Rack’em up with James ‘Salt’ Duval

Exclusive OnePocket.org Interview

Photo courtesy Bob Bealieu

Born: June 15, 1938
Died: July 25, 2013

As it happened, I conducted this interview with ‘Salt’ shortly after my father died – which he knew about – and before we started he kindly asked about how the service had gone. I explained how it had been tough, but I had worked my way through it. Then he shared his own experience with his mother dying:

“I sat with my mother, who we knew was terminal and we saw almost on a daily basis, and we knew it was coming. But when it comes, you can’t prepare for it no matter what you do; it still hits you in the ass when it happens. You have your body, right? If you lose a limb, does it affect you? Your parents or your loved ones become like an appendage of your body and when you lose them it’s like losing a limb. That’s the only way I could possibly explain it.”

This interview was conducted February 2, 2011.

OnePocket.org: You live in northern California somewhere, right?

James Duval: Yes, San Francisco. I was born here.

OnePocket.org: And San Francisco is one of those cities that had a fantastic pool scene.

James Duval: Correct; in the early days in San Francisco, three cushion billiards was the big thing. Then straight Pool came in, but always three cushion was the big thing. People would go play in their suits and ties, and in the 40’s and the early 50’s my grandfather used to take me down to the 928 Billiard Club, which ended up being the original Palace, which was owned by Cochran originally. We would watch some of the great, great players like Kilgore, Hoppe, Cochran and Jay Bozeman. A lot of top, top, top, top players. I saw the Katzura sisters, Masako and Noriko; they were unbelievable playing straight rail. Bob Byrne was hanging around in there.

OnePocket.org: McGorty too, right?

James Duval: McGorty was in there all the time. Bud Harris too; a lot of great, great players. There was a player by the name of Kimball; he looked like a ghost, very thin with white hair, but he was probably the most under-rated player in the area at the time. All the road players that came to San Francisco played him One Pocket or Rotation and they never won. That includes Lassiter, Heisler, all of the players.

OnePocket.org: And he was an older guy…

James Duval: Yeah, quite old. His name was Clarence Kimball. Then in the late 50’s or early 60’s, Cochran opened another pool hall at 1028 Market Street. That’s the one that was upstairs, with a dentist on one side and the poolroom on the other, and all the players from all around the country came there to play. They had a great One Pocket tournament there with all the best players.

OnePocket.org: That was Cochran’s.

James Duval: Yes; the Palace got sold to Bob Bills and Earl Whitehead.

OnePocket.org: Earl Whitehead – he ran some tournaments or something didn’t he?

James Duval: Yes he did. He was a billiard player and he and Tex Zimmerman owned the pool repair shop where they sold tables and everything else. Tex made cues and they were a quite popular cue around San Francisco and the northern California area. His first ones were Titlest with a brass joint and one shaft. Then I got him talked into making me an ivory jointed cue, which he made similar to a Martin. That played exceptionally well. A lot of those are around the country that are mistaken for Martins. 

The first time I played at 928 — I had been playing at the boys club; I was the northern California champion and all this baloney – I walked in there in 1958 or ’59, right around there, and I was looking at this great place. I saw this guy playing and he asked me if I wanted to play a game of straight pool to a hundred for ten dollars, which was a decent amount at that time. He broke, and broke the balls badly so I happened to get a shot, and I didn’t know any better so I ran 96. I missed, and he ran a hundred and out, and asked me to play another game. I told him, ‘How can I play you another game?’ He said, ‘Well, you just ran 96.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and you ran a hundred balls, and it’s not just that you ran a hundred balls, it’s how you ran them. You never shot a tough shot. I was forever shooting tough shots, but you were playing just easy shots.’ Later I found out the guy’s name was Harold Worst.

OnePocket.org: That’s funny!

James Duval: So, I got a chance to play Harold Worst and I found out why he was such a great player.

OnePocket.org: And he would have been playing both three cushion and pool at that time. 

