It was billed as the world's first International Pocket Billiards Championship—straight pool dressed in a tuxedo under glass chandeliers, all ballroom posh and hush, and pained expressions all around when someone asked if the international entry from Puerto Rico wasn't the same Tony Montalvo who used to hustle nine-ball in Spanish Harlem? "Well," they said, "he was born in Puerto Rico." No matter. Three of the other entries were bona fide imports, and if they didn't win last week's tournament at the New York Hotel Commodore, it was only because they had never played the game before.
Hold on a minute. Never?
"That's right—never," said Eddie Charlton, Australia's world open champion of snooker.
Rex Williams grinned as he nodded. He's the world billiards champion from England. "I didn't even know the rules of the game," he said. "A couple of times during a match I wasn't sure of the regulation and I had to guess. It's a hard way to learn a game, in world competition I mean."
October 13, 1968
The third foreign entry was Kazuo Fujima, the champion of Japan, but his game is rotation. He played his first game of straight pool in a world tournament two years ago, which gave him a slight head start on Charlton and Williams. By contrast, Irving Crane, who won the championship, has been playing straight pool (any ball, any pocket) for 43 years.
Williams and Fujima each won two of their 15 games in the round-robin competition; Charlton won three. "If those Englishmen would learn how to put English on a ball," said Cueball Kelly, the trick-shot artist who was one of the referees, "they'd wipe out a lot of these guys." No one expected any of the threesome to win even one game, and their record was considered remarkable. But Charlton was so annoyed by his performance that he bought a pool table and is having it shipped to Australia. (Snooker is played on a larger table—six by 12 feet—with smaller balls and the pockets smaller and rounded.)
"This game is not as exacting as snooker," Charlton said dryly. "I might even say it's a bloody kid's game."
For his victory, Crane earned $4.000. The day after the tournament ended, Williams returned to England where he'll play a seven-week challenge series for $7,200 in addition to $240 appearance money for each match. In the United States pool professionals pay to enter tournaments, pay all their own expenses, rarely win as much as $8,000 in a single year, and usually end with a net of zero. "The promoters have everything their way," said one U.S. pro. "They know we'll play because we love the game—that we'd play for nothing. And not because we expect to make a living at it."
"What the American professionals don't realize," said Charlton, "is that this is a business. You're not just a pool player or a snooker player but a businessman. I wonder if they know this?"
He and Williams were sitting at a small table in a room next to the one where the tournament was being put on. Here a practice table had been set up, and at the moment Joe Balsis, who later would run 150 straight balls against Luther Lassiter, was sharpening his stroke. Nearby, Lassiter, who is the major attraction of any pool tournament, was waiting for his turn on the table. Thirty people were watching Balsis. Inside, less than that number were watching a game in progress. "That's what I mean," said Charlton. "They are giving it away for nothing. The fans get overexposed. It's like overeating. After awhile they won't come to see you play because they've seen all they want."
Williams shook his head. "I don't think they've drawn as many as 100 people a day here. I remember one match Eddie and I played in Sydney. We drew 11,000 fans in six days, and they had to turn away a few thousand more because there wasn't any more room."
Perhaps not as unprofessional as Williams and Charlton believe, the promoters tried to juice up their crowd appeal by importing a bunch of Bunnies from the Playboy Club. They began with two, dressed in miniskirts and blouses, but for the final night, when ABC's Wide World of Sports arrived for the climax, the Bunnies had multiplied to eight and had stripped to the legal minimum. "What they are going to do," said Joe Richards, the impish dean of billiard writers, "is give pool a bad name." Someone else suggested that instead of the Bunnies, they should have brought in Minnesota Fats.
"Minnesota Fats!" yelled Cueball Kelly. "I could go out on the street right now and grab the first five people I see, and Minnesota Fats couldn't beat any of them. Hell, he couldn't beat you. Besides, don't call him Minnesota Fats. He's New York Fats. He just grabbed that name after Jackie Gleason made that movie. He don't even know where Minnesota is."
On the final night Crane, who had been among the leaders from the first day, needed a victory over Steve Mizerak Jr. to wrap up his championship. A loss would throw him into a three-way tie with Mizerak and Balsis, who was growing stronger with each game he played, and would mean a playoff that could last until the next morning.
"And I don't need that," said Crane.
"Playing all night?" someone asked.
"Playing Balsis again," said Crane, grinning. "He's already beaten me once. He had me 94-12, but I got up to 136 and I left him with one heck of a tough shot. When I sat down I was thinking that he'd never make it. Then I was thinking, 'My God! He made it.' And he ran 56 balls and out. All I could do was sit in that chair and watch. You can't win when you're sitting."
"What's your strategy for Mizerak?"
"Keeping him in the chair," said Crane.
For Mizerak, the day had begun normally enough. He was up at 7 a.m., and half an hour later he was on his way to the Grammar School in Perth Amboy, N.J., where he teaches seventh grade history and geography. "I was going to take the day off," he said, "but I chickened out. I had quite a time, yelling at the kids."
"Taking your nerves out on them?" said a friend.
"No, they were taking them out on me. All morning they were sticking their heads out the window, and I got a reprimand from the principal. The next time I catch a kid with his head out the window, the rest of him will follow."
Finally the last game started. Mizerak broke, and Crane, usually conservative, tried a long, difficult shot and missed. "That's the trouble with this game," he said ruefully. "You can play and play and play, and you're still going to miss. That's the part that's hard to take."
Mizerak went to work. Fourteen straight, then another 14. A Bunny stepped up to rack the balls. Her tail fell off. Mizerak grinned at her, dropped 42 more shots and then played safe. And so did Crane, and it went that way until Mizerak gambled and missed, and Crane, a master at controlling the cue ball—and that's the only real secret of straight pool—methodically ran 107 straight shots. Then he missed, gambling on a long bank shot that left him grumbling. "Balls all over the table," he said, "and I can't even see one to shoot."
Mizerak made a run of 15 and another of 31, but he was done. Crane reached 150 and the championship, and Joe Balsis, who had been out in the other room practicing, came rushing into the room.
"What happened?" said Balsis.
"Put away your cue, Joe," a friend said. "It's all over."