Hustlers Fade
November 24, 2007 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Fast Eddie Felsen's time has passed. Pool hustlers once traveled the U.S., a nomadic undercover elite who made their living by allowing local players to feel in control - until real money was at stake. Now, they are no more. The best players became famous on an ill-fated televised tournament series. They are too recognizable to hustle the locals. “Real hustling — driving to a pool room in another state, walking in, setting the trap, busting the local guy and then heading to a new town — is different. That’s what ain’t there any more.”
posted by Kirth Gerson (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting little piece from the NYT there.

The Hustler is, I have to say, one of my all-time favorite movies. I've seen it bunches of times. Newman is so good in the role, you've got fantastic supporting role actors George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie, and, hey, it's about pool hustling and twisted romance, how can you go wrong? Here's the excellent final scene.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:53 PM on November 24, 2007

Too much romanticism (by those who aren't pool hustlers) and sentimentality (by those who are/used to be) for my taste. Never understood the urge to turn every vanishing sub culture into worshiping.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:58 PM on November 24, 2007

i always wanted to be a pool hustler. too bad i suck at it.
posted by msconduct at 4:59 PM on November 24, 2007

The piece from the NYT is weird because the author has just written a book on Kid Delicious "The Last American Pool Hustler". WTF happened to him. Is he chopped liver?
posted by Xurando at 5:02 PM on November 24, 2007

Wow flapjax it's been forever since I saw that. I am now so going to find a torrentrent the DVD and see the whole movie again.
posted by localroger at 5:45 PM on November 24, 2007

When I first heard the term "pool hustler" I thought it was one of those sleazy, greasy-looking lotharios who cruise resort pools for hot women.

I think I like my definition better.
posted by bwg at 6:22 PM on November 24, 2007

Interesting article, thanks for posting it.

I used to work for a guy who said he was a small time hustler in the 1970s. Said that there was a master-hustler in Seattle that a would-be hustler would go and visit, and for the right consideration the master would let you copy from his book of places to play pool for money across the west. It would list not just places but local players who thought they were good and their weaknesses and how much they had lost in the past. My boss said that he would pay for road trips by hustling pool.

He was a guy with a lot of stories, however.
posted by LarryC at 6:26 PM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Previously, and props to the all-too-obscure Walter Tevis, who wrote the original novels upon which 'The Hustler' and 'The Color of Money' were based.
posted by Kinbote at 6:33 PM on November 24, 2007

Excellent. Thank you.
posted by Neiltupper at 6:35 PM on November 24, 2007

My Pop used to hustle Snooker for pocket money in the grand metropolis of Salem, Oregon during WWII. At nearly 87 he can still clean my clock, but then I've always sucked.
posted by jgaiser at 6:39 PM on November 24, 2007

Kid Delicious NPR interview.
posted by photoslob at 7:12 PM on November 24, 2007

I never understood why someone would shoot pool, with a stranger, for money. Or darts for that matter. Hey, why don't we fight for money, that's something I'm good at. No?
Seems just as arbitrary. But without the illusion of safety I guess.
There are a few underground boxing clubs, but hell, why not then just shoot it out and whomever is left alive gets the other guy's cash.
I suppose this all might have something to do with the dissipation of organized crime as well. You can't really call the cops if someone blows you off on an illegal gambling debt. So you call the cops for the underworld.
Still, just an illusion of propriety.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:19 PM on November 24, 2007

Smedleyman: Pain and death.

... just a couple differences off the top of my head.
posted by basicchannel at 7:37 PM on November 24, 2007

Now a days they do it in reverse. Instead of traveling they stay put and wait for the prey. Some of them work the tourist sites and feed on the morons that happen to believe that, after a few drinks, they can beat anyone. They work him or her for a bit and then throw down bigger money. The tourist will pony up the cash and walk out $500 lighter. I watched this happen a while back when I was in Mexico.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:47 PM on November 24, 2007

My pick.
posted by Relay at 8:29 PM on November 24, 2007

Nitpick: Rodney Morris hasn't been a stranger in any pool room since at least 1993.

