'em up with
This interview took place January, 10, 2006, when Artie came to the Derby City Classic in Louisville, Kentucky for his induction into the One Pocket Hall of Fame. Artie is one of our less well known hall of fame inductees because he avoided tournaments, and the limelight in general, preferring after hours matches that gave him a chance to win big money. At his best, he perfectly embodied the "Chicago style" of strategically controlled One Pocket, which he took to a higher level than perhaps any other player.
© 2008 Steve Booth, OnePocket.org
1P: Artie, I have to confess when I went on the internet and looked up Artie Bodendorfer some kind of gambling case popped up.
AB: I have all kinds of things. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to work for a living. If you don’t work your whole life you get attitude because all the FBI agents have to work for a living.
1P: So they have a hair across their ass.
AB: And if you are way more successful than they are, they resent that even more. That’s the way the world is, people aren’t going to change.
1P: Are you originally from Chicago?
AB: I’m from Austria. I was 8 years old when I came here. I went to New York and then from New York we went to Michigan and then I went to Chicago and then to Las Vegas. I was born in Poland. During the war when the bombs were coming my mother was driving me and my two younger brothers through Poland. It was a scary time for her. I’m glad I was at an age where I couldn’t understand because I would have been scared to death. My dad did a few years in the concentration camp.
1P: But he survived?
AB: It took so much out of him he would hardly talk. He would just go to work and then hand my mother the paycheck and that was it. He would have a beer or two. He never gambled in his life. It just took too much out of him, what they did to those people.
1P: I understand that you have a reputation for being a very tenacious competitor, somebody that just digs their heels in and can outlast your opponent; do you think that comes partly from what your family went through?
AB: What toughens up your game is when you make your living at it. I grew up in the streets. Very few people really grow up in the streets and really know what it’s like. If you don’t know how to hustle, you can’t survive. I was on the road when I was 16 with the Royal American Show. Have you ever heard of it?
AB: It’s like a big carnival; the biggest one that ever traveled the country. They came from Canada then they came to Milwaukee and they would go all through the south. They used to have white mans’ washroom, black mans’ washroom and all that bullshit.
1P: That’s interesting that you were in the carnival, because I’ve come across some other players, like Ronnie Allen, that were in the carnival.
AB: I didn’t know that; he never said it.
1P: Ronnie’s family was in it; I think he was a similar age as you were.
AB: There are different things in the carnival. There’s setting up rides and tearing them down. Did he ever say if he was an agent working in the booths or what he was?
1P: I’m not sure what he did. What did you do in it?
1P: Some of them, but very little.
AB: I was an agent; I used to work in flat stores. Those were games that they disallow now, like the razzle, the pin store, the blower. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of those.
AB: It’s things like a fixed dice game where they have a magnet in it, where you can’t win.
1P: I think Grady was also involved in that, too.
AB: But I don’t think they were agents.
1P: I’m pretty sure Cornbread was in the carnival too.
AB: I don’t know if he was. I knew Cornbread good but I never knew he was in the carnival.
1P: So when did you start playing pool, Artie?
AB: When I turned 18; it was illegal to play under 18.
1P: And that was in Michigan?
AB: No, that was in Chicago. I played on Lincoln Avenue; it was upstairs on the second floor. They didn’t have any good players, only weak players.
1P: So it was a neighborhood room?
AB: Yeah, around Lincoln and Damon in Chicago. I don’t know if it’s still there. It had a bowling alley and a poolroom with eight tables.
1P: So you started out playing there and obviously you had a talent for it.
AB: Yeah, I caught on real quick. When I was 18, I used to go to Lakeview High School and Mexican Johnny used to wait outside for me from school and I used to back him. He used to look like a tough guy. The kids used to say, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And I would say, ‘He’s the best pool player in Chicago.’ He used to wait for me to get out of high school to go back him. I was pretty close to him for many years. But he just gave all his money to the horses; he never really learned the true art of gambling.
1P: So you were still in school, yet you were backing him.
AB: He was a real good player. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. All around he was probably as good as anybody. He played bank pool right there with all those guys, and One Pocket, too.
1P: Was he a guy that you learned some of the finer points from?
1P: Then you started going into Bensinger’s at some point?
AB: I learned a lot of moves from him; how to play safe, all the basics I learned from him. Not to leave your opponent a shot and put them behind balls and stuff like that. He didn’t know the real strategy of the game though. Nobody goes into the game the way I do. But he was a great player. Up there with all the great players like Bugs, Ronnie Allen, Cannonball, Taylor -- all the good One Pocket players -- he knew the same things they knew.
AB: Right, I was about 19. I went from Lincoln Avenue to Howard and Paulina. Bob Segal owned it and Bensinger’s. Those were the two biggest poolrooms in Chicago.
1P: Pony was another guy you used to play, right?
AB: Yeah, I played him $5 a game.
1P: You picked up a few moves from him?
