Most people think of pool hustlers as people that went out of existence in the late 20th century – people who kept a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their shirt sleeve, and a switchblade in the back pocket of their extremely high-waisted jeans. Actually, it’s still a very real, albeit declining profession. Our source today, Russ, hustled pool for three-and-a-half years. He gave us some insights.
You Have to Move Constantly, and Sometimes You Lose Money
Russ played pool all throughout his childhood. So when he got into college, he decided to try hustling as a part-time job. Over the months, Russ honed his strategy: “I’d play with friends I made in college and play badly. What I found worked best was when you hit a ball off the table and near someone. That draws attention to how bad you are. It also helped to wear a metal finger splint. They’ll see that you’re injured and think you can’t hold the cue right.”
Having friends in on the scheme was also critical: “Like, I would cheer and say ‘Finally, I got a stripe in!’ and one of my friends would say ‘But you’re solid!’. At the table next to us, they’d hear. After they’d finish, we’d say, ‘Hey, we can use some beer money. We’ll play you for $10.’ Sometimes we’d act drunk, too, just to give them a little cherry on top.”
Russ found that “it usually took an hour or less until we found someone. The first game, I’d do terribly. I couldn’t make it look obvious, but I’d shoot for a corner and have it land an inch or two away. Close, but no cigar. Round two, I asked to make my money back, and $20 is something most can afford. I’d play as badly again. Not worse, because sometimes they’d feel like they were stealing from a drunk guy, but not better, or they might think I could actually pull off the next game. The third game is when you do it. Ask for double or $50. It was rocky my freshman year, but I found that $50 is the limit for college students.”
When it was time to flip it on his marks, Russ didn’t just instantly turn into a billiards guru, because that would’ve been an obvious invitation to bash his skull in: “I had to pretend that some of the shots were accidents or flukes. It helped to try talking to the ball. Like I said, ‘Please, no, not that way. Go, go, go – yes!’ A person who is good at pool doesn’t do that, or so most people think.”
Russ rotated between five pool halls and fourteen bars in the area around his college. He rotated regularly and tried to put a couple of weeks between each hustle at an individual location. It didn’t make him rich, but he estimates it was about as profitable as a “good part-time job.”
But it was also unpredictable: “Some weeks I only broke even, and there were some rough patches in there where I lost money. A few times, players caught on, and I was thrown out of a church hall for doing it.”
But what Russ really hated was losing money thanks to blind, dumb chance.
“There was this pool hall near the fairgrounds—big, empty, hunting-club-looking place. My state doesn’t allow smoking inside places, but they allowed it, regardless. It was great. Two guys in their 20s were playing, and they were only doing so-so. I think I was complaining loudly about my cue not working tonight, and we got to talking, and we played. I lost the first two, and then on the third, I was going to come back big. I allowed them to break, and I thought I could sink them as soon as they missed. They didn’t. They got solids on the break by getting three of them in the pockets, and the rest they got from a series of flukes. They weren’t hustling me by the way they played, but it felt like it. When they got the eight ball in, they said How’d we do that?'”
We’re not sure why Russ is so certain they weren’t hustling him, considering it sounds like they were actually following his exact strategy to a T.
Hustling Sometimes Gets Violent
People do not like being hustled. Over the years, Russ gradually put together a list of “warning signs” to let him know when someone was catching on to his scam: “They’ll be watching more intently, they’ll stop saying how lucky they are, they’ll stop drinking. It’s why we need to act, so they don’t get suspicious.”
The stakes were always very real to him, thanks to something terrible he saw as a little kid. “My parents didn’t do daycare, and my grandpa often watched me before and after preschool. So we would watch old-timers play 9-ball at this pool hall. My grandpa would occasionally point out who was a ‘shark’ in a whisper. Well, one day this happened, it was a 60-year-old taking on another 60-year-old. They did what I did, play two games badly to win at the third. But this guy shot them expertly, one after another. The 60-year-old being hustled put down his cue (another warning sign) and put his hands into his pockets. When the hustler finished, he said, ‘now, I believe you owe me-‘ and was stopped right there, when the guy who got hustled smacked him in the head with a woodblock, like a type you whittle. And my grandpa was running me out of there. We never went to that pool hall again.”
And yes, Russ did get caught: “I was caught five times, four of which happened in my freshman year, because I was still really bad at it. Three times they figured it out, but graciously said ‘Ok, you got me,’ or something like that. One immediately called his girlfriend and said. ‘Guess what! Somebody hustled me at pool! Like it’s the ’60s!'”