Why play pool for money with a stranger? It's fun. I think there's a saying about money won being sweeter than money earned, even though in one case, the money went to replacing my slashed tires. (Better my tires than my neck.)

I can't imagine wanting to spend my life traveling around the country and hustling for a living, though. I spent a few years traveling around New England for tournaments and that was enough.

Great post.
posted by swerve at 9:31 PM on November 24, 2007

I hustled pool, in the sense that I got my drinks bought and walked out of the bar with more money than I walked in with. I never got rich, I never got stabbed, but yeah, I've hustled some pool.

I had a table in the basement from birth. My dad put himself through trade school hustling pool. In high school, I avoided PE by tending the pool tables (Yay private school!). In college, my work-study job was running the pool room (this was back in the Primatene mists of proto-history, when pool tables were considered a sport, like bowling).

There is an extant network to this day of people willing to play you for real money in pool halls all over the USA. Good pool hustlers aren't the best players, they're the players who know how to walk away before it gets ugly.

And, yeah, I'm takin' all comers. Let's play for a beer. Just for friendlies.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:41 PM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you have any interest in pool hustling, this page is a must read. He was an incredible all around athlete and quite possibly the best to play the game, Mosconi included. Dedicated to the road, would rather beat a nobody for $7 than beat the champion of the world with nothing at stake. He was very conscious of how fame would effect his earnings and so he chose to stay on the down low. But that all said, pool hustling died before TV started showing championships. Guys still go around the country and gamble for a few months at a time but it's probably been decades since anyone has been making a living from betting on themselves year in and year out.

If you enjoy the above page, don't miss the three links at the bottom. They're easy to overlook.



It might be tough to find a weaker opponent in pool who will play you for money, but finding a weaker opponent in boxing who will put up their own cash? That would take some pretty strong sales skills.

And for anyone who might be interested in that sort of thing (underground boxing, that is), google up Kimbo Slice. That's not a hustle; just a couple of proud guys that some others are betting on. Not for the squeamish, it's on the gruesome side.
posted by BigSky at 9:51 PM on November 24, 2007


I don't think it's the illusion of proprietary that makes people prefer to play pool for money instead of fighting for money or shooting eachother with guns for money. It's, as basicchannel points out: pain and death.

Lose to a pool hustler? Lose money.
Lose to a boxer? Lose money and feel horrible pain for long time.
Lose to a shooter? Lose money and life.
posted by Bugbread at 10:59 PM on November 24, 2007

If the topic interests you, get your hands on a copy of Ned Polsky's "Hustlers, Beats and Others" - described on Google Books as "The classic study of deviance, from hustlers to beats, jazz musicians, and pornographers."

Originally published in the late 1960s, and recently reprinted in paperback, it's a classic of urban sociology/criminology.
posted by enrevanche at 6:59 AM on November 25, 2007

The reason people play pool with strangers for money is the same reason they play poker and other games with strangers for money: without money, it's all about the relationships, and if you're playing with strangers there's no relationship.
posted by davejay at 9:45 AM on November 25, 2007

I don't understand how "hustling" is any different than simply "winning." Was Jesse Owen a 100m Spring hustler? Michael Jordan a basketball hustler?

Does the mere act of pretending to be bad all of a sudden makes you a hustler? Why? Athletes psyche each other out all the time. Long distance runners will frequently run 2nd or 3rd behind a leader and hold themselves back until the finish line is in sight. Are they hustlers?

It seems like a fundamentally flawed approach to getting money from people. After all, how do you know when to start playing "good"? For all you know, you could pretend to be bad for a few games, then when you think the mark is ready for a fleecing, they simply leave with all the money you fronted playing poorly. And how do you know if they're even able to be hustled? What if the guy you're hustling is a pro? Then you just lose and keep losing.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:12 AM on November 25, 2007

Civil_Disobedient writes "Does the mere act of pretending to be bad all of a sudden makes you a hustler? Why? Athletes psyche each other out all the time. Long distance runners will frequently run 2nd or 3rd behind a leader and hold themselves back until the finish line is in sight. Are they hustlers?"

