The Golden Fleece Billiards Club No smoking. No alcohol. No bulshit. Just pool.
“Addiction to billiards is as great an impediment to productivity as cocaine is to ambition”
The gamblers seemed indifferent to the comity and comfort of The Golden Fleece. Maybe its simply because, like fighters, for example, focused as they are on the bloody match ahead, could care less if the venue is Vegas or Madison Square Garden; it is just a place of work, whereas for the rest of us The Fleece was a “club” in everything but name. We became friends who enjoyed quotidian association with like-minded people and playing each other and actually cared about each other’s well being. If you were hit by a bus and lying in Harborview Hospital you could be sure somebody from The Fleece would show up with a flask of Jack Daniels in his pocket.
The gamblers were the varsity and the rest of us JV, an analogy that should suffice to explain one particular dynamic in the place where, inexorably everybody acquiesced to the gamblers, “Oh you want this table? I’ll move over there. You want some water? Oh, you want some better chalk. Here you go. Shhhh, they’re playing for five thousand a set”! The obsequiousness was suffocating at times inasmuch as it was usually addressed to a particular individual.
A lot of players would say, “Yeah, its okay but I don’t like Diamond tables” or they would complain about the “condition of the equipment” and of course, the location was not one to inspire confidence by the conceit of lugubriousness. As far as I was concerned, the equipment complainers were just as boring as the ones I used to play table tennis with; ONLY Swedish professional tables were adequate, which means, as far as pool goes, they would never play a single game of Nine Ball in Nicaragua. Most often they would simply shrug and look away because they thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. I guess they think Scott Frost’s new room in Phoenix is the cat’s meow with multiple mirrored bars, stupid pictures of cigar-smoking dogs playing pool or Jackie Gleason scowling, ginormous HDTV’s, 100-decibel hip hop and svelte servers swiftly seeing to your every necessity.
I could not fathom their lack of appreciation. The Fleece provided an unpretentious pleasure not altogether unlike what I might experience walking into a cozy country café in eastern Washington or down in New Mexico, a place where somebody has sunk their savings, 401K’s and 18 hour days into making an agreeable place for folks to come to on a blustery winter evening for some home made pot roast, baked potatoes and Caesar salad. Sure, it ain’t the Osteria Fransescana on Fifth Avenue, but after a day running cattle, photographing or working at the VLA, it is pretty nice and they are genuinely happy to see you. I have been in several of the famous poolrooms in Phoenix, Vegas, San Francisco, Denver and Mountain View and I still say The Fleece was uniquely suited for the dedicated cueist notwithstanding the fact that it lacked a billiard table and a golf table. It was “funk” par excellence. Dave Bersenadze did everything himself; he could not afford interior designers, slick new counters, and expensive Diamond lights. The eBay table lights had masking tape around the rims to cut down on glare. The sofas came from Goodwill, the carpet from the old convention center. He didn’t even have a credit card machine when he first opened. Dave is from Georgia, USSR. Remember the USSR? A cursory knowledge of the old Soviet Union should suffice to inform one that Georgia was/is an altogether different world from the United States, Germany and the UK when it comes to modern interior design.
I am not a gambler or a break-and-run-out player so it is possible that my inexperience disqualifies me to recommend one poolroom over another and, I admit, I am talking mostly about ambience. Of course I appreciate nice equipment but the fact is, serious pool is moribund here in Amerika. I have read that in 1950, there were dozens of poolrooms in Seattle. Now there are none. (I’m sorry, but The Garage and Temple Billiards do not qualify as “serious” rooms). My point being that “space is money”, so a room in which you can fit a dozen large pieces of metamorphic rock covered with green cloth is also large enough to hold hundreds of flat screen TV’s or lots of motorcycles, La-Z-Boys, or one of those establishments where they take your money and “save” it for you at one percent interest (while making ten percent), or, in such a large space you might put two dozen intimate tables covered with white linen on which one could make mountains of money serving Duck Foie Gras with Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac, preceded by $25 dollar Martinis. There’s about as much money in pool as there is panning for gold in the Yakima River. Maintaining the equipment at YouTube tournament quality was simply not an option at The Fleece.
The main thing about The Fleece was the devotion it exuded. It was a project of passion by Dave Bersenadze, AKA, “Russian Dave”, a sobriquet he loathed because he was from Georgia and wanted NOTHING to do with the f…king Russians. He claimed that the KGB had tried to kill him several times. He also admitted that he comes from an academic family and studied piano and judo for twenty years before escaping to Amerika. Of course he plays chess.
Anyway, no matter where the money was coming from, the point is that Dave loved pool and poured his heart and soul into The Fleece month after month, year after year. The first iteration of The Fleece in Kenmore was more of a classic room with all the nine footers in the front room and the bar boxes in back near the kitchen. The booths along the side with a wide passageway separating the tables were very pleasant. It took me several tries to even find that place located in the back of a mini-mall with nothing but a grey industrial steel door on which were three words in sticky letters: Golden Fleece Billiards. Alas, that place closed after a few years and we all had to scramble to find a room in which to satisfy our addiction to this infuriating game.
