Rack’em up with Al ‘NY Blackie’ Bonife

Exclusive OnePocket.org Interview

This interview took place back on May 5th, 2005, when Blackie was living in Florida. I had always hoped to follow up with Blackie, but that didn’t happen, and unfortunately he died September 2007. Al Bonife, better known as ‘NY Blackie‘, was a real straight shooter and an astute game maker. He was a long-time friend of Buddy Hall, and also spent time in California with ‘Little Al’ Romero. Both Buddy Hall and Al Romero have been kind enough to add some of their own reminiscences of Blackie which are included below.

OnePocket.org: Did you get a chance to get breakfast?
Al Bonife: Yeah, I got up about eight o’clock.

OnePocket.org: That’s a little different from back in the day!
Al Bonife: The 7-11 never closed. It was 24 hours.

OnePocket.org: Before we get going, I was wondering how you pronounce your last name?
Al Bonife: Bonife (Bonn’-if-ee)

OnePocket.org: Okay, with three syllables; I like to get that kind of thing right. But everybody calls you Blackie anyway, right?
Al Bonife: Yeah, that’s my nickname. They tagged me with it a long time ago.

OnePocket.org: Who was that, that came up with Blackie, do you remember?
Al Bonife: They all did. They all tagged me with it.

OnePocket.org: Was that back at Ames?
Al Bonife: That was back in the fifties.

OnePocket.org: So, when were you born, Blackie?
Al Bonife: April 4, 1929.

OnePocket.org: 1929, So you started getting into the poolrooms in the forties.
Al Bonife: No, actually I started playing when I came out of the service, in 1951.

OnePocket.org: Oh, so you are one of those guys that got kind of a late start?
Al Bonife: Yeah, but I had a lot of natural ability.

OnePocket.org: Well you must have.
Al Bonife: I played professional in two years.

OnePocket.org: Within two years you were playing professionally?
Al Bonife: Yeah.

OnePocket.org: Wow! Now did you start at Ames?
Al Bonife: No, I started at Jullians, at 14th Street in NYC.

OnePocket.org: That was a poolroom, but it had billiard tables, too, right?
Al Bonife: It had billiard tables, pool tables, snooker tables. Gees, I played night and day!

OnePocket.org: Who were some of the guys you picked up the game from?
Al Bonife: I can’t remember their names; it’s been years. But they had some pretty decent players down there.

OnePocket.org: Once your game picked up then you started going to the 7-11?
Al Bonife: That’s when I went up to the 7-11. When I first went up there Jersey Red was playing Dick Daly (sp?) from Boston.

OnePocket.org: I don’t know him.
Al Bonife: He was a pretty good player from Boston.

OnePocket.org: I’ll have to ask around about him, because I’m from up that way. So when you came in those two guys were playing?
Al Bonife: Yeah, they were playing on a 5×10. I think Dick Daly was giving him the 15-ball, playing Rotation.

OnePocket.org: Which is a pretty good spot in Rotation.
Al Bonife: That was the first time I saw Red.

OnePocket.org: Since you were about 22 or 23 at the time, Red was already a good player.
Al Bonife: Yeah. He started early, before me. A friend of mine has a website. I told him that Jersey Red should be in the Hall of Fame.

OnePocket.org: I agree with that. At least we got him in the One Pocket Hall of Fame.
Al Bonife: My friend put a letter in, on the website. That’s how that came about. I talked to a few people. Steve Mizerak, Buddy Hall and a few others, to try to get him in the Hall of Fame.

OnePocket.org: Red was known as the master of 5×10’s; did you start out playing on them also?
Al Bonife: Yes, back them days, the 5×10 was the regulation table. In ’51 they changed it to 4-1/2×9.

OnePocket.org: So the 4-1/2×9 looked pretty easy to you.
Al Bonife: Compared to the 5×10.

OnePocket.org: So you spent a good deal of time with Jersey Red.
Al Bonife: On and off, yeah. We went to a few tournaments together.

OnePocket.org: When you first played Red, did you get involved with One Pocket with him?
Al Bonife: That’s who I learned how to play One Pocket with.

