How much were historic wagers by Lassiter, Fats, and De Oro in today’s dollars?


This is what Luther Lassiter said about Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 1940s: “Greatest pool town that’s ever been. You had five or six people there who were really gambling. People had lots of cash, and players from all over the country — anybody that played for money at all — came to Norfolk.”

Lassiter was a prince among the Norfolk hustlers during his World War II Coast Guard years. During one particularly memorable session he took $5,000 cash money from a club owner, a man named Whitey Howard. And this after he gave Whitey a hefty spot.

The size of that $5,000 wager — and the heart Lassiter needed to win it — got me to thinking. That’s a lot, even by today’s standards. Plenty of regional tournaments tot his day will still pay less for first place. I’ve also seen plenty of action matches online, including one back in 2010 in which Shane Van Boening  won $10,000 from Mika Immonen. But the session lasted three days. Lassiter, by contrast, won his money during a single game. And during the 1940s, $5,000 was a king’s ransom.

There’s a reference to a big score by Fats in The Hustler & The Champ.
The Inflation Calculator

So here’s our question: How much would astronomical old-time wagers amount to in today’s dollars? You can find various inflation calculators online and for today’s exercise I’ll use the one found here, from the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plugging in $5,000 (Wimpy’s wager in 1946) results in a value of more than $70,000 in 2020. You can buy this car with that much money. During a 100-point game of straight pool Lassiter’s opponent came within just two balls of taking all that cash and then Lassiter ran 92 and out. Talk about heart.

In 1971 Minnesota Fats won about $20,000 from Richie Florence and two others in Johnston City. (You can read about that encounter in The Hustler & The Champ along with a few others.) What would $20,000 look like in 2020? More than $129,000, according to the calculator. However, unlike Lassiter’s crazy score, it took Fats a couple of weeks to win all that money.

I’ve also came across a reference to a $250 wager between Alfredo De Oro and Charles Otis back in 1916. It was a private bet between the two players before their championship billiards match held in Havana, Cuba. In 2020 dollars, that wager would have amounted to more than $6,000. De Oro, then considered the greatest player ever, was said to have put up his own money. Otis was staked.

Have a story about a particularly memorable wager from yesteryear? Send me the details, and we’ll plug it into the inflation calculator.

— R.A. Dyer


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