and also working as a drummer.  Jay went on to become well-known and have a career in the pool world, and I managed to have a career as a computer programmer/analyst and part-time amateur player.  Tragically, Kurt died in the summer of 1968 in a motorcycle accident, and we both lost a friend.  The music world lost a fine drummer.

 But we will always have our memories of those good times and great players.  Thanks again, Jay.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

JOHNSTON CITY– 1965 by Guest Writer Michael Vaught

One of my friends, Michael Vaught, who is 74 years young and plays on the Omega Billiards Tour, recently share with me a couple of things he wrote about from his trips in 1965 to some big pool events back then.

I asked his permission to post them via my blog, and he graciously said yes.

What is TRULY amazing about these two stories (today's will be about Johnson City and next will be about a jaunt to Las Vegas), Michael wrote these only TEN years ago - yet he made the trips in 1965!!  He was around 21 years old and even 50 years later, he was able to recall all of these amazing details!


By Michael Vaught

I had the good luck to attend both of these tournaments for a few days.  These are some of my memories of those trips.  My friend Jay Helfert took me both times, to Johnston City and to Las Vegas, and I will always be grateful to him.  We drove up and out from Oklahoma University in Norman, OK.

We walked into the Cue Club in Johnston City about 7 AM and the place was pretty full, with games everywhere.  The first table we came to had a four-handed one pocket game with Jersey Red, Boston Shorty, Marcel Camp, and someone else I’m not sure of now.  At the time, I barely knew what one pocket was.  I was 21 and a good snooker player and nine-ball player, but I was scared to death of all these guys.  I remember Cuban Joe asked me to play pretty soon after we came in, and of course I said no.  I watched him play several guys like me later on and he beat them all.  Jay pointed out The Jockey to me, and Cornbread Red, and Handsome Danny.  It was fantastic.

I watched the four handed one pocket game for a while and noticed that nobody had made a ball and that they had all 15 balls pushed up to the head of the table and nobody could get a shot.  Finally Jersey Red made the first ball – a fantastic table length bank shot – and got no shape at all.  Jersey Red had dark circles under his eyes and looked like he had been up for a week.  There was a boxing match going on that he asked me about when we came in.  I think I told him who won.  I learned who he was when he turned his head to respond to someone who said, “Hey, Jersey Red”.

There was another guy, a big guy with a southern drawl, in a suit and cowboy boots.  This was U.J. Puckett.  I didn’t know who he was at first, but later on, I watched him practicing a shot and learned something right away that has stayed with me since then.  He was freezing a ball to the end rail one diamond out from the pocket on each end of the table, and freezing the cue ball to the rail a few inches away from one.  Then he was trying to make them both with one shot.  I didn’t understand what he was trying to do at first, but as I watched, amazed at his power, I understood what he was doing.  He didn’t make the shot, but he was hitting the second ball, just missing running it down the rail.  I’ve never seen anyone make the shot.  Except for me, I’ve never seen anyone else even try this shot.

A quick list of players I remember – Weenie Beenie, Johnny Ervolino, Danny DeLiberto, Joe Procita, Cornbread Red, Boston Shorty, Handsome Danny, Jersey Red, Marcel Camp, Cuban Joe, U.J. Puckett, Babyface Whitlow, Daddy Warbucks, Omaha Fats.  There were several other players whose names I never got and who played super.
I saw Cornbread Red (Billy Burge) shooting around and doing some shots such as putting a ball in the center of the table, cue ball in one corner pocket, jacked up, fires the ball into the long diagonal straight-in corner, a super shot, and also draws the ball back a foot or so.  Jay was standing there with me and said, ”And he drew the ball!”.  Red makes the shot the first try, then says, “I can do that on a 6 by 12 snooker table with them little bitty pockets.  Draw that cue ball back and scratch.”  Yeah.  Then he sets up a table length bank shot, hits it so hard it travels most of the way to the pocket in the air, and smacks into the corner with a sonic boom.  He says, “I can hit those mother****** as good as anybody”.  I guess so.  Then he says, ”Not a lot of people know it, but I play pretty good banks.” Then he fires in two or three more banks.  It was fun to watch. 

 He was so approachable, I set up a shot for him to make.  It was a ball in each corner pocket, with another ball in the middle of the rail to go around as you tried to make both balls in one shot.  I could do it – I knew it required a lot of English, and I just wanted to see him do it with his stroke.  However, instead of putting the cue ball over close to the side rail to start the shot, he placed his cue ball almost two feet out in the center of the table, which made the shot a heck of a lot harder.  He tried several times and kept missing it, with his cue ball catching and stopping rather than moving toward the corner ball.  I could see what the problem was, but who was I to correct Cornbread Red?  Finally he had to go and, frustrated, he really gave it all he had and the cue ball made a wicked hook and darted down and made the second ball, and had enough juice to follow it in.  He noticed all that and made a comment about it as he left.
Then there was the guy with the 21 ball rack and his gambling game.  He was offering odds of, I think, 10 to 1 to all the pros, and let them “team up” on shots.  He didn’t care.  He had devised a very tough game to beat.  They would roll dice and come up with a number before they started a game.  That number of points had to be run in one pocket without missing.  The break was a free shot.  You added up the numbers on the balls to get your total.

