Jump the Sharkon December 21, 2012 at 3:58 am
By L. JON WERTHEIM
The pool hustler wasn’t murdered by any single suspect, but the last man holding the knife was Kevin Trudeau, the bestselling author of the “Natural Cures” series who once served a prison term for felony larceny. Mr. Trudeau out-hustled the hustlers — and killed off a national archetype in the process.
But even before Mr. Trudeau, hustling was on its deathbed. The Internet didn’t help. Time was, a player would score big in, say, Cheyenne, Wyo., and by the time word got out over the pool transom, the hustler was already in Lexington, Ky., or Laredo, Tex. But then came the popular online forum AZBilliards.com. Suddenly a player would score big and his exploits would be publicized by sunrise.
The poker boom hurt too, siphoning the species who once hustled pool — young, competitive, predominantly white men with an incurable gambling jones — with guaranteed round-the-clock action and a reduced threat of getting jacked in the parking lot. Even $3-a-gallon gas prices exacted a price: why drive to Olathe, Kan., for a chance at winning $500 when it might cost $250 just to get there?
Then came the International Pool Tour, Mr. Trudeau’s final squirt of embalming fluid. When he founded the professional pool tour in 2005, Mr. Trudeau vowed to turn eight-ball into a viable, big-league sport. Winners would take home $500,000 prizes; first-round losers were guaranteed $5,000.
For pool players, accustomed to driving miles out of their way just to avoid paying bridge tolls, this was akin to raising the minimum wage by a factor of 10. Hustlers who had been traveling incognito for years came out of the woodwork to try to qualify for the tour. Joining meant that their cover would be blown, but the money was too good to pass up.
The first three events were smashing successes. But in keeping with the circadian rhythms of pool, the boom times didn’t last. Last year, after a tournament in Reno, Nev., players were informed of an inconvenient detail: the tour couldn’t pay the prize money. Mr. Trudeau, once accessible and upbeat, was nowhere to be found.
The tour eventually notified players that the debts would be paid in small, periodic installments. But to date the players have yet to be paid all of the money they are owed. There hasn’t been another International Pool Tour event since.
Some players were so demoralized by Mr. Trudeau’s hustle that they quit the sport entirely. And the rest had become known quantities to avid amateur players. Unmasked by television and the Internet, these once-stealthy hustlers could no longer lure anyone into believing they were just passing through town, innocently looking to relax at the local poolroom.
The death of hustling marks the end of a uniquely American pursuit. What’s a more vivid extension of the frontier mentality than a man, carrying only a wooden stick, slinking into town and making a buck? What’s a better example of self-sufficiency than caroming around the country and using superior skill, craft and wit to fleece the other guy? Who embodies Melville’s “Confidence Man” better than the suave and mysterious pool hustler?
Pool hustlers are outlaws, but they are — or were — the kind of outlaws we root for, “honorable swindlers” who usually dripped with charisma and eccentricity. “You don’t make much money but you do get paid in stories,” Kid Delicious, the New Jersey hustler, told me. “And you don’t got to worry about the taxman getting his hand on them.”
And hustling doesn’t merely involve the players at the table. There was a rogue’s gallery of “stakehorses” (financial backers), “sweaters on the rail” (side bettors) and “nits” (kibitzers). As the gambling spigot has been turned off, the local poolroom — once a civic institution — has almost vanished. The extinction of the pool hustler has bleached some color from the cultural landscape and dotted small-town America with yet another economic casualty.
Look hard and there’s still action out there. Earlier this year, two players won a high-stakes six-player “ring game” in Mobile, Ala. In September in Sioux Falls, S.D., a hearing-impaired player, Shane Van Boening, beat Corey Deuel, a veteran shark from Ohio, in a $10,000 winner-take-all race to 100 games. The annual Derby City Classic in Louisville, Ky., still features late-night games with stakes that can exceed six figures.
“But that’s just gambling,” Mr. Bell says wistfully. “Real hustling — driving to a pool room in another state, walking in, setting the trap, busting the local guy and then heading to a new town — is different. That’s what ain’t there any more.”