“Lucky In The Big Game”
by: Andrew Monstis
So now what? I had come here planning to buy my friend breakfast and shoot the breeze in the peace and quiet of this quaint place, and hopefully find out how I could help him with his … problems. That picture was fading fast. The picture before me was electric with question marks and unknowns. What had happened to Lucky to bring him to this, all that he abhorred and abandoned years ago? I could only stand here, suspended in the crowd, and watch, and wait, and wonder, what’s next?
The score was 5 – 5, the clothes rack was holding his own, and Lucky finally had to visit the washroom — that’s what they call it around here. This would be a good opportunity to catch his attention. He saw me as he came by and stopped, a look of pleased surprise on his face. “Hey, Drew! A friendly face in a crowd of vultures!” He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’m in action again. Most everyone here thinks I’m Big Johnson from Canada. No one has asked me who I am. That’s just great! A lot of people have called around to find out the line on me.”
“Won’t they find out you’re not him?” I asked, thinking Lucky looked thinner and kind of worn out, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed it before, since he’d had a beard then.
“No, probably not. But Roosevelt Johnson and I used to play 30 years ago. He was a big action gambler. Hey, I’ll be right back — have to go to the washroom.”
I could see people looking intently at me as Lucky walked away. Like they thought I knew who he was, and I did, sort of. One guy asked me. “Who is that, anyway?”
“He’s Lucky,” I shrugged. The guy said, “Yeah right, buddy, but what’s his name?” with a look like he didn’t appreciate my answer. What could I do? It was the truth. I didn’t know Lucky’s name either. Pretty much the same look I got back home when people asked me about the story I wrote about him.
Lucky returned, and stopped again. “How did this circus start?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you the whole story later, but this started three days ago when I played a guy and won all his cash. Instead of leaving, he called out for more money. You know me – I didn’t care. When the money came so did a bunch of people. See that guy over there with the beard? I think he’s in disguise.”
“The one next to the jukebox – looks like he’s asleep. All I know is he’s good. He’ll want to play at some point. Right now he’s just waiting. He’ll want to bet high – I know he will.”
Lucky didn’t even blink when I told him who he was. “I don’t know if I’ll get to play him.” Why not, I was thinking. “I’ve already played seven players in three days.”
“What does the town think about all this?” I wondered.
“Some of them have seen this before. For the most part it helps the local economy. But I know that people do like the laid back nature of this place, and I’m as ready as they probably are for a good break. When I’m done here let’s go to the ranch.” Lucky walked back to the table and I heard him say, “Your rack.” And before you knew it, Clothes Rack was on his way out the door.
“Race to 11 for a thousand.”
“Ok,” I didn’t have to wait long before Lucky finished off another player. Yet another approached, but Lucky turned him down, saying he’d play tomorrow – right now he was done for the day.
About eight people who were just sweating the action got up to play. They agreed to a $50 dollar ring game. I watched a little bit while Lucky collected his stuff. There were some very good players, and I kind of wanted to stay and watch, but I was tired and needed to rest. The guy sitting next to the jukebox, I’ll call him the Sleeper, did not get in the game, but stayed where he was, legs stretched out, arms crossed, eyes kind of half-shut like he was snoozing.
Lucky and I walked out of the lounge, and I started to head for my car. Lucky veered me across the street instead, and into the old frontier era hotel, where he proceeded to check in.
“What’re you doing?” I asked. “Aren’t we going out to your ranch?”
“Yep,” he grinned, “I just don’t want any of them back there thinking I live here. Besides, there’s a couple of guys hanging around there I wouldn’t trust with my dirty laundry.”
I followed Lucky through a door in the back of the lobby, threaded through a stockroom crowded with old furniture and to Lucky’s wagon, parked over on a side street. We drove away from town on old country roads full of ruts and holes. Lucky asked me how was I doing and what was I doing here and we exchanged idle talk for a while. It was apparent he was tired, too. I was going to ask him about the problems he had mentioned in his letters, but I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it. But I did finally get around to telling him that it was bothering me that now that we were becoming friends I felt like I should know his real name.