AB: Yeah, he was good for me to learn from because in those other rooms, before I went to Bensinger’s, nobody really knew how to play One Pocket; it was all just Straight Pool and 9-Ball up there. We would have Willie Mosconi come and put on exhibitions, and Jimmy Caras. There were no Bank Pool players or One Pocket players up there. Bill Romaine, who was a good gambler that I was friendly with at Howard and Paulina, he kept telling me, ‘Go down to Bensinger’s, you’ll learn how to play the game.’ I was beating everybody at Howard & Paulina but at that time I really didn’t know the game.
1P: So in the world of gambling you were what they call an early bird, somebody who got involved pretty young?
AB: Well, 18 years old, there are a lot of guys who started when they were 8 and 10.
1P: I mean, even though you didn’t start playing pool early, you were sophisticated with other forms of gambling at a young age, from the carnival and the streets.
AB: In the gambling and hustling world, I definitely got schooled when I was 14. It’s the first rule you learn in the carnival, never give a sucker an even chance; that’s the theory. You also learn, if you don’t have the percentages in your favor, it’s impossible to win. All these people out there, even the pool players, they go shoot craps and don’t realize they can’t win.
1P: I think it is interesting because One Pocket is a game where there is a lot of strategy that revolves around percentages.
AB: There’s more than people realize. People watch good players like Allen Hopkins, Ronnie and Grady, who are good, but even none of those players really knew the truth about the game.
1P: You mean because they could look at things from the point of view of this shot and maybe the next shot but you were looking at a bigger picture?
AB: I had a different concept of the game altogether. I just thank God that he gave me the ability to think that way.
1P: It’s very interesting that you went from playing the percentages at One Pocket, to playing the percentages out in Vegas, although I’m not real familiar with what you do out in Vegas.
AB: I bet sports. I ended up monopolizing the whole world at it.
1P: And that’s playing percentages, right?
AB: Right. I figured out how to get the percentages in my favor and beat the casinos, but these big corporations are in with the government and they don’t like you beating the casinos. I learned what to do and how to maneuver and then the government made a law just to get me out of business so I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s pretty sick that they have to make a law and they haven’t bothered anybody with that law except me. That’s pretty creepy when you think about it. Legitimately speaking what I was doing in gambling was legal, because gambling in Vegas is legal, whereas if I play you pool for money in New York or Chicago it’s illegal.
1P: So you played in Bensinger’s for a few years and after a while you really reached the top of the pyramid in One Pocket there.
AB: Right, I went on the road with good players, Mexican Johnny, Rory O’Shea, he was a boxer, Ray Alto, who was a good barroom player. There were no tournaments back then. The only tournaments were once a year at Johnston City and the U.S. Open, but there was nothing like a guy could make a living in tournaments and stuff. Even Bugs, when he started playing in tournaments he was already over the hill, which people don’t even know. Because there’s so many good players coming up now but the reason they’re coming up now is because of the tournaments. They are not coming up because they are hustling pool for a living. I don’t even know if you could even say there are any pool hustlers around nowadays.
1P: There are a few here and there that still avoid tournaments, but you’re right, there aren’t that many now.
AB: I remember Reno, he was a real pool hustler, he did it his whole life, and Mexican Johnny, he never had a job in his whole life.
1P: Who was that other guy you said, Reno?
AB: He was a pool hustler. He was great with the suckers; all the suckers wanted to play him. He would cry like they were robbing him, yet all the time he would be taking their money. He was one of the best pool hustlers down at Bensinger’s. His real name was Lee Kaplacki (sp).
1P: I understand you ended up owning Bensinger’s for a while.
AB: I won a lot of money playing pool and I ended up buying the poolroom. I bought it and then I sold it a year later. I bought it for 30,000 or something and sold it a year later for 100,000. The reason I sold it was the lease was going to be up in a year and a half and I was lucky to find somebody who was silly enough to buy it with no lease and no renewal. What are you buying? All you are buying is the pool tables! They were all old tables, but the billiard tables were great.
1P: And you played three cushion, too?
AB: Yeah, I played it real good. Me and Shorty were probably the best three cushion/pool players in the country at one time.
1P: Shorty spent some time in Chicago, right?
AB: He would drink Scotch and watch TV. What he did better than any living human was watch all those old cowboy movies; he could tell you the real names of all the cowboy actors. Shorty was pretty smart, and he was a great all around player. He was one of the best all around players ever.
1P: Yeah, he was fantastic, and now you’re joining him in the One Pocket Hall of Fame…
AB: Shorty was good. Mostly all of those guys were scared to death to bet their own money. If they couldn’t get staked they wouldn’t play.