The new location on Lake City Way just happened to be THE most melancholy stretch of an otherwise disagreeable thoroughfare. I won’t go into details but suffice it to say I never went to The Lake City Fleece early on without a bit of additional “security” in my pocket (at 75 I am nothing but a target; long gone are the days of wrestling and Judo championships). I am still amazed that given the “look” of some of the locals brazenly parking their black Mercedes’s and gangsta SUV’s in The Fleece’s parking space and the thousands of dollars flowing inside, that there was never any Johnson City repeat.
The Fleece was always a work in progress. It did not open fancy-smantzy like a lot of places (like The Parlor in Bellevue). It opened with bare walls, broken ceiling tiles, no carpet, no “sound system”, bare bones restrooms, no AC and crappy lights. Gradually there were pictures on the walls, the lights were fixed and restrooms sweetened up, especially the ladies room. All the windows on the south side were adequately “venetianed”, not opaque, but never a glare (don’t assume opacity because three other local rooms do NOT even attempt to cover their windows). Then came a spectacular sound system hooked to the Internet of course and gratis. Anybody could play anything they wanted. One day they even put up with a bit of of Mozart! The unique thing is that NOBODY ever took advantage of this background music insisting on his/her selections ad aeternum at anything more than 50 decibels; and if the music was too loud, you could simply walk over and turn it down. More often than not, since the average age of the serious players was between 60 and 70, the music was soft country, Sam Cooke or Johnny Cash.
A year or so later Dave installed a giant flat screen TV with appropriately comfortable sofas and a coffee table for watching football and the news, although for a while Larry Carter got addicted to those vulgar afternoon acusatory contests which was a slight distraction if you were playing on table one. More often than not those sofas were occupied by roadies like The Lizard, Roman, Robb and Billy Incardona exhausted, napping after their marathon bulshit sessions about how many tens of thousands of dollars they had won off So-and-So in Vegas and Dumbfuck Arkansas. I wish I had a dollar for every thousand those guys supposedly won and lost traveling around the country sleeping in their cars, convenient couches and recently, like The lizard, on the floor behind the number 8 table in the northwest corner.
A fixture of all serious poolrooms in Seattle for the past fifty years has been Vince Frayne and his lovely wife Lila. Vince might be described as a combination of Freud, PT Barnum and Pretty Boy Floyd all morphed into one unforgettable package as he calls Harry, Tommy, JD or Hobbs trying to set up some “action”. Vince’s wife Lila has always interested me for the reason that, were I to play some dude for serious money I would ask Lila for her opinion. Lila has patiently watched THOUSANDS of pool games. I have heard her chortling at Vince or some other “player” after making a stupid shot. That lady has an encyclopedia’s worth of insight about hundreds of top pool players. There was a famous member of the French resistance during WWII who was blind. If there was ever any question about the integrity of anybody la resistance would bring that guy to the blind man and the blind man would ask a few questions. Without sight his other senses were heightened and he had developed a particularly accurate sense for lying. If you were a Nazi collaborator he would know. . . and you were fucked. I think Lila has the same deep extra-sense about pool players. She KNOWS. I know she does.
Vince used to be THE anchorman for all money games in Seattle often putting up significant quantities of his own cash until he lost his government subsidy; or whatever the story is. You will NEVER get the real story out of any of these guys. Talk about “fake news”. . . Joshua Himelfarb, in his seminal book; The Origin of Fake News in America (Harvard University Press, 2018) actually cites Johnson City and pool hustling as one of the earliest examples of alternative facts and rhetorical artifice, AKA fake news.
I guess that most pool players like bustling environments illuminated by multiple gigantic flat screens showing heavily armored, brain-damaged behemoths colliding with one another, the clinking of glasses, laughter, periodic ejaculations of people scoring points with their little darts and the smell of fried carcinogens with cute girls sashaying around with trays of burgers and beer. The Fleece was “dry” and the only food was a meager assortment of mini-donuts and Nabisco peanut butter crackers. You were welcome to bring in your own food from nearby Asian or Mediterranean joints. Dave wanted to make the best coffee in town and went through several espresso makers with help from Barry Hill, an espresso engineer non pareil and eventually settled on a machine with which he made incredible cups of coffee. If you were not a coffee drinker you were welcome to use the espresso machine for hot water for tea like Joe Chun was wont to do.
Dave collected cues and installed a small lathe behind the front desk on which he would put on tips for a modest fee as well as clean and polish your shaft.
I don’t know if I mentioned this but Dave never charged kids. I think he had a dream of getting more kids involved with some sort of summer program but it never had time to get going. I played there quite often with my nephew from 2013 to 2017. Sometimes I would see my nephew looking over at Harry and Tommy and was unperturbed when Harry would erupt into his customary post-game scatological outburst, “You little shit. You godam c…sucker”! Andreas and I also played quite a bit in the University of Washington Hub, which has about ten well-worn Brunswicks. One day I asked him where he would rather play and unhesitatingly he said, “The Fleece”. Even a ten year old could tell a good thing when he saw it. Who wants to play serious pool surrounded by a dozen TV’s, video games and Wii sports?