James Duval: He had just come back from Argentina where he had won the world’s three cushion championship. He was the most versatile player that ever lived. Ronnie Allen and I have both said the same thing. I have never paid to see a pool tournament in my life, ever. Any place in the United States, I’ve never paid to go in to see a tournament; I’ve always gotten in for free. But the only tournament I would pay to see would be Harold Worst and Ronnie Allen at the top of both their games playing One Pocket.

OnePocket.org: Yeah, that would be something.

James Duval: That would be an unbelievable game. At the old Palace there were players like ‘Big Nose Roberts’, ‘Rags’ Fitzpatrick was out there…

OnePocket.org: Really, I didn’t know that ‘Rags’ spent time out there.

James Duval: Oh yeah, he spent a lot of time out there. That’s what I was telling his daughter, about how I met him out there, and how much of a gentleman he was [at the One Pocket HOF dinner when ‘Rags’ Fitzpatrick was posthumously inducted in January, 2007]. There was only a ball’s difference between ‘Rags’ and ‘Big Nose Roberts’ – both great, great, great players.

OnePocket.org: ‘Rags’ was another good all-around player – not billiards, but…

James Duval: Yes, he was an all-around good pool player. He had a knowledge of patterns; he could read patterns real well. If you notice – and this is something you need to put on your blog – the big thing about playing pool is not only the ability to make balls, but to pattern balls to make ball running much easier. If you have a table – and Efren will tell you this right to your face – if the table is open with no balls tied up, he’ll tell you where he’ll shoot every ball – 8-Ball or 9-Ball. That’s the big thing about pool. What good is it if you shoot straight, but you have a tough shot every time?

OnePocket.org: Yeah, thinking ahead. I know I often tell people who shoot better than me, but they are having trouble getting to the next level, if they are working on their shot-making then they are working on the wrong thing. They should be working on position.

James Duval: And pattern recognition.

OnePocket.org: That’s the three steps, and maybe there are more. First making shots, then playing position, and then patterns.

James Duval: I’ll tell you what to do to learn. Throw six balls on the table and take the cue ball in hand, and be honest with yourself, and pattern where you are going to shoot each and every ball and if you don’t shoot it that way you lose. 

OnePocket.org: That’s interesting, because when I first started to learn pool I came up with a practice drill like that but only using three balls, and that was work, and it was really good practice.

James Duval: Six balls is not that hard, and it makes you think a little more. And then you can progress from there. But you have to be honest with yourself. If you make a mistake with your position, you have to start over again; spread out six balls again.

OnePocket.org: When I did it with three balls, I would put the balls back where they were and try again, because with only three balls you can remember where they were.

James Duval: But that’s where you are making a mistake because you’re doing repetition – put the balls in different positions. I have people that worked for me at the race track for years. I always said, anybody can make a mistake. If you do something wrong once it’s a mistake; twice it’s a mistake. But three times we have to adjust and clean your act up. Four times, you aren’t making mistakes any more, you’re out. That’s true in pool too!

OnePocket.org: So the first time you went into Cochran’s you played Harold Worst? 

James Duval: That was the old Palace. The first time I went into Cochran’s I was just awed with the amount of talent that was in there. A lot of them are dead now. Eddie ‘The Hat’ Burton was in there. Jack Perkins was in there; ‘Sleepy Bob’ from Washington, DC was there. ‘Clem’ was in there. Earl Heisler, ‘Bananas’ Rodriguez was in there every day.

Photo courtesy Diana Hoppe

OnePocket.org: I heard he was a slow, deliberate player…

James Duval: Deliberate wasn’t the word for it. He took 50 strokes every shot! You could not afford to match up wrong. I went on the road in 1962 with ‘Detroit Whitey’ ‘Tommy the Sailor’ and ‘Canadian Pete’ and we went across country. The first thing I was told when we went out, ‘You cannot afford to book losers on the road because there are expenses that you have to make. Look for all the Greyhound and Trailways bus depots because there is always a pool hall within a block of the bus depot. And look for the pimps, the bookies and the preachers because they’ve got all the money.’

OnePocket.org: And then work your way up the ladder…

James Duval: And if you could beat a guy giving him the eight, then don’t play unless you got the last two, because you can’t afford to book losers.