OnePocket.org: Was that an expensive learning experience?
Al Bonife: Not really, because I shot awful straight. I played Red one time, 9-Ball. I spotted him the break on a tight 4-1/2×9, and beat him.

OnePocket.org: So he wanted to turn the tables at One Pocket…
Al Bonife: The first time we played One Pocket he gave me 9-8 and the break. But he didn’t like it. That was many years ago.

OnePocket.org: He was considered a very creative player.
Al Bonife: Well, he played One Pocket awful good. My personal opinion, I thought he was the best 5×10 One Pocket player on a tight table, that I’ve ever seen. He gave Fats 9-7 playing One Pocket and beat him.

OnePocket.org: And that was in the 50’s, when Fats was still a pretty good player?
Al Bonife: Yeah, and that was his best game. He banked pretty good, too.

OnePocket.org: So Red was spotting Fats 9-7 at that time.
Al Bonife: Yeah, New York Fats, the one they call Minnesota Fats.

OnePocket.org: That must have been fun to watch because those are two colorful guys!
Al Bonife: I knew ‘em both, real well. The first time I ever met Fats was at Ames Billiards, on 44th Street, off 7th Avenue – the one where they had The Hustler made.

OnePocket.org: Did he try to hustle you?
Al Bonife: No, he and I never played. We were just good friends. Of course he couldn’t beat me playing 9-Ball, which none of them could down there at that time. All those players down there at the 7-11, like Ervolino, wouldn’t play me 9-Ball. None of them would. Boston Shorty was the only one to play me 9-Ball, but the only way he would play me was if I let him sit on the table. He was so small, and he didn’t like the rake, so I let him do that.

OnePocket.org: You mean he wouldn’t gamble unless he could climb on the table?
Al Bonife: Yeah, so I said, ‘I don’t care,’ and I let him get on the table.

OnePocket.org: Did you play him any One Pocket?
Al Bonife: No, me and Shorty just couldn’t match up. I played him 9-Ball and Snooker. I gave him seven points playing Snooker playing on the 6×12.
OnePocket.org: So was Ames a similar room to 7-11?
Al Bonife: Yes, but it wasn’t as popular. It got popular when they made The Hustler out of there. The main pool hall was 7-11.
OnePocket.org: What was the other name for the 7-11?
Al Bonife: Paddy’s Billiards.

OnePocket.org: There was another big room too, down there in NY wasn’t there?
Al Bonife: Yeah, McGirrs. It used to be upstairs; I think on 50th or 51st Street. Then they moved it to 8th Avenue and 45th Street, downstairs.

OnePocket.org: New York at that time had quite a collection of great players…
Al Bonife: Oh yeah, they had a lot of great players. When you came in to the 7-11, you better know how to play!

OnePocket.org: There was a pecking order there, wasn’t there?
Al Bonife: There were four of us that played real good up there, that you had to get through. There was me, Bob ‘The Destroyer’, Jersey Red and Shorty.

OnePocket.org: That’s quite a murderer’s row, and they all played One Pocket! Bob ‘The Destroyer’ was known for coming up with all kinds of unusual handicaps, wasn’t he?
Al Bonife: Yeah, he propositioned a lot of games; he was a good player. He matched up different games like that.

OnePocket.org: Was he a fun guy to watch, too?
Al Bonife: No, he was just a good player, a solid player, and he matched up real good.

OnePocket.org: Did you see any good one-handed players come through back there?
Al Bonife: Well, there were only two real good ones that I’ve ever seen. That was Miami and Agusaté, both Puerto Rican guys.

NY Blackie in 1962
Photo courtesy Lloyd Welcome

OnePocket.org: You must have some favorite Jersey Red stories…
Al Bonife: You mean One Pocket?

OnePocket.org: That would be great.
Al Bonife: In ’65, in California, in the book they had it in New York but it wasn’t, it was in California. It was at the Straight Pool tournament when Cisero Murphy first went. It was in ’65. Jimmy Moore went over to Jersey Red and told Red if he’d take me for a One Pocket partner, he’d take anybody. At that time I didn’t play much One Pocket. So Red said, ‘Okay,’ and he went and got Cisero Murphy. So Cisero Murphy and Jimmy Moore were partners, and Jersey Red and me. So we played until Moore couldn’t stand it no more. We beat ‘em both to death. We must of beat ‘em like twelve or thirteen games in a row.