There had been a pool phenom at Dr. Cue’s named Chuck Holyoke who could have become a very competitive professional but when Dr. Cue’s closed there was no place for a kid to play so he took up golf. When I brought my nephew into The Fleece the old guys would look over and wonder if this might be another hot shot kid because Andreas did have exceptionally good technique, especially if seen from across the room. His fundamentals were textbook because that is all I could teach him. I certainly was NOT teaching him from my personal experience. I was simply instructing him to look like Shane and Corey with a bit of Ronnie thrown in. He had a good pre-shot routine and lined up with the cue exactly under his chin, nothing moved but his lower arm and he followed through and stayed down flawlessly. He loved One Pocket. So guys like Tommy, Rafael, Dan Fitzsimmons and others would come over and offer their experienced advice. He coulda been a contender, but alas, he turned into a teenager. Not even pool can compete with girls.
Speaking of girls. . . there weren’t many at The Fleece but not for a lack of comfortableness. It was nice to have Emma around practicing while her son studied chess on his iPad. There probably wasn’t a safer place in all Seattle for a single girl or multiples, to be unmolested. Same with geeky, gay, black or WHATEVER; nobody at The Fleece would have countenanced the slightest disparagement or bullying of anybody. The ONLY time I saw the remotest hint of stupid male chauvinism was when JD walked over to a table where a couple pretty girls were playing and said, “I don’t think I’ve seen you girls in here before”. One sidelong glance at JD sufficed to alert them to the fact Bozo was not a threat and they demurred but Hobbs nevertheless said sternly, “JD. Leave the girls alone”. And Bozo said, “Well somebody had to make them feel welcome”. Right, and why don’t you just go outside and smoke another joint.
Dave Tice used to drive all the way down from Wenatchee on weekends to watch the “action” and play some One Pocket. I was lucky to make his acquaintance thanks to Barry Hill a fellow polymath. (Dave and Barry were the polymaths, not me). Well, also a few years ago I bought VERY unique cue from Dave for one of my trips to South America; a sort of sneaky Pete three piece cue he had made for himself many years ago to take back to Derby City in his carry-on. He virtually gave me the cue and we became friends. The thing is Dave has “the yips”. I recommend watching Charles Barkley playing golf with “the yips” on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s50K65PNeBU). It is hilarious and Dave Tice looks almost as funny as he gets down on a shot, strokes a few times (and remember, I am talking about a VERY good pool player) and then sort of almost falls over backward on his heels as he strokes the ball. I have “the yips” too with my signature; I cannot sign my name anymore, so I am sympathetic. There was a famous pitcher who could NOT throw the ball over to first base because of “the yips”. When he had “the yips” really bad I might take a game off Dave but thankfully he usually played through the falling back and snuffed me. He makes the most incredible cues on the planet. Not only are they exquisitely beautiful but he applies a highly developed understanding of physics (in addition to his own pool prowess) in the manufacture of both the butt and especially the shaft so that his cues have zero torsional variance (more or less what Bob Meuci tried to do with his red dot shafts). You never knew what kinds of friends you would make at The Fleece.
The great mystery was how The Fleece kept afloat when only five or six of us played there all afternoon on weekdays. Even Saturdays and Sundays were often quiet; and I mean QUIET. Dave might just as well have had the old sign from the 211 Club over the door: No talking, no smoking, no bulshit, just pool. Once in a while a couple normal guys would come in wearing ties and jackets and hit some balls around while they chatted about their latest automotive purchase or recent seafood dinner at Ray’s. Usually (thankfully), they didn’t come back. And now and then in the evenings small groups of college kids would come in and yuk it up around one or two of the bar tables. The houseman always tried to keep them as far from the “action” table as possible and sometimes did inform them about the real project of The Fleece and they would shut up. I was always amused to observe that not once did any novice look over at the Lizard, Preacher Ronn, Tommy or Hobbs and realize that that was how the game is supposed to be played. Ignorance is bliss.
There are legends about the wicked world of pool giving license to religionists prohibiting its exercise in their communities notwithstanding the fact that such orthodox communities embrace all sorts of domestic abusers. If I weren’t allowed to play pool, cuss and drink alcohol I might get abusive too. Once I put on an 8-ball tournament one winter when I was living in a small town in southern Utah. A friend of mine owned a hamburger joint with two tables in the back room. About a dozen cowboys showed up, some recounting boisterously how they used to go down to “the res” and win hundreds of dollars off the poor Navajos. It was a big success with a hundred dollar pot, copious amounts of Bud Lite and there were comments such as, “I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun”. Ha ha. That was the first and last pool tournament in Wayne County, Utah. You don’t fuck with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Sinners when in Utah.
Dave was very generous about tournaments and league play. For a particular One Pocket tournament he actually moved out some bar boxes to make room for more 9-footers. Several nights a week he would open the room up to league play. If you wanted to do something in his room with his equipment he was a generous confederate. We talked about a summer program for kids and the only reason it did not happen was MY insecurity. He would have been more than happy to let me use the room from nine to noon teaching teenagers chess and pool.