I think pretending to be bad in previous heats in order to make someone compete with you for the big time is what makes it hustling.

For example, with these long distance runners, I assume you mean they're lagging behind and then zoom ahead in the same race. That isn't hustling, because whether they lag or not, that race is getting run. And even if they lag behind in the...I dunno what they're called...qualifying matches, they may be psyching other athletes out, but as far as I know, these other athletes don't decide whether or not to compete in the final race based on how poorly our running-hustler did in the heats. And, again, correct me if I'm wrong, but the prize money is the same regardless of who competes, right? Even if target Mark competes in the marathon specifically because he thinks he can beat hustler Bob, who has actually been secretly running extra slow, hustler Bob wouldn't win any more money than if he competed in the marathon without target Mark. So he's not really hustling: his secret intentional ineptitude hasn't resulted in someone getting in over their head to compete with him, letting him get away with their money easily.

Civil_Disobedient writes "It seems like a fundamentally flawed approach to getting money from people. After all, how do you know when to start playing 'good'?"

That's 1/3 of the skill, isn't it? Playing pool well, reading your mark, and fooling your mark. Sure, if you suck at reading your mark, you'll be a lousy hustler. But with any job, if you suck at one third of it, you'll fail.
posted by Bugbread at 10:29 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

What if the guy you're hustling is a pro?

Then it gets interesting, because if you're hustling, you're also a pro.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:05 AM on November 25, 2007

There were two guys hustling in the East Village back in the early nineties. I don't know how successful they were, but. The older guy looked a cook from one of the Indian rastaurants on sixth street, poorly dressed, bad english. the younger guy looked like any old rocker. He would frequently be "drunk" by ten pm and stay "drunk" all night. Off one beer. Sometimes two.

They would arrive at the bar seperately but inevitably, when a frat boy or some other clearly rich, clearly not from these parts sucker would come along, the rocker would engage him in a pool game. Lose one, or two, then betting would get involved, and doubles, and the old man would join the action. The frat boy would never know what hit him.

I saw them around for maybe a year and didn't really catch on, not really (I was frequently kind of drunk myself at the time) until one day I walked into a bar...(Mona's?) in the late afternoon, early evening and they were sitting at the bar together, talking with the familiarity of old friends. When they saw that they were no longer alone, they casually drifted apart. The old guy left soon thereafter. The rocker was suddenly "drunk."

I never saw them at the pool halls though. Not in the city, not out in queens or bklyn either.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:34 AM on November 25, 2007

Oh, and the link about Willis is most assuredly Best of The Web.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:43 AM on November 25, 2007

I never understood why someone would shoot pool, with a stranger, for money. Or darts for that matter. Hey, why don't we fight for money, that's something I'm good at. No?

The best part of gambling is that it creates a direct economic reward for those who are able to accurately read a situation.

Think you're great at pool? Put some money where your mouth is. Think you can fight? Let's thrown down for $10k. (yes, people fight for money.) Think the US is going to invade Iran? Let's set a date and choose the odds.

People are far more honest with their money than they are with their mouths.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 1:05 PM on November 25, 2007

Hustling is different from winning because in a hustle you have to get the other person to bet fairly significant sums (like say a day or two of pay) on themselves. People need to believe they have some chance to win before they do that. The hustler would like to make matchups where the opponent has as much chance of winning as a 1400 level player does against Gary Kasparov. That takes some doing.

When two tough players are playing a match with a fair handicap betting their own money, it's called gambling.
posted by BigSky at 2:36 PM on November 25, 2007

I've recently finished reading this book. Highly recommended, and as you can see, remaindered, and available for a song.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:26 PM on November 25, 2007

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