October 10, 2011

My Romance with Pool

Bill Matteson
Uptown Chicago History Correspondent

Somewhere in the late 40s, two pool tables were installed at the Uptown Chicago Boys Club. I fell in love with the game instantly: 8-Ball,or as we called it, stars and stripes,which was really stripe and solids, but as kids we didn't care what you called as long as we got to play.

We played at the boys club for free, and we would play at the Wilson Ave. Rec., where McDonald's now stands, on the northwest corner of Wilson and Sheridan. It was 25 cents per hour, and if you didn't make a lot of noise or create a disturbance, they would let us play longer as long as no one was waiting for a table.

Later as I went to Senn High, or at least I was supposed to go (most of the time), classes were cut and Nick's Pool Hall was always open. Nick aka Nick the Greek, his pool hall was above either a National Tea or an A&P store on the N.E. corner of Clark and Foster; this area is now known as Andersonville.
There were always cops from the Summerdale District playing cards in the corner of the hall, four or five tables were set up and always filled with money, guns, and badges.

Nick also charged about 25 cents per hour, but me and whoever was shooting with me would sweep up, clean up the glasses, and put all the empty beer bottles back in the cases so we could play for free; sometimes they had some pool shooters in, and I would rack for their games.

In all my years in pool halls I never heard a shooter referred to as a hustler, until the Paul Newman movie came out.

One day a Summerdale cop asked me why I wasn't in school. I asked him why he wasn't working—that was a big mistake (but more about that later).

One pool hall I steered clear of was on the east side of Sheridan just south of the El tracks at Irving Park Rd; it was a "bucket of blood" type of an establishment, meaning a bloody knife fight or a bad beating, but they had the only snooker tables in the area.

Now snooker was a game I not only hated, I was very bad at it. If you shoot pool, you need the experience. I think they even had a "Kings Snooker table" 6 X12; it was larger than Soldier field, well, it seemed like it at the time.

I would travel downtown to Bensingers on West Randolph Street just off State St. Upstairs there were shooters there that could perform feats of magic with their cue sticks. Shooters from all over the world. This was my school of higher education.

Or I would go over to South Federal Street to Herman Rambow's shop and watch him make cue sticks. One day he had two elephant tusks; he would cut off a piece and put it in some kind of vibrating machine; an almost square shape went in and a perfectly round cue ball came out. This was back in the day when you had a break ball, and after the break you would use the ivory ball for shooting.

I had a three piece Rambow stick, one base with a billiard shaft and one for snooker and in a leather case.
Rambow made sticks for Willie Hoppe and Willie Mosconi.

In later years I would stop in at Eddie Laube's cue shop on Elston Ave just north of Irving Park,
and I had a stick made by Burton Spain, when he had his shop on Clybourn Ave. A great guy to talk to with a lot of history, and right before I retired from the graphic arts, I made some ads and we did some photography for Ray Schuler; he made some good sticks. So over the years I got to know every stick maker in town.

I shot pool in Johnson City IL and at Don Tozers in Decatur, all before I was married, and I was married at 19.

Married and a few kids later, I would stop at Johnson Billiards Academy on Roscoe Street just east Of Damen Ave. Johnsons had a championship size table 5'X10'. There are three regulation sizes for pool tournaments: 4' X 8', 4 1/2' X 9', and all championship games were held on the 5X10.The championship game was 14-1 rack; no one plays that anymore.

Willie Mosconi ran over 500 balls; after sinking 14 balls they would be racked with the first ball left whereever it was left on the table, then sink that ball and make a break at the same time, thus allowing continuous play. My record was only 32.

I went to a pool hall on Bryn Mawr or maybe it was Howard Street, next to the El Tracks, and I watched Willie Mosconi shoot;  he had the whitest eyes I have ever seen, and he reminded me of an owl, when he would look at the object ball and the cue ball.

I would practice for an hour or two on the 5X10 and then stop at my local tavern and shoot on a tavern size 3 1/2 X 7; it was like taking candy from a baby. Today with television, it's all 9 ball on a 4X 8 because it makes the shooters look good.

Well needless to say, my wife and I had a few more kids, and the sticks faded away along with whatever skill I had. I haven't shot pool in over 40 years now, and I like it that way; I remember being a good shooter and I would hate to prove myself wrong.

I always remember a Pete Seegar song about "your get up and go has got up and went." Well, all I have left is memories, "so I set here and grin to think of the places my 'get up' has been".


Gus said...

Fascinating. Thanks for the history, Bill. I moved to Chicago in 1964 and left in 1970 for the rest of the world. And then I found myself in Woodstock in 1996. Those 26 years seem like a century.

Write more, Bill...

Anonymous said...

Great writing Bill, and an wonderful sense of humor. What happened after that comment to the cop: And why aren't you working?

bill Matteson said...

next story coming out will deal with Some Summerdale Cops and the Babbling burglar. the Cop I referred to was involved in that whole fiasco

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recalling the pool hall located on the corner of Howard and Paulina next to the L station. It was on the 2nd floor and was the kind of place found in a Nelson Algren novel.

Dick said...

Hi Bill,

You are a fine writer. You remind me a bit of Herbert Huncke, but I think you are better. I keep meaning to write some things for this blog, but don't seem to get around to it. Maybe you have inspired me to actually do it.

I lived at 5100 N. Sheridan Rd. from 1935 until 1941. Ages 3 to 9. Then I lived at 844 W. Agatite until I went to the U. of Illinois in 1949. Went to Stewart and Senn Hi. So, I have a lot of memories and stories. Even some pictures.

Anonymous said...

Bill.... great stuff.... I went to Lane Tech in the 50's, lived on Henderson St. at Damen Av.
I also "lived" in Johnson's Pool Hall on Roscoe Street but it was just WEST of Damen Av. on the south side of Roscoe street..... I can't remember the exact address but I think it is a restaurant now. I believe the owners name was Curt Johnson. What great memories we had in that pool hall. Thanks again Bill for jogging the memory...

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