I’ll tell you an example. Mexican Johnny got lucky one day at the track. He won five or six thousand and I said, ‘Johnny, come on, I’ll play you some One Pocket.’ And he said, ‘No, this is horse money, you’re not getting my horse money.’ He had five or six thousand, but he wouldn’t risk his horse money to play pool. He was a great pool hustler though. He played good. Another thing that people don’t even realize, when I took over Bensinger’s they had ten or twelve 5 X 10 tables and only two 4 ½ X 9’s. We all played on 5 X 10’s. Those guys like Johnny and Canadian Pete, we beat everybody on the 5 X 10, it was like a different game.
1P: Who were the guys that you thought were the toughest competitors you faced?
AB: Well, they all shot better and banked better than me. If I tell you how Bugs played me Banks you wouldn’t even believe it. He gave me nine to five in Banks. But I played him even One Pocket one time on a 5 X 10, and I won four in a row. I said to Bugs, ‘The reason why I’m never going to play even again is you always have to give me nine to eight and the reason I want it is you’re always getting staked.’ So he didn’t care if he lost or not. The whole principal is with guys like Bugs if they play and they lose they are going to get something back from the other guy and if they win they are going to get half of that so they got a winning situation either way. So what’s the difference what game they give out. They are just going to fire at everything.
I went to MCC in Chicago for contempt of court. They put you in jail unless you talk. So I was up there and I went on the 21st floor and I was the only white guy there up on the 2nd bunk. And the leader of the black gangs was there and he said, ‘You’re Artie, you’re the man who beat Bugs.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m him.’ He said, ‘You’re okay, anything you want, you’re one of us.’ So this one black kid, he’s on the bottom bunk and I’m on the top, and mooches get on the top so the black guy says, ‘Artie, you take the bottom bunk.’ So a black guy, one of the gang guys says, ‘You’re going to let that honky take my bunk?’ So the black guy points to me and says, ‘You see that white guy? He’s blacker than you are!’
That was the greatest compliment I ever got from those guys. Then he told me a story. It was in the 70’s, I beat Bugs for $16,000 and three guys backed him and they thought Bugs had dumped. So the guy told me they followed us both in two different cars to see if we were going to hook up and split the money, to see if Bugs dumped. He said, ‘If you guys would have hooked up and split the money you guys would have both have been history.’ I know this guy was for real. I said, ‘Boy am I lucky.’ And the guy said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Bugs knew I would go to a bar or something afterwards. I drank and he would come buy always and snap me for $200 or $300 and I would always give him that for consideration. What if you guys had thought I was cutting up the money and we had gotten killed for nothing?’ If I hadn’t gone to jail I never would have heard that story. I told Bugs that they followed us for two days in two different cars in the snow. That’s pretty rough, ain’t it? And they weren’t nice guys either.
1P: I have heard a story about tough characters backing Bugs when he played Eddie Taylor, and a shot came up where Bugs wanted to shoot, but the guys backing him wanted him to play safe, and they threatened to shoot him if he didn’t play safe.
AB: A backer doesn’t understand that there’s nothing else he can do. There’s nothing else for him to do; he had to shoot. People don’t realize the problem doesn’t just come up when you get in that situation; the mistake is made before you get in that position. Once you get in that situation people say, ‘What do I do now?’ when he’s all locked up behind three balls, and he can’t get out. But that ain’t where the problem was; the problem was a couple of shots before that led to getting you in that position.
1P: Because you gave them a chance to put you in that position?
AB: That should have never happened; that’s what people don’t realize. They all like to say, ‘What would you do here?’ I tell them, I would go back two or three shots and figure it out from there, because once a guy has you completely locked up it’s too late.
1P: So the strength in your game was thinking two or three shots ahead of time so they couldn’t stick you into those places.
AB: I can honestly say I never played anybody One Pocket that banked as bad as me or shot like me in my life.
1P: So you owned Bensinger’s for awhile. When you sold that did you head out to Vegas at that time?
AB: I went home and I was betting sports. Even after Freddy opened up his club I didn’t go in there for like six months. Finally, somebody started telling me, ‘There is real good action; you should get back in stroke,’ so I started playing again. Basically I was the only guy that won all the money there. After a while I was in on the whole thing. Any guy that played I would back them or be in with them. Guys like Romberg, he was a good bank player and a good One Pocket player, and Louie Roberts.
He [Louie Roberts] played this one guy Grady, and Louie gave him eight to five, where I got to coach him. Louie is playing and I’m backing him and coaching him. So now he is going to shoot at this shot, I said, ‘No you’re not.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I can make it.’ I said, ‘No you’re not; all you’ve got to do is shoot this safety, lock him up and we’ll win the game.’ So he says, ‘No, I’m going to shoot it.’ I said, ‘If you shoot it, I’m through as a coach. You can play him on your own, but I’m done with it.’ He said, ‘But I can make it!’ So afterwards, he had won pretty good, but he still had it in his head about that shot. He said to me, ‘I would have bet my life that I could have made that shot.’ I said, ‘Listen Louie, I know you probably would have made it but if you want to bet your life, then you can do it when I’m not in with you.’ And he started laughing, he didn’t know what to say. Louie Roberts was a hell of a guy.
