The Jansco Bros. Johnston City Tournaments
50th Anniversary, 1961-2011
October 25th, 1961 the world of pool in America woke up to a remarkable new kind of tournament that shook the pool establishment out of a deep slumber. It was an unusual event on several fronts; one being the unlikely location for a major national pool tournament, deep in rural southern Illinois. Second, it was a game, One Pocket, not recognized by the established sanctioning body of pool in America at that time, the Billiard Congress of America. Third, the tournament boldly featured a number of known hustler pool players who had not participated in the few sanctioned events of the mid-century — whether by their own choice, or because they were not invited due to their reputations. And finally, the promoter was a total newcomer to pool tournament promotions, a fellow who had his own roots more in the gambling side of pool than the establishment side of pool, the remarkable George Jansco. So who were these Jansco Brothers, and what made them think a small town in southern Illinois could become the “Billiard Capitol of the World”?
George & Paulie Jansco had grown up in Johnston City, where their parents ran a small grocery store. George had a talent and passion for baseball, and in 1932 he left high school to pursue his dream by attending a baseball academy out west. Coincidently, he got tagged with the nickname ‘Wimpy’ during his baseball career, although that nickname did not seem to follow him into the pool world, where of course there was already a player well known as ‘Wimpy’. Although he never played at the major league level, George had an excellent minor league career and was still being pursued by major league baseball scouts when he decided to call it quits.
In the 50′s George returned permanently to Johnston City, where he bought the J&J Ranch – a little roadside bar on the east side of town that still stands. He also bought 2500 acres of land on the other side of town, on the main Herrin-Johnston City Road, directly in the path of what was eventually to become interstate highway 57.
During these years, George was very active in the community, assembling and managing a Coal Belt Baseball Team for Johnston City and promoting numerous sporting event fundraisers, including events that he participated in – he may have gained a few pounds from his baseball days, but he clearly stayed very active in exercising his natural sporting abilities.
The Cue Club, site of the first three Johnston City tournaments
George was a very good pool player himself, so in about 1959 George purchased a 9’ Macon (later named Gandy) pool table which he placed in the small building in back of the J&J Ranch, along with an old couch on one wall that was raised up so invited onlookers could watch the action. It was his own personal one table poolroom. It was here that he hosted road players like ‘Fats’ (who was living in Dowell, about an hour away), Hubert Cokes (who was from Evansville, IN, about an hour away the other way), Marshall ‘Squirrel’ Carpenter, Eddie Taylor, Bill ‘Weenie Beenie’ Staton, Earl Schriver and others. It was around that table, or at the J&J bar, that George’s tournament idea was originally hatched.
George always dreamed big, and he envisioned his 2500 acres of land as the ideal stopping off point along route 57, where eventually he and Paulie would have the Show Bar, a golf course and even a hotel to serve every kind of need for those who stopped along this major route between the South and Chicago. The Jansco’s Show Bar came first, and George opened the Stardust Golf Course in 1968, and when he died in 1969 he was just finalizing the hotel plans.
George was very innovative and energetic, so between he and Paulie there were many significant firsts or near firsts in the world of pool tournaments at Johnston City.
During the summer of 1961, out behind their nightclub, George & Paulie built The Cue Club for the purpose of holding the first tournament. The new building’s main arena was designed to seat 200 spectators. This appears to have been the first time a building was built specifically to host a pool tournament. George mailed out many posters with cover letters to introduce this tournament. He used his considerable experience and success as a local sports promoter to “get the word out.” It was his first pool tournament, but it was far from his first promotion, and he approached that first tournament with a lot of confidence.
The Hustler movie was released September 25, 1961, exactly one month before the Jansco’s first tournament kicked off. It would be expected that some of the movie publicity rubbed off on the Jansco tournament.
That first tournament ran from October 25 to November 15, establishing the long-running style that characterized all of the Johnston City events. In 1961, the tournament was only One Pocket, and it was the first known One Pocket tournament ever, with $5,000 in prizes and $150 entry fee. George provided the first set of rules for One Pocket to accompany promotion for his tournament, which were published in the billiard trade magazine Chalk-Up, becoming the first published rules for One Pocket.
