Friday, 1 October 2010
By Johnny Hughes
“I am the most intelligent man I know ... I know everything that anybody knows, and nobody knows what I know.” Minnesota Fats.
Rudolf Wanderone, better known to the world today as “Minnesota Fats”, was one of America’s best known gamblers for decades. In many television appearances and pool exhibitions, the public came to know a rotund, jovial, lovable scamp proud of being a professional gambler who had never worked, whose long monologues about himself were a combination of outrageous, partly truthful boasts and some obvious lies.
Fats said he learned pool and poker at age 5, played cards and pool for money by age 10, had traveled around the world beating everyone who put up cash money. He said he could whistle in five languages, had survived two shipwrecks, and knew kings, queens, and movie stars. Fats said he was the greatest pool hustler of all time. At 5’ 10” and nearing 300 pounds, he was a natural-born comedian. When people think of famous pool players they think of Minnesota Fats.
Early on he was called New York Fats or Broadway Fats. His father encouraged him and staked him to gamble from an early age. When he was 13, the automobile dealers in New York promoted a big pool match between Fats and a world-champion 9-ball player and pool celebrity, Cowboy Weston. Fats beat him.
Fats arrived on Broadway, the heart of New York, in the roaring 1920s. Gambling and pool were very big across America. A man by the name of Ralph Greenleaf made $2,000 a week from his vaudeville act at the Palace, shooting trick shots and bank shots. Fats practiced and practiced all these shots.
While still a teenager, Fats became a friend and protégé of Titanic Thompson, one of America’s best known gamblers. Titanic became famous as a witness in the sensational trial of George McManus for the murder of mobster Arnold Rothstein. Titanic was also famous for his proposition bets and his large wagers. Writer Damon Runyon modeled the character Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls after Titanic. Titanic introduced Fats to Nick the Greek, Runyon, Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, Nicky Arnstein, Babe Ruth, and his best friend, Hubert “the Giant” Cokes. Cokes backed a teenaged Fats to play pool games for $1,000 a game. Tommy Thomas, Titanic’s son, said, “(Titanic) said Hubert was the most dangerous smart man he ever knew. He would carry two .45 pistols and walk into any pool hall and challenge anyone to a game of one pocket or a fist fight for any amount of money.”
More than anything else Fats learned from his mentors, he learned the art of “the conversation”: The taunts, brags, challenges, and negotiations over the game or the spot, and finally the bet. Fats also learned not to have backers.
In one epic match, Fats played a top pool player, Coney Island Al, backed by a big-bookmaker named Smart Henry. After Titanic and Cokes made many side bets and increasing bets, Fats beat him. This led Titanic Thompson to lay a new road name on Fats, Double-Smart Fats.
During the depression of the 1930s, Fats went on the road in his brand- new Cadillac, coast to coast, playing the “lemon proposition” — shooting under his skill level and hustling everyone. Not only did Fats have “the conversation” to set up the match, he talked all the time whenever he shot or you shot or any time. Fats made them want to beat him, and believe they could, as the stakes increased. His motto was, “I’ll give you an out and take out after you.”
When Fats arrived in Oklahoma City, the big gambling game was one pocket, where you had to sink any eight balls in one corner pocket. Jack Hill invented the game and Cokes had already been there. Fats stayed six months and came away the best one pocket player in gambling except for Cokes.
As a road gambler, Fats played all games: Poker, gin rummy, knock rummy, and clabbiash. “What if you are the best gin rummy player in the world and they don’t play gin rummy?,” he said. In his tours through the country in the 1930s, he wasn’t well-known. Although he often bragged he beat everyone, he did go broke in some poker games, and his wife, who is considered more credible, said he had a weakness for dice. She said they “lived like kings.” When you found the big pool hall in a town, you found gamblers for dominos, gin, a bookie for sports or horses, and access to a poker game. The pool hall was the men’s gathering place. In the late ‘30s, Fats ran into Wimpy Lassiter, a top road hustler and tournament champion, in Washington, D.C. They played all night and Fats got all his money.