1P: You’re not talking about Grady Mathews, that Louie was playing?
AB: No, another Grady from Chicago. I liked Louie, he hung around for a while. Larry Hubbart hung around there for a while. Strickland was there too. He didn’t know too much about hustling. I used to take him around to some bars and stuff playing $20 a game, but he was jumping over balls and stuff. I said, ‘I’m done with it.’ It was just too stupid for me. I ain’t going out for him to heat up the whole town.
1P: Louie really stirred up action wherever he went, didn’t he?
AB: Yeah, and he shot as good as anybody. Nobody was robbing nothing, playing him; he could play with all the best players.
Another time he was going to jump out the window because he had Bugs stuck for $10,000. Bugs had one barrel left, but Bugs ended up winning back $12,000 or $13,000. Louie Roberts said to me, ‘Why didn’t you pull me out?’ I said, ‘Nobody in the world could have pulled you out, all the fun you were having.’ He said, ‘Well I’m going to jump out the window.’ And I said, ‘Well nobody can stop you from doing that either.’
1P: Did you get up to Detroit when they had all that action up there?
AB: Yeah, I got up to Detroit. They were scared to death to play because I had the reputation from Chicago that this guy beats Bugs so I couldn’t get any action. I did beat their best three cushion player, Frenchy. Have you heard of him?
AB: I did great in the bars. One time I got a guy to give me eight to four and I shot with the back of the cue stick.
1P: So when you do something like that, it’s even more about the strategy side of things.
AB: It’s knowing what you can do; it’s all about judgment. If you know how the other person plays and you know how you play, the games are mostly all won before they are played.
There is a certain way of gambling. Ninety-five percent of the people you will meet in your life are scared to death to win; they don’t have the strength to win, the ability to win. To win is harder than to lose, psychologically. If a person gets stuck, it’s easy, even in a casino. But the bottom line is when they win and they get up $2,000 or $3,000, now they get scared and they want to quit. But that’s where a true gambler is going to go for the money. That is a lesson that I can tell all the gamblers and anybody. I don’t care if they gambled their whole life; when you get a chance, you have to go for the score, because the score is what is going to make you your bankroll. In other words, if you start gambling and you’re ahead $5,000, if the breaks and everything are going your way, just throw it in there and bet it all. Don’t be afraid to win. Most people are just scared to death and they want to quit right away. ‘Oh, I won $3,000.’ Well, big deal you won $3,000 but you lost an opportunity to win a lot more. The point is, when you get that streak and the breaks go your way just bet it up; don’t be afraid. Even in sports. But people don’t because they feel uncomfortable.
1P: So you’re not just talking about the importance of making the game in the first place, but also as the game progresses.
AB: Well, it’s all percentages. Let’s say you are playing a great player, like ??, and you’re playing One Pocket three out of five and now you’re ahead two games to one, so you need a game and he needs two. And now let’s say you got a shot where you can make a ball and you might run eight and out. Take a chance. You might be a 6 to 5 underdog to make it or something; go ahead and shoot it anyway. Because the reason you want to shoot it is because if you make it and you run eight and out, it’s over. Now you are still going to have another game. So you have to know when to fire and by doing that you put pressure on your opponent. Most people don’t know the percentages. It’s good to manage but there’s only so much managing you’re going to do with a good player like Bugs or Efren. All them guys, if you give them a shot they’re going to run out.
1P: So unless you can figure out how to get all the balls up table, like Varner with all the balls up in the far corner…
AB: Well that ain’t even playing One Pocket. The reason that happens with people is because they don’t know how to play and how to position the balls. People don’t understand, it’s not that simple. When all the balls are in the corner like that, they’re not helping either guy. You want to position the balls like in chess, where you can put the guy in a trap and put him in a position where he is going to goof up and you can shoot the shot and win the game.
1P: Do you play chess?
AB: Yeah, but not real good. Freddy plays it pretty good. I’m not a good player. I think Efren plays it real good.
1P: Yes, I’ve seen him play it. I believe he spots people playing chess, too.
AB: Well, he’s got that kind of mind. He’s got a good mind for games.
1P: Now, Freddy doesn’t think that Efren really has a deep understanding of One Pocket, although obviously he has a deep understanding of pool.
AB: He still makes a lot of mistakes. If two good players play, the one that makes the big mistake will lose the game. If you watch any sporting event you’ll see it. That will cost the game because they can’t overcome it. That’s what those people do.
1P: Part of what you were doing was managing the balls.
AB: You have to put them where you want them; everything is a plan to what you are trying to do. Most people, they just shoot to play safe. That ain’t what it is about, just shooting to play safe. You have to have a plan.
1P: Are there any of the players that you think played the game right?
AB: A lot of them guys played the game okay but if I played pool like [Mika] Immonen and [Thorsten] Hohmann – or if you taught those guys the concepts that I know -- then they would be the best players.
1P: Because they execute so well?
