His 'Soft Hustle' Is a Living for Rags Woods, 64 : Sweet Stroke Etches Pool Hall Legend

Times Staff Writer

The pool hall regulars gather by the railing, a few gamblers make side bets, the bartender turns down the television and the old man and the Gypsy begin shooting pool.

The games are close at first, and the two players seem evenly matched. But their style is decidedly different. The Gypsy, wearing designer jeans, white shirt unbuttoned to the navel and a purple vest, is cocky, effusive and frequently winks to his "stake horse" to let him know the game is under control. The old man is conservatively dressed in slacks, brown loafers and tweed hat, and is poker-faced throughout the game.

As the match drags on into the second and third hour, the Gypsy, almost imperceptibly, alters his game. He grows slightly impatient and occasionally loses concentration and rushes his shots.

But the old man is an inexorable force, growing stronger as the hours pass, knocking in ball after ball, never changing expression or altering his stroke.

At midnight, the Gypsy's stake horse pounds his hand on the bar and yells: "Wake up!" Forty minutes later he runs out of money and the match is over.

There are a few pool hustlers in Los Angeles who shoot straighter than Robert (Rags) Woods. There are hustlers who use the rails better or have a stronger break. But Woods, 64, has one distinction that sets him apart from the majority of his younger colleagues--he makes a living with a pool cue.

Many fine players must work in pool halls or take day jobs to supplement their hustling. Woods is one of the few hustlers in Los Angeles who can afford to play pool full time.

Woods knows exactly how much weight (advantage) to give an opponent in order to secure a game. He knows when to keep the stakes low and when to raise them. He avoids the few players who are on his level. He never wins by much, but he always wins.

"There is a difference between a pool player and a pool shooter. And I," Woods said, pausing and drumming a forefinger on a table, "am a pool player. This ain't no game with me. It's my business.

"I won't play a guy if it's a 50-50 proposition. I stay away from those players whose game is as good as mine. I only play when it's 75-25 in my favor. Some of these young guys can't do that. They have that big ego and have to prove something to everyone in the pool room. If I still had that ego . . . I'd be working 9 to 5."

Woods views pool hustling as a full-time job. Most weekdays at 11 a.m. he stops by the House of Billiards in Santa Monica and plays locals and the occasional out-of-town hustler searching for action. He spends afternoons at a pool hall near downtown Los Angeles, returns home for dinner with his wife at his central Los Angeles condominium, then checks out the evening action. After about three months, a poolroom "plays out." The locals finally discover that they cannot win, Woods said, and he searches for another spot and another cast of opponents.

Big-money games are rare at Woods' regular weekday spots. But they provide a steady source of income--he asks that exact amounts not be mentioned--and keep him "in stroke" for the lucrative weekend games at a bar in Bellflower where the top road and local players gather.

Woods has slowed down during the last decade. He rarely goes on the road anymore, does not like to play all night and has had to quit smoking cigars--once his trademark--because of high blood pressure. And the Rags of 64 does not "pocket the balls" as quickly and as cleanly as the Rags of 34. But Woods--who was once considered one of the top players in the country and was known for his sweet stroke--is still a formidable opponent.

"I got to use knowledge and experience to compensate," he said. "These younger guys make those long, hard shots and everybody cheers. But I don't want a lot of green on the table; I don't want that cue ball to travel a long way. I handle the cue ball and get it in the right position. I don't care about the cheers. I'll take a bunch of easy shots, bore the people watching half to death . . . and end up with all the cash."

In a dim corner of a pool hall on a weekday morning, Rags slumps in a chair and waits for a game. Wearing a tan overcoat and carrying a cue case under his arm, he looks like a commuter with an umbrella waiting for the bus.

When a game breaks up, Rags lays his overcoat on a chair, grabs his cue with the maple butt and inlaid mother-of-pearl shaft and says: "I've got a tune to play."

He walks over to a man in his early 20s and asks: "Hey kid, you got time?"

"I got time," the kid says.

The game is nine-ball. The match is a race to seven--first player to win seven games takes the cash. Rags gives the kid a three-ball advantage and the break.

It is Rags' first match of the day and he moves around the table a little stiffly and has trouble finding his stroke. The players exchange the first few games.