OnePocket.org: Because you had the great execution, and Jersey Red had the knowledge?
Al Bonife: Yeah, he coached me; he would show me what to shoot. I made everything in the world; I shot awful straight.

There was another time when we played at Celebrity Billiards, when Danny Gartner went to Weenie Beenie, and said, ‘Let’s me and you play Red and Blackie; Blackie can’t play One Pocket.’ So we played, until Weenie Beenie couldn’t stand it no more and he quit. We were standing around up there and talking and Weenie went over to Danny Gartner and he said, ‘I thought you said Blackie couldn’t play One Pocket,’ because all I did was run eight and out when I got a shot. And Danny said, ‘He couldn’t.’ So then Beenie said to Danny, ‘Well how come you didn’t tell me that you couldn’t play either?’

OnePocket.org: That’s pretty funny!
Al Bonife: That’s a true story.

OnePocket.org: So that was twice that you teamed up with Jersey Red; he was a good fit for you as a partner.
Al Bonife: Oh yeah; he knew how I played and I knew how he played, and I knew that he knew a lot more about the game than I did. He played it all the time.

OnePocket.org: Did you guys partner up some other times?
Al Bonife: No, only twice he and I partnered up. Years ago, there were two games I couldn’t beat Red at, and two games he couldn’t beat me at. The two games I couldn’t beat him at were Straight Pool and One Pocket, and he couldn’t beat me at 9-Ball and Snooker.

OnePocket.org: So you were in New York a long time, but I know you’ve been in Florida the last few years…
Al Bonife: I was born and raised there, in New York.

OnePocket.org: Did you come to Florida from New York?
Al Bonife: No, no, no. I left New York in ’64. I was out in California, then in Houston, then New Orleans, and then Florida. Oh, I lived in the Carolinas too.

OnePocket.org: In California, was that southern California?
Al Bonife: Yeah, I was in LA. I was with Al Romero. We ran around together for about four years. I changed his game, his break and everything.

OnePocket.org: There was quite a pool scene there. Were you still around when Keith McCready came up?
Al Bonife: I knew Keith real well. In Houston, Texas, Keith tried to give Al [Romero][/Romero] the 7-Ball. Me and Al was partners, and Al beat him out of twenty-eight hundred; he busted him.

OnePocket.org: And when you were in Houston, Red was there also, right?
Al Bonife: Yeah, everybody was there, just about.

OnePocket.org: Did you get into any more One Pocket there in Houston?
Al Bonife: Well, One Pocket was never my top game. My best game was 9-Ball, and Snooker.

OnePocket.org: Did you ever play Sammy Blumenthal?
Al Bonife: Yeah, I played him right here in Tampa in ’64, at Bakers. I beat him seven games.

OnePocket.org: Wow.
Al Bonife: He was a great Snooker player, and I played real good Snooker. I played Ronnie Allen down there too.

OnePocket.org: At Snooker?
Al Bonife: Yeah. You can ask Ronnie how many racks I ran on him!

OnePocket.org: Did you ever play Ronnie One Pocket?
Al Bonife: Yeah. He gave me a ball. He was a better One Pocket player than I was. But at Snooker, I robbed him; I shot holes through him.

OnePocket.org: You had real good eyes, it sounds like.
Al Bonife: Well, I played pretty good. I know this, back years ago they didn’t care to draw me in a tournament, even Ed Kelly.

OnePocket.org: Were you in on all the Johnston City tournaments?
Al Bonife: No, I played from ’62 to ’64.

OnePocket.org: Did you get in all three divisions?
Al Bonife: I only played in the One Pocket one time, I think in either ’63 or ’64 I played in the all-around. Back then it was Straight Pool, One Pocket and 9-Ball. I played Luther Lassiter in the One Pocket. I drew him in the One Pocket; it was four out of seven. You can ask Weenie Beenie, well, he come out with a different little story. We tossed a coin for the break and Lassiter won it, so he broke first. He broke the balls and I banked one and run eight and out. The second game I broke the balls, he made a mistake and I banked another one and ran eight and out. The third game I had him five to one, and he went for a long bank and scratched, so I had a spot shot and needed two other balls. I was out, you know. So I made the spot shot, but a funny thing happened. It was unbelievable; I never did this in my life. I went down to shoot the next shot and the cue stick fell right out of my hand and it landed on the cue ball and knocked it to the other side of the table, and Lassiter beat me three in a row from there. It ended up it was 3-3 and the last game he made a real good break that I couldn’t get out of, and he beat me. To this day Weenie Beenie thinks I dumped him or something, because they were all betting on me.

