We’ve all seen a pool hustler portrayed on television or in the movies. Some of you may have been lucky enough to see one in person. Some of you may have been unlucky enough to play one.

Hustling pool is as much art as it is a skill. It combines geometry, trigonometry, physics, and luck. Mastering pool can take years. Mastering the hustle can take even longer.
Pool has been a fixture in the United States for over 200 years. Originally played on tables without pockets. The game morphed into the familiar look it has now.

Most games consist of either 8-ball or 9-ball, but other variants exist. A true pool hustler will be proficient in at least these 2 games.

1 – Vernon “Burnie” Elliott

Elliott was a low-key hustler that beat everyone he played, including some of the best players in the world. He was famous for his incredible ability to make difficult banks shots.

Elliott survived by traveling the US and playing pool. He was able to make enough to take care of his family of 6 children.

He never played in a pool tournament. This was by design. He feared that if he started playing in tournaments, that he’d become well known and that he wouldn’t be able to hustle.
He wouldn’t even tell opponents his name. He wanted them to think that he was a country bumpkin that couldn’t play.

He’d get action everywhere he played because as he said: “I always had the ability to make ‘em bet”.

Along the way, Elliott would play and defeat legendary players. He beat Earthquake McCready in Tennessee. He Efren Reyes in North Carolina. He even beat the inspiration for Paul Newman’s character in the Color of Money and the Hustler Ronnie Allen and took $10,000 from him.

Later in life, it became more difficult for him to hustle as he started making a name for himself (albeit unwillingly). That’s when he turned to making trick shots. He’d make proposition bets on shots that seemed impossible.

In 2006, Elliott was inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame as part of the Back Pool Legends division.

Elliott was forced to retire in the 1990s after suffering a series of strokes. He died in 2009 at the age of 71.

2 – Larry Lisciotti

Known as the “Prince of Pool” Lisciotti had become a successful hustler before he graduated high school. Once he graduated, he started traveling the country looking for games. He stayed in cheap hotel rooms and made thousands playing at local pool halls, bars, and other venues where he could get some action.

Lisciotti was known for his come from behind wins.
Some of the examples of this are:

  • 1971 – vs. Rich Riggie, Lisciotti was playing at Gold Crown Billiards in New London, Connecticut. At one point in the game, he was behind by over 150 points. During the game, he had an uninterrupted run of 113 balls and won the game 1,000 to 908.
  • 1976 – vs. Tom Jennings. In a $10,000 winner take all challenge, Lisciotti made a 125 ball run to overtake Jennings in the final day of the 5-day event, winning the $10,000.

An interesting story about Lisciotti and the dangers he faces as a hustler. In the 1970s, he was playing 9-ball against someone in North Carolina. He was about to win the game and shoot the 9-ball in the pocket. As he did, a bullet was fired at him and just missed him.

This happened the next 5 times he tried to make the shot. Finally, he decided it was time to put the ball in the pocket, no matter what happened to him. He made the shot and he heard a click as it went in. The gunman had run out of bullets.

During his time playing, Lisciotti won 2 major championships:

  • The 1976 World Open Pocket Billiard Championship Challenge of Champions
  • The 1980 Professional Pool Players Association Nine-ball Championship

Lisciotti died February 9, 2004, from complication due to cancer.

3 – “Cowboy” Jimmy Moore

Born in rural Georgia in 1910, Cowboy Jimmy Moore was a master at the game of pool. He didn’t pick up his first cue until the age of 18. He was working at a bowling alley that had a pool table. He learned and fell in love with the game at the bowling alley. He learned many variants of the game but preferred straight pool to all the other games.

Only having played pool for 6 months, Moore entered the 1929 Michigan State Billiards Championship. He not only won the championships but repeated for the next 3 years.
As the Great Depression hit the country, Moore decided that he needed to go on the road and find some games.

He originally partnered with “the Red Devil” Ray St. Laurent. Moore was a better player than St. Laurent, but St. Laurent knew how to hustle and mentored Moore in the art of hustling.

After a while, it became apparent that the partnership wasn’t working out when St. Laurent was losing badly to “the Cincinnati Kid” Don Willis. Moore took over the game and wound up beating Willis. Moore ended his partnership with St. Laurent and started partnering with Willis.

Moore started gaining a reputation as a great player. So much so that the 1940 world pocket billiards champion Andrew Ponzi wanted to play him. When the matchup occurred, Moore beat Ponzi in both 9-ball and straight pool.

After the game, Ponzi’s boss, Sylvester Livingston hired Moore to be part of his exhibition team. His first year, he played 250 exhibition matches, losing only 1 game. He made $5 a game for matinees and $7 for evening games.