The only scheduled thing happening at The Fleece every day was Edfren Wallace playing One Pocket from noon to five on the front table. I guess he had arranged with Dave to exchange table time for managing the cash register. Same with Dennis, who, in the last year was another absolute regular. These guys were always generous when it came to their knowledge of One Pocket. Opinions varied however so you never knew for sure what was THE best shot to make. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that even today, with a plethora of how-to books about pocket billiards and gazillion YouTube videos with excellent commentary there are still a lot of “old timers” who are chary of their secrets. Billy Incardona said in one of his endless orations from the sofa that if he knew another player was watching to see how he would shoot a particular shot he would put opposite English on the cue ball just to mess the young guy up. Nice.
One night recently there was an empyrean event at The Fleece. Vince arranged to match up Harry and Lizard against JD and Hobbs for five thousand. They were playing on the corner table over by the garage door, the preferred money table. Even though these guys have matched up in one form or another hundreds of times over the years, this night was different somehow; the air was electric and we all watched some of the best One Pocket ever played in Seattle as these four guys put on some theater worthy of a Tony.
None of the nearby tables was in use so that the #2 corner table glowed with a spectacular insular beauty surrounded by barely distinguishable shadows. Broadway could not have lit a stage any better. Mark Knopfler softly sang Brothers in Arms as Lizard broke the first rack. All the serious players in Seattle were there watching from the dark; motionless, transfixed as the game progressed. Even the non-competing top players were mesmerized with this particular game. It was a Saturday night so there were some young collegiate 8-ballers on the back tables and a couple local flat-earthers over in the corner by the kitchen. But the front room of The Fleece on that particular night was like no place on earth for three hours. From my chair along the north wall I could see the door and I watched as people came in and somehow they knew they were entering a place of worship and everybody whispered.
Of course there is bigger “action” in Phoenix, Dallas, Mountain View and Vegas but this was Shakespearean! If I am watching Hamlet, do I want to see some football players getting head-injured on ten TV’s, listen to electronic video game beeps and 100 decibel rap? No, I want all the limelight on the action and cell phones on airplane mode, the music low and the silence of lambs so that I can hear the chalk brushed on, the click of balls and the thunk of the pockets. The ONLY words spoken were the occasional suggestion JD might make to Hobbs or an apology Harry would lament to Lizard for a bad leave. Somebody coughed loudly and JD said into the Cimmerian dark, “Hey, whoever has that cough, I have some medicine for it in my truck”. Did he mean Ruger or Robitussin?
The Lizard wasn’t able to carry Harry past these two young sharp shooters and it all ended without the usual scatological exclamations from Mr. Platis (although I did have to dodge a cube of Tweeten hurled angrily into the gloomy abyss, in what was unintentionally, a trajectory headed directly at my face). Slowly The Fleece resumed regular operations as we all drifted out to our cars and drove home with visions of three rail kicks, slam-bang straight back banks, dead ball combos and some beautiful position play.
The thing is, Dave had worked hard to make The Fleece more like a club than a commercial poolroom. He abjured alcohol for two reasons despite the fact that booze is where the money is. He knows that serious pool players do not drink while they are playing; and secondly he sincerely hoped to bring in more kids. Is it any wonder we were getting snuffed in Mosconi Cup competitions? Where are kids supposed to learn? After Dr. Cue’s closed and then a few years later when the first Fleece in Kenmore closed there was virtually no place for me to take my 12 year old nephew except The University of Washington Hub and one or two bars where we were allowed to play in the afternoons. I suspect it is similar in cities all across America; nobody under 18 is allowed to learn to play pool.
I must say that when I mentioned a lack of enthusiastic fondness for The Fleece, I was referring mostly to the serious money players. These were not people who smiled at you when you walked in. You might as well have been wallpaper (except for Harry). I can only surmise that they are so focused on the money that they might as well be playing in Disneyland or Joe’s tavern. I can sort of understand but their lack of appreciation for all the TLC Dave put into the place annoyed me somewhat. Not one of those guys signed a petition purporting to investigate starting a billiard club or new room when Dave announced that he was closing. Not one. Dave even gave the lock combination to a few guys who would play all night or come in early in the morning and some of these guys just helped themselves to drinks and snacks. Dave was practically in tears telling me this. There are three kinds of “friends”; those who love you. those who hate you, and those who care nothing about you. (German proverb). Most of the gamblers fall into the last category.
I have stopped by Randi’s 128th St Grill in Lynnwood several times lately and the place is DEAD except for Mark practicing. I expected to find Harry and Hobbs or Preacher Ronn in “action” but the joint was empty. And for good reason, it is just a glorified bar with big TV’s, burgers and not a single sofa on which to sit. I like Randi but I will never play a single game of pool there. I suppose my predilection for funk over glitz explains my affection for The Fleece. I have never been in another room with such comfortable sofas. There aren’t any sofas at Randi’s or the 15th St Grill.
