Growing up in Steubenville, Ohio shooting pool was a way of life. And gambling on it was also customary.
I can remember it like yesterday when I picked up a cue stick for the first time. I was 12 years old and I went to the Academy Pool Room with my father, who had to meet the guy who ran the place, which was also a gaming establishment.
We go in, my dad sees his friend “Money” O’Brien who supplied my father with yearly passes to Waterford Park. While they were talking, I walked over to the beautiful Brunswick pool table, I wanted to play.
Mr. O grabbed a cue and said the first thing you learn is the proper way to hold the cue, I was hooked. Mr. O, as my dad called him, would let me in most anytime, with the exception of when a big cash game was going on.
By the way, “Money” gave Jimmy “The Greek” his first gaming job at the Academy dealing the big wheel and they eventually became partners.
I tried to practice on a daily basis and by the time I was 16 years old I could hold my own with the best players around and was really good when playing nine-ball for money and my road game was one pocket. I just had the temperament for the game.
When the great movie “The Hustler” came to Steubenville, I went to see it seven straight days, I loved Jackie Gleason in the movie playing the great hustler Minnesota Fats. In the movie, Gleason shot his own shots as he was a top pool player in his own right.
Pool was getting to become very popular at the time and our biggest bowling alley put in a big pool room and invited world champion Jimmy Caras, who at that time had just won the United States pool championship. The week before the grand opening they held a tournament with the winner getting to play Jimmy. I won and when I met him he asked what game was my best, I said “one pocket” and that’s what we would play.
The game took around an hour with a lot of playing safe, which was a great part of my one pocket strategy, I played the perfect game and took down the champ, the place went nuts.
Later, Jimmy came over and said to me, “I let you win.” To this day I doubt it very much as he also said after I challenged him to another game, he would see me on the tour.
After that match, I could get very few money games in Steubenville. So me and a friend would venture to Pittsburgh looking to hustle some nine-ball. We liked to shop while there and this one day we purchased a nice leather jacket and some shoes.
At the pool hall I was only able to pick up one game and could only take the guy for 50 bucks. As we were ready to leave we became aware that our leather jackets and new shoes had gone into the sunset and that was my last trip to that pool room.
I was driving my dad to Waterford Park and noticed “Money” O’Brien on the road by the bus stop in Weirton, WV trying to hitch a ride. I stopped and he got in the back seat with my dad, who always sat in the back seat. This was years after first meeting him at the Academy.
My dad asked him if his car broke down, Mr. O said he had to sell his car as he was broke. He said: “Benny, I never dreamed that I would live to be 90 years old and outliving my money”.
A week later we read in the Steubenville Hearld Star that Mr. O had died. My dad looked at me kinda sad and wondered with Money gone, where will we get our passes to the track? That was typical Benny.
Every now and then I pick up my cue and go shoot a few racks. My eyes are not that good and I’ve lost my smooth stroke. I think to myself, “Maybe Jimmy Caras did let me win?”