This came during a particularly down time for pool tournaments, when even the BCA had nearly closed their doors and there were virtually no major tournaments being held. Even though the game was the hustler’s preferred game of One Pocket, George dressed up the players and the presentation to give the event and players a professional shine. For the first time ever, the two faces of pool – the clean tournament image on the one hand and the backroom hustlers on the other – were brought together into one event, and the media loved it.
The tourney started with twelve, but Marshall Carpenter & Joey Spaeth arrived over the next several days and were added in, to make the final tally 14 players, in full round-robin format.
Tom Fox of the Evansville Courier newspaper began coming to Johnston City and reporting, with Fats especially getting a lot of the attention, both because he was popular and outspoken, and possibly also because the other players had mixed feelings about the publicity affecting their hustling careers negatively. Fox sold a major article to Sports Illustrated published Dec 4, 1961 and the national media onslaught was on. In his SI piece, Fox really played up the “hustler” angle of the event.
Emboldened by the success of the first tournament, for the second year (1962) George expanded the tournament from just One Pocket to the unique all-around format that became the hallmark of his tournaments, including Straight Pool and 9-Ball along with One Pocket. This was one of the first professional 9-Ball tournaments ever held, if not the first, and it was also the first all-around pool tournament. For ‘62 George pledged $10,000 in prizes.
The tournament opened with a challenge match between Johnston City mayor Neil Thurmond and Herrin mayor Fred Henderson. This was the kind of promotional detail that George was so good at, and it undoubtably helped promote “legitimacy” with the two local mayors in attendance. All three divisions ran concurrently, which stretched out each discipline so that even if you were playing only in one division, you might need to stay the entire three weeks. The ’62 event was the first US integrated professional pool tournament, including black player Javanley ‘Youngblood’ Washington.
In 1963, the Jansco Brothers continued the same all-around format that was one of the hallmarks of Johnston City, with a $10,000 prize fund again. After a scouting mission on November 14, CBS came to Johnston City to cover the finals, which was the first time major TV covered either a 9-ball or One Pocket pool tournament. Following the success of the 1963 tournament and the excitement of having national TV coverage, George went to work making bigger and better plans for the next tournament. For the 1964 event, he and Paulie built an addition to the Show Bar, the first ever specially built pool tournament theatre (“The Pit”) in time for the ’64 tournament.
A bidding war between CBS and ABC netted George a paid TV contract with ABC ‘Wide World of Sports’ for $8000, which helped boost the 1964 prize fund to $20,000. The BCA also sanctioned Johnston City for the first time that year, and the billiard press talked about George Jansco having “gone respectable.” Brunswick provided 4 tables, two of which were utilized in the pit. Prior to the ’64 event, George consulted with a lighting expert to design special large black curtain-skirted light boxes over the two feature tables, which he kept burning all night to avoid changes in the playing conditions. These unique lights provided unprecedented shadow-free table illumination, yet the deep canopies left the large crowds in shadow so the players could better focus on the match at hand.
In 1965 George established the first modern player organization, the Billiard Players Association of America with the goals of improving tournaments, better promotion, more favorable image and greater status for players and most importantly, no restrictions on what tournaments players could enter.
In 1966 the format was changed so that each division was held in a separate week to ease player’s travel concerns. The all-around champion format stayed the same.
In 1967, for the first time, 9-Ball was played “On any foul (except the break), opponent may place the cue ball anywhere on the table.” In prior years, “push-out” was the standard for 9-Ball. Another innovation for ’67 was the first ever Amateur event in conjunction with the pro tournament at Johnston City.
In 1968, George first began to include “Hustler” on his posters; although he was always hustler-friendly, he had generally left that label to the media, preferring instead to focus on lifting the image of the sport.
George (left) and Paulie Jansco stand under the leader board
for Straight Pool inside the Cue Club in1963
On June 4, 1969, George died of a “massive cerebral hemorrhage”, the very day that he had finalized plans to build his long dreamed of hotel.From 1969 on, Paulie took over running the JC and Stardust tournaments.
