'em up with
Freddy 'The Beard' Bentivegna, part 1
Freddy 'The Beard' Bentivegna, Chicago's grizzled sage of One Pocket and Bank Pool, recently agreed to be interviewed by OnePocket.org. A long-time action veteran, Freddy’s keen insight into the game, as well as his knack for story-telling, has made him one of Accu-Stats Video’s most popular guest commentators. He recently published his first book, entitled Banking with the Beard, and is working on a second.
© 2005 Steve Booth, OnePocket.org
1P: Freddy, where did you come up playing pool?
FB: I came up in Chicago, in a real beat up bowling alley that had five pool tables. What happened was, bowling was big, but you had to wait for lanes; you had to sign up and wait. So we’re on the waiting list – I was about 14 – and one of the guys says, ‘Listen, there’s a poolroom next door; why don’t we shoot pool while we’re waiting for our lanes?’ So we went next door. Well, we never returned. That’s true; they called our name, but we never went back, and we never bowled again.
1P: So that was a neighborhood place?
FB: The equipment was hideous. There was no pocket at a couple of the pockets – there was just a hole.
1P: The ball dropped right to the floor?
FB: They had those high ashtrays, and they’d put them under the pocket and the ball would go plunk and roll around in there. The cloth was all taped up with two-inch wide tape; it was pretty tough to play on. That’s where I beat my first guy from Bensinger’s.
When I first started going up to Bensinger’s I never won; I’d just try to last. I would try a new guy each time, and each guy would beat me. I kept thinking, man, they’ve got to run out of guys that can beat me pretty soon, but they never did.
So finally I got a couple of them to take a ride out to my poolroom, Nap’s poolroom on 26th street in Chicago. I said, ‘I’ll play you over there.’ Anyway, I had such an advantage over there it was ridiculous. I first played Mexican Johnny. There were tracks on the banks; you just shoot the ball into that track and it would go right down the tape into the pocket. So Johnny quit; I beat him and he quit. We were only playing for – who knows – three or four dollars a game. Then I played this other guy, Gus, another hustler, and I broke him. He stayed for the whole show and he had taken the bus down and wanted me to give him a quarter to take the bus back to Bensinger’s, but I let him walk, the son-of-a-bitch; that’s what they did to me. I’d have to walk from downtown because I didn’t have sense enough to ask for bus fare; I was too proud. They’d break me and I’d lose every quarter; I’d make sure I had nothing when I left.
1P: So you started down there at Nap’s, but then you’d foray up to Bensinger’s, but the competition was brutal at Bensinger’s.
FB: Well, Bensinger’s at that time had some really good players there. There was ‘Pony’ [Isadore] Rosen; ‘Pony’ was a really good player. Everybody that came through town had to go through ‘Pony’, but he’d only play for five or ten a game, but there’d be three hundred bet on the outside; he couldn’t play for over a fin.
1P: I’ve heard of him, so he was a One Pocket player, too?
FB: Yeah, he played all games good; but there were a jillion tough players up there. There was Joe Sebastion, from NY; he could run a million balls. There were a lot of players there. I didn’t really go up there and hang out until after I got out of the army. I was twenty years old when I got out of the service; I did three years. I started hanging out up there ‘cuz there wasn’t nothing as exciting as playing at Bensinger’s!
I used to have to sneak in when I played before because I was underage. They had a real high counter by the door. So I used to duck by the old guy who worked the counter -- who was about a hundred years old – and sneak off into the back. When I was in the back, about fifty feet away, I’d say ‘Turn the lights on,’ and he didn’t know who the hell it was. The balls were already there, and he’d turn the light on and I got in action.
It was exciting; I mean I used to tremble when I got up there. And I didn’t care about winning; I just wanted to last as long as I could around those guys.
1P: That was one of the great poolrooms, along with like Ames in NY…
FB: Well, Bensinger’s was the original poolroom modeled in the book, The Hustler. Then they moved to the North Side. They actually considered shooting the movie The Hustler there. But what happened was, the ceilings were too low at the new Bensinger’s on Clark and Diversey; that’s why they decided to go to NY and shoot it at Ames. Bensinger’s was first considered because the name of the place in the book was Bennington’s, but he was writing about Bensinger’s.
1P: You mean the place that he described in the book, Tevis basically got from Bensinger’s?
FB: Yeah. It was a great place.
1P: So you’re talking about the original location.
FB: Yeah, the original room on Randolph Street. A lot of people don’t realize that pool was so big in Chicago that Bensinger used to have nine poolrooms in the Loop.
