The huge, ornate rosewood and mahogany billiard tables of another day are largely gone from the world and with them the precise and gentlemanly game that was once played on their smooth felt surfaces. Now the man whose name was virtually synonymous with that game has gone as well: Willie Hoppe died last week in Miami at the age of 71.
At 7, this quiet, single-minded perfectionist who is shown here at memorable stages of his long monarchy was an unofficial champion goaded to excellence by an ambitious Hudson Valley barber father, who boxed his ears when he missed a shot. At 18 his world championship became official in Paris, and from then on for 46 years he won title after title playing exhibitions and matches before Presidents and poolroom boys. "I used to get 2,000 people to watch Hoppe," mourned one promoter of the great Edwardian sport. "If I had to invite 10 people to play now, I wouldn't know who to invite."
Veteran at 10, Willie Hoppe was often sharked into competition by his father, a McKinley-era barber, who used to taunt smart-aleck salesmen in poolrooms with the challenge, "I got a kid who could beat you."
World champion at 18, Hoppe won his title from the Frenchman Vignaux in Paris, played later at the White House for admiring William Howard Taft.
February 16, 1959
Victorious Hoppe smokes a rare cigarette at end of San Francisco tournament as dejected loser, Japan's Kinrey Matsuyama, surveys green baize battlefield. Said Hoppe: "It was time to get out while I was still able to win."
Pioneering strobe shot by Gjon Mili in early '40s shows extraordinary control Hoppe exercised on a billiard ball. At Hoppe's touch the unmarked cue ball kisses the first (spotted) ball, arcs sharply backward to strike the first cushion, caroms at proper angle off each of adjacent cushions to fulfill the three-cushion rule and strikes striped ball for a perfect billiard.
Hollywood movie Short of Coolidge era showed master of tricks as well as his trade bounce a billiard ball clean off table to score on Comic Buster Keaton's head in one of many short-subject movies that he made.