AB: Right. They would have that over me.
1P: You don’t give yourself that much credit in terms of executing.
AB: No, a lot of players could give me the seven with no sweat.
1P: So you pretty much quit pool when you went to Vegas?
AB: What happened at North Shore was great. In Chicago it was the best gambling club that I remember since I was a kid. Even with downtown Bensinger’s and all those poolrooms. There was no poolroom that had the action like Freddy’s place had. Freddy, Phil and Bobby owned it. That was the best action spot ever in Chicago. Of course the best pool action ever was in Detroit.
One of my favorite sessions was with Clyde Childress. He came into North Shore and we started playing like $300 or $400 a game. He was four games ahead and I won three games and he quit. He said we’ll play tomorrow. So the next day we played five a head for $20,000 and it ended up, I went into my gear and he got one ball out of five games. He went completely crazy. The night before he had said, ‘How can this guy play me? This guy can’t make a cross-corner bank!’ But then we played and he got so mad he slammed his stick up in the ceiling. He went nuts. A couple of months later he got in a car accident and died. He was a young guy, and a great player.
1P: So what happened to North Shore?
AB: What happened was the police kept coming up with their guns out, six or seven policemen. They started threatening people. It kept all the backers and the people away. Then the joint got stuck-up. They tied 12 of us facedown with a rope and robbed the joint, four black guys. It wasn’t a good feeling being tied up with a gun pressed up to your head especially when you don’t know if they are going to waste everybody. You don’t know what those dope fiends are going to do. The gangs were all okay because Bugs was close with those guys.
When I was hustling pool, in ’68, Bugs and Paul Jones used to drive me to the south side because I didn’t drive. So I would beat everybody and they would steer all these black guys and they would have half my action. This went on for like three months. But in 1969 when Martin Luther King got shot, all the rioting and all that started so I couldn’t go on the south side. Bugs said, ‘You don’t have to worry about the gangs because we’re in it, but we don’t know when some black guy will shoot you in the head simply because you’re white.’
1P: But before that you used to be able to go there?
AB: There was no problem. I used to go all the time. First I went with Mexican Johnny. He played Bugs and all those guys there. Chip Chaser, Billy Williams. It was great action; nobody bothered anybody.
What happened was when the action died at North Shore and Bensinger’s closed there was no pool action left. Then I came out to Vegas, I played pool for about a year, but then I started betting sports and then I figured out what I could do.
1P: And you have been very successful at that.
AB: Without bragging, I was the best ever at sports, nobody ever came close to me. They changed all the laws in the casinos. You used to be able to bet on the phone accounts up to $200,000, now you can only bet up to $2,000. They just have a hard-on to get me; I’m not a criminal.
1P: Well, they are basically in the percentage business themselves and you figured out a way to overcome that, so they didn’t like that.
AB: They came and they got me, they got 18 of my runners. They came into my house and my brother’s house. He’s completely disabled; he’s got a hole in his throat, with throat cancer. They ended up using 120 agents to grab everybody, and then they don’t even print what they did. They didn’t need 120 agents to get me; all they had to do was knock on the door. If they had a warrant, I would have had to let them in. They said it was because I had all bars around my house and surveillance cameras to see who’s at the door, so I don’t have to go to the door. But I can just push the button and let them in! The reason I had all that is because I was dealing with big money and somebody could come by and rob me, that’s why I put the security system in.
Photo courtesy Artie Bodendorfer
1P: What are you up to these days?
AB: I gave Freddy an idea of what I thought the future of what pool is going to be.
1P: Harry Platis mentioned something about pari-mutuel betting; is that what you are talking about?
AB: No. This is a tournament game for pool. You can play this game by yourself and let me know what you think. I think this will take over nine ball and the women will love it. The barroom tournaments will double their money. You can use all different color balls and names. I tried to sell it to Kevin Trudeau. This is a game you play with nine balls but it’s eight ball. The name I wanted to call it was ‘Super 8-Ball’ but Freddy wants to give it another name. You take four solids and four stripes. Rack them up the eight ball and play it. I think it’s great.
1P: It’s like short rack eight ball.
AB: Right, that’s exactly what it is. The reason it’s so great is we’ve been playing the same games for 100 years and we need to be a little more creative and do something different. It’s great for TV and tournament. It’s great for the public that doesn’t understand pool.
1P: It sounds like it would be pretty fast moving.
AB: It’s way quicker than nine ball and you know that’s why they like nine ball. Let me know what you think of that game.
1P: But for gambling you want a game like One Pocket, where you can manage things a little bit more.
AB: If you are hustling, you want a better game or even the regular eight ball where people are going to trap themselves. They try and run five, six balls and they don’t get out, the game is over. It’s good for people to learn, but most people just keep doing the same things over and over.
1P: I don’t understand the people who say that what is holding pool back is the gambling.
AB: It has nothing to do with the gambling. Is gambling holding back Vegas?
