It was that hallowed time of Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men, and shining tinsel decorations were strung all over the Golden Q Billiard Parlor. Luther (Wimpy) Lassiter, the world pocket billiards champion, and James (Cicero) Murphy, who was contesting Wimpy's eminence, wished each other a happy holiday and other tidings of good cheer. Then Lassiter screwed together his pool cue with the $2.50 gold coin imbedded in the shaft, Murphy unbuttoned his tuxedo coat, and in this Yuletide setting the two men got down to the business of beating each other's brains out.
They shot pool for five days—all through the week between Christmas and New Year's—with the world championship plus $1,500 belonging to the winner and $1,000 plus condolences to the loser. No matter what was playing at the Radio City Music Hall across the East River in Manhattan, no matter what was happening anywhere, this was the green felt supergame, this was the holiday show for hustlers.
It is necessary to understand that Wimpy Lassiter and Cicero Murphy are magical names in an insulated world within a world. The Golden Q is in Queens, a jewel among the auto-repair shops and junkyards and not the easiest place in the world to find. Still, when the game began, every shooter in the East—informed by the mysterious network that drums out news of where the action is—had arrived. They sat in the bleachers and stared, enchanted, at the sight of one man reducing another to the quivers.
For this select audience the destruction was a joy to behold. The game is fourteen-one—otherwise known as straight pool—but by any name it is sweet torture. Let any two ordinary sharks play it, mincing around a table and pretending to be elaborately casual, and the pressures are tough enough. But put the two best shooters in the world in a game and it suddenly is more than a contest involving the knocking of colored balls into pockets. It becomes a ballet of dainty, deadly, impossible shots. Each man tightens the other down, turn by turn, until those telling beads of sweat appear on foreheads, veins stand out along necks in bold relief and there is not enough dusting powder in the whole world to keep the palms dry.
Championship pool is a perilous, careful game of cool eye and calm wrist. But shots are only one part of it. The other part began almost as soon as Cicero Murphy hit his first ball on Monday afternoon.
"I do declare, Mr. Murphy," Luther Lassiter, who is silver-haired and old-plantation, would sincerely say, "you sure are gettin' in some right fine strokes."
And Murphy, who is born fresh, lives a lifetime and dies of old age with each game, would smile uncertainly, acknowledging the compliment. Then he would hit a wobbler, bending over the table, the large vein pulsing across his forehead. Then he would miss.
It was all very regulation. That is, Wimpy and Cicero were introduced as Mister Lassiter and Mister Murphy. The event was an official world challenge match—which meant they had to wear tuxedos. This is done to show the world that pocket billiards is a game played by gentlemen under Tiffany lamps in elegant, pine-paneled rooms.
Still, there was enough of the oldtime aroma to prove that pool—glory be—will never really change. On the large, hand-painted scoreboard the word challenge was spelled "challange," and the air was mauve with cigar smoke, which was pierced by the occasional glint of diamond ring on little finger or solid-gold inlay on front tooth. The tournament table was bracketed on two sides by bleachers set in so close that the crowd had to draw back or duck for some of the shots. It seemed that the two champs were playing for their lives in a pit.
For a game shot through with overtones of terror, the mechanics were deceptively simple. The match was 1,500 points—one point per ball pocketed. But to get that far the shooters had to struggle through 10 games and a progressive point system, giving each man the chance to reduce the other to Jell-O, which is what pool is all about.
Lassiter showed up from Elizabeth City, N.C. with the miseries, a symptom known to every pool shark in the country. As one of them insisted, "the badder that man feels, look out, because the better he shoots." Another oldtimer, who once hustled in parlors around New York as the Masked Marvel, said, "He stands there, and you think you're murdering him, and he is so cool that if you touch him you get cold. When he starts sinking 'em he is a terrible man."
It began fast.
Monday afternoon. "Oh, man," said Wimpy, "I feel downright bad. Got this tumble gas on my stomach. I swear, I don't know what's wrong with me."
He had only 72 balls when Cicero shot out on him at 150. He was 78 points down.
