A Lesson in Pool

While doing some housekeeping on my Youtube homepage, I spied a video in the sidebar feed that brought back a lot of memories.

The video was an old (and badly kept) film of a pool match between Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats. The emcee for the competition was Howard Cosell. The year was 1978, and I was living at home in Washington, D.C. during the winter, working as a staffer in Senator Edward Brooke’s office. I was twenty-two.

I watched that match on live television with my father, while my mother watched from the kitchen while she cooked. It turns out, we were three of twenty million to tune in – the largest television audience ever for a pool game.

I’ve remembered that day as often as any other lifetime event. We watched silently as Cosell emceed the competition. Willie Mosconi felt both players should keep their jackets on during play (his was a tuxedo jacket). Fats disagreed. He said, “A pool player with a tuxedo is like putting ice cream on a hot dog.” My father groaned – a man who put on his blazer to go to the grocery store. The jackets came off.

Mosconi was a man of few words, and went about his business with an effortless precision while Fats was shooting off his mouth, playing the role of comic hustler. He was obnoxious, and not funny. He was a huckster, and I didn’t like him from the get-go. At one point while Mosconi was setting up a shot and Fats continued to run his mouth, Mosconi looked up at the referee and asked, “are you going to let this continue?”

Mosconi had class. He let his pool cue do the talking. He kicked Fats’ ass at 9-ball, 8-ball, and rotation, ending the competition before they even got to the straight pool game.

My father asked me if my pool game was any good. I said it was okay for a bar room. He said, “In pool, and in life, be like him,” pointing to Mosconi, “not like him,” pointing to Fats.

Some years later, I have no idea how many,  I was visiting my parents at their place in Kennebunk Beach one summer. It was a cold, rainy day. Dad invited me to come along to his afternoon game of pool, played with a half-dozen of his old pals from the past 30 years. Really just an excuse for the gentlemen to begin their scotch drinking a little earlier than usual. They had all known me since childhood, and their children were friends of mine, so it was comfortable for me. I stood to the side and kept a little quiet while the gents worked through their first game of 8-ball.

Then it was my turn, partnered with dad, playing for $5 a head. I broke, then quietly worked my way around the table and finished off banking the 8-ball into the side pocket.

Charlie Shriner, my dad’s best friend for the past 30 years, handed him his $5 and said – in mock disgust, “leave the fuckin’ kid home next time.”

The lesson was remarkably simple. Be a doer, not a talker. Don’t tell people how good you are, show them by example. And wear your blazer.

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