Fats would go to billiard and pool tournaments but rarely enter. He was there for the gambling on the side. At the 1941 World Championships in Chicago Willie Mosconi won, but Fats set up a booking operation with a line on all the matches. He booked 156 bets and won 154 of them. Flush with cash, he headed his new LaSalle to the Little Egypt part of Southern Illinois known for its wide-open gambling. The high-roller poker game in tiny Du Quoin, Illinois, was run by Muzz Riggio and Joe Scoffic. Fats became a regular. Titanic and Cokes both played in the poker game. As he often did, challenging the pool hall owner or house man, Fats played Muzz pool for several days and beat him badly. They played various pool propositions for hours, then gin and clabbiash for hours, then poker, and finally return to the pool table.
In 1941, Fats met Evelyn, his wife of 44 years, working at the Evening Star, a nightclub and gambling joint owned by Riggio and Scoffic. She did all the driving, carried the bags, fixed the flats, and dealt with the hotels. “The heaviest thing Fats ever lifted was a silver dollar,” Evelyn said.
One night the big poker game at the St. Nicholas was robbed by men with machine guns. Cokes, Riggio, and Fats were among those playing. The robbers told them to take off their clothes and lay on the floor. Fats started “the conversation” saying he was too fat to lay on the floor and citing health problems. They told him to stand against the wall and shut up or they’d kill him. He kept talking. The robbers got $150,000 in cash and the poker game continued with markers.
Nearby Evansville, Indiana, had experienced an oil boom and also had wide-open gambling. Titanic, Ray Ryan, and Cokes were playing in a huge poker game at the McCurdy Hotel joined by mobsters and oil men. A man true to his hustler ways, Fats made frequent trips to Evansville.
Ray Ryan won $250,000 from oil man H. L. Hunt playing gin rummy. He won $550,000 from Nick the Greek in heads-up poker in Las Vegas in 1949. Fats played a series of pool matches over several days with high-roller Ryan. They changed the bet many ways, but Fats always won.
Titanic was known for his eye-hand coordination. He traveled with golf clubs, pool cues, a bowling ball, horseshoes, and a shotgun for skeet shooting. However, he never beat Fats on the pool table. Fats won $25,000 from Titanic in Evansville playing one pocket. According to Carlton Stowers, Titanic’s biographer, Titanic told Cokes, “I got to figure the guy’s about half crazy in addition to being a helluva pool player. God, he never shuts up ... Not making much sense, just talking to hear his damn head rattle. Likes to drive me crazy.” Titanic played all games right- and left-handed and admitted that Fats also beat him one handed.
During World War II, the biggest gambling action was in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the fleet and a great deal of war industry. Titanic and his new bride relocated there, as did Fats and his new bride. Titanic rented an old mansion and had frequent parties. Pool hustler Wimpy Lassiter showed up. Fats refused to play him again, but took him on as a partner and they toured country clubs and pool halls in nearby states working the “lemon proposition.”
Titanic’s son, Tommy Thomas, said that his father was playing one pocket against Fats the night he was born in 1944. Titanic said Fats was the very best when playing his own money.
After World War II, Fats and Evelyn returned to Dowell, Illinois. Fats spent the 1950s in semi-retirement, playing pool and poker around Little Egypt.
1961 saw the debut of the movie The Hustler, which starred Paul Newman as Fast Eddie, a pool hustler, Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, and George C. Scott as a cold-hearted professional gambler. These three and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations. Willie Mosconi, long-time world champion of billiards, was a technical advisor for the film. He did many of the trick shots. He told a reporter that the Fats character “was patterned after a real live pool hustler known as New York Fats.” The author of the novel, Walter Tevis, said it was not. Much like Rounders helped increase poker’s popularity, this movie started a real revival in pool rooms and pool products.
In the film, “Minnesota Fats” is elegantly groomed and very taciturn, a man of few words. In the real world Fats looked like an unmade bed and never shut up. However, Fats took the name Minnesota Fats and swore until his dying day the film was about him. In the novel, but not the movie, Fats had a facial tick and jerked his head up every 10 seconds or so. The new Minnesota Fats did that sometimes, and used it in his comic delivery of a constant monologue.
