Skip to main content
Original Issue

Wimpy tackles an ex-tiger

And finds the claws still sharp as Champagne Eddie Kelly disappoints a host of country folks by beating their perennial hero, Luther Lassiter

The Jack and Jill Cue Club in Arlington, Va. is a model—that is to say, modern—poolroom. A soft golden carpet covers the floor and Muzak is piped in continuously. There are 30 tables, with plenty of room in between and lots of stools to sit on. There is a long display case with pool cues for sale that range in price from just under $20 to more than $150. There is a grill, where you can order anything from a Pepsi and Oreos to a platter of ham and eggs. Since the doors opened at Jack and Jill's three years ago they have never closed. There is no hard poolroom talk here. Nice girls—government secretaries and others—get attached to the place and turn up at 2 or 3 in the morning to practice their rotation and eight ball. They know that no one is going to bother them at Jack and Jill's.

The other day a former pool hustler named T-Shirt Steve was standing around the counter, and you could tell by his outfit that something was brewing even if you couldn't tell by the couple of hundred characters also hanging around. Instead of his usual attire—a T shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve—T-Shirt was duded up in a blue coat with gold buttons and a soft pink sweater underneath.

"See these?" T-Shirt opened his mouth and displayed two rows of teeth. "I just got these last week and they sure do feel strange. I want to tell you, when you haven't had any teeth for nine months and then all of a sudden you've got a bunch of them it really doesn't feel natural."

"How's that?" someone asked.

"Well, it's kind of like trying to eat with an ice cube in your mouth."

T-Shirt, like most of the people who crowded into the suburban poolroom, was there because some other country boys who were big stuff in the closed world of competition pool were getting together for the U.S. Invitational One-Pocket and Nine-Ball Tournament, and the finals were tonight.

Bill Staton, whom everyone calls Weenie Beanie, looked the slickest of all at Jack and Jill's. In fact his buckle-over shoes, his ring with nine diamonds in the shape of a nine-ball rack and his custom-tailored sport coat gave him a slick, city-pool-hustler look. Even the way he shook hands—with his left because he'd hurt his shooting hand—was not exactly a down-home greeting. Yet Weenie Beanie was from the country.

"I grew up in North Carolina," he said, "and I never believed that anyone would ever come up to me and tell me a lie to my face. Of course, after I lost money to every hustler who dragged through town I learned different."

The only person around who was possibly slicker and as sharply dressed was Charlie DeValliere. He wore the new fashion rage, a blue blazer suit with a silk polka-dot handkerchief in the front pocket. He had been a top executive with a big insurance company, but after doing well in the World's All-Around Tournament in Johnston City, Ill. one year he gave it all up, and now he owned half of Jack and Jill's. Surely this ex-insurance executive was a city boy. Not quite. West Virginia. Coal country.

Luther Lassiter, seven times world champion of pocket billiards, was here, of course, lounging against one of the shiny glass display cases. He was waiting for the finals to get under way, for the not-surprising reason that he was in them. Wimpy Lassiter, who has been in the finals of almost every pool tournament worth mentioning in the last 10 years, was dressed just as he always dresses: loosened black necktie with silver crescents, a dark suit with slightly baggy pants with cuffs. His arms were folded around his cue, while he talked slowly and tilted his head from side to side and smiled every now and then. Just now a spectator was talking to him but Wimpy was watching something else. He was watching U.S. Keds.

U.S. Keds is a kid, just turned 15, who haunts Jack and Jill's and plays with his $150 Balabushka pool cue and is always a threat to run out any nine-ball rack. At times he has run several racks in a row. In Jack and Jill pool parlance he plays "jam-up" and knows how to "draw his rock," which means, quite simply, that he is very, very good. Luther Lassiter watched Keds narrowly and probably had an idea about how good the kid might get someday, but he wasn't saying. Lassiter is a tough man with information.

Champagne Eddie Kelly, Wimpy's competition in the finals, came in and began warming up. He had won the one-pocket division of the tournament, and Luther Lassiter had won the nine-ball division. Kelly, supposedly the best all-round pool player in the country, was heavily favored to win the first three games, all one-pocket, and then they would play nine-ball until one of them won 14 games altogether. The question was, could Lassiter spot Kelly those first three games of one-pocket?