FB: He had nine, but there were fifty rooms in the Loop with thirty or more tables!
1P: That was in the twenties and thirties?
FB: Yeah. That’s how big pool was. Bensinger had nine rooms himself in the loop. Then they just all started fading away.
1P: So they started out as an upscale room, but by the time you came in they were getting kind of worn and they were the action room.
FB: Yeah, but it was still a gentlemen’s room. A lot of business guys would come in there and play billiards in a suit and tie; it was a no-nonsense room. Matter of fact, I would really love to create another room just like that, with that gentlemen’s club atmosphere – that’s what it was. Then they moved to the North Side and they started to lose that image, and it got worse. Then Bensinger died; then Artie bought it. When Artie ran it, it was a good action room. Then Bob Siegel bought it, and he ran it right into the toilet. He was a complete moron. He let people come in and take over – gang guys, druggies, pimps – a hideous crew. They had big rats that took over the joint at night. After 1 o’clock the rats owned the room, and you couldn’t go into certain areas.
1P: I remember reading somewhere – maybe Winning One Pocket – about a rat dropping off a pipe or something.
FB: That was my story! A rat slipped off the pipe onto the table and knocked the balls around; it was brutal. Still it was a good gambling room, because Artie [Bodendorfer] hung out there. Then it got kind of a bad reputation; guys would say, ‘Don’t go there ‘cuz you can’t get out with the money.’ And a lot of tough guys did hang out there; the O’Sheas – the fighting brothers – hung out there. But not getting out with the money had nothing to do with getting stuck up; it had to do with nobody could win! We broke everybody who came through the door; that was the real ‘can’t get out with the money.’ They couldn’t get past me or Artie, I’ll tell you that!
Photo courtesy Fred Bentivegna
1P: I didn’t realize that Artie actually owned the room for a while…
FB: Oh, yeah, it was the greatest show you’ve ever seen. He ran the counter; he worked about twelve hours a day behind the counter, and he played the whole time. He’d play pool; he’d run back and hand out the balls; go back and shoot; ring up a sale; go back and shoot; answer the phone, and then play after hours!
FB: Of course he was a kid then. He’d never wash; his t-shirt used to get brown. He was just always in action; he didn’t have time to do anything. I don’t know if he ever slept more than two or three hours a night. Yet he never lost. How about that; brand new room; hustled all day, and played every game except Snooker; played Three Cushion, One Pocket, 8-Ball; running back and forth to the counter. He played every son-of-a-bitch who came in there. Then after one o-clock he’d close the door and play guys like Cardone [Billy Incardona] and Bugs and whoever and beat every human. For a guy that played tough action he had the greatest batting average in the history of pool; that’s all I can tell you.
1P: Whoever came in; it didn’t matter who came in?
FB: We’re talking about guys like Steve Cook, Jersey Red, Sonny Springer; a million guys would come in – Cannonball Lefty, Bugs, Marvin Henderson, Joe Procita was there; Boston Shorty hung out there for a long time. Him and Artie played a five day match – they played five ahead and it took five days. They played so many hours a day, and Artie beat Shorty. This was when Shorty was Shorty, if you know what I mean.
1P: That would have been in the late 60’s or 70’s?
FB: Yeah. See, Shorty hung out there for a long time. He played billiards too.
1P: He was a real good billiards player.
FB: He was just ridiculous, okay. Nobody could beat him playing billiards around there. His oil was just… Nobody could beat Artie playing One Pocket in that joint. After a while he couldn’t get people to come in!
1P: So three cushion helped the One Pocket of both those guys?
FB: Artie played pretty good three cushion. He never lost playing three cushion either; if he played, he’d win, if you know what I mean. If somebody spotted him, he’d beat ‘em.
Dallas West used to come around once and a while and his batting average with Artie was 0-for. Playing straight pool, Artie put him on a 5x10 with flat Snooker rails and 4 inch pockets; it was impossible to run twenty balls on that table! I mean, he made sure he took care of himself – don’t worry – he never gave a guy an even enough shake where the guy could unleash his arsenal.
1P: So he’d pick the table depending on the player.
FB: Well he’d make sure that things didn’t go too much your way; so you were always uncomfortable. If you wanted to bet twenty; you had to bet forty of fifty. If you wanted to bet fifty; you had to bet two hundred. If you wanted to play three out of five; you had to play six out of eleven. Whatever it was you wanted; he’d want something different. Him and Ronnie Allen were like the greatest managers in the world. They call it managing before the game, and usually the game is over before it even starts.
1P: So he had to feel like he won some kind of little edge in the match-up or he wouldn’t play.
