Just around the turn of the century a seemingly bizarre bit of billiard match-making sent a 12-year-old boy to play Al Taylor, then about 30 and one of the country's best balkline players. It was agreed that little Willie Hoppe would be allowed to climb on the table to make his shots. At the outset of the match, which was held at the luxurious American Billiard Academy in Chicago, Taylor was very jovial. He patted Willie on the head and promised to buy him ice cream if he won. And Willie did win, 300 to 207. Taylor burst into a rage, slamming his cue across his knee. After buying ice cream for his conqueror, he gave up billiards and went to Colorado to take up mining.
The victory over Taylor made Willie nationally famous as "The Boy Wonder," a name he always detested but which ironically persisted, not only after his hair grew thin and gray, but even after his retirement from tournament billiards two years ago. The match with Taylor, however, was just another milestone in an implausible childhood and youth.
Six years before, Willie and Frank Hoppe had invaded the poolroom of their father's Commercial Hotel in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York. They were attracted by the sharp click of billiard balls and the fast quips of traveling salesmen who met there to play and kibitz. Willie was 6, Frank 8. Their father, a good player, watched at first as they dragged soap boxes up to the table and stood on them to imitate the shots they had seen. But he soon took over the boys' instruction, drilling them several hours each morning. For Mr. Hoppe had fixed on an idea: he was determined to see his tykes trim the visiting drummers.
Impressed (and embarrassed) when the little Hoppes made them look like so many jelly-fingered beginners, the patrons of the Commercial persuaded Papa Hoppe to take his boys to Professor Daly's billiard academy in New York. In an exhibition there Frank and Willie did so well that they stayed for two weeks at the invitation of the professor, who had noted how they pleased the crowds in his establishment. At the end of the engagement Mr. Hoppe reached a decision. He summoned his wife, billed Frank and Willie as "The Boy Wonders" and put his show on the road.
The boys barnstormed through the small towns of the country. Pool hall proprietors paid from $1 to $25 for an exhibition. Their fortunes were uncertain. Sometimes Mama had to pawn her diamond to get the family out of town. When Willie was 12 Frank quit the act, determined to study stenography. (He returned to Cornwall and died there in the late '30s after teaching billiards in Chicago.) But Willie stuck with it. He soon became enough of an attraction in himself. He improved his situation by mastering the more difficult balkline billiards, at which Americans Jake Schaefer and George Slosson and Frenchman Maurice (The Lion) Vignaux were making handsome incomes. After his balkline victory over Taylor, Willie prospered.
At 16 Willie toured with Jake Schaefer. But when, two years later, he challenged Slosson, who had dethroned Schaefer for the 18.2 championship, Slosson sneered that he would not play an unknown.
Soon thereafter Willie made a reputation which no one could ignore. (Slosson did meet and lose to him the following year.) He went to Paris to play Vignaux for the world's 18.1 title.
The night of January 15, 1906, some 3,000 Frenchmen crowded into the lavish ballroom of the Grand Hotel to watch the old Lion defeat this challenger who looked like a lad at his first formal dance. The white-maned Vignaux had majestic bearing and a gift for dramatic flourish. He seemed like an eminent professor about to squelch a college freshman. But plump, round-faced Willie, his hair plastered and parted in the middle, was quite calm. He bent over the table like a laboratory scientist, prepared to capitalize on every error Vignaux made. Whenever Vignaux missed he yielded the table with an elaborately sardonic bow. Willie, not realizing its effect on the Lion's blood pressure, would give him a moonfaced grin and return to work. While the audience booed his cold efficiency, Hoppe scored repeated high runs and won the title, 500-323. He returned to New York to be met by a great crowd and a brass band playing The Yankee Doodle Boy; he was the champion of the world—and still only 18 years old.