1P: If you have two great players and they are going to have a tournament match on this table and then you have two great players over there and they are going to play for ten grand, where are the people going to go and watch?
AB: When Fats used to come in Bensinger’s, people used to quit playing now the house ain’t making no money. So the guy would tell them not to come around, you’re bad for business and all that. But they are really the characters of life and they gave their whole life to pool.
1P: These guys had the skill at the table, but they also had charisma.
AB: They knew how to get people to the table; they knew how to maneuver. That’s a hustler. A tournament player just plays in tournaments.
1P: When the news media came down to Johnston City and caught on, they latched on to Fats.
AB: Yeah, nobody was a better talker than Fats. He wasn’t the greatest player but he was the greatest talker and the greatest character, the greatest personality you could ever meet.
I grew up in a carnival and they had the greatest motto in the world “If you can’t win, don’t play.” And it stuck with me and you learn. What you learn in the carnival, it doesn’t matter who it is, if they have money they are a potential mark. You can just talk people into playing and when you get to the table the game is won 99% of the time before you play. I wasn’t like Ronnie and Bugs, they like playing big action all the time. I made one of my biggest scores starting off for a $1 a game and ended up playing the guy $500 a game. But that’s the difference between hustling and wanting to right away play. It’s an art. That’s what hustling is about. Bensinger’s had great sweaters on there and everything. Pony was good. He was a good $5 player. He ran the counter down there. He dropped dead playing me.
1P: Freddy said you had two guys that that happened to.
AB: Yeah, another guy in the billiard tournament up in Bensinger’s. Bensinger’s was all three cushion. They had like 15 three cushion billiard tables there, which is very unusual. I don’t even think there is a poolroom now. They weren’t these speed tables they have today were anybody can go six, eight, ten rails. You needed to stroke. That’s why Hoppe and Harold Worst were the best with the ivory balls. Today you don’t even need a stroke.
1P: So three cushion billiards was a part of how you developed your cue ball skills. When you talk about pool, I notice when people practice, they will practice a shot and they try to make a ball, but when they fall out of position they never practice that.
AB: You have to get perfect on every shot. You have to get the perfect angle. Because there are a lot of shots if you don’t get the right angle you can’t get onto the next ball in the right position.
1P: And that’s what you are talking about when you are talking about perfect pool?
AB: Right, it’s like you play the whole pattern. And nobody plays the whole pattern. If you go up and ask the guy, ‘Throw the balls on the table and show me how you are going to run the balls, at what angle you are going to run them in what order,’ they can’t tell you. I don’t care if it’s the best players around today.
1P: I used to throw three balls out on the table and the cue ball and try to plan just the pattern for those three balls.
AB: That’s a good way to practice.
1P: If I fell out of line I would put them all back and start over. With just three balls I could remember where the balls were. If I couldn’t get through the pattern I picked out, I’d put them back and look for a different pattern.
AB: Also when you pick out your pattern you want to figure out before you shoot the first ball, the simplest and easiest way to make it and have the easiest shots. The easiest way to do it is if you can shoot all three balls, stop, stop, stop. There is nothing easier.
1P: Of course a lot of times you can’t do that.
AB: If there is a situation that if you make a shot and you think you did good by making the shot, but if you don’t make the right angle and you can’t get out, it’s like missing a ball, because either way you ain’t getting out.
1P: When you are playing One Pocket, do you think about the odds?
AB: No. There are really certain things that I haven’t revealed yet that you can do. But if I reveal it, everybody is going to start doing it and then the whole game will change.
1P: Well you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.
AB: I’ll tell you but not on the tape.
[tape recorder is turned off for a while]
AB: One Pocket isn’t like 9-Ball. In 9-Ball you only have one next shot at all times. If it’s the two, it’s the three next. One Pocket you have the choice of shooting five or six different shots. And now the whole key is picking the right correct shot and that’s what people have to learn. That’s why I say that I can improve the greatest player’s game. Once you reach your potential in shooting ability, then the only way you can improve is through knowledge. There is no other way. If you don’t improve your knowledge, you won’t improve. You will do the same thing over and over for the rest of your life and it is up to you whether or not you want to make that change.
1P: What kind of pool player do you want to be? Do you want to be a showy player who constantly shoots his way out of problems or do you want to be the guy who anticipates the problems and makes the game look easy?
AB: And does the right thing. That’s true. That is very good. You can either do the right thing or be like everybody else and follow the whole pattern or you can change and be different.
1P: That is sort of your philosophy about how to approach the game?
AB: Yeah, I don’t like thinking like everybody else. My ideas are different than other people. It’s just the way I think.