FB: It came down to he wouldn’t let Ronnie put his own cue ball in. And Ronnie, by the same token, wouldn’t play without his own cue ball! Everybody wanted to see the game; I was there and I wanted to see the game.
1P: But it didn’t happen because neither one of them could come out with that one little tiny edge in the making of the game.
FB: That’s right. It was an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
The two of them [Artie & Ronnie Allen] were going to play one time – up in Wisconsin – and they spent two hours in negotiations. Over what table, how much to bet, what are the rules, and they finally got stymied on what cue ball! Now Artie’s with a friend of mine who’s a lunatic who just won about fifty thousand at the track, and he loved Artie and he wanted to see the game. He’s the kind of guy that will blow like ten thousand just to see the game; he don’t care, okay? Now he wants Artie to play; he wants to see that game. I mean, what a game, Ronnie and Artie, playing even! But Artie wouldn’t play; he wouldn’t concede these things that Ronnie wanted. And my friend is threatening Artie; he put the gun on Artie and said, ‘I don’t care if ya lose, but if ya don’t play I’m going to kill ya.’ But Artie said no, no, no. My friend was a lunatic; he was screaming and cursing, ‘Just play; I don’t care about the money.’ And he didn’t care about the money; he just wanted to see this game. But on the threat of death, Artie would not make a game that he didn’t like.
1P: That’s pretty funny; so those two never played…
FB: No, they never did play.
1P: It sounds like Artie was another guy that even though he was young, he was a real strong One Pocket player early on.
FB: Yeah, he learned the game right away. He used to play with ‘Pony’ every day, and finally ‘Pony’ had no chance with him. He was just a real good player.
The only guy that beat him pretty good was Nick Varner. Nick beat him fifteen games of One Pocket for fifty a game when he first got to town. But I know how Nick plays and I knew Nick couldn’t beat Artie playing One Pocket, but I didn’t see that part of it, so I was dying to get Artie to play him so more. I had played with Nick; I knew he couldn’t beat Artie! But what Artie did was he staked Nick; he took a piece of Nick’s action and he steered him around playing guys around Chicago. He got a ball from ‘Bugs’ and stuff like that, and Nick won a lot of money, and Artie had about 30% of the action. Then Nick went to NY with his father to play in that World’s Straight Pool championship, and Nick won it. He was playing so good he won the championship.
So now Nick comes back to Chicago because there was so much action here, and I guess he’s figuring Artie will steer him around some more, but now Nick’s burned out. Artie knows Nick isn’t going to get any more good games; he just won the World’s championship and he beat everybody his last trip up here; he’s not such a hot commodity anymore. So there’s only one thing left; the only value Nick’s got left is his own bankroll, and for Artie to play him himself. Nick thought Artie didn’t want to play him because he didn’t think he could win. He didn’t realize that Artie was such a pragmatic kind of guy, he didn’t want to play him anymore because he figured he could do better taking a piece of him. But once all that wore off, then he challenged Nick – right after he won the world’s championship.
Nick naturally had to play; he couldn’t believe that Artie wanted to play him – it kind of hurt his feelings a little bit that Artie challenged him. But I was hounding Artie to play; I told him I’d stake him to play Nick some more One Pocket. Bad luck that I wasn’t there when they started playing, but they played anyway and he killed Nick. He was beating him so bad that Nick’s father tried to get him to quit. ‘This is no good,’ he says, ‘You can’t beat the guy.’ But Nick said, ‘I can’t quit; I’m learning too much!’
1P: That’s pretty funny
FB: So I missed out on that score. Because Artie would give you a piece, or he’d let you stake him, and the thing with him was, he loved to get staked. He had his own money but he liked to get staked and he played real good getting staked. But if he bet his own money it was worse. He’s one of the few guys that played real good getting staked, and liked to get staked, but if he played his own money he was even fifteen or twenty percent better.
FB: There was really no defense against his game; he was just an animal. And he didn't like pool, that's probably the reason; he really didn't like pool. That's why he quit and went to Vegas, you know. He just quit playing pool; it was just too much pressure on him. Pool was just a means, or he was just too scared of getting beat - I don't know what it was - some kind of psychological trauma involved. I talked to Wimpy about that. I said, 'Listen, Wimpy [Luther Lassiter], there's a kid in Chicago that never loses.' I told him about Artie, and Wimpy says, 'Boy, I sure feel sorry for that kid.' I said, 'What?! What do you mean you feel sorry for him? You feel sorry for a guy that never loses?' He says, 'Yeah, do you realize the pressure that that guy must be under?' And then I thought about it for a while. And I guess he did, because he had to go get counseling and everything after that.
