Remembering a Billiards Master
One of the great pocket billiards players of the last century lived in obscurity. In his waning years, in a tiny pool hall, he put on a legend-worthy performance and taught a room full of young players the true meaning of class.
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The man’s name was Bob Walsh. He was well into retirement from a career as a pipefitter. He had worked during the days when cities across the United States laid pipe to deliver natural gas. His job sent him afield for months at a time until a city’s pipes were laid. Then he’d be off again to another city. It was a career of hotels, restaurants, pipefitting, and evenings to kill.
But before pipefitting, Bob had learned another skill: he had mastered pool. As a kid, Bob was best friends with the soon-to-be-legendary Boston Shorty (Larry Johnson). They had grown up together playing pool at every opportunity. Boston Shorty had gone on to wow the billiards world, while Bob had gone to fit pipe.
Not a Pool Hustler
Bob didn’t give up the game; he just didn’t see it as a viable livelihood. When he arrived in a city for months of fitting pipes, Bob checked into a hotel and then perused the phone book to find pool halls. He’d visit a few and leave his name and number. “I’m in town for a few months,” he’d explain, “and I’m a player. If you have patrons looking for money games, have them call.”
Bob made a lot of money in these matches. He said he never had an argument. Hustlers get beat up. Admitted players get along – even with people who lose to them.
Setting the Stage
In the late 1980s, a service station owner in Allston, Massachusetts built office space on top of his auto shop. The bottom dropped out of the real estate market, and he was stuck without tenants until a customer at the gas pump suggested he should open a pool hall. Sully’s Billiards was born.
Sully knew nothing about billiards, but did well to create a pleasant environment with suitable equipment. He provided what few pool halls of that day did: a good-natured, “friends-of-the-family” room where people hung out as much for the good-natured ribbing as they did for the pool.
I spent a lot time at Sully’s, teaching promising shooters, and playing matches to sharpen my own game. Eventually, a league organizer dropped in and the Sully’s family fielded, perhaps, nine three-person teams. The league lasted only two years as its organizer proved to be management-challenged. So, the league dissolved and Sully’s started sponsoring tournaments to fill the void.
Amateur Pool Tournaments
In any billiards room, there is at least one standout player who, but for desire or opportunity, might be able to make money on a professional tour. This is the “A” player of the amateur tournament. A “B” player may have attention-worthy moments, but should not have delusions about going pro. The “C” bracket of amateur pool accommodates most players who want to play in tournaments. These are the folks whose natural ability or innate interest in the game has lifted them above pool as a social past-time. Finally, the “D” players are those who want to play in tournaments, but really shouldn’t.
Sully’s sponsored C, D, and Open tournaments. If you were a regular, everyone knew where you belonged; a solid B player could never play in a C or D tournament. Of course, anyone could play in an Open tournament.
A stranger who entered a Sully’s tournament had to declare a bracket. This left the field vulnerable to hustlers who might arrive for a D tournament, knowing they would easily win the first place money. Of course, a hustler could do this only once; it’s far too challenging to make your “A” game look convincingly “D” when there are “B” and maybe even “A” regulars hanging around during the tournament.
Not a Legend
Bob Walsh showed up at Sully’s during this tournament phase of the pool hall’s existence. I wasn’t there for Bob’s first visit, nor for several subsequent visits, though other regulars and Sully, himself, talked about this retired guy who had been showing up from time-to-time.
When I finally met Bob, he wasn’t shooting pool. In fact, he rarely shot. He’d arrive with his stick and hang out for several hours watching others play, and chatting with the regulars. Occasionally, our most A player would cajole Bob into a game, and Bob would win easily.
Bob was very open about his experiences, and liked to share stories about his childhood with Boston Shorty. He told us the two of them made their own Sneaky-Petes by cutting one-piece cues in half and adding screw-joints. They could play with these familiar sticks in any pool hall without revealing the mark of good players: having their own sticks. (Sure, today everyone has a custom cue, but in Bob’s playing days, only serious players carried sticks.)
Bob sometimes accompanied Boston Shorty to tournaments, but he never entered himself. He’d make good money playing against the pros in the practice rooms. So, while Bob’s childhood friend experienced fame for his successes at pool, Bob had quietly gone about his job, enjoying pool as recreation.
Sully’s ran a D tournament one night that attracted two strangers. Of course, the usual collection of regulars played, and the strangers “lucked” their ways through to first- and second-place finishes. It was clear that the strangers were hustlers, and the Sully’s family took an instant dislike to them. With an open tournament scheduled for the next week, we all wondered whether the hustlers would return.
Bob had witnessed the D tournament debacle, and was obviously annoyed by it. Despite the gambling and the seediness of the traditional pool hall, Bob expected players to be honorable; he made a point to be on-hand at the upcoming open tournament.