Monday evening. "Oh, man," Wimpy complained, "some days you can't get started."
He had pocketed only 47 balls when Murphy shot out. Wimpy was now 181 points down.
Tuesday afternoon. "He's whomped so many balls I'm blind," said Wimpy. "I swear, I've got to give up this game."
And Cicero, perhaps listening to all this, ran 81 balls on him. But finally he missed. Lassiter shuffled up to the table, wobbly and splay-legged as though coming off his deathbed. He ran 71 balls and began to narrow the lead.
That night he observed, "I got to keep ol' Father Time from catchin' up with me," then smoothly ran 88 balls in one brace and won the game. Suddenly Cicero was 38 behind.
They played through Wednesday, and by the start of Thursday afternoon's session the total score was Murphy 900, Lassiter 889.
The crowd assembled and Murphy began warming up, punching at the balls with short, nervous strokes. But at 10 minutes to game time Wimpy hadn't appeared. Scorer Ken Smith, who worries about such things, called the motel across the street, and soon Lassiter ambled over, wearing his tuxedo and a green woolen stocking cap. He shuffled into the room, sat down and began assembling his cue while Cicero fidgeted. "I wuz watching a pretty good ol' jungle movie on television," Wimpy explained, "an' I hated to leave it." Would he care to warm up? "Naw," he said. "Let 'em go." He ran 43 balls on Murphy for a starter, and ended with 161 to Murphy's 131, which meant he had taken the lead by 19 balls.
On Thursday night, Cicero, a local favorite from Brooklyn, was walking briskly around the table, plopping in warmup shots with staccato strokes under the adoring eyes of more than 300 fans, while Lassiter sat in the coffee shop outside, drinking a cup of tea. Play began, and the score had reached 113-26 for Lassiter, when Cicero got hot. An appreciative growl ran through the gallery. He began to run balls from all around the table, moving ever faster, bending, ducking, dipping, squatting to line them up and then stroke them into the pockets with cool certainty.
The run got up to 93 and the crowd began to applaud with almost every shot. Outside the draperies, one peeper would look through a slit in the curtain and relay the running score back to the crowd standing around. "He's got one hundred and seven" the man would hiss. "You hear that?" And a soft ripple of applause would follow. Murphy got it up to 120, and the tension in the room began to wilt collars and all through the smoky haze the lighted ends of cigars were winking on and off" like fireflies. Then Murphy permitted one break in his concentration. He was hot; he knew it, the crowd knew it. But he made the mistake of glancing over at Lassiter to see how he was reacting.
Wimpy was not reacting. He was slumped in his chair, head down, mouth slightly ajar—asleep. Two balls later, Cicero missed.
Lassiter, suddenly awake and sharp-eyed, came out with spring in his step and looked fondly down at the balls as though they were his children. "My, my," he said, "ain't this sumpin' now." And while Murphy hunched in the chair, glowering, Wimpy shot out. The score: 1,200 to 1,179, favor of Wimpy.
By Friday night, Lassiter was ahead 1,350 to 1,334, and Cicero was clearly jumpy. "Don't light any matches when the shooter is facing you," the announcer instructed the crowd. "Don't make any fast movements." Cicero ran 28 and missed.
Wimpy stepped up, chalking his cue and looking at the gallery. "Tha's all right," he said. "You can keep it noisy with me."
What followed was terrible to see. Stroke by stroke, Cicero was cut down. At two balls to go, Wimpy looked at the table and smiled, then looked across at Murphy. "Well," said Wimpy, "it's get-tin' damp. So I'd better hurry."
There was no need, really. Cicero's shots were off. The crowd knew he had lost long before Cicero himself knew it. The final total: 1,500 to 1,435.
"I swear," sighed Wimpy, putting away the $1,500 check, "pool is the toughest game in the whole worl'. Only one thing tougher than pool, and that's rodeo riding.
"There are three secrets to shooting pool. No. 1 is good health. No. 2 is practice. And I ain't gonna tell you what No. 3 is."
Never mind, Wimpy. We know.