It ain’t normal to never get beat. I knew them all; some of the best guys ever. Cardone had a great winning record for a while, but his average with Artie was very low, one out of ten maybe, he’d come ahead.
1P: You're saying Artie was to one-pocket what Lassiter was to nine ball? I guess Lassiter went through that with nine ball.
FB: Yeah, nobody could beat him. Of course, Lassiter ducked Harold Worst. Because he was the reigning world champion and he figured what the hell, why would I want to risk my crown. Worst wanted to play him, too. As a matter of fact, Worst invited anybody in the world that wanted to play and Weenie Beenie was trying to get Wimpy to go play Worst, saying ‘This guy wants to play nine ball for five and ten thousand dollars; let’s go.’ But Wimpy said ‘No, I got these exhibitions. I have the exhibitions and the posters and world championship.’ He didn’t want to risk it. Plus, he already knew that Worst had beat his guy, Don Willis. That was Wimpy’s road partner. So, Wimpy knew that Worst had executed one of the all time nine ball monsters, unknown monster Don Willis, who had a batting average at nine ball about near Artie’s at One Pocket. It’s not so much that Wimpy was afraid of Worst, he’s just thinking, ‘what the hell, why should I? I could win a few thousand but if he beats me I lose all this notoriety and these exhibitions.’
1P: Could you tell us a little more about Harold Worst?
FB: Worst was from Grand Rapids, Michigan. To me he was the most phenomenal human that ever breathed playing pool. Forget about anybody else. I mean, I played with Mosconi, he ran 160 and out on me. I watched him never miss. He had more talent than anybody but Worst was the most frightening pool player. Everybody that played Worst shook. When they played Harold Worst, if you looked at their right hand, their hand was shaking like they had palsy. The guy was just so intimidating and if he had lived a couple more years… But I guess he beat everybody anyway doing everything.
1P: He did -- including three cushion, too.
FB: He was the world’s three-cushion champion! He won the world championship down in Argentina. He had to; I heard he had to get snuck out of the country after he won. They were going to kill him. He was only 21 years old when he won.
1P: Did he pick up one-pocket at Johnston City?
FB: Yeah. He picked up nine-ball in Tampa. He didn’t even know the rules when they were playing! He was used to playing shoot to hit. And they were playing push out in the Tampa tournament. He walked into the Tampa tournament and nobody knew who he was and he says, ‘Listen I’m the world’s greatest nine-ball player and I want to play anybody who rolls nine balls.’ And they were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ The Squirrel’s there, Eddie Taylor, Danny Jones, Fats was there.
1P: That was like in ’62 or something?
FB: No, it was past then. I forget when that was. Don Watson was there; I think he won it.
1P: Oh yeah, it was an all-around 
FB: Yeah. Anyway, they said, ‘We’ll get somebody to play,’ and they didn’t get no short stops, even though they didn’t know who he was. They said, ‘Who’s this billiard player from Michigan?’ Who do you think they opened him up with? It was Eddie Taylor!
The only thing that bothered Worst was that he’d get snookered and wouldn’t have any shot. That was the only thing that scared him. But now they are playing push out. He asks, ‘You mean to tell me, if I get snookered I can push out and have another chance to make a ball?’ And they’re going, ‘Yeah,’ and these are the great push out guys! So he’d push out for something ridiculous and they’d say, ‘Go ahead and shoot,’ and they’d laugh and he’d whiz it in the pocket. He thought they were idiots. ‘You mean you’re going to let me shoot this?’ So he barbecued Taylor. Then they brought in Jimmy Moore; there was no stalling! And he beat Jimmy Moore. Then they brought in Danny Jones and they brought in Squirrel.
Then they started to work on him. Now these are the smartest hustlers in the world, and this guy Worst ain’t got a clue about hustling so they went to work on him. I think he gave Danny two games on the wire going to 11. Now they started to pound him. Then he gave Squirrel the break or two out of three breaks or something. They just outmaneuvered him. He was getting steered around. I hate to snitch on him but Beenie was his advisor, Weenie Beenie. So you take it from there what kind of advice Beenie was giving him; his first allegiance was to the hustlers. So they finally got to him as far as winning the money but nobody could stand up to the way he was playing.
Another thing about Worst, Worst would bet all you wanted to bet. He was like Jew Paul [Paul Brusloff] in Detroit. The line was open. He would bet until you were done betting. So whatever game he made, you could break him with that game, because he bet all you wanted to bet.