Dave is a pretty strong chess player and occasionally some of us would play him or each other. Supposedly Efren plays a good game of chess. Dr. Cue’s had a chess set with which Barry and Wes would play. You think it is silly to have a chess set in a pool room? Why did Efren play chess and why do they call One Pocket the “chess of pool”? Lots of luck finding a chess set at Randi’s or at The Freezer’s. The presence of a chess set symbolized a welcomeness; you’re free to come in, sit down and play a game of chess for two hours without spending a dime. The Fleece was a place where a LOT of us spent a LOT of time just hanging around with friends. Try that in most regular poolrooms or taverns.
People cared about each other at The Fleece. If a “regular” didn’t show up for a week or two people would begin asking questions and make a few calls. There is a comfort in walking into a place and everybody says “hello”. We may not have been “dinner guest” friends but we certainly were “friends” in the general sense of the term (quite a few were dinner guests in my house actually). If somebody needed help or a bit of cash there would have been no shortage of succor. At least a couple times a month somebody would buy a dozen donuts or Costco sandwiches left on the front table. You were absolutely free to bring in your own “take-out” lunches or dinners. I don’t mean to calumniate the other poolrooms; they have their own business model; but The Fleece was definitely more of a billiard society clubhouse than a commercial room.
There were a few people who should have been regulars but for some reason never joined the “club” such as Dan Louie, arguably THE most congenial money player on the planet. Most money players (gamblers) have spent so much of their lives trying to out-wit opponents, “shark” them or conversely, worry about being taken for stooges themselves that they experience what I alluded to earlier when a wrinkle forms on the DNA template causing an actual change in the nucleotide; a personality change. Again, check out this YouTube piece with Jimmy Mataya: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6rkxYc7c5M). When this happens, and it happens to most gamblers, the individual becomes suspicious, reticent, elusive and only marginally approachable with few, if any, friends. Friendship is predicated on candor and self-effacing honesty. A friend is a person who you can talk to about your cancer, mortgage, panic attacks and sex life. You will NEVER have a deeply personal relationship with a gambler. These are guys who worry that the feds are listening to their phone calls and looking at their emails. Spend your life deceiving people and you are going to become pretty weird. But not Dan Louie. He was ALWAYS the consummate gentleman.
Danny is an exemplar of all champions. I took a few lessons from Danny and one night we got matched up in a tournament and as we shook hands I said, “Hey, maybe you can give me a few pointers”. Same thing happened with Tommy Akin a couple years later when I made the same stupid suggestion. They both said politely, “Well, not during the match but I’ll be happy to talk to you when we’re done”. I have known several champions in various sports in my life and they all have this particular trait; absolute, singular, total focus on the match at hand. They don’t talk, they don’t look around, they don’t smile and they don’t give a damn who they are playing; they might be playing a three year old but the thought of easing up, giving away a point or two NEVER enters their killer brains.
Speaking of gamblers and would-be gamblers, for a year or two, I don’t remember exactly, Dave spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours teaching a young fellow how to play One Pocket. At the time, the kid was in the Navy stationed in Bangor or Bremerton but when he got out of the service he became a regular and a close friend of Tom and Barry’s both of whom, especially Tommy, helped tighten up his One Hole game. I also considered Peter a friend and figured he was destined to become one of the premier local players. Alas, that was never going to happen because Peter is an unusually sensitive, poetic, generous, NICE human being who enjoys playing pool with anybody, even a duffer like me. He got to the point where he could beat all but THE top three or four local gamblers and then decided that instead of living out of the back seat of his car, driving around the country giving the slip to the IRS and hustling old guys on Social Security he would become a teacher and so he went back to school.
One afternoon I played a race to five with Dave on one of the little tables. I was playing well that day and ran one or two racks, banks were on and my safeties rolled with Draconian precision and frankly, I was quite surprised to find myself playing on a par with Dave. A few weeks later I mentioned to my friend Tom that I had “kept up” with Dave in Nine Ball. Tommy paused, and regarded me with that inimitable look of sympathy he reserves for the homeless and intellectually challenged. He is a friend so of course he didn’t want to just come out and tell me what a dumb shit I was to think I could ever play evenly with Dave Bersenadze. The Haitians have a saying; “It is no crime to be stupid; it just makes life more difficult”. Self-delusion is a HUGE part of pool. People get lucky one night and run a few balls and then they spend the rest of their lives thinking that they play better than they really do. Dr. Robert Fancher talks about this in his excellent little treatise, The Pleasures of Small Motions. (Lyons Press, 2000. p76) Dave Bersenadze plays evenly with Preacher Ronn and once challenged Warren Kiamco to a set of One Pocket at $500 a game. (Warren Kiamco was ranked 3rd in the world). I get it.
JD, Hobbs, Damien and Preacher Ronn were NOT exactly regulars although they came often to gamble, especially in the last month. Several times I would stop my lesson with my nephew and say, “Come on, lets just watch Tommy run a few racks”, and we would sit silently spellbound by his precise choreography around the slate and studied, economical motionless shot-making. Every big city has its local heroes and in Seattle the “players” are Tommy, Harry, JD, Preacher Ronn and Hobbs. Of course there was never any action without Vince and Lila. Dave even let Vince keep an extra wheel chair in the back so he didn’t have to lug one around in his car. He would come in, grab the chair and wheel it out to his car, lean in, barely pick up Lila and “throw” her in and we would help him drag her up the steps. God help us all if Vince ever throws out his back.
