The Hustler and the Champ: Willie Mosconi, Minnesota Fats, and the Rivalry that Defined Pool

R.A. Dyer follows the lives of Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, telling the story of America’s conflicted love affair with the sport of rogues.

The true story of Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats

Before TV cameras, Howard Cosell, and 20 million Americans, pool’s greatest champion would challenge its greatest hustler. The date: February 14, 1978. The stakes: honor, a legacy, the true meaning of a sport. R.A. Dyer, the award-winning author of Hustler Days, tells the improbable but true story of pool’s two most important players and of a single match that captured the public’s imagination like none other, before or since. Willie Mosconi stood for artistry, Minnesota Fats for show business; Mosconi brought dignity to pool, Fats made it fun. When they came together for the most watched pool match in American history, the results would be explosive.

The great shootout

Willie Mosconi was pool’s greatest champion — the winner of 15 world titles, the holder of records that have remained undisturbed for generations. Minnesota Fats was pool’s most important trickster, a man who built his fame and fortune upon deceit and guile. In 1978, both men came together for what would become the most viewed pocket billiards match in American history. Before an audience numbering in the millions, pool’s two most important personalities set out to prove who really was best.

Mosconi may have been remembered as one of the most dominant sports figures of all time, a man who had laid low some of the greatest players in history—but no one would pose a greater threat to his legacy than the man-child Minnesota Fats. So when the consummate perfectionist and the unapologetic gambler finally went head to head for what Howard Cosell described as one of the most fascinating televised segments he ever hosted, all of America would ask the same question: Who would win?

The Hustler & The Champ tells of both men’s hardscrabble march to greatness, of their bitter decades-long rivalry, and finally of the televised shoot-out that revealed pocket billiards to millions even as it exposed deep contradictions within all of organized competition. Through the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the resurgent 1960s, R.A. Dyer follows the lives of both men and tells the story of America’s conflicted love affair with the sport of rogues.


It was a great year for billiards in print, and leading the way was our own R.A. Dyer, with his ground-breaking examination of the rivalry between Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats. It’s a brilliant comparative study, both in terms of their personalities and how they came to symbolize the two faces of pocket billiards: pristine tournament play and the more rugged world of the hustler. Both were perfectionists in their pursuits, and both hoped to define the sport.

Billboards Digest

“Dyer is a phenomenal researcher with a true talent for description and extracting dialogue from his interviewees. All of which add to give the reader a richly textured sense of presence.”

Bank the Nine Blog

What led a grudge match in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to become…a focal event in American sports is a subject R.A. Dyer masterfully explores….”

“The author’s enthusiasm for the often-shadowy sport of pocket billiards comes through in this entertaining, minutely reasearched look at the history and events leading up to the famous 1978 broadcast grudge match between Willie Mosconi, perhaps the greatest straight-pool player ever, and Minnesota Fats, a con man with an Ali-esque mouth. … With considerable wit, Dyer cast the match as a battle between the honorable and the corrupt, between sports and showbiz, between the game’s older more regal heritage and the tobacco-stained, beer-soaked pool halls of post-Depression America.”

Forbes Life

Dyer, 44, who also doubles as a columnist for Billiards Digest, has surprisingly never shot pool with a politician. But he’s angling to play nine ball with Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, who’s been known to wield a cue. ‘I don’t know whether he’s scared or what, but I haven’t been able to do it so far,’ Dyer said.

Austin American-Statesman

W. Gardner Selby

This compare-and-contrast exercise between (Mosconi and Fats) is pure pool bliss. … Dyer can be proud of this one — it’s an insightful (and delightful) look at two of pool’s most fascinating players

Pool and Billiards Magazin

The Du Quoin Evening Call is the Perry County newspaper and covers news for Dowell, the city that Rudolf “Fats” Wanderone called home and the location of “The Great Pool Shoot-Out.” The Call review says R.A. Dyer’s “story telling makes it seem as if he, and the reader, were there while everything was happening. His in-your-face style, along with his obvious passion for the subject matter, make it easy for anyone–no matter how familiar with the game of billiards–to be drawn into the plot laid out before them.

Du Quoin Evening Call