In 1970 there was a serious youth invasion, including young guns Cole Dickson & Jim Mataya in attendance, but it was unheralded 18-year-old Keith Thompson who won both the 9-Ball and the all around title that year. In 1971 Evelyn Dal Porto became the first woman entered at Johnston City, competing on equal footing with the men. In 1972 Paulie tried a spring Johnston City tournament with disappointing results. This was the only spring Johnston City tournament. The spring event also featured a women’s event, which was won by a young Jean Balukas.
For what turned out to be the final Johnston City tournament in the fall of 1972, Paulie dropped Straight Pool, so this final tournament consisted only of One Pocket and 9-Ball. Including the spring “Tournament of Champions”, this came to a total of 13 Johnston City events. Only two players competed in every single one – Larry ‘Boston Shorty’ Johnston and Hubert ‘Daddy Warbucks’ Cokes.
The fed’s (IRS, with the support of the Illinois Bureau of Investigation & Illinois State Police) raided the tournament for gambling early in the morning of Oct 26th, after seeing “newspaper reports of large-scale gambling taking place at the tournament.” The raid derailed the schedule for finishing the tournament, which had to be extended into the following week. Afterwards, Paulie railed against the press for lack of tournament coverage and vowed never to hold another tournament in Illinois – marking the end of an era for the Jansco’s and Johnston City.
It should be noted that all reports indicate that the Jansco Brothers always paid out completely what they had promised in prize money – a fulfillment of commitment to the players that unfortunately has often been lacking among tournament promoters, even in recent years. After he retired from tournament promotion, Paulie once signed the back of a promotional photo, “I promoted more pool tournaments than anyone else on earth. I gave away more prize money than all of the other promoters combined.”
Recap of some of the Jansco Brothers contributions to pool in America:
The first time that the two faces of pool – the clean tournament image on the one hand and the backroom hustlers on the other – were brought together into one event 1961
The first known One Pocket tournament; the first published rules for One Pocket 1961
Possibly the first major 9-ball tournament 1962
The first all-around pool tournament 1962
The first racially integrated major pool tournament 1962
One of the first pool tournaments to be featured on national television 1963
The first specially constructed theatre designed and built to host pool tournaments 1964
The first modern player organization 1965
The first use of the rule “ball in hand anywhere on the table” for 9-Ball 1967
The first amateur event in conjunction with a pro tournament 1967
A generation of promoting the most publicly recognized pool tournaments of their time 1961-1973
Their tournaments offered the most prize money of their era and they always paid their announced prize money
That is quite a legacy, and worthy of Hall of Fame recognition!
Johnston City 50 Years
22″ x 28″ Commemorative Poster
Limited Numbered Edition of 250
Click here for more Johnston City 50th poster information
This poster is available to purchase
George Jansco’s Land of Opportunity
The impresario of the famed hustler jamborees of the 1960s cut his teeth on pool and made some key connections as a bookie in the southern Indiana boomtown of Evansville.
By R.A. Dyer
Back before the newspaper men arrived, and before the TV cameras, and the big-smiling interviews for “CBS Sports Spectacular” – back before he helped recreate the world of big-time pool – Georgie Jansco held a simple job in Evansville, Ind. For a few happy years he scrawled down names and numbers on bits of paper and made phone calls. He booked bets. And this he did with great enthusiasm, for Jansco loved few things as much as he loved gambling.
Welcome back to Untold Stories. In this month’s installment, I’ll review the early life of George Jansco, the Southern Illinois tournament promoter who, during the 1960s, rewired the world of professional pocket billiards. Since pushing a few issues back for the induction of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Fox into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame, a few readers have gently suggested that I might have put the cart before the horse. It’s true that Tom Fox helped bring the Johnston City tournaments to the attention of the world, they note, but it’s also true that George Jansco actually created them. Likewise, Tom Fox may have helped create Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone – but so too did George Jansco. All points well taken: Both Jansco and Fox deserve spots. I agree with Steve Booth, who, writing in a recent issue about George and brother Paulie, said: “Without the Jansco brothers themselves, there would have been no story for Tom Fox or the rest of the country to get excited about.”