One cannot talk about The Fleece without talking about THE main reason gamblers come to Seattle; Harry Platis. The Fleece was Harry’s stage, his Globe Theater where he performed several nights a week. His mood was as Mercurial as Hamlet so one night he might play amicably with Tommy for $200 a game and wave to me when I walked in but the next night after losing several grand to Roman he would throw the Tweeten across the room and ejaculate, “You godam sonofabitch” . . .the schadenfreude barely disguised on our faces.
Pool, like chess, is a game of such incomparable beauty and infinite possibilities that inexorably it causes a neurological dopamine dependency not altogether unlike the oxygenated rush from big muscle sports or the “high” of cocaine or heroin and Harry Platis is clearly it’s most visible local junkie. Harry is also a narcissist. I am not a social scientist but perhaps there is a link between top performers (in anything) and our friend looking down into the pool falling in love with himself). I do not allude to narcissism pejoratively because I understand how much he wants to win AND put on a show just like I did wrestling in high school and college; pick the sonofabitch up and throw him down, maybe dislocate a shoulder, and stick him! One-on-one games and sports are the perfect venue for us narcissists. Tommy and Hobbs do not look around the room when they are playing any more than Dr. Christian Barnard would look around the operating theater while doing a heart transplant. Harry is ALWAYS looking around and nodding to people and even chatting it up with an acquaintance while he is in “action”. Does he really care if he loses five or ten grand playing One Pocket?
There is a famous story about a money player, I think it was “The Monk”, who called and Harry’s wife answered and when he introduced himself he heard her call out to her husband, “Hey Harry, it’s ‘The Monk’. He must need some money for a new addition on his house”. (This is quoted in some book I read years ago, perhaps Eddy Robin’s Winning One Pocket). A couple of the local players claim that they have taken many, many tens of thousands off Harry in the past thirty years. David McCumber’s Playing Off The Rail, an excellent book, alludes to the deep and generous pockets of Harry Platis so I am not saying anytihng that is not public information Well, the folks at the One Pocket Hall of Fame inducted the guy solely for his generous “support” of the game, certainly not for his extraordinary technique. Nobody plays Harry even for money. Yeah, he “beat” Corey, but Corey was giving him 10-5. Before making the long trip to the sub-arctic of city of Seattle to fleece Mr. Platis, just keep in mind that the guy is fearless and masterful. . . one screw-up and you too could leave town ten grand down like Corey.
I think Harry is basically a nice guy but he is so unpredictable that I am not convinced that he would have my back under all circumstances. The girl who used to work the counter at Dr. Cue’s said he seldom tipped even if she had to keep the place open late so he could finish the set. When somebody makes minimum wage and has a family he/she deserves a nice tip when you have just won five thousand dollars. This brings up an interesting ethical problem: when you make money off of somebody else’s back do you owe that person anything? I mean, Dave provides a place where people can come and play pool for five bucks an hour. So the gambler comes in and makes $5,000 in a few hours. What if that room and that table were not available? Here is an interesting situation: the city of Seattle Parks Commission provides ten ping pong tables at the Green Lake Community Center Sunday afternoons. It costs five dollars to play there all afternoon and evening. Two of those tables are taken up by professional instructors charging forty dollars an hour for lessons. Not only are those two tables NOT available for the rest of us but those two guys are making 150 to 200 dollars an afternoon and all they have to pay the park is five dollars. Is that entirely ethical? I would think that every pool room should charge a fee of five percent for all gambling. You win a grand, you give the house fifty. I do not think that is asking too much.
Frankly, I was VERY surprised that Harry did not take much interest in the demise of The Fleece. Doesn’t every actor need a stage?
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Where is Harry performing now? Not Randi’s. Maybe the “action” is down in Auburn at the 15th Street Grill. Long drive from Shoreline. The limelight is bad there. When Carnegie Hall was slated to be razed Isaac Stern took the lead with his own money and cache to save it from the wrecking ball. But then again, generosity is not one of the known characteristics of gamblers. It is possible that for as little as $1,000 a month Harry could have kept his theater open to the public.
The Fleece, AKA, “The Lake City Cultural and Billiard Society”, was home to many interesting individuals. Very recently a little guy showed up with a smile that stretched from Shoreline to Georgetown. His name was Richie Farr and hardly had you registered his name in your early-onset-demented brain than he pulled out a two dollar bill and folded it over and over in some kind of magic trick that I failed to comprehend. He moved into the new condos across the street from the Lake City Cultural and Billiard Society just to be close to the pool scene. Now he sits plaintively alone in his room stroking his new cue into a wine bottle on the dinner table looking over at the moribund building across the street hoping against hope that the work being done behind the papered windows is actually the refurbishing of a new poolroom. Alas, like Cicero said, “Where there’s life, there’s hope”.