From 1961 until 1972, the Jansco brothers held a Hustler’s Pool Tournament in Johnston City, Illinois, a short drive from Fats’ home. The new Minnesota Fats was the press spokesperson. He told Sports Illustrated he would sue the movie people for stealing his life. Thompson and Cokes were there. Titanic said, “There ain’t a fine, worthwhile hustler in the world who is not here.”
Fats always made fun of tournaments. He told the press the winner would get $20,000 and he’d play him for that. Typical of Fats’ performance was at the 1970 Hustler’s convention tourney. Richie Florence, 25, was considered the best pool shooter in America, touring the country and never losing in money matches. Fats played him off and on for two weeks and won $20,000 from him. Fats would wait until Richie was tired or drinking to play. He’d quit if Richie was shooting good. He wouldn’t show up when scheduled. In other years, Fats won almost $100,000 from some of the young champions using the same strategy. Like his mentor, Titanic, Fats never drank or smoked. He’d show up in the middle of the night ready to play all night. He was a buffoon on purpose but Fats won big money. His bragging about the huge gambling on television and in magazines probably led to an FBI gambling raid in 1972 that ended the Hustler’s tournaments.
After six pool hustlers had testified before the Grand Jury, Minnesota Fats went in. “The conversation” won the day. The Grand Jurors followed him out in the hall for autographs. The charges were dropped.
In interviews, Fats would ridicule billiard tournaments and Mosconi, who was world champ 15 times. Fats said, “Putting a tuxedo on a pool player is like putting ice cream on a hot dog. What if they played golf or tennis or baseball in tuxedos? If I wanted a trophy, I’d buy a trophy.”
In 1978, Howard Cosell and ABC Wide World of Sports featured a match between Fats and Mosconi. It was the second highest rated sports show that year behind the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fight. Mosconi set the rules: No one pocket, and Fats could not talk while Mosconi shot. The audience saw mostly that Mosconi stayed furious the whole time. He hated Fats. Both were 65 years old. Fats kept up the chatter and the needle, “the conversation.” The studio audience laughed throughout. Once when Mosconi was shooting, Fats walked over and addressed the audience at length. He said, “I am an expert, world champion card player ... beat everybody living playing cards. I’m a high-rolling gambler.”
He offered to play one pocket for $20,000, and threw a big wad of money, maybe $35,000 in $1,000 and $500 bills, on the pool table from his huge boodle. Those denominations were not in circulation any longer. Cosell and his helpers pushed him toward his seat. Mosconi won the match. Minnesota Fats won the hearts of the public.
Minnesota Fats was at Tom Moore’s invitation-only gambler’s convention in Reno in 1969, the forerunner to the World Series of Poker. He was at the 1979 WSOP when the Poker Hall of Fame started. In a televised interview, Fats said he had played poker with most of the greats, mentioning Red Winn and saying he’d known Johnny Moss all his life. Fats said poker players are “100-1 over any other kind of people on earth ... bet ‘em $5,000 with your finger, you’ll get paid.”
As pool and Fats became very popular, he appeared on many television shows including the “Tonight Show”, “Joey Bishop”, and “What’s My Line?”. There was an autobiography, and magazine profiles in Sports Illustrated and Esquire. He played himself in some television series and one flop movie. He had his own television series, “Celebrity Billiards”, with guests such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Milton Berle, and James Garner. Garner, who played Maverick, beat Fats at pool.
With Minnesota Fats the best known name in pool, he was hired by a billiards equipment manufacturer to tour and do exhibits. After 44 years of marriage, his beloved Evelyn divorced him. She said she was tired of the, “talk, talk, talk.”
In 1984, Fats moved to Nashville. The elegant, old Hermitage Hotel gave him a $100 a day suite for $13 a day. He lived there for eight years, sitting in the lobby and asking folks if they wanted his autograph. He had a silver stamp pad with a rubber stamp of his name. At nights, he’d go to a nightclub in Music City and have the band introduce him. He’d dance and stamp out a few autographs. Fats married a woman half his age and lived with her his last years. He died at age 82.
Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel. The book is available from all Amazons.