Pumpkin thought Lassiter could win.

"I used to love to watch Kelly play when he was around here," said Pumpkin, a computer-programmer job refugee since last April. "He was such a tiger. Even when he got behind he wouldn't quit. He'd just really bear down and play out of his mind. Then he went out to Vegas and he changed, the way Beanie says they all do. He saw too many people go busted. Now all he thinks of is whether he's got the best of it. He's lost that tiger."

Tiger or no tiger, Champagne Eddie had defeated a fine group of pool players to win his division. And so had the old man, Luther Lassiter. Steve Cook, only 23, who had won the Stardust Open in Vegas last year and played well always, was one of their victims. So was Wade Crane, 25, ranked second to Lassiter as a nine-ball player in the South. Jimmy Rempe, 23, who had been hustling in pool halls all over the country since he was 16, had also done well.

Among the older and wiser hands who fell were Weenie Beanie, DeValliere, Pat Lynch and Eddie Taylor, the Knoxville Bear. Lynch, who is in the construction business, is the silent man, speaking only when spoken to and then as briefly as possible. Taylor had not been playing much before Arlington, but he did manage to give Wimpy Lassiter his only nine-ball defeat.

By the time Kelly and Lassiter had finished warming up the tournament room was crammed. People filled all the 120 permanent seats, spilled over onto some folding chairs and even jammed the little corridor by the exit. A few stuck their heads through the curtains to the main room.

Bob Purdum, the announcer, watched as Kelly finished knocking in his last practice balls, then he walked over and made the introductions. Lassiter pulled his two-piece cue from its alligator case, and Kelly stood quietly watching.

The one-pocket was quickly over. Kelly controlled the breaks carefully, and took two tight games and one laugher and was three ahead, as everyone expected. Now for the nine-ball.

Kelly shot first, breaking well and winning, to make his lead in games 4-0, and he continued to dominate the play—to the crowd's disappointment—until he led 10-3. By then Lassiter was pressing on every shot. In the 14th game Lassiter got to shoot first, and the place became absolutely quiet as he drew the pool cue back slowly through the fingers of his bridge hand for the break. Then, with an astonishing snap of his wrist, he whipped his lower arm forward through the cue ball, which slammed into the diamond-shaped nine-ball rack. The sound of the break cracked through the room, and balls zigged across the table in bewildering tangents of color and movement. But Lassiter and the crowd were riveted on only one of them: the yellow-and-white nine ball. It bounced off the back rail and came running down table to the left corner pocket, where it hung for a moment, then tumbled over the lip and fell in. Before the ball hit the bottom of the pocket, the roar went up. Now the score stood Lassiter 4, Kelly 10.

Wimpy broke again, and again the nine ball fell. The crowd cheered, and a voice yelled out, "One more time, Wimpy!"

Lassiter smiled and punched the air with his right hand. "Nine more times!" he replied, smiling. The score was 10-5.

Beefy, the rack man, set up the table and Wimpy stroked the cue ball once more. It smashed into the fresh rack with just as much authority as before, and the nine ball headed obediently for the back corner pocket and fell. But this time the cue ball dropped too, and the cheer died.

It was all Champagne Eddie needed. Scowling most of the time, he played steadily and surely, winning the last three games in a row. Lassiter watched it all impassively. The crowd was polite as Kelly ran in his balls, but it was still a country crowd and Champagne Eddie, with his red bell-bottoms and satin shirt with barrel cuffs, shiny brown boots with flat toes and high heels, well, he wasn't their kind. Neither was Eddie's girl, watching him from one side with her frosted blonde hair, her bright red mini and her fancy red buttons and Nehru collar. But if Eddie noticed he didn't care, and when it was over he left with his girl to drink champagne in some more fashionable corner of northern Virginia.

Meanwhile a lady asked Wimpy for his autograph, and when she turned away she was crying. Like T-Shirt, she was country-style, and all she could think of was how one of her own had lost.

"He's such a wonderful man," she sobbed. "Such a gentleman."