There used to be an interesting character who I would see at the Thursday night Nine Ball tournaments at Dr. Cure’s. He always wore one of those Kangol caps and a sport jacket looking very academic. Good player. Years later Barry Hill and I would meet at The Fleece and become good friends thanks, in part to Tom Akin who introduced us. My surmise was correct inasmuch as Barry spent much of his career solving recherche problems in one of the University of Washington engineering labs. Over the years he has patiently introduced me to some of the subtler aspects of One Pocket. He is an expert chess player and first rate Scrabble competitor. Send Barry an email about a topic such as the influence of religion in American education or the phenomenon of color fringing in binoculars or the relationship between confidence and physics in billiards, and you will get at the very least, one of the most delightfully composed paragraphs of arcane words you will ever read, guaranteed. People who appreciate good writing are about as common these days as Titanoboas.
A very popular character at The Fleece was Dora Maar. Not only was she talented and beautiful but she was a sweetheart. It was the one place in her life where she was not abused and free to roam around getting a pet here and a cookie there. She loved circumnavigating the room from corner to corner sniffing for the crumbs of the peanut butter crackers or Hostess powdered donettes Barry left behind. Seeing that she was dehydrated Mike Hayden would give her water. She was so nice even the Muslim kids liked her. I considered charging a dollar a “pet” but then realized I would have to give the house a cut and abandoned the plan. Once, I drove home without her when she was tied up to Lila’s chair in the deep dark back below the video camera. Preacher Ronn is the only player to complain about Dora’s peregrinations. Affection is not one of the characteristics we normally associate with gamblers and men of the cloth.
As you might have surmised by now, “The Lake City Cultural and Billiard Society” was inhabited mostly by a bunch of arthritic old geezers living out their pasts through the companionship of fellow diers (an recondite noun derived from the verb: to die); I mean, there we were in our late sixties and seventies still working on our stroke, banks, kicks, combos; still trying to run eight and out once in awhile. Pathetic. Bill with his broken back, Mike with his 27 ounce copper cudgel, Pete with his “walking Pneumonia”, Dave Moore scaring us for a couple weeks with his Prednisone reaction. . . Greg, Dennis, Mark, Barry, Tommy, Patrick, Joe and Pete comprised just a few of the old 211 pool world still around in 2018. I don’t know who is gonna be around in 20 more years to shoot the shit about So-and-So making a table-length draw against Lizard to run out for a grand at The Fleece.
Speaking of bulshit, Mr. Incardona might be the prince of bulshitters. But then again, maybe it was Steve “the Lizard” Smith. For a few days both those guys co-habited the sofas in front of the TV at The Fleece and when they were swapping braggadocios about who beat whom for ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred thousand, one had to come in with a very sturdy shovel because the shit got so deep. Incardona is a pretty good color analyst for various One Pocket tournaments but he has cultivated disagreableness to a new art form. Sure, he knows a lot about the game of One Pocket but does he know the difference between a deciduous and coniferous tree, or the basic tenet of existentialism or the general location of Carnegie Hall? I mean, the whole world does not revolve around these nine foot pieces of slate covered with blue cloth. There IS stuff happening besides Newton’s 3 Laws of motion with a few phenolic spheres colliding on a piece of metamorphic rock. Once I asked Billy how he played golf. I have only played a few games of golf on a snooker table and once I saw Preacher Ronn and Roman playing on one of the Gold Crowns discussing the rules, which, in golf vary as much as 8-Ball rules. So I figured this would be a unique opportunity to get some particulars from one of the most highly esteemed pool players in the country. Silly me. He said, “I don’t know nothin about golf. Go ask one of those guys”, pointing toward Lizard and Vince. Thanks pal. Why should I have expected he would be any less of an arsehole in person than he is on TV?
I do not know Billy Incardona’s views on women or race but the Lizard is an unapologetic racist and misogynist non pareil. I’ve heard that a lot of those southern guys like Archer and Dalton are racists. Duh? Remember the Civil War? (It ain’t over in case you wondered). I hope they stay away from Seattle. I give Lizard credit though for at least pretending to listen. Most of those alt-right racists won’t even consider arguments for Title Nine, equal pay, climate change and lascivious-free workplaces. But then Lizard would mention some exceptional anecdote to confirm his concupiscent attitude toward women or his genetically racist (he is from Texas) attitude toward African-Americans and I realized that The South surrendered 160 years ago but with insufficient casualties among the Confederates. If you think I am indulging in hyperbole, read the Lizard’s sorry excuse for a book, Through the Eyes of the lizard. Lizard is fundamentally a nice guy; I can’t help but like the bastard even though I loathe everything he represents once he steps outside the small world of pocket billiards. I guess that his generosity teaching us duffers was his way of reciprocating for the blankets and diminutive floor space he occupied behind table eight in the corner every night. The fact of the matter is that despite their colorful monikers and a few amusing anecdotes, most of the great pocket billiard gamblers were a rather dubious bunch of petty crooks and grifters.