As players gathered, Bob sat by and assured us: he wouldn’t play unless the hustlers entered. Sure enough, the hustlers arrived, and Bob registered to compete.
The tournament was double-elimination meaning if you lost a match, your next match would be against someone else who had lost. Losing in the losers’ bracket meant you were out. Amazingly, Bob lost a match early; the balls broke badly, and his opponent got the edge. That opponent was one of the hustlers – I’ll call him Hustler#1.
After the loss, Bob cruised through the losers’ bracket, but one of Sully’s regular B players beat Hustler#1, throwing him into the losers’ bracket. This meant Bob and Huster#1 met again in the semifinal – the last match on the losers’ side.
An Epic Showdown
By the time Bob knocked Hustler#1 out of the tournament, Hustler#2 had won the winners’ bracket semifinal. Hustler#1 punctuated his loss to Bob with the goading statement: “Now you have to beat Hustler#2 twice.”
Bob’s reply? “I only have to beat him once. Then he has to beat me.”
When the winner of the losers’ bracket plays against the winner of the winners’ bracket in a double-elimination tournament, there are two possible outcomes: 1. The winners’ bracket winner wins, thus ending the tournament. 2. The winners’ bracket winner loses, thus dropping into the losers’ bracket. Now both players are in the losers’ bracket, so they play another match. The winner of that match wins the tournament.
Early in the match, Hustler#2 played solidly, making runs and hiding the cue ball behind other balls, when necessary, to leave Bob without shots. Bob, on the other hand, played brilliantly: every time Hustler#2 hooked the cue ball, Bob found a way to hit the required object ball… and leave no shot for Hustler#2. The match went quickly, and Bob won.
As the second match started, Hustler#2 started sharking blatantly. Sharking is the act of deliberately distracting your opponent-sometimes by asking questions, sometimes by moving in your opponent’s line-of-sight during a shot, sometimes by making sudden noises… all while trying to make it appear like normal, innocent behavior.
Many tournaments enforce “one chair” rules that require players always to sit in the same place while their opponents shoot. In a friendly pool hall like Sully’s there had never been need for such a rule. But Hustler#2 had the audacity to stand directly across the table from Bob, tossing his cue from hand-to-hand. During Hustler#2’s turn at the table, Sully quietly asked Bob whether he wanted some intervention to make Hustler#2 behave. Bob laughed quietly and said, “He’s not bothering me; don’t worry about it.”
The more Hustler#2 sharked, the worse he played, and Bob beat him soundly. With second and third place winnings, both hustlers left quickly. Bob commented afterward: “I’ve played this game so much, nothing bothers me. He could have danced on the table while I shot and it wouldn’t have made a difference.” He went on to assure us that the two hustlers wouldn’t return as long as they thought Bob would be there. In his experience people who cheat don’t want to work so hard; they’d look for other pool halls where they could hustle more easily.
The Greatest Player
I’ve had the thrill of sitting table-side at an exhibition match between Babe Cranfield and Irving Crane, two of the outstanding old-timers of pool. In fact, I’ve seen Babe Cranfield perform in-person several times, trouncing the local best in games of straight pool with scores of 150 to 9.
By the time I met Bob Walsh, his game had lost its luster, and still it was pro-caliber. He hadn’t played in thirteen years, and his stick had spent those years in the trunk of his car. Here was a chance for me to pick the brain of master of the game, and he played with me from time-to-time as a mentor.
I remember games of straight pool where I’d watch him string together a run and I’d interrupt him at each shot. I’d ask, “Why are you shooting that ball, and not this one over here?” I hoped the insights he’d provide would help shape my strategies as I worked through racks in other contests.
Bob’s answers were amazingly useless. “Why that ball?” I’d ask. “Because it’s the right shot,” he’d reply. “Why not this one, leading onto that one?” I’d press. “Because that’s the wrong shot,” he’d insist.
Bob was the greatest player whose brain I ever got to pick, but I failed. He knew what shots to take, he knew how to shoot them, but I couldn’t get him to tell me why they were the right shots.
I moved away from Boston fifteen years ago and Sully’s evolved. I’d visit from time-to-time, and find none of the old regulars at the tables. Sully’s eventually went out of business and I suspect that if the building hasn’t yet been replaced, it soon will be.
I learned recently that Bob died, though I don’t know when he did, nor did I learn any details of his death. While his buddy long ago had his name enshrined in the Billiards Hall of Fame, I suspect almost no one involved in Billiards today has heard of Bob Walsh. The Sully’s Billiards family was very lucky that this gentleman master of the game found us, adopted us, and shared with us so much of his experience and wisdom.