by George Fels

Tres Bien Ensemble

PICTURE THIS: Yonder plump fellow, is wearing white wing-tip shoes yes, white wing-tips - and black socks, ankle height. You can tell the socks' color and height because he is wearing green Bermuda shorts, too, and a matching Ban-Lon shirt, complete with bulging pocket protector, stretching where it oughtn't stretch. He appears to have grown the hair on the back and one side of his head for some years, Rapunzel gone cockeyed, so he can execute one of those always deceptive global sweeps across the top, a part running horizontally along the nape of his neck as though he expected someone to approach and whisper into his nose.

He's playing with a house cue, too. Is this not the primo egg in the henhouse of life? Would you or would you not ask him to-play?

Well, they damn near had to call in Andy Frain security forces to restrain the howling mobs that did; and all those players whose avarice was showing were. severely punished for their haste. The splendid sartorial smorgasbord waddling before them was none other than Bill Stroud, then a.k.a. The Colorado Kid and a future cue-making genius. Recalling Stroud's chic ensemble, his former partner, Danny lanes, says, "If the shoes and socks didn't get you, the legs sure would; if that wasn't enough, the shorts surely would; and if all that were to fail somehow, that hairdo just couldn't miss." (As' an older and vastly successful man, Stroud has long since made his self-assured peace with Nature; the ornate sweep is gone, and 0 innocence! - he is in fact far balder than I am. Far richer, too.)

Of course Stroud was far from the first to get into role-playing as part of sucker recruitment, although he may have delved the furthest into the nerd imagery, and well before his time at that; Stroud at that stage might well have served as role model for Burger King's ill-fated Herb. No, Bill Stroud was decades too late to be a true pioneer, in pool thespianism. Hustlers were disguising their true identities as well as playing speed - back in the glory days the '20s and quite possibly further back than that; their chicanery was one of the early factors in the formulation of the game's bum-rappers.

In its most shameless form, pool disguises went all the way to Masked Marvel players, who were still seen scores of years later. (One was ever rumoredly sponsored by Coca-Cola!) How they kept their identities secret, with such visible clues as cues, builds and styles of play in full prominence, may have been their most mysterious aspect of all. Their usual pitch was the carny-like -$---- to any man who can best the Masked Marvel!"; but some of these pear-shaped Zorros were upfront about their hustling, too. In the once-popular novel Cry Tough (the sequel to Irving Shulman's notorious The Amboy Dukes, which many of us read by flashlight under blankets), a reference to such a player is made, in a fairly well-written straight-pool scene; that novel was written in the early '50s, but set in the postwar '40s.

"Tugboat" Whaley acquired that monicker via his ongoing masquerade as a retired tugboat captain; in truth, it was doubted he could find the Hudson River. Luther Lassiter's early playing wardrobe was comprised of bib overalls, broad brimmed straw farmer's hat and a leftover straw strand on which to suck. "The Millionaire and His Chauffeur" was a scam that worked often and well, all the way through the Depression. A world-class player/ hustler from the '20s and '30s was called "The Major;" the only time in his life he had been seen truly snapping to attention was when the bartender bellowed, "Last call!" And possibly most horrific of all, that period (no pun intended) gave us a male player who for years successfully passed himself off as a woman.

In short, there were few lengths to which the truly enterprising hustler would not go to disarm the incautious. With the advent of bar tables in the early '60s, a whole new category of playing casual wear enjoyed meteoric sales, especially in the Midwest: truck driver overalls. Cornbread Red wore them, adding an open-thumb bridge for fuller effect, but he was a bona fide national cult legend by then and could have been excused for seeking a new identity like a tattletale federal witness. What was much more ironic was that the new breed of bar hustlers - local shortstops who could not possibly have been known mere blocks away from their usual haunts - donned them as well, hoping to deceive a level of suckers who were already already so naturally dumb that they'd probably have bought into The Emperor's New Clothes.

Tall Al, a quiet, long-term fixture on Chicago's limited pool panorama, invested in the overalls, too, choosing the stylish forest green. Tall Al's actual height, as pool-trivia. players must be dying to know, is exactly the same as mine: 6 feet, one-half inch. The reason he's always been "Tall Alt' and I've been just "George" is that I have the measure of the man by 60 pounds. Tall Al may have indeed seemed tall in his truck-driver costume, but it required a giant leap of faith to otherwise identify him as having much to do with the transportation industry. To balance his lack of bulk, Al went around with his late buddy, another nice guy deservedly named Fat Jerry, also in overalls, usually gray or khaki. Jerry's girth , lent badly-needed credibility to their roles, but overall (again, no pun intended) the two men looked less like driver-and-helper than an oversized but neatly clad number 10.

The thing is, what is it about truck driver overalls, or any other disguise, that gains a guppy's confidence? Do they proclaim, "Behold, I am salt of the earth as you are, and therefore cannot possibly know anything about pool?" How? Why? And what is it that a pool player's supposed to look like that ambitious schemers works so hard to avoid?

In the early days of the mind numbing philosophy called existentialism, there was a deceptively sophisticated gag: There was this guy. He wore a mask every day of his life. One day he took it off and robbed a bank. They'll never catch him.

George Fels in author of 'Mastering Pool' and 'Pool Simplified --Somewhat,' and has been Billiards Digest columnist since 198d

Billiards Digest - December 1991