Ronnie Allen is heating up under the bright lights, almost jogging around the pool table to get to the next shot.
The Japanese champion, Kazuo Fujima, has been taking it to Allen all afternoon, beating him at this game of nine-ball. But Allen, one of the old-timers, is coming back. And Allen is talking.
“This is a tough table. I mean tough. They got tables like this where you come from?” he says, nodding toward the silent Fujima. “These pockets are so tight it’s scary. I’m just about afraid to shoot.”
Allen sinks the 7, then the 8 and 9 balls to win the game and pull even. He’s playing tougher, talking louder, fidgeting and walking into the gallery between shots to joke with friends.
This is a scene right out of Hollywood: the tremendous, lavish hall in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with its polished-wood-and-perfectly-green pool tables, the site for a $50,000 tournament featuring the world’s top 64 players. The other competitors play without words. There is silence save for the smacking of balls and the sound of Allen’s voice. The audience shifts to Allen’s end of the room to watch the show.
“Fuji-yama-mama!” he yells, pretending to take his own pulse. “This guy’s too lucky.”
Even the stoic opponent has to smile. Allen pulls out some snapshots of a recent fishing trip and shows them to spectators. Within a half-hour, he has stormed back to win the match.
“I don’t want to sound cocky,” he says in a soft Oklahoma accent, “but I knew I was going to win. I’ve got a better game than that guy.”
Lore has it that Ronnie Allen was the real-life inspiration for “Fast Eddie Felson,” the fast-talking, hard-living character that Paul Newman made famous in the movies “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money.” Allen used to go by the name Fast Eddie. And some other names. That was almost 30 years ago, when he traveled the country making his living on the tables.
Allen played 20-hour matches of One Pocket with Minnesota Fats in those days. He played anyone who would put money down. He was taught the game--not how to shoot, but how to play--by the smiling, story-telling U.J. Puckett.
But Ronnie Allen is 48 years old now. His belly puffs out over his belt and he looks more like Buddy Hackett than a pool shark. He’s been a businessman of sorts, living in Burbank (“Burbank! Can you believe it? Boring.”). He isn’t the player he once was.
You see, pool is a young man’s sport, demanding strong eyes and steady hands. The game has slowly emerged from dark pool halls into the bright lights of hotel ballrooms. At tournaments like last weekend’s Peter Vitalie Co. Nine-Ball Championship the prize money has climbed to new heights. Pool has become serious business.
Allen, in “Fast Eddie” style, is trying to hang on a little longer.
“I can’t beat these younger guys. Look at them,” he says, pointing to match play on a row of tables beneath hanging brass lamps. “But maybe I can still make a few dollars.”
And why not? For the past 30 years, Allen has most often found himself leaning over pool tables from Los Angeles to New York. How Allen got started in the game, he explained, is the same old story.
Jimmy Allen died when his son Ronnie was only 11. A family friend owned a pool hall in Oklahoma City and invited Ronnie to drop by anytime. Allen did, and he learned the game quickly. In his first tournament, at age 20, he won $1,250.
That kind of prize money wasn’t enough to live on, so players made their living playing each other in the practice rooms.
The name for that sort of thing is “hustling,” a term that sends Allen into a state of anger that approaches seizure. The stereotypical scene has an unknown player rolling into town, dumping a few matches, then catching everyone by surprise and taking the big-money game.
“I go into a strange town, lose two games for $5 and then raise the game to $100? That’s Hollywood hype,” Allen complained.
In reality, anyone good enough at pool to bet large sums of money would know who the top players are, Allen said. You couldn’t sucker anyone. Still, you survived by being quick on your feet and quick with your mouth.
As Allen explains it, he would do a little homework before getting into town, find out who the best players were and how good they were. Allen was nationally known, so he had to give up a few balls as a handicap to such players. How much he had to give away depended on what he could talk the guy into.
“We’d negotiate a game, just like negotiating a business deal,” he said.
In those days, Minnesota Fats said of Allen: “Anybody who plays him for money ain’t go no chance at all. I’m the only guy in the whole world who can beat him.” (Allen contends that he has beaten Fats. He has lost to him, as well.)
It was also in those days, as Allen tells it, that writer Walter Tevis was hanging around pool halls, collecting material for his book, “The Hustler.” Allen and others in the world of pool say that Tevis based his book on the Oklahoma City player.
Tevis is no longer alive, so he can’t confirm this tale. But in pool halls, legend and a good story are as good as truth, so Ronnie Allen is Fast Eddie. When Allen left the road in the early 1970s, he settled in Burbank and opened a pool hall (“it was a billiard academy”) called Fast Eddie’s.
“Since my dad died, I was on my own and doing what I had to do to stay alive,” he said. “That place was the first time in my life that I had a taste of business.”
It didn’t taste so sweet. Fast Eddie’s went out of business in 1978. Allen turned to promoting, trying to make pool the next national pastime.
“I turned on TV on a Saturday or Sunday and saw those wrestlers and I got to laughing,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘Hey, these guys are making a million bucks.’
“Our sport is no different than bowling or golf. It’s made perfect for TV. I couldn’t figure out what they were waiting for.”
Allen lost $80,000 waiting for the television executives to come around. They never did and still haven’t, save for the occasional broadcast on the ESPN cable network. But pool has begun to come of age. There are more big-money tournaments and the image has improved.
At the Vitalie tournament, players were required to compete in tuxedos.
“We’re not bar players,” Allen said. “We’re not hustlers.”
Still, the gallery at the Vitalie was sprinkled with guys from New Jersey wearing polyester shirts--guys with names like “Cuban Joe” and “The Lizard” looking for some action. But today’s players are more conservative than the colorful characters of the Minnesota Fats, Ronnie Allen era.
“Used to be when someone beat you, you couldn’t pay the rent,” said Allen, who earned $500 for winning his first-round match. “Now losers can take home money.
“See that guy shooting,” he said, pointing to the matches in progress. “He’s an insurance salesman. He couldn’t make a living hustling. None of these guys could. They’re business people. I could because I was raised that way. I had to because I had to eat.
“But that was 30 years ago. People aren’t that stupid today. There’s hardly any gambling left in pool.”
But the tournaments are paying better, so Allen has set his sights on making money that way. The day after his win over Fujima, Allen lost to Mike Sigel, the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
Two days later, Allen had already set up a private match and made arrangements to play tournaments in Alabama and Michigan during July. He is also looking for a location where he can again try to own a pool hall. “The Color of Money” has spurred business, say local pool hall owners. Allen says he can smell it.
“I think it’s time to open up a high-class billiard room. If you make a side bet, fine. I don’t want to know about it,” he said. “I’ll give tournaments. I’ll give lessons. I know how to do it.
“The timing’s right,” he said. Ronnie Allen is talking again. “I think it’s time to jump on the bandwagon.”