Then Rags grabs a metal "scuffer" from his pocket, scratches the tip of his cue for a little better control and begins to loosen up. He moves lightly around the table and finally runs a few racks, lost in the fluid rhythm of chalking his cue, shooting and lining up for the next shot.

The score is six to two. One more win gives Rags the match.

But he eases off, barely misses a few shots and the kid comes back and wins a few games. Just as the kid regains his confidence, Rags clears the table and collects his winnings.

After the game, he winks to a bystander and explains that a hustler always takes a mark's cash but leaves him with his self-respect.

Woods' pool career began when he was walking home from high school in Detroit, passed a building and heard sharp clicking sounds, like crickets on a summer night. He stood at the corner for several minutes, trying to figure out the sounds, and then walked into the pool hall.

He was mesmerized by the expanse of emerald green cloth and brightly colored balls. He was fascinated by the way the balls flew off the cue sticks and spun around the table.

"It was like some electric flash that went through me. And just like that," he said, snapping his fingers, "everything changed. I became a pool player."

He began playing pool every day and never returned to school. Soon Woods could beat everyone who played on the third table at the pool hall, then the second table, then he was the best player there. By the time he was 19 he was one of the top pool players in Detroit and earned his nickname because he could shoot the cue ball so well off the "rag"--the rail.

After a few big wins, Woods figured he was ready to make some big money. He headed for New York. Three weeks later he was back in Detroit. Broke.

Woods then met the legendary Kansas City Shorty in a Detroit poolroom and went on the road with him. His pool education began. He learned how to "stairstep"--to play the best players in a town last so the lesser players were not scared off. He learned how to "stall"--obscure his talent in order to trap a lesser player into a game. He learned how to avoid attention by dressing appropriately--overalls in small Southern towns, work shirts and jeans in blue-collar neighborhoods and sport coats and slacks in uptown pool parlors.

Woods doesn't have the mien or manner of a pool hustler. He is soft-spoken, almost stiffly formal and often offers avuncular advice to marks after he has relieved them of their bankroll. Woods never has been robbed on the road or been in a fight, he said with a trace of pride.

"There are two kinds of hustles: the soft hustle and the hard hustle," said Lou Canon, manager of the House of Billiards near downtown, who has seen Woods operate for years. "Rags likes the soft hustle. He can keep everybody happy and keep them smiling even when they're paying off."

Woods' goal is to resemble the Lone Ranger. He likes pool hall regulars to ask after he walks out the door: "Who was that man?"

After a few years of serious pool playing, Woods was known as one of the straightest shooters and most feared hustlers in the country. But he was not allowed to participate in the country's first pool tournaments because he is black.

When a cable television station recently sponsored a series of matches between pool "legends," Woods agreed to play, even though he knew it would "queer his action" in many pool halls.

"I remember the days when blacks couldn't play in a lot of pool halls and tournaments," he said. "So even though I knew this TV thing would cost me money, I agreed to play. I was the only black invited. It's an important thing; a statement to be made."

He knows it is no longer possible to slip unnoticed into bars and "take it off" unsuspecting marks with fat bankrolls. His new ploy is to argue that everyone on the legends series was past their prime, that he is an "old man," that his skills have diminished so dramatically that he needs a ball or two advantage to even make the game interesting.

Woods, whose record on the legends series is 3-3, defeated Minnesota Fats in one of the early matches. Although some marks have refused to play Woods as a result of his recent notoriety, others are even more determined to beat him. Like the Old West, where the gunslinger with the fastest hand was constantly challenged, many young pool players seek out Woods and try the beat the man with the reputation, the man who once beat Minnesota Fats on television.

A short, stocky man in a black beret takes advantage of one of Rags' few misses.

"I'm coming at you, Mr. Woods," he says after sinking a ball.

He is doused in a nauseatingly sweet cologne and when he moves around the table for the next shot, the odor lingers where he once stood.

He is on a roll and begins sinking ball after ball so quickly the whole table is soon enveloped in a cloud of cologne. After each shot he grows bolder.

"You in trouble now. You locked out, Jack.

"It's my turn, it's my era now. You once on top. I'm coming up now."

He sinks the final ball, jumps up and down and thrusts his fists in the air. Then he says softly: "I beat him. I beat the legend."

The man can't sustain his run, loses the next few games and the match. But he still is glowing from his win. He slaps Rags on the back, announces to everyone in the pool room that he beat the legend and then jogs out of the pool room, smiling.

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