That is pretty harsh but I struggle to come up with any other conclusion. I mean, one has to admire people who dedicate their lives to something, to anything to the exclusion of everything else. As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss”. And who needs pool? The world can get along just fine without pool and here are these guys spending ten or fifteen hours a day for years and years developing skills that rival the eye-hand dexterity of the greatest brain surgeons or concert pianists. To break and run out rack after rack of Nine Ball — six-packs or whatever Shane calls them — is an absolutely phenomenal ability accessible to only a handful of people on the planet. In a way, serious pool players are like artists. Who needs art? The world can certainly get along fine without another painting of the Golden Gate Bridge or some Brillo Boxes but thousands and thousands of men and women across the country spend all day daubing very expensive Italian oil colors on very expensive Belgian linen making images we will NEVER see, much less need.
The difference is that the artists are trying to make things the world will appreciate and learn from; maybe improve from. We learn a great deal from studying Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, David’s Death of Marat, Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. From these paintings we learn about history, horror, narcissism, tyranny and death. EVERY artist aspires to make significant works of art even if he/she cannot be a Goya or Picasso. As Bertold Brecht said, the goal of art is not to be a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”.
The problem with pool gambling is that inexorably it entails egregious, if not odious behavior. One night Lizard told me that he could show me a “thousand ways to shark an opponent”. Thanks Steve, but I am not interested in beating people with eye gouges, groin kicks and ear biting. Sport: an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual competes against another for entertainment. “Entertainment” might be the key word (forgetting that pool is definitely not a sport). Years ago I asked one gambler I knew if he ever played pool for fun and he scoffed and said that for him, “Pool was work”. The word entertainment was not part of his vocabulary.
I recommend that everybody watch the five minute YouTube version of Jimmy Mataya lecturing us about pool hustling: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6rkxYc7c5M). I know a guy who spent two weeks in some town setting up a wealthy “mark” for a $10,000 pool hustle. This kind of behavior does not propel one further along the path of the evolution of civil society. None of these guys could care less about contributing to the elucidation of pool skills for the next generation. When Scott Frost was in town a few guys got together and asked if he would give a clinic in One Pocket. LOL. Might as well ask the Pope for advice on birth control.
One of the most hilarious things I have ever witnessed in sports/games occurred one night when some of the Philipinos were in town. It was a strong bunch: Dennis Orcollo, Ronnie Alcano and Jeff Ignacio. They were here for a couple reasons; one to fleece Harry Platis of course and secondarily to play in a fairly big tournament at Malarkey’s down in Tacoma. I am probably wrong about the tournament because I don’t think any of them won much down there; they were probably just scoping out the possibilities for some future scores. So anyway, a bunch of us were watching Harry get snuffed as Dennis put on a clinic. Harry was so disheartened that he packed up his cue and left. But then we see all the Philipinos huddled among themselves talking animatedly and then Dennis Orcollo, THE most dangerous money pool player in the world that every serious pool player talks about and follows like the Brits follow the royals, walks over to Hobbs and I hear Hobbs say, as he is shaking hands with Dennis Orcollo, “What did you say your name is?” Funniest godam thing I have ever heard. I like Hobbs.
There were LOTS of very likeable men and women at The Fleece such as Alaska Bob, Sean and Aaron, Elaine, Emma, Dave Moore, Mark, Mike, Pete, Greg, Dan Fitzsimmons and Barry Hill to name a few; ALL individuals I would like to have known better. I mention these people because they were all very decent human beings who didn’t give a shit where you went to college, how much you were worth or even if you were a “player” or not. They all smiled when you walked in and made you feel that perhaps life was worth living with friends like these.
The Fleece never did get robbed. I was wrong. Are the modern gangstas unaware of the prodigious amounts of cash circulating in pool rooms? Is drug dealing so lucrative that ten or twenty grand is just petty cash? One day I showed a gambler my money belt, an actual Patagonia belt that I have worn every day for ten years to hold up my trousers with a zipper running the length of it and he said, “How much will it hold”? I said, “About three grand”. He laughed and said, “Its not big enough”. So, on a Saturday when Vince has arranged some action and Harry, Hobbs, Tommy and JD show up we’re talking maybe twenty grand CASH for the taking at The Golden Fleece:
“OK you motherfuckers; up against the wall! You! Grandpa with the fancy rags. Take your belt off and hand me that little pouch dangling by your nuts. You too Bozo; wipe that stupid grin off your cracker face. I’m gonna come around and collect the dough and if I feel or hear anything suspicious from any one of you motherfuckers somebody is gonna get hurt, you know what I’m sayin”?
It would have been so easy. Would I have dialed 911 to stop somebody from robbing any of those guys? Not happening. Schadenfreude all the way home baby.
Dave hints that he would like to reopen again but he remains opaque. Some of us are storing his furniture and surely he is paying handsomely to keep a bunch of lumber and Brazilan slate secreted away. The Soviets expropriated his family’s dascha in Mamkoda for the Tbilisi National Park 30 years ago so there ain’t much for him to fall back on besides coaching judo or chess. This could be the ultimate and heartbreaking death of good ole fashioned pool in Seattle.