The two out-of-towners are relatively short men, in their thirties, the unfortunate age when the paunch begins to show. Neither carries a pool cue. They’ve appeared unannounced and unexpected in a back-water pool room, which they immediately size up. Who in here has some gamble to them? They get a table. They rack for nine-ball. They start shooting.
“Remember how I beat that boy down in Nixonton,” says one, a bit over loudly. He makes his shot, but it just wobbles in. “Kid never had a chance.” He blasts in another ball, but the shape is awful. “Look at that,” he says, admiring his own game. “Ever seen anything like it?” He keeps shooting, keeps boasting. He makes some balls and he misses some. He plays passable pool. Not great pool, but passable pool. And yet he keeps on. The boasts keep getting bigger. Louder. Remember this? Remember that?
And then: here it comes. Here it comes. He looks over to the local boy at the next table. Hell, I bet I can even beat this guy right here, he says. Hey buddy you wanna play?
Maybe the local says yes and maybe he says no. Maybe he has these strangers pegged as hustlers, or maybe he has them pegged as hapless and helpless braggarts. It doesn’t really matter. This is how it starts: A few games of passable pool, a few boasts, some loud taunts. And then the trap is sprung. In less time than one might expect the stranger’s challenge is met. Some hotshot local will approach him or someone will call in a ringer from the pay phone. Hurry down. Bring your stick. When the hustle works just right, when the know-nothings are loud enough and the locals are sufficiently irritated, whoever steps up will have some gamble to him.
And then it’s all over.
This is the Big Hoorah hustle, performed regularly over several years by Wimpy Lassiter and his road partner Don Willis. That’s a picture of Willis at the top of the page and Lassiter at the right. In this essay I focus on Willis, Lassiter’s long-time wing man.
Lassiter, of course, is a man that all serious pool players should already have heard of. He dominated the Johnston City tournaments during the 1960s and is still considered by many as the greatest nine-ball player of all time. Lassiter also won and lost a fortune in Norfolk during his World War II Coast Guard days.
Willis, however, is much less known. He eschewed tournaments, and not until his later years would he even consent to be photographed for publication. I describe him here for the sake of thematic convenience as Lassiter’s “wing man” — but that really is to sell Willis very much short. He regularly beat the great nine-ball player and took occasional scalps from other giants as well, including, supposedly, both Ralph Greenleaf and Willie Mosconi. Willis was an intimidating player. As Lassiter once said: “If I ever had to have someone else shoot pool for my life, win or lose, live or die … the man that I’d have shooting for me is Don Willis.”
The so-called Cincinatti Kid was born on May 1, 1909. Like Lassiter, he began playing seriously during the Great Depression, when he was still a teen. Willis’ long partnership with Lassiter began shortly after he ventured into Lassiter’s hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, during a road trip. Willis challenged Lassiter to a game of nine ball, on Lassiter’s home turf, and then had the temerity to beat him. Lassiter was so startled by this outcome that he immediately befriended the Ohio-native. They then spent the next decade and a half together.
“I think my best friend is Wimpy Lassiter,” Willis told author Thomas Fensch, for his 1970 book The Lions and the Lambs. “What a team we were. We were together for 15 years. In 1959, he came to Canton and stayed a year. We practiced together and played together. We never had our own cues when we were out on the road. It used to be when you came into a new house with a cue under your arm, everyone’d say, ‘who’s this guy with the cue?’
“We just out-shot everyone. We never lost either — never left town broke. Sure we were down low at times, but there was always someone else to play.”
Willis was a master of all sorts of proposition bets, such as running backwards, making basketball free throws, and making wing shots. Twice during his life he made 42 in a row. “They called me Wing-Shot Willie,” he once said. He was also a card player (which came in handy plenty on the road), could juggle three pool balls and the chalk, and play an excellent game of ping-pong as well as horseshoes. “I’ve even also won bets on the proposition that I can’t name in order the 130 largest cities of the U.S. There are 130 cities over 100,000 population. It’s easy.”
But Willis never was a tournament player. He said he’d rather play a nobody for $7 than a world champion for nothing. That’s where Willis found the fun of pool — in the gambling. “I never practiced just for the sake of practicing. I always wanted to play — to play someone,” he said. In the pantheon of pure action players, few were better. Playing the Big Hoorah hustle, he could beat anybody. Anybody who stepped up. And then after he had wrung the last dime from one sucker, Lassiter would step up and beat another. The pigeons didn’t stand a chance.
“Lassiter was the one who said I had the heart of a lion and I think that’s the best thing anyone has said about me,” Willis told auther Fensch.
Willis died on March 2, 1984, at the age of 74. He and his wife Mary were parents to six children and had 13 grandchildren.
You can read more about Don Willis in the excellent retrospective at the Greater Canton Amateur Billiard Association website. (The picture of Don Willis at the top left was retrieved from that website, although it was originally published in the Army Weekly, on Oct. 27, 1944.) Author John Grissom also penned a fine essay about Don Willis in his book Billiards. I also have a section about Don Willis in Hustler Days, and Robert Byrne describes Willis in his 1996 book, The Wonderful World of Pool & Billiards.
— R.A. Dyer