Like a mobster or a boxer, a pool hustler doesn't reach his apotheosis until he gets a nickname. So it is that the Republic of Pool includes a Mechanic as well as an Exterminator; a Freezer and a Heater; a Scorpion and a Black Widow. As a scrawny 17-year-old, John Macias of Hattiesburg, Miss., took on the prosaic handle Little John. In the ensuing decade he not only sprouted to six feet but also became the biggest pool gambler in the country. "No one plays higher than Little John," says Jerry (Pittsburgh) Slivka, an accomplished fellow hustler.
Dripping attitude and hair gel, Little John, now 27, claims that last year he busted one player in Cahokia, Ill., for $65,000 and another in Detroit for $50,000. He seldom plays for less than $2,000 a set, and the sticker shock is part of his M.O. "Guys say, 'Let's go for $100,'" he says. "I say, 'Shoot, where I'm from, that's not even considered gambling. When you want to play some real pool, let me know.'"
Countless times, Little John has gone to professional events as a fan and hustled action after the matches have ended for the evening. By the end of the weekend he's been $35,000 to the good, while the winner of the 128-player event has earned $7,500 (and a W-2 form). But Little John loses plenty big, too. Not long ago he drove to New Orleans and lost $60,000. The worst part? He had brought his fiancée to watch. "I had $20,000 on me," says Aprille Kervin, rolling her eyes. "I felt like an ATM."
Says Little John with a shrug, "Hell, I promote my losses. You have to lose sometimes, or no one will play you."
Still, Little John wins so often that he doesn't exactly lead Eddie Felson's life. He and Kervin have a well-appointed home alongside a private golf course in Hattiesburg's most exclusive subdivision. Their two-year-old daughter, Lexi, wants for nothing. If the right opponent is willing to play him on his home table at Snake's Palace--a, um, flavorful joint hard by the Southern Miss campus--Macias will pay the airfare.
Little John resents certain facets of his profession--the 200 nights a year on the road, the physical strain of matches that can span 30 hours, his subterranean credit rating despite an annual income that he expects to be north of six figures--but it beats the hell out of working for $500 a week at a local car lot, the lone "honest" job he says he ever held. "I've never done drugs," he continues, "but there can't be a higher high than going into some town and taking on a guy and all his backers, being up against the nuts and busting 'em all."
In his years of caroming off America's rails, Macias has gotten into few serious beefs. Even when there were 50 or 60 large under the light, he either got his money or paid up. So he wasn't sure how to react when he was robbed last May. He had flown to Boston to play Tony Ruberto. Each placed his $17,000 stake under the table and played for a few hours. Little John took a bathroom break. When he returned, all the money was gone. "There's one of me and a bunch of them," he says. "What could I do?"
Little John exacted his revenge with a postmodern twist. He got on his computer and wrote an account of the "Boston Area Action" on a message board at a popular pool site, azbilliards.com. He concluded that "the Boston area is no good for action, and we all know someone in Tony's click [sic] got the money." The gambit worked masterfully. Ruberto maintains that he and his backers had nothing to do with the missing loot. ("We got our money back," Ruberto told SI. "Let's just say it wasn't pretty.") But by all accounts, his action has dried up around Boston.
While Little John has "yet to see dime one," he says, he's recovered fine. As his saga reverberated in the Internet echo chamber, he won sympathy from all corners. He was invited to play on the International Pool Tour, the new eight-ball circuit (box, below).
Last week, as Little John ticked off his recent run of good fortune, his cellphone chirped. The caller reported that there might be action in Corpus Christi. For Little John it was another number to program into his phone, another player to Google later that night. Sure enough, the next morning he packed up his cues and gadgets and chargers and, like a one-man circus, headed off to the next town, trying to divorce another sucker from the contents of his pockets.