That One Pocket challenge that I made [$30,000 challenge of “Who is the smartest One Pocket player?”], the truth is I don’t hustle pool anymore so I don’t mind revealing it if somebody wants to come up with the money – because I want to get a thrill out of it and a challenge because I was – God gave me the gift to think that way – it’s probably ahead of people’s time. To learn the concept of playing something perfect, nobody really breaks it down how to play it. They really need to have something where all these players that have talent that can practice and learn it. Instead they just shoot and whatever situation presents itself, they are going to do whatever they think is the best thing to do. They don’t have it all figured out. You can even do it in 9-Ball; how to do it perfect. You see guys who run two or three racks of eight ball but they don’t even know how they run them and people can’t even explain it. They just go by instinct and natural judgment.
1P: When I watch guys practice, they shoot and then when they miss they go back and practice the shot that they missed, but they are practicing the wrong thing!
AB: The mistake is made before they missed. You have to correct your mistake before it’s made. What happens is when they get in the position they just try to do what they can do. They get in a position where they’re in a spot where all they can do is say, ‘What do I do now?’ The answer is the shot before was the real problem.
1P: So if you were going to give advice to pool players to improve their game, then that is the area that they should work on?
AB: I would teach them how to think correctly and how to play the game correctly and how to run the balls correctly. If you just watch Efren he just goes by instinct and he plays an area position. Even he don’t have the whole pattern figured out. To prove it, I would say, break the balls and show us how you are going to run all the balls at what angles and you would see how his game would drop. How he couldn’t do it. Because he was never taught how to do it that way. He taught himself and he does the best he can in every situation. He gets out of a lot of traps by shooting his way out because he has more shooting ability than other people. He’s great at it and he’s great at position.
1P: I want to talk to you about some of the players and Bensinger’s. When you came up in Chicago, you told me you started in another room and then you went on into Bensinger’s. You were learning a lot at that time.
AB: Absolutely. What happened was, the first real poolroom I played in was at Howard & Paulina, North Shore; they had 32 tables. I played this guy Bill Romaine straight pool for $20 a game there and he beat me three games. I came back the next day and I played him for $300 a game and I beat him for $1200, I was 18. He knew he got hustled. Then Bill Romaine said, ‘Why don’t you go to Bensinger’s? That’s where they have all the hustlers and one-pocket players.’ I ended up going down there.
One time Cecil Tugwell came with a guy named Harold to play me in Bensingers. Cecil thought it was the first time Harold was in Chicago. Cecil won the first game and Harold told the old sweater, ‘This isn’t going to take long,’ but Cecil didn’t know what the old sweater meant. He meant I was going to annihilate him. Cecil won the first game and I won every game after that. He never won another game. I won $3,600, and he went broke. I even gave him a couple of hundred back so he had some hustling money. So when we were at the counter he sucker punched me and ran out the door. Then later he called me from Detroit and said, ‘I’m sorry I hit you. I thought you were a sucker.’ Then we became good friends. That was before he started playing left-handed.
Another time I played Bugs at Bensinger’s, after hours. We had a big steel door; there was no air down there, it was completely in the basement. We played this session, three out of five. We never played six ahead or nothing. I beat Bugs two sessions so now Bugs wanted to play another session so this guy who was with him, ‘Crying Eddie’, Bugs told him, ‘Give me a $1,000; I want to play him another set.’ And Crying Eddie said, ‘You can’t beat that man.’ And Bugs said, ‘What do you mean, you’re not going to give me any money,’ and Bugs slapped him because he wouldn’t back him.
Bugs and I used to play wherever we ran into each other. Bowling alleys, Howard & Paulina, wherever, because we loved action. The greatest One Pocket session that I know or ever heard of was played between me and Bugs. Bugs gave me nine to eight and we played three out of five. It was the best Bugs ever played in his life. I don’t think he could ever do it again. He broke the balls, he got a shot, he ran nine and out. I broke the balls, I got a shot, I ran eight and out. The next game he ran nine and out. I broke again and ran eight and out. Now it is the final game; he broke the balls and ran nine and out. I never saw better pool playing in my life. They were all one inning and out! I told him after he did that, ‘You’re the best today; I can’t beat that.’ He was smiling.
What people don’t realize is I played Bugs even one time on a 5 x 10 and he never won a game. But the reason I wouldn’t play him even was because if I beat Bugs even then I would have to give out the ridiculous spots that he gave out, and he spotted everybody. Being in the hustling business, why would I want to give up games that I can’t win at? So I told Bugs, ‘If you want to play even, I’ll play you six ahead for $10,000, $20,000, $30,000.’ He said, ‘I can’t beat you like that. Three out of five I can win, but I can’t win six ahead.’ Three out of five you might shoot good like I just explained. And I always bet my own money, like 90%. People don’t know just between me and you but Bugs was a member of the Panthers. People don’t even know. It don’t matter now. They were running the games.
National Champion 8-Ball team
Photo from the cover of National Billiard News
1P: Did you play Kenny Remus?