There were a few others. “One happened at a church hall. It was a charity pool tournament. Half of the money went to the winner, and the other half went to, I forget, so let’s just say The United Way. It was a single-elimination tourney, but before going up, I’d be talking about ‘Not being on my A-Game,’ or say that my arm was still really stiff from being in a cast. I made it to the semi-finals, and I made the same arm excuse. Unfortunately, I was playing against a doctor, and he glanced at my arm and said, ‘Your arm was never broken.’ I said it was, but he asked, how long was it in the cast? I didn’t know, so I said some length of time, and what I said was wrong. He told the judges, who informed me that they put me against non-pool players because of my supposed arm problems. I’d rather forget the rest of what happened, but it ended with me being escorted out of a church basement by an ex-cop who was also in the tournament, and I was told to never come back.”
Russ also had the whole Woody Harrelson Kingpin experience. “I took two players on the football team for $200. I got greedy and hustled two in a row at the same bar, and when the second player was paying me, the first came around and said, ‘Still on the winning streak?’ The football player I just beat looked at him and said, ‘He said he just got here from a kegger.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘You trying to cheat me?’ He grabbed a cue and swung it at me. The third time he swung, it hit. Getting hit with a pool cue, especially by a football player, is like getting hit by a pipe. It really hurts. Those cues are not as flimsy as they look. I thought he broke my ribs.
“He only hit me once when some other players restrained him. My friend and I ran out while everyone was looking at the football players being restrained by each other. We stopped for five minutes at a Starbucks to make sure he didn’t follow us, then straight to the campus clinic. Nothing was broken, but I learned to rotate places after each win after that.”
Pool Hustlers in Movies Cause Problems for Pool Hustlers in Reality
As the months turned into years, Russ grew better and better at his illicit trade. He started to notice something: “A lot of people wouldn’t take me up on games … one excuse that came up a lot was them asking if I was a hustler, or not wanting to do it because they didn’t want to be hustled.”
Even though pool hustling is a pretty rare thing these days, everyone’s encountered it in movies or TV: “I heard ‘You’re acting like you want to throw this game,’ and ‘This is like that Fresh Prince episode.'”
“It even happened to people I know who could barely play pool. They’d ask for a friendly match, and they’d be told no because they thought they would be asked to bet or get hustled.”
Between 2007 and 2014, the number of pool players, casual or otherwise, dipped in the U.S. from 51 million to 35 million. A big part of that was movies making it look like pool hustlers were everywhere, so people avoided pool halls.
“I have noticed fewer people at the halls. I went back to my campus last year, and I visited a few old haunts. Hardly anyone was there, and some of the pool halls were closed. Some people were really scared of betting or being hustled, even though very few people did it.”
But not everyone who watched The Fresh Prince walked away with a deep aversion to playing pool with strangers. Some people decided that getting hustled looked awesome, which is how Russ learned…
Sometimes the Hustler Gets Hustled
Hustling hasn’t been common for a while now, but back when Russ was active, he did notice a sort of code: “There’s kind of etiquette between hustlers, at least where I was. I knew the signs of hustle, and I could see them working.”
He liked watching other hustlers in action. For the same reason, we break into the houses of great authors and install hidden cameras above their desks.
“There’s a pool hall near my college I liked, and it’s where I saw the most amazing shot I’ve ever seen. A hustler I knew of was there. He was on his last game with someone, and I sat down to watch. He saw me, and without looking back down to the balls, he nodded at me and fired. Four balls, all solids, went into four different holes, almost at the same time. I think he did that to psych me out … but I was blown away. After he finished up, he left without a word to me. That’s what it was like. Like ships passing in the night.”
But the rivalries aren’t always friendly. Russ knows of at least one loss he suffered that was definitely at the hands of another hustler:
“I had just tried to get someone to bet on a game, but he had chickened out. This was during my freshman year. A person who introduced himself as living in the area came by. He was dressed very casually, just like anyone who went to college there. He told me he overheard what I said, and said he wanted to play me. He didn’t seem like a hustler, so we went at it.”
Remember that “not seeming like a hustler” is the entire strategy of hustling. You live by the hustle, and you die by the hustle.
“I did my thing, and I lost the two first games. He was good, but he had missed some good opportunities, so I had him marked down as an average ‘just for fun’ player. He asked if he could break, and I let him. I figured after one slip up, I could mop up the rest of the balls. It turns out that he was hustling me by pretending to be a regular player. He knew what I was trying to do earlier. He expertly broke and proceeded to down every single shot. And it wasn’t like a movie. He didn’t leave me with sage advice or tell me, ‘You’ll be here someday, kid.’ No, he said ‘Gimme my money,’ and he walked out. I was really disappointed he didn’t do something like that, but it’s not like the movies.”