 I saw Harold Worst, Weenie Beenie, Daddy Warbucks, etc.  team up on shots and figure out what to do next, and it was fascinating to listen to them. Once Harold Worst mentioned playing a billiard on one shot and Danny DiLiberto piped up and said, “Do you play billiards?”.  Joking, of course, since Harold was world 3-cushion champ at the time.

 While I watched, the team of players trying to beat the game was letting Harold Worst break for them, and he was doing a good job, I thought.  The break  needed to be one-pocket style, and if you could make a ball, good for you.  Worst was moving the balls toward the corner pocket and leaving the cue ball well placed, but he wasn’t making one on the break.  Hubert Cokes walked up and said he didn’t like that kind of break for this game.  Harold let him break to show how.  He placed the cue ball slightly differently, hit the rack in a different place, and promptly made a ball on the break.  Jay said, “He knows something, huh?”.  The only one I saw beat this game was Johnny Ervolino.

They had a bar table set up out in the open in one of the areas.  I saw a big guy challenge Cornbread Red to $25 a game 9-ball if he got to break.  Red agreed, and the big guy broke like thunder and made the 9.  Rack and go again – this time he makes 5 balls on the break and runs out the rest just like that.  Red Says, “If we play anymore, you’re breakin’ from right here.”  Then he froze the cue ball to the middle of the end rail at the head of the table.  Game over.  I never knew who the big guy was.
It’s been written that Minnesota Fats stopped coming to Johnston City pretty soon, and that was true.  But he did make a brief appearance this time – the night we were there he gave a little show in the tournament area and told some funny stories.  At one point somebody in the crowd called out, “Tell ’em about Willie the wop”.  So Fats launched into this story about a pool player named Willie (He may have been making fun of Mosconi, I don’t know). 

 It went something like this:  Willie was playing Joe a straight pool game for money.  Joe just happened to have a glass eye.  Anyway, Joe gets the first good shot and starts to run out.  He gets to the game ball and has a choice of shots.  He decides to humiliate Willie.  He says, “I could shoot this shot, straight in, or I could bank this one.  I’ll shoot the bank if you’ll sing “ Ave Maria” in the middle of the pool hall”.  So, says Fats, “Willie got up and sang Ave Maria – his throat was dry, he was nervous, but he did it. “  So then Joe shoots the bank shot, according to the bargain, but rushes it and misses it.  Fats demonstrates this by setting up the layout, and hitting a cross-table bank so that it just goes back and forth across the table, but doesn’t go.
So the story continues, “Now it’s  Willie’s turn.  He gets up and runs out down to the game ball, and darned if the same layout doesn’t come up. So he says, “Joe I could shoot this one, straight in, or I could bank this one.  I’ll shoot the bank if you’ll take out your eye and roll it on the table.”  Joe considers this and then takes out his glass eye and rolls it on the table.  Willie looks at him, then fires in the easy shot for the game, saying, “Oh, Joe – not a THAT A ONE!”.  Wrong eye.  It got a big laugh.  You can argue all you want about how good Fats played or didn’t, but one thing is for sure:  he was quite a showman - really natural showman.

 I remember watching the evening tournament matches, featuring players  like  Danny Jones, Weenie Beenie, U.J. Puckett, and Boston Shorty.  George Jansco introduced U.J. Puckett as “Ugly Puckett” and I still think it hurt U.J.’s feelings a little bit because of the look I saw go across his face right then.  In fact, the Johnston City program available listed him also as “Ugly Puckett”.   In his match, he missed a shot and stood up and drawled, “I just dogged it”.

I don’t remember the scores or who won the matches.  I do remember they were playing straight pool.  Danny Jones ran 51, Beenie ran 37.  I was just swimming in all of it.  I had never seen anything like this.  Everyone in the crowd seemed to be a player.  Time and time again I saw somebody from the crowd step up and make a game, then display this smooth stroke and start running balls.  It was amazing.
The best “hustler” I saw was some kid about 16 or 18 who fooled around on the practice tables time and time again and just looked like he couldn’t run 3 balls.  He was very consistent about keeping up this act.  Finally he got the game he wanted with someone and naturally, cleaned up.  I remember Danny Jones coming around and asking about the results of the game.  He then said, “The  kid don’t make many bad games.”  Guess not.

Jay had the moxie (to use an old word) to make a couple of small games while we were there.  I forget who he played or how he came out, but he could play and knew how to take care of himself. 

I was watching Danny DiLiberto play straight pool and he set up a break shot with the break ball right up against the pack and the cue ball in a seemingly tough position.  He said to someone, “How do you break from there?” Then he fired into the break ball, kissed it off the pack and into the corner pocket, and scattered balls everywhere.  What a shot.  This is the kind of stuff I got to see by just hanging around and watching these guys.

We sleepily drove back to Norman in Jay’s Corvette sometime late Sunday, taking turns at the wheel. One final note – there really is something to the concept of seeing something done correctly and then doing it yourself.  The next time I played, which was pretty soon after we returned, I noticed that my stroke seemed just a little bit smoother, just a little better after watching those fine players all weekend.