This month, I’d also like to highlight that odd crossroads of gambling culture that became Evansville, Ind., during the 1940s. By virtue of its oil deposits and its World War II shipbuilding, this southwestern Indiana town would join Norfolk, Va., Detroit and nearby towns like tiny DuQuoin, Ill., as a hub for glorious vice. It’s in Evansville that Jansco made important connections that fueled his later pool tournaments.
Much of the material for this month’s installment comes from my interviews with George’s daughter JoAnn McNeal; her husband, Dave McNeal; and Bruce Beaumann, editor of the Evansville Courier and Press. I’ve also drawn details from previous research for my book “Hustler Days” (although I’ve tried to steer clear of material already covered in the book). I’ve reviewed the Marion Daily Republican, the Southern Illinoisan, and “Unsinkable Titanic Thompson,” the biography of the golf hustler written by Carlton Stowers.
George Jansco’s Land of Opportunity
George Jansco was the mastermind behind many of the richest and most infamous pool tournaments of the 1960s. But his first career in sports was as a shortstop for a minor league baseball team in Ft. Worth, Texas. (Photos courtesy of Joann McNeal) First, let me touch upon five key moments in Georgie Jansco’s life:
1) He was born on a small farm in Heron, Ill., on Aug. 8, 1915. His parents were Hungarian immigrants; his father a bootlegger by trade.
2) At age 17, he started playing shortstop for a minor league baseball team from Fort Worth, Texas.
3) He married childhood sweetheart Sadie Lokotich. His daughter, JoAnn, was born in 1940 in Mississippi, during a stop there for one of George’s ballgames. He had a son, Jan, born in 1937, who later died.
4) In 1961, George Jansco hosted the first of several massive “hustlers” pool tournaments in Johnston City, Ill. By attracting network television coverage and prominent sports writers like Fox, the tournaments became among the nation’s most famous. Brother Paulie Jansco helped run the jamborees beginning in 1962, and then lent a hand with the Las Vegas Stardust tournaments, which George began in 1965. At the time, the Stardust tournaments were considered the richest in professional pocket billiards.
5) George suffered a fatal stroke in 1969 at age 53.
Somewhere between Moment 3 and 4 (JoAnn puts the year at about 1950), George Jansco went to Evansville, a town that started in 1812 as a single log cabin, but which today includes about 300,000 inhabitants. Oil was discovered there during the 1930s – a fact that would lessen the impact of the Great Depression, and which would also lead to a bona fide boom during the 1940s. Likewise, the establishment of the Evansville Ship Yard in 1942 and the conversion of factories for the construction for World War II aircraft swelled employment from 21,000 to 64,000 in a matter of months.
“There was money just flowing, flowing everywhere,” said Beaumann, who attended the first Johnston City tournament as a photojournalist. “They’d punch a hole in the ground, and the oil would spray out by itself. … There was great train service between this part of the country and Chicago, and so it was a wide-open area. I’m sure there was a ton of bootlegging. … Small towns that had 500 people suddenly had 50,000.”
The promise of quick money attracts gamblers, and to Evansville they came in great numbers – sinking wells, buying cheap land, striking Good God Almighty gushers. And they came to crap out; to leave their bad-luck lives right in the lobby of the venerable Vendome Hotel, with its all-night gin, its rolling snake-eyed dice. One-pocket and 9-ball rolled non-stop at Adolf’s Bowling Alley and Pool Hall. Bad men played poker day and night at the McCurdy Hotel, the social center of Evansville. There were bars, restaurants, upstairs whorehouses. Here was the relentless life that gambling men crave. Among the most prominent was Ray Ryan, a vaguely shadowy figure said to have paid off cheap gambling debts with two oil leases – only to watch in horror as they struck million-dollar gushers for their new owners. Ryan made a fortune in Evansville – many men did in those days – and invested his money in local businesses like the Relax Bar, which Ryan owned with fellow money-man Whit Epstein. Outwardly and inwardly, the Relax Bar had all the accoutrements of the typical dive: cheap beer, pool tables, a dirty floor strewn with peanut shells. But upstairs, behind the beer cartons and through the cigarette smoke, the Relax Bar was not even a real bar. It was a bookmaking joint, a place where men like Ryan and Epstein could make real money.