Lucky looked over at me as we rattled along and said, “Drew, you don’t really want to know that,” just as we arrived the front gate of his spread. The gate crest, carved from a big oak tree slab, read “LUCKY Q RANCH”. After he unlocked and swung open the metal gate, he had me drive through, and he hopped in the passenger side. The road from the gate was asphalted for the next 150 yards, smooth and quiet after those rough roads. He started to talk about his ranch, further avoiding my question very artfully. The big house, he said, was Ponderosa style, built by a rancher in the early 20’s, and he hadn’t had to change much of anything except some of the electrical and plumbing. The timing was awkward for me to keep at him about his name, so I had to be content to wait, and enjoy the place.
We walked past an old broke down farm wagon still lying off to the side of the house and through a huge 8-foot pine door into a spacious boot room slash foyer. The house was solid, functional, and felt like the kind of home you’d want to come home to. He tossed my coat on a chair and took me into his den. On a long wall opposite a tree-sized fireplace were family pictures. He pointed out himself as a kid with his parents – he seemed to be the only child in most of the pictures. The other walls were covered with pictures of pool players.
“Many of these pictures were taken when I was a boy,” Lucky pointed out. I looked closer and saw that he had pictures of himself playing most of these hall-of-famers. There was Willie Hoppe and him, and Ralph Greenleaf with Lucky standing next to the table with a cue in his hands, and pictures with Jimmy Caras, and Willie Mosconi in action, playing Lucky. All were signed. He had at least a hundred photos. In one he looked about five years old. He said he was standing next to the pool table they had had at home.
“My father taught me the love of billiards. He was a machinist back then, and he made me a little cue. I was only six years old when I scored 29 consecutive billiards and ran 254 balls in straight pool. I had to carry a stool around to stand on for every shot. When I was five I ran 1,550 straight rail billiards and 978 balls in straight pool before I missed. Pop was kind of in a state because we were at the local pool hall where he had to pay the time. But he wanted me to do well. My memory is vague on this but that’s how my pop recalls it. I do remember the locals called me The Whiz Kid.
“We lived in a small town kind of like this one — maybe that’s why I was drawn to this place. Pop was very protective and careful. He made sure I did normal kid things. I was always wanting to go and play pool, but he’d most often say, ‘No, son, school will always come first.’ I was going to be in the first grade and that was the most important thing to him. But then that same year he took me on weekends to different towns we could drive to and he’d put me up against the local hotshots for money. We’d go into the pool halls and he’d find the players and then bet on me. I always got a spot because of my age. And I always won. He justified it because it brought in money we needed.” Lucky excused himself for a minute and came back with a pile of cold fried chicken and some potato salad and Pepsis.
“See, Pop had polio in his left arm and he finally had to stop working. We didn’t have much money and our family survived on my pool winnings through the war. My mother got a full-time job in the last year of the war and that helped.”
As I munched on chicken and washed it down with Pepsi, I listened to Lucky reminiscing. “I wanted to play in World Straight Pool and Billiard Championships. I knew I’d do well.”
“But you didn’t?”
“Nope,” Lucky replied, through a mouthful of salad. “Pop insisted that there was more to life than straight pool and cushion billiards. I was very good at pool but not so good at other things yet and my father knew I couldn’t survive on pool alone.” (As Lucky said this I thought how wrong his father was about Lucky surviving on pool.) “But because I played for the money and had to win for my family I learned to play harder.
Looking at the pictures, I asked, “Who was the best?”
“I would say these five,” he pointed to Caras, DeOro, Greenleaf, Mosconi, and Sigel. “I played the Spanish Champion Alfredo DeOro in Chicago. I was 8 in ’45 — right after the war. Pop knew DeOro. They played an exhibition in ‘30 when my father played pool. DeOro was an old man when I played him, but he was great. Even at his age he was one of the best players I ever played.” I smiled to myself, thinking about Lucky now. “I played Greenleaf the same year in New York. It was at an exhibition at an Elks Lodge. I made a few balls on him in front of the crowd but I let him win. He was impressed and invited me and Pop back to his personal pool table. Right away Pop asked him to play me for money. He kind of looked down his nose at me and then he laughed, like he thought that was pretty funny. Then he said, ‘ok kid, take it easy on me.’ Well, I ran 150 balls twice in two games of straight pool. He laughed while he paid my father, but I could tell he wasn’t real happy about it. That was the only time we played. He died shortly after that.”