OnePocket.org: How do you even get people to play? If I go somewhere new, I can’t get a fair game; they always want to put their best player up.

James Duval: Handicapped systems and leagues have shot pool in the ass, so a person can’t make a living at it any more. But I’m going to give you a hint. How do you have the patience to spend so much time to trap a person? 

You can ask anyone who has been around, who the pool player’s pool player is, and he has made more money than every one of the tournament players put together. Jack Cooney. He would go into a town and he may go to work; carry a lunch box, and lose 20-40-60 dollars every week for months, until he finally got the right guy down and then he just played up the ladder, if it was 8 to 4, then it went 8 to 5 and on up, until he ended up giving the guy 9 to 4. That’s the kind of player Jack Cooney was. He could give you so many stories of the innards of hustling pool. He’s not a tournament player; he’s literally the hustler player. You could count on one hand the number of tournaments he ever played in his life. 

OnePocket.org: It’s funny, because even though he was a hustler, it seems like there was a part of him that did want to play the better players.

James Duval: I don’t know if he was a better player, but he played Weenie Beenie so much – he won hundreds of thousands of dollars from Weenie Beenie – Bill Staton. Jack was living out here in San Francisco when he was a kid and he’d come up to Cochran’s along with Denny Searcy, Ronnie Barber and Rich Marquez and a few others. In fact a couple of them used my ID to get into the pool room.

OnePocket.org: So you are just a little older than Jack…

James Duval: Yeah, I’m older than Jack. I knew his father real well. In fact his father used to sell tip sheets at the race track; I used to see him every day.

OnePocket.org: So his father was a sharp guy too.

James Duval: He was a hustler of a different type; he sold tip sheets at the track.

OnePocket.org: But still, a guy with a lot of street smarts having to do with gambling…

James Duval: Yeah, Jack lived in San Bruno or Millbrae and I used to give him a ride home quite often.

OnePocket.org: I’ll be damned; you and the young Jack Cooney! 

James Duval: Yeah, Grady was around there too, and Ronnie, and the one that was really the one that made all the money, that was the one to beat in the place, was Richard Franklin, the guy they called ‘The Canadian’. You can ask ‘San Jose Dick’ and all them, he just beat everybody. You had Eddie Ames, before he went into the service. You had ‘Ears’, you had Jack Dorsey, they called him ‘Dogface’ because he looked like a bulldog.  He and I were playing one time and he missed a ball and lost playing One Pocket, and he put his head down and ran right into the wall and knocked himself out. You can ask guys about that. It was a real interesting place, and you could bring any player in the world in there, bar none, and played any game, and you could have not won. You had ‘Okie Sam’ Crotcher…

OnePocket.org: OH yeah, Eddie Taylor’s boyhood friend.

James Duval: And he banked just as good as Eddie Taylor!  You had Joe Cosgrove, Danny Jones and ‘Eufala Kid’.

OnePocket.org: ‘Eufala’, that was Glen Womack, right?

James Duval: Yes. And you had ‘Black Rags’ from LA, ‘Rags’ Woods. You had Richie Florence. Marvin Henderson was there for the tournament. There was just nothing but talent; anybody in the world could have walked in there and played any game on a pool or billiard or snooker table and not have won.

OnePocket.org: Now, you are talking about that 1962 One Pocket tournament. I know Ronnie won it and Jack Perkins finished second, but who were some of the other guys that played in it?

James Duval: Taylor, Marvin, Richie, ‘Canadian’, Frank Rodreguiz, a guy they called ‘Slim Pickens’, ‘Rags’, Cosgrove. There were a lot of players in it. You don’t know the whole story about that. It was a round robin format, and Taylor and Ronnie were on the top, and if Taylor beat Ronnie, Ronnie was out. So they took Taylor, Ronnie and everybody over to this bar the night before the finals, and Taylor got drunk. I mean slap-faced drunk. So the next day he played Ronnie and Ronnie beat him and according to points, Perkins ended up second and Taylor finished third. After the tournament was over people went from Cochran’s over to the Palace. Earl Whitehead and I put up a thousand dollars for Eddie Taylor to play Ronnie Allen jacked up one-handed One Pocket giving Ronnie 8-7. Taylor just robbed him, and that’s exactly what happened. 