OnePocket.org: Oh, really; because you dropped the stick.
Al Bonife: Yeah, it was just one of those things; I don’t know what happened.

OnePocket.org: Did you get involved in some of the after-hours action out there?
Al Bonife: Yeah, I played in all the ring 9-Ball games.

OnePocket.org: Did you ever get to Hot Springs or any of those other early gambling spots before the Johnston City years?
Al Bonife: No, that’s before my time. I heard about that; everybody used to go once a year when they had the horse races.

OnePocket.org: Same with Norfolk, right.
Al Bonife: Yeah, that was over before my time.

OnePocket.org: But the 50’s in New York was some of the toughest action in pool, wasn’t it?
Al Bonife: Oh, yeah.

OnePocket.org: Was it because there were so many good players; they all got so good from beating up on each other?
Al Bonife: Well, we had the top players in the world at that time.

OnePocket.org: You mentioned Cisero Murphy, did black players come into the 7-11?
Al Bonife: Yeah, he played up there quite a bit.

OnePocket.org: Did you ever see James Evans play?
Al Bonife: Yeah, he was an old man then, but he still played good. To my estimation, and to most of the old-timers, he was the best colored player in the world. Yeah, I used to play with him. He was an old man, but he played good. He was up in his 80’s! He handled the cue ball real well.

OnePocket.org: It seems like the thing that separates the real good players is their cue ball.
Al Bonife: Cue ball control, that’s the most important thing in pool.

OnePocket.org: So you must have had that, plus you had the good eyes.
Al Bonife: Right.

OnePocket.org: Do you have any other stories you want to share?
Al Bonife: At the 7-ll, a lot of players came through, like Squirrel, Marshall Carpenter.

OnePocket.org: What happened when he came?
Al Bonife: That’s a long story. A lot of players came through. Weenie Beenie, Squirrel, Lassiter, Jimmy Moore, Taylor, they all came through.

OnePocket.org: Did anybody come through and have a good batting average?
Al Bonife: At the 7-11 they had to have a hell of a good game. I think there’s only one guy that ever won up there, that I know of, and that was Eddie Taylor.

OnePocket.org: Squirrel was a good player; what happened with him up there?
Al Bonife: Bob Destroyer beat him, playing One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: Were they playing even?
Al Bonife: Yeah, there was no spot in them games.

OnePocket.org: So Bob was such a good player he had to come up with those handicaps to get action?
Al Bonife: In order to play. Like me; I had to give up spots in order to play.

OnePocket.org: I understand both he and Jersey Red liked that back to front One Pocket game.
Al Bonife: Yeah, they played on the 5x10s up at the 7-11. It was a different kind of a game. They played each other, too. One would have to get so much up top side, and the other guy would get so much at the bottom. But Red was the best of them all; he played that One Pocket awful good.

OnePocket.org: Do you know what happened to Bob The Destroyer?
Al Bonife: He’s dead; they’re all gone. I guess I’m the only one left.

OnePocket.org: You might be. Johnny Ervolino died recently…
Al Bonife: Yeah, just last year I was in the pool hall and Buddy Hall called me on the phone, and he says to me, ‘Can you recognize this voice?’ and he put Johnny Ervolino on the phone. I told him, ‘If I live to be a million I’d know that voice!’

OnePocket.org: Well thank you very much for your time Blackie, and maybe we’ll talk again…
Al Bonife: Well, I’m down here in Tampa. You can contact me from the website. You know my website?

OnePocket.org: What is that again?
Al Bonife: tampabilliards.com

Buddy Hall on NY Blackie

OnePocket.org: I understand that he lived with you for the last year or so…
Buddy Hall: When we moved down to Florida in ’95 he was living in New Orleans at that time, and then he came back over to Tampa and stayed with us, and then we moved back up here. If you add it all up, Blackie and I started running around together in 1976, and we’ve been together most of that time.