In Johnston City he would play anybody, any game, except banks. All the other games he played, eight-ball, nine-ball, one-pocket, straight pool, or snooker. He beat Sammy Blumenthal playing snooker! That was not in Jacksonville but Johnston City. The guy was just a freak.
1P: Didn’t he die at like 41 or something like that?
FB: I don’t think he got to 40. The guy was a phenomenal player. The most phenomenal guy I ever saw play pool, and I’ve seen some good players. This guy would rocket the game ball. He would make the game ball look like a ham sandwich and he would hit it at 600 m.p.h. right down the middle of the pocket. He was a great player. Even the top guys ducked him. Taylor ducked him and Wimpy ducked him. That’s the true story. I hate to snitch on them guys, but they ducked him. Not that they couldn’t beat him, because anybody could win but…
Worst was real abusive, obnoxious, and very contemptuous of everybody. He’d say, ‘Doesn’t anybody want to play anything? Do any of you guys have the nerve to play anything?’ He wasn’t well liked. I remember Cornbread Red went up to Taylor and he said, ‘Bear, when are we going to take off this Dutchman and make him shut his mouth?’ And the Bear said ‘I’m going to get him Red, I’m going to get him.’ But he never did.
Photo courtesy Fred Bentivegna
Then they played in a tournament; Wimpy and Worst were in the tournament and Wimpy beat Worst. He got real lucky to beat him; he got a lot of lucky rolls and Worst was steaming. So after the match was over Worst says, ‘I’ll see you in the back room, Mr. Lassiter for $200 a game, nine-ball.’ Anyway, everybody flocked to the back room because they wanted to see that game -- Worst against Wimpy, $200 nine ball -- but neither guy showed up.
1P: I didn’t realize that Harold got into action quite that much.
FB: He bet all you wanted to bet. And every time he was in a game, every game he was in, he was in a trap, because these were some sharp hustlers. These are monsters he’s dealing with -- road guys like Beenie and Taylor and their advisors. And every game he made he had the worst of it, every single game. I remember he was giving Babyface [Alton Whitlow] 130 to 100 playing straight pool, that was the game. Babyface says, ‘This is the greatest game I ever had in my life and I can’t win a game.’ Who could give Babyface 130 to 100? But Worst would do it. He just shoved through the mess, he didn’t know there was such a thing as a bad game.
He gave somebody -- I think he was playing Sonny Springer – and he’s giving Sonny 8 to 6. I’m not sure if it was 8 to 6 on the break or just 8 to 6, but they were playing one-pocket, and they were playing like $200 a game and Worst was 8 games loser or something like that, getting robbed. He knows he can’t win now. Weenie Beenie says ‘Go ahead and play, Harold; it’s a good game,’ to give Sonny Springer, who’s one of the great undercover one-pocket players, ‘go ahead and give him 8 to 6.’ Of course Sonny’s robbing him, so Worst realizes he’s in a trap; that they had bagged him up. So what did he do? I don’t remember the math but I do know that he raised the bet, instead of quitting he doubled up or tripled up and ran 8 and out four games in a row and then quit. He got even and he quit. So maybe, my memory is a little weak here, he might have made it $400 a game, which is a lot of money, we’re talking 1965 or 1966. To raise it to $400 or $600 a game and he ran eight and out four games in a row on the guy who has the mortal nuts and then he quit because he knew he couldn’t win.
1P: I’ve been impressed as I’ve done these interviews; it’s quite a combination of skills that you guys have. It’s not just the pool playing; there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on that is impressive. One thing I’ve noticed is that you guys all have quite the memories for different players and different situations; you know where you played a guy; you know when; you know what the game was; you know how they played, and you know what the money was. Then there’s the whole lemon business, and all the psychology of drawing a guy into a game, that is very interesting. I want to talk about that some more. I appreciate your time today, Fred.
FB: Remind me to give you the story of when I was a kid and I was with my first wife, but I don’t think we were married then; she was my first girlfriend. I had been with some other girl who had given me a hickey on my neck, and what do you do in that spot? Now this is a move. How do you beat that situation? This is a girl who used to be very suspicious and inspect my clothes. So I come with a move only a pool hustler could to beat that.
1P: I want to hear it.
FB: You know Doc Herbert?
1P: The guy that owns Chris’ now?
FB: Yeah, Doc reminded me of that story because he was part of it. It’s a real good story and only a pool hustler would be able to do it. You have to be a guy out on the road to escape these kind of traps. How do you get out of that spot? She’s on the way to meet me in the next ten minutes and I have a hickey the size of an apple on my neck.
Continue to Part 2 of Freddy's interview
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