In the 1950s Moore would earn his nickname “Cowboy” at a match in the Commodore Hotel championships in New York City. The venue required all men who entered the building to wear a tuxedo. Moore obliged, but along with the tuxedo, he wore cowboy boots and a Stetson hat.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, Moore would play in a number of tournaments. He became known for finishing 2nd in most of these events, gaining another nickname, “pool’s underpaid prince”.
Moore finished 2nd 10 times in the world championships. He did win the National Invitation Pocket Billiards Championships in 1958 and again in 1965.

Moore was inducted to several halls of fame:

  • 1982 – International Pocket Billiards Hall of Fame
  • 1994 – Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame
  • 1998 – Albuquerque Sports Hall of Fame

In 1945, Moore settled down with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he became co-owner of U Cue Billiards Hall. Players who knew of Moore avoided playing in the city because they didn’t want to get into a money game with him.

He continued playing into his last year of life. In 1984 he won the Legends of Pocket Billiards competition. On his 80th birthday, he had a 111 ball run. In 1999, Moore was in a car accident and his health declined quickly. He died on November 17, 1999, at the age of 89.

4 – Titanic Thompson

Alvin Clarence Thomas, better known as Titanic Thompson, was a prolific gambler and hustler whose exploits weren’t just limited to pool but included cards, dice, golf, shooting, horseshoes, and proposition bets.

Thompson traveled the country looking for any action he could get. At one point he teamed up with Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone to work the hustle. Fats would call Thompson “the greatest action man of all time”, Not much is available on Thompson’s pool exploits. But he did get his nickname in a pool hall.

He was playing a $500 game with a man named Snow Clark in Missouri. It was 1912 about the same time that the Titanic had tragically sunk. Clark lost the $500 to Thompson and Thompson, in an attempt to let Clark get even, bet that he could jump across the pool table without touching it.

He made the jump successfully and while he was counting the winnings, someone asked Clark Thompson’s name. The response was “It must be Titanic because he sinks everybody”.

Thompson died at the age of 80 in 1974.

5 – Billy Joe Burge

Billy Joe Burge, better known in the world of pool hustlers as “Cornbread Red”, is one of the greatest money players and proposition bet players of all time. Burge learned pool during the Great Depression. He became a master of the game by learning from other hustlers, gamblers, and pool champions.

Eventually, Burge would make his way from his childhood home in Fulton, Kentucky to Detroit Michigan. He established his “base of operations” in a pool hall known as The Rack.

The Rack became one of the top places in the north for high-stakes pool action. Burge would take on fearlessly take on challengers and pocket their money when he was done.

During his lifetime, he never had a legitimate job. He supported himself playing pool and was always up for action.

In 1966 and again in 1993, he placed 2nd in One Pocket Tournament Championships, both times losing to Ed “Champagne” Kelly.

He was inducted twice into the One Pocket Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was inducted into the pool playing portion and in 2005, he was inducted into the bank pool portion on the organization’s hall of fame.

He died at the age of 72 on February 13, 2004.

6 – Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter

Wimpy is widely believed to be one of the greatest pool players of all time. He was once quoted as saying “I watch a man shoot pool for an hour. If he misses more than one shot I know I can beat him.”

With 6 straight pool world championships and 4 9-ball world championships on his resume, it’s easy to understand why people consider him one of the best.

Lassiter began hustling pool with friend Minnesota Fats in the 1940s after he was discharged from the Coast Guard. They played out of Norfolk, Virginia, which was a gambling mecca at the time.

Lassiter gained a reputation as the king of pool hustlers, accumulating $300,000 in winnings (over $4.6 million in 2019 dollars) between 1942 and 1948. As the 40s drew near an end, the action declined considerably in Norfolk, so Lassiter started playing in tournaments across the US.

His first major tournament was the World Straight Pool Championships in 1953. He was defeated and knocked out of the tournament that year by the man who’d win the championships, Willie Mosconi. It was during this time that he partnered with Don Willis. Willis never played in tournaments, but he beat all the greats one on one, including Lassiter in Lassiter’s best game, 9-ball.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, world championships in pool could be one by a challenge match. In these matches, a player could challenge the champ for a shot at the title and put up some money as a wager. The last of this type of match was held in 1966 between Lassiter and Cisero Murphy.

Lassiter pulled a stunt during a long run of shots by Murphy pretending to fall asleep. When Murphy noticed, he missed a shot. Lassiter popped up out of his chair after the miss and run the table for the win. This type of ruse, one which distracts an opponent, is known as “sharking”.

Lassiter officially retired in 1975 but would play in small tournaments and occasionally come out of retirement for legends tournaments.