OnePocket.org: Really, so you went way back with him.
Buddy Hall: It’d be hard to put a date on when he wasn’t at my house and when he was. My family was his family and he was there when I raised my kids. He’d sneak off and buy them ice cream and stuff like that.

OnePocket.org: So where were you at in 1976?
Buddy Hall: On the east side of Houston, a suburb of Houston. I can’t remember the name of it.

Blackie with his pool cue and a deck of cards — life is good!
Photo courtesy Bill Porter and Mike Haines

OnePocket.org: Okay, because Blackie did mention living in Houston, and LA, and Tampa, and maybe a couple of other places…
Buddy Hall: After I met him the only other place that he lived other than my house was New Orleans. He lived down there for a few years, and then he came over to Tampa and we’ve been together ever since.

OnePocket.org: And in ’76, where was your career at, at that time?
Buddy Hall: I was the best player in the world! I beat everybody and didn’t nobody beat me.

OnePocket.org: So when you met up with Blackie you were already at the very tip-top.
Buddy Hall: I won my first world championship in 1974, in Dayton, Ohio.

OnePocket.org: The reason I was asking is that they say he was a real straight shooter and I was wondering if he influenced your game.
Buddy Hall: I was already a world champion. We just ran together, and we were partners in a lot of different matches and stuff like that. We went to tournaments together and kinda just hung with each other.

OnePocket.org: Did he help you out with matching up?
Buddy Hall: Yeah, he was very good at that, at being able to tell how well somebody played. I wasn’t the sharpest tack in the box. I made a lot of bad games when I was growing up. He taught me a lot about clocking people’s games.

OnePocket.org: And now you’re actually real well known for that, too.
Buddy Hall: I am known for that.

OnePocket.org: So you attribute some of that to your time spent with Blackie.
Buddy Hall: Oh yeah.

OnePocket.org: Was Blackie still getting in action himself while he was with you?
Buddy Hall: Well, not in the last year or so; he wasn’t able to play. He was on a fixed income at the end, but he loved to sneak off and go to the boats, the horse track and stuff like that. If he won, he’d come in and say, ‘Here, I’m going to buy you a steak dinner!’

OnePocket.org: But over the last 30 years when he was with you…
Buddy Hall: Oh, yeah, he sure did!

OnePocket.org: He mainly played 9-Ball, right?
Buddy Hall: No, Blackie was more of a One Pocket player.

OnePocket.org: So he did get into that. He down-played his One Pocket when I talked to him.
Buddy Hall: Blackie was a really good One Pocket player. His best game in his early days was Snooker.

OnePocket.org: Yeah, he mentioned Snooker and 9-Ball, but he kind of down-played his One Pocket.
Buddy Hall: He wasn’t the best One Pocket player in the world, but he played real good One Pocket, and in his later years he preferred to play One Pocket. It was a game where he could miss and still have a chance. In 9-Ball, if you miss, you lose!

OnePocket.org: Is One Pocket another area that you got some coaching from him?
Buddy Hall: Well, he had watched me play and stuff. But before he went off to New Orleans, I didn’t really care that much for One Pocket. Then by the time he got back two or three years later I was a top One Pocket player.

OnePocket.org: I know you spent time with Eddie Taylor, too, and that would help both your banking and your One Pocket…
Buddy Hall: Yes, I did. Of course the whole world knows that Eddie Taylor was the best Bank Pool player that ever lived. But Eddie also played as good One Pocket as anybody.

OnePocket.org: So Blackie was intentionally low-key about his One Pocket…
Buddy Hall: Yeah, he sure didn’t go around letting people know that he played better than they did.

OnePocket.org: Do you have any stories about Blackie you want to share?
Buddy Hall: He used to drive for me when I was on the road, until it got to where I had to fire him.
One time he backed over a gas pump, knocked it plumb down, and he started to drive off. But the law stopped us and Blackie said, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘Well you knocked that gas pump over!’ And Blackie said, ‘Well I didn’t know that.’ And the officer said, ‘Well, that’s all right; just don’t let it happen again,’ and let him go. That’s the way it was with him. Blackie could make mistakes and people would forgive him for them. Another time he was backing out of the driveway and I said, ‘Blackie, did you look behind us?’ He said, ‘I looked before I got in the car.’