We were quiet for a while, just eating and thinking about life. Then Lucky continued, “I was thirteen in 1949. The first time I played Mosconi and the Greek Caras, Caras beat Mosconi that year for the World Championship. I watched that tournament. Afterwards, my father got Mosconi aside and challenged him to a match with me for some pretty good cash. He said yes — I guess he figured it would help make up for what he lost getting second. We went to the to the local pool hall and I beat him. The place was mostly empty. He got mad and stormed out. On his way out, Jimmy Caras came in. Mosconi said, ‘Play the kid.’ I beat Caras, too. But Caras was intrigued about my skills. He paid my father, and said he wanted to play me again sometime.
“The next year I got a match at billiards with Hoppe. I had two innings and 50 points. I ran 37 before I missed. I think he only ran 8, and then I ran out to 50. I had beaten him for $500. That was a lot in those days. A few days later he played in a big tournament and won. Later he told me he guessed I’d tuned him up.
“So who was the toughest?” I wondered, a little bit dazed by all this.
“Of all those players I would say Jimmy Caras played the toughest. I played him the most of the five top players. He really helped my game in a way.”
“How come we didn’t hear about you from any of those guys? How come no one knows you?”
“They do — or did,” Lucky corrected himself.
“So how come they didn’t tell anyone? I persisted.
“Well, Sigel and Greenleaf never knew who I was. Mosconi was too embarrassed to let any one know he got beat by anyone who wasn’t a known player, especially a little kid. He had too much pride. It was during the height of his career and he probably would have lost his Brunswick sponsorship, my Pop told me. Jimmy the Greek tried to tell people, but no one would believe him. Everyone thought Caras also was pulling people’s legs. He told me all this years later and said he never did convince anyone.”
Lucky yawned, and, of course, so did I. “Then there was Hoppe. He was going to do a TV program and wanted me to be on it, too, but Pop said no, and made him promise never to tell people about his pool-playing son. He said I was too young to deal with the adult world. Hoppe understood and honored that. He’d had the experience of playing as a young boy. Hoppe was considered to be the Boy Wonder when he was the same age as me. I’m sure he looked back and realized the problems he had because of it. He was a true mathematician on the table. I learned that from him even though I could beat him at billiards easily. But I beat him only because of my innate abilities. For my 16th birthday, let’s see, that would be ’52, Willie Hoppe invited me and Pop to the World Championship. Hoppe won that year. Watching the tournament was hard. I wanted to be out there, playing in it. Pop wouldn’t let me, though. He didn’t want me in the limelight. I guess I struggled with his authority some, around that time. That’s when he tried to make me stop playing altogether. He said it was the wrong focus for me. So there for a while I didn’t play at all. Pop died in 1965. I was 28.”
More silence followed, and I reflected on the life Lucky and his father had had together. “I quit pool on my own after that, for over 10 years. I worked pretty regular in those years, mostly welding — my Pop left me all his tools. I even got married, but the wife died of cancer in ’74. Oh, I’d play about once every two years – but it just wasn’t in me to bang the balls around. So when I decided to pick up the stick again, seriously, I discovered everyone was playing 9-ball, so I started out practicing that. First time out I ran 11 racks. I felt like I hadn’t lost a beat.
“I found out through my old friend Hal Mix that Mike Sigel was among the top 9-ball players. I can’t remember how I got to play Sigel — I think maybe Hal arranged it. But I played him three times — once in ‘76 and twice in ‘80. I tried to play him another time, but he turned me down — even with a big spot.
“Sigel wouldn’t play you?” I said in astonishment.
“Nope. I even offered him the 7-ball wild.” Lucky went on. “I played for money. Every time. First with a spot, then I’d give them one. A lot of well-known players paid my salary. They all gambled. Every great player has played for money. Not one champion hasn’t. That’s why they were all great players. Money has a way of making a good player better.”
I wanted to hear more stories, but my head was nodding, and Lucky needed to get some rest. I knew I would hear more another time. It dawned on me I still hadn’t found out one single thing about these problems Lucky was supposed to be having. Well, all in good time, I guessed.
The guest room was as big as half my house. What a fabulous home, I thought, as I crawled into bed. I tossed for a while, my mind filled with images of all the great players falling under Lucky’s cue. I hadn’t realized he was this phenomenal. Wow. How had he managed to keep such a low profile? Could it be it that absolutely no one really knew who he was? I wasn’t having much luck finding out, either. I sensed Lucky was keeping something from me, too. And this inevitable match coming up with the Sleeper — was this going to be the Big Game? I nodded off, wondering.