And this is where George Jansco came to work during the early 1940s. His friend Ryan (the two had met years earlier playing golf) offered him an opportunity: come to Evansville, operate the bookmaking operation, make real money, get a start. Ryan put Georgie Jansco, a minor league ballplayer and the son of a bootlegger, on a course from which he would never really turn.
“It was there that he started playing cards and shooting pool and all that stuff that guys do,” said George’s daughter, JoAnn. “He found that it was a little more interesting than playing baseball. I think he played gin rummy – most of them played gin rummy back then – and he started playing cards, and playing pool.”
Describing the Relax Bar, she said, “it was a cover-up – that’s what it was. There was gambling on horses. It looked like a betting parlor, where guys would sit behind a counter and take your bets.” Ryan, the owner, later had the misfortune of becoming quite dead: allegedly the victim of a mob hit. His car was booby-trapped; he was blown sky high as he left a health club. A few other members of that famous Evansville gambling fraternity (most of whom are probably already familiar to readers of this magazine) would last a bit longer and then make appearances at Jansco’s Johnston City tournaments. They include:
The gun-toting Hubert “Daddy Warbucks” Cokes. He always possessed great wads of cash – mostly from the fortune he made in the oil patch. These wads would grow through artful runs on the pool table. At Georgie’s invitation, he was on-hand for the very first Johnston City event in 1961. In the late 1960s, he would befriend a young Nick Varner, who worked as a golf pro in the Evansville area.
Titantic Thompson, the famous card cheat. He found easy pickings in Evansville, where he probably made his first million. Thompson also claims to have had a hand in at least five honest-to-God killings. Of the 1963 Johnston City event, Thompson said: “There ain’t a fine, worthwhile hustler in the world who ain’t here.”
Rudolf Wanderone – then known as “New York Fats” or “Double Smart” or even “Triple Smart Fats.” He was then still young, imposing, and already foolish. He lived like a leech on the action, coming to play cards and one pocket. (Titanic Thompson acknowledged once losing $10,000 to Fats during an ill-advised pool game in which Fats played pool one-handed!)
Fox, then a sports writer for the Evansville Courier and Press. When Fox first got word of the Johnston City event and wrote his first dispatches for Sports Illustrated, he was living in Evansville. He came out because he had heard word of Daddy Warbuck’s appearance, but then ended up making Fats famous.
During those Evansville years, Georgie remained married to his lovely bride, Sadie Lokotich. They maintained a house in Johnston City, about 150 miles to the southwest. George would commute back and forth between the two towns every weekend. JoAnn recalls that her mother “used to like to go out dancing … (but) they didn’t have much money to begin with [and during those early years] he made most of his money gambling.” She said her mother insisted on maintaining a residence in Johnston City – a fact that forced George Jansco’s decision to hold his famous tournaments in such an unlikely spot.
“At that time, my Dad went to Evansville every summer,” said JoAnn. “He had a bookie joint there – you know, if there’s two teams playing, and you want to bet on one of them; he’d book your bet. He did that in Evansville and he had some big operations. He had two or three or four guys working for him. And that’s where the guys, like Cokes, got to know him. “We lived in Evansville in the summer, and all winter we went back and forth (because) we were in school (in Johnston City). My mother would not leave Johnston City. She would ride the bus to Evansville to visit my dad, and catch the bus back at night. But she would not leave Johnston City and leave her mother.”
Jansco remained in Evansville for four or five years, through the mid-1950s – gambling, betting the ponies at a nearby horse track, improving his one-pocket game. Eventually, a police crackdown sent him packing back to Johnston City for good. And it was there, while drinking beers with his friends Earl Shriver and the Tuscaloosa Squirrel, that Jansco came up with the crazy notion to hold a pool tournament.
The rest, as they say, is history.
R.A. Dyer, an Austin-based writer, is the author of “Hustler Days: Minnesota Fats, Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red and America’s Great Age of Pool.” For more about Harold Worst, click on the “Untold Stories” link at www.hustlerdays.com.