A little more than 20 years ago I interviewed Ned Polsky, the late author of Hustlers, Beats and Others. We spoke about the 7-11 pool hall and Jersey Red and where pool’s been and where it was then going. Polksy himself had met Red at the 7-11 in Manhattan, and the two became fast friends. The 7-11, as you many New Yorkers may recall, was then one of the city’s premier action rooms.
I started thinking about my interview with Polsky recently when I realized that the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication recently passed without notice. So here it is — or at least, here’s part of it. This interview was conducted on April 14, 1998. It has never before been published — although I used bits and pieces of it for Hustler Days.
In my transcript, I never wrote down my own questions. That means the following content reflects Polsky’s words only, except with a bit of my explanatory material here and there, which I denote with italics. Because the interview is so long, I’m only reproducing the first section here. I’ll post up the second part later.
Also, forgive the typos. I’ll go through and clean this up when I can. OK, here’s the first part:
Polsky: He (Jersey Red) was the player that was barred in the 1963 tournament because of his profanity. In 1963, he was at his peak. He was one of my main informants, back in 7-11. He was on the road (a lot) and he was based up here. The main action room was in 7-11, in ’62 and ’63. He (Red) would go on the road.
He was regarded, probably, as the top one-pocket player. People used to argue whether it was Red, or Ronnie Allen, or Mark Henderson. This was in 1962 or 1963. A lot of people said that Red was the top one-pocket player in the country. Red was the guy who was absolutely fearless. He would spot anybody to get a game.”
Polsky says that he conducted his interviews with Red before Red moved to Texas, where he became entranced with his future wife and settled for good. “I lost track of him when he moved in the early 60s,” said Polksy. Polksy referenced Red two or three times in Hustlers, Beats & Others. A student of both pool and sociology, Polksy said there are big differences between the pool room culture at the time of the interview (1998) and during Red’s heyday, in the 1960s.
Polsky: There is more of a middle-class clientele. There are more yuppie poolrooms. And one thing that is very important here, and in the Midwest and the West Coast — has been terribly important — is Asian immigration. … The Koreans — they’re big on carom billiards. And of course, there’s a big change in pool, largely made by television. 14.1 is pretty much dead, and it’s all nine-ball and to some extent 8-ball. Everybody wants the short, fast game. The TV producers do. There is hardly ever a straight pool tournament.
I did research in several pool rooms, the main research was in 7-11. That was the main action room in the East. He (Red) was the resident hustler, or was one of the resident hustlers. Red was there, and Boston Shorty, although Shorty was on the road a lot. Johnny Irvolino. Cisero (Murphy) was there. … (But) Red was one of the main people. Everybody thought that he could play any pool game, but pretty much his main game was one-pocket. That was what he was known for.”
This is from Red: This gives you an idea from heart he had. This was in 1962 or 1963. I took a trip to Cleveland, and I came back, and I walked into 7-11. I started to fill Red in about this Cleveland player, this guy named Chuck Morgan. I had seen Morgan run, over 100 balls on a 5X10 table. I started to tell Red about this. He interrupted me. ‘I know about him, Chuck Morgan, you mean Chump Morgan,’ he said. Red would tackle anybody.
Polsky’s book, Hustlers, Beats & Others, was published in 1967 by Anchor Books and then reprinted in 1969. It also was reprinted during later decades, including an updated edition by Lyons Press released in 1998. It was at about that time that I conducted this interview. I asked Polsky during the interview how he came to write his book.
Polsky: That’s how I got started with it (the research project) when I saw that movie, The Hustler. I knew that it wasn’t quite what it was like; I knew that the audience was taking it to be some gospel documentary. But it left out a lot of important stuff — it made you feel that that was what it was like then. You got the impression that a guy could make a good living at this, and it might have been true years later, but not then. It left out a lot of important things about hustling.
Even the best of them (the hustlers), would have to moonlight at something else. There just wasn’t that much action. All the time, they would all talk about big scores that they made. But if you pinned them down to how often that happened, it wasn’t that often. Even the top hustlers, there would be times when they would go completely broke and they would have to borrow money; or live off somebody else, or take a square job for awhile. They just couldn’t make it hustling. And there wasn’t that many suckers around, willing to play for big money … That was the problem, the problem was where (to find) the action; that is why they so often played each other…. The big money games were between hustlers… And with those, they are just taking in each other’s washing…
And even at that, it was over… The big money — even for the people that were willing to gamble on skill — the big money had fled to golf. Golf hustlers were as doing as good as pool hustlers.
I don’t know what the golf situation is (now) but I think pool hustling is deader than ever. It was dying then. What happened was this: in general, over the past 30-35 years, middle-class morality, has declined radically. America has given up its Puritan heritage. All sorts of things can be sold openly, that would have gotten you a stiff prison sentence 30 years ago. And one thing that has really declined, as far as middle-class morality, is the middle-class moral objection to gambling. Every state has increasingly tolerated gambling, increased the number of forms that are legally allowed; casinos or card parlors, or off-track betting.
You think that would, in pool rooms, help hustlers. That it would increase the number of suckers. But it has had the reverse effect. More and more the new style poolrooms, found that it’s very good business, to always have tournaments going on … which require a very small bet, an entry fee. The house adds a considerable money to entry fee, and they’re handicapped tournaments, and the handicaps are done fairly. This is not like the hustler proposition. Any player who wants to gamble at his own skill, he can do that every day of the week for a small stake, on terms that he knows assures him a good chance. Why should he play for some stranger, who might be a hustler?
And if (someone) wants more action that he can get from tournament prizes, he can play one of the tournament players at some other time, but on terms, where they both know each others’ skill level. They each know what the other handicap is supposed to be. In other words, anybody who wants to gamble, can now find plenty of players who also want to gamble, and whose skill levels he knows. Why should he bother with a stranger? He can gamble, but he doesn’t have to worry about getting hustled.