Photo courtesy Hal Barber

OnePocket.org: So they both played great jacked up one-handed?

James Duval: Taylor was so good. When Taylor first came into the Palace – I had met him once before – I played him a game of Banks just for the hell of it. He broke and didn’t make a ball, I ran five and missed and he ran the other ten. Sick! I’ve been around a lot, a lot of pool players over the years and you’ve seen I have a fairly good name; I know a lot of the players and get respect from all the old players. I’ve been around a long time. If a guy asks me, ‘How does this guy play?’ I get a lapse of memory. It used to be, put a quarter in the phone and dial 411; now it’s get on your iPhone and go on the web and see who this guy is and how does he play?

OnePocket.org: It is amazing, between the internet and cell phones, you can see why somebody like Jack Cooney retired.

James Duval: Yeah, nobody knew Jack! You couldn’t find twenty people in the country that knew who he was. You could stand in a room with a thousand people, everyone of them pool players, and nobody would know who he was. 

OnePocket.org: Did you own a poolroom yourself for a while?

James Duval: No, I almost did. I almost bought Town and Country in Daly City, but I wanted him to buy the building too and he didn’t want to buy the building.

OnePocket.org: So, you were a player, but how did you make a living?

James Duval: I went on the road with good players. I did something that ‘Freddy the Beard’ said I was one of the smartest at. I would take the good players in and let them play the best player, and I would find out who the stake horses were and then I would match up with the stake horses. Pretty soon the player was busted and so was the stake horse; we’d beat the player and the stake horse.

OnePocket.org: So you’d have your player play the player and you would play the stake horse.

James Duval: That’s right, and I played just under the player; in some games I played better than they did! I’ll tell you what, it’s a real experience going on the road and trying to make money, and keep your sanity with two characters like ‘Detroit Whitey’ and ‘Tommy the Sailor’. 

OnePocket.org: I was going to say, because those guys had quite the reputation.

James Duval: But you know what? You can say what you want about them, but they were money makers. I treated pool different from 99.9% of the pool players. I did not treat pool as a sport, I treated it as a business. I went out there to make money. I don’t give a damn about who the player is. Do you think I want to play Worst again? You’re crazy! Yet you’ll get guys out there who’ll try to play Shane ten times. Pool is a business. I’ve seen guys get staked in a tournament and then make savers and end up making more money than the winner of the tournament because of all the savers. It’s not right.

OnePocket.org: You have to be a pretty damn smart guy and have good instincts yourself if you are taking players on the road to make money, because of the characters players are, because they are out to take advantage of you too, right?

James Duval: I’ve got a simple question for you. You have a great amount of intelligence, but say you come across a person who has mediocre intelligence, but he’s asked you questions. If you teach him everything you know, now he knows what you know and what he knows, so now he’s smarter than you are. You never teach a fool. Why would you want to make a sucker smart? If it’s a business, you don’t ever educate a fool or a sucker. 

This is something that pisses me off about Chris Bartram right now. He’s been hand-feeding Dippy Dave. Why would you want to make a sucker smart? Why? If you’ve got a sucker and you’ve been beating them every day, and you can give him 10-5, and you’re giving him 9-8, are you going to tell him, “Oh, you’ve got a bad game; I’m going to give you more weight.” Don’t ever educate a fool! Never educate a fool or a sucker.

OnePocket.org: But the players themselves are out to get a piece of you too, right?

James Duval: You have to have more larceny in you than they do.

OnePocket.org: I shouldn’t laugh, because you made your living that way!

James Duval: You know what? I could go into a poolroom and I could just sit there and drink a cup of coffee and watch what’s going on in the room, see who’s doing what and who not to play and who to play. All I want to do is sit there for an hour. That’s all it takes.

Photo courtesy Diana Hoppe