AB: Romberg. I usually backed him. I never really played Romberg. He was coming up behind me. I used to back him. At Freddy’s Pub he won a lot of money. He had a girlfriend. He would want to take his girlfriend out. I would say, ‘Wait, you’ll have plenty of time to go to Vegas and spend your money and party. She’s going to be with you every night anyway. What’s the difference? You’re not missing out on anything.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ He stayed another two weeks, and they were good weeks. He told me I was right. He was like a ball under Bugs in Banks and One Pocket. He was probably the best young black player there.
1P: He died pretty young, didn’t he?
AB: He went to collect some money or something and the guy shot and killed him. He was a strong healthy kid. I knew him for a lot of years.
1P: Did you get in Detroit when they had all that action there?
1P: Were you playing?
AB: I beat a few people in three-cushion billiards. The big score I was looking to make, I never got a chance to play. There was a guy Jones there. The guys in Detroit would have backed me for anything. But I had the game to beat this guy perfectly and he would have fell perfect. I could play him three-cushion billiards and beat him one-handed to his two-handed but it never really came off. I could have made a big score because nobody in the world could beat me playing three-cushion billiards one-handed.
I ran into Matlock in a bar and he wanted to play 9-Ball. I said, ‘I can’t play you 9-Ball.’ I said, ‘I’ll play you some even 8-Ball for $200 or $300 a game but I’m not playing 9-Ball with you.’ He was about the best 9-Ball player in the country. Another guy that played real good with the big cue ball was Danny Medina. I took him on the road and we went all over the country. We went to Detroit, and the first guy he played was Cornbread. I had told him not to go to The Rack and play nobody. But he did and he beat Cornbread for $800 and Cornbread quit him and called him a ‘Taco motherfucker’. So I told him, ‘You might as well go back to Denver, you beat the best player here.’ He said, ‘So I made a mistake.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess people make mistakes. I guess you got enough money; you don’t want no more money, you only want $600 or $800.’ Some guys just want to play.
1P: I didn’t realize that you were a strong one-handed player. Did you play Miami, too?
AB: He couldn’t have won; Miami had no chance. I don’t know if anybody could have really won because my knowledge would have showed up even more, playing one-handed.
1P: Did you ever hear of Andrew St. Jean from the Boston area? He was supposed to be a great one-handed three-cushion player, too.
AB: I heard of the name. A lot of guys shoot great until they start betting. Ronnie played great one-handed, and that kid Sergio from California, he played great one-handed.
1P: I don’t know Sergio.
AB: I played eight ball one-handed. Young guy, there is an old Sergio and a young Sergio. They played real good one-handed 9-Ball. Cornbread played pretty good one-handed too.
1P: Did you cover one-handed players on your list? Who would you pick?
AB: Ronnie, Toby in Las Vegas and Aguzate.
1P: How many kids do you have?
1P: Got grand kids, Artie?
1P: Your parents are not alive?
AB: No, my dad died of cancer when he was 67; he wouldn’t let the doctors operate on him. He was real set in his ways. He said if it was his time, he would go. My mother, it was a million to one shot. Do you know anything about Chicago?
1P: I’ve been there a few times, and really enjoyed it.
AB: My mother was on the El and was sticking her head out to see if the train was coming and the train overran the stop and hit her in the head and she died.
1P: How old were you?
AB: I was in my 30’s, but it was a shock. When it happened, I was at the Stardust in the tournament.
1P: You got in the Stardust?
AB: Right; I got in one year. Jansco sponsored me. I played [Earl] Heisler and I won all my first matches; my 9-Ball, my Straight Pool and my One Pocket. But then I got the phone call so I flew right back. Then the next day, the guy backing me called and said, ‘You better get back here, I put money up for you.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you come and get me; people would love to have you show up here.’ He never had the balls to show up. He wouldn’t have liked it. I dropped out of the tournament and never played in another tournament in my life.
1P: So you made one brief appearance and that was it.
AB: It was the only real pool tournament I played in. I did play in a three cushion billiard tournament. Shorty was in it, and Gilbert from the West Coast. Blomdahl won it. I beat Shorty in the tournament. I came in third. Those were the best players in the U.S.
1P: And you and Freddy were on a national champion 8-Ball team, too, right?
AB: With John Abbruzo. Freddy played great, too. They played points and we were losing 32-30 and Freddy won the last game.
1P: I’ve seen a picture of that. Do you have any final advice?
AB: If you were a kid, 12 years old, and learning to play pool and I was your teacher, I would teach you all the things that you needed to learn. I would teach you how to shoot with both hands, learn to shoot one-handed with both hands, learn to shoot behind your back and learn every angle while you’re young. If you learn to play all games you can hustle and ask the guy to pick their best game and he can pick his best game and keep changing each game and then you have all these games that are sure games for you to win. You keep it undercover; you don’t show them. Could you imagine somebody like Efren being able to shoot as good left handed as he does right handed? Do you know how many gimmicks and games he could make? But that’s what I would do with a young kid. I would teach him how to play the right way and think the right way.
1P: I should let you go. I know you have other people to see.
All photos courtesy Artie Bodendorfer unless otherwise noted
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