OnePocket.org: That’s pretty funny! Anything else you would like to add?
Buddy Hall: Well, me and my whole family just loved him with all our hearts. Write as much nice stuff as you can about him because he deserves every word of it.

OnePocket.org: Well basically I was going to put up the interview that I have, but I would like to add a segment with you if that’s alright.
Buddy Hall: It sure is; I’d be honored.

Al Romero talks about Blackie

OnePocket.org: Blackie mentioned that when he went out to LA he hung out with you…
Al Romero: Yeah, me and him ran around from about 1963 until he left from here, maybe 1970-something.

OnePocket.org: Oh, so it was a few years. He also said he might have helped you with your break.
Al Romero: He helped me in some other ways. He helped me on making balls. He had a little deal that I really can’t tell nobody about.

OnePocket.org: I’ll be darned, so he helped you out with your ball pocketing?
Al Romero: Yeah.

OnePocket.org: That’s interesting, because apparently he could really split the wicket…
Al Romero: I’ll tell you, he could really play. And he had the best break I’ve ever seen anybody have. When he played a set of 9-Ball he’d make two or three 9-balls on the break. In one tournament he broke either two cue balls or two 1-balls on his break, I can’t remember which.

OnePocket.org: Wow, so he had a real strong break, like Cannonball.
Al Romero: Yeah. Me and him and JC Cannonball used to run around together.

OnePocket.org: You mean you and Blackie and Cannonball all ran together?
Al Romero: Yeah. Did I learn a lot of pool from those two guys! If it hadn’t of been for those two guys, I never would have played as good as I played. A person needs some help. Like Buddy Hall, he’s helped a lot of players learn how to play the right way. I learned how to bank from Johnny. He was the best banker around, out here.

OnePocket.org: And Blackie was the top 9-Ball player out there at that time?
Al Romero: Yeah, he was the top 9-Ball player on the west coast.

OnePocket.org: That’s pretty good, because in the 60’s California was crawling with good players!
Al Romero: Yeah, there were a lot of good players, but those people from the east had everybody here beat.

OnePocket.org: They did?
Al Romero: Oh yeah. The good players came from Philly, Chicago, New York; they played more for money. You’ve got to have that to be good. You’ve got to play for money to play good.

OnePocket.org: Blackie certainly did that; he never did anything but that, right?
Al Romero: That’s right, that and horses and so on.

OnePocket.org: Apparently Blackie was real good at matching up…
Al Romero: Well, he’d take tough matches. The only way you learn how to really play good you’ve got to take on everybody. If you don’t do that, you’ll miss out on learning. You’ve got to learn from your peers, that’s all there is to it. You’ve got to get up with somebody that plays as good as you, or a little bit better. If you want to get better you can’t sidestep anybody. The other guy that played real good was Portland Don [Watson][/Watson].

OnePocket.org: I’ve heard that he moved the cue ball real well.
Al Romero: He played like nobody else. He knew how to play 9-Ball the right way.

OnePocket.org: Did he and Blackie play?
Al Romero: I didn’t see that, but they probably did. I know when I played Don he just waxed me.

OnePocket.org: He moved the cue ball so well?
Al Romero: Yeah. I figured I’d beat the old guy, but when it came down to it, I was broke. There is a lot to pool; you can’t be afraid of the game.

OnePocket.org: Blackie apparently also had a pretty good One Pocket game that he liked to downplay.
Al Romero: He knew all the games good. If you want to make money you have to know all the games, and you can’t be low key; you’ve got to let people know that you play.

OnePocket.org: Apparently Buddy Hall and Blackie got to be real good friends, and Blackie was living with Buddy when he died.
Al Romero: Yeah, they were the best of friends. I called over there a couple of months ago and Buddy told me he had just taken Blackie to the hospital.

OnePocket.org: That’s a side of Buddy I didn’t know, that he would care for an old-time player like that.
Al Romero: I’ll tell you what, Buddy cares for anybody that plays pool.