In 1982 and again in 1983, Lassiter competed with some of his old running buddies Minnesota Fats, Willie Mosconi and others in the Legendary Stars of Pocket Billiards Tournament in Atlantic City. He won the tournament in 1983 in convincing fashion by winning all six of his matches, amassing a perfect score of 120 points and the first place prize of $10,000.

Lassiter died 11 days before his 70th birthday in 1988. His nephew discovered his body. He was apparently practicing pool when he died as he was found next to his pool table.

Lassiter won a number of competitions and accolades in his career, including:

  • 1962 – World 9-Ball Champion
  • 1963 – World 14.1 Continuous Champion
  • 1963 – World 9-Ball Champion
  • 1964 – World 14.1 Continuous Champion
  • 1964 – World 9-Ball Champion
  • 1966 – World 14.1 Continuous Champion
  • 1967 – World 14.1 Continuous Champion
  • 1967 – World 9-Ball Champion
  • 1969 – World One-pocket Champion
  • 1969 – Billiards Congress of America US Open 14.1 Continuous Champion
  • 1983 – Legendary Stars of Pocket Billiards Tournament Champion
  • 1983 – Billiards Congress of America Hall of Fame
  • 1983 – North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame
  • 2000 – Ranked #9 – Billiards Digest 50 Greatest Players of the 20th Century

7 – Don Willis

Luther Lassiter’s partner and running buddy was Don Willis. Unlike Lassiter, Willis was not a tournament player. He realized early on that keeping a low-key profile was more profitable than becoming famous by means of tournament play.

Willis and Lassiter met in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Willis beat Lassiter in Lassiter’s signature game 9-ball. After the defeat, Willis suggested they become partners on the road.

During their years together, they’d make thousands of dollars, sometime as much as $10,000 in a week (as a point of reference that would be just over $100,000 in 2019 money).

In addition to pool, Willis hustled ping pong, horseshoes, basketball, cards, and was a proposition bet connoisseur.

Some of his more creative proposition bets related to pool include making 42 wing shots in a row and juggling 3 pool balls and the cue chalk at the same time.

Willis died at the age of 74.

8 – “The Rifleman” Buddy Hall

For over 4 decades, Buddy Hall has been playing pool. He learned in a local soda shop at the age of 14. The local pool halls wouldn’t let him play due to his age, so he conned a judge into issuing him a birth certificate stating he was 18.

By the age of 17, he had started touring the country and wound up playing in the legendary Johnson City tournaments.

He made a name for himself by defeating Wimpy Lassiter and Jack ‘Jersey Red’ Breit.

When the tournament hub moved from Johnson City to Dayton, Ohio, Hall traveled to compete there. He won the tournament in 1974, winning $4,000 ($20,000 in today’s money).

Hall has earned many accolades during his career, including:

  • 1982 – Player of the Year – The National Billiard News/Pool and Billiards Magazine
  • 1984 – Winner – World Nine-Ball Open
  • 1986 – Winner – Super Bowl Open
  • 1991 – Winner – International Nine-ball Classic
  • 1991 – Winner – MPBA International Classic
  • 1991 – Winner – US Open Nine-ball Championship
  • 1991 – Player of the Year – The National Billiard News/Pool and Billiards Magazine
  • 1992 – Winner – International Challenge of Champions
  • 1995 – Winner – PBC Commonwealth Shootout
  • 1998 – Winner – U.S. Open Nine-ball Championship
  • 1998 – Player of the Year – The National Billiard News/Pool and Billiards Magazine
  • 2000 – Billiards Congress of America’s Hall of Fame
  • 2001 – Winner – Florida Open Ten-ball Championship
  • 2011 – One Pocket Hall of Fame

Hall still competes and is a player on the International Pool Tour.

9 – Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone

Wanderone grew up in Manhattan and learn to play pool at an early age. At the age of 10, he traveled with his father to Germany and learned how to play balkline billiards champion Erich Hagenlocher.

Upon his return to the US, he beat Cowboy Charles Weston in 9-ball in 1926. Wanderone dropped out of school in the 8th grade to pursue pool hustling. He continued to play in New York for a while, then started traveling. By the middle of the 1930s, Fats was managing his friend’s pool hall in Washington DC.

In the early 40s, Fats wound up in Du Quoin, Illinois, where he met and married his wife Evelyn. The next year, Fats and his wife moved to Norfolk, Virginia to get in on the action that was taking place there. It was a hub for the military and gambling.

While in Norfolk, he met and teamed with Wimpy Lassiter. The partnership would last until 1948 when the action dried up due to the end of World War II. Fats moved back to Illinois and went into semi-retirement. He occasionally made some trips to hustle, but for the most part stayed out of the limelight.

That all changed in 1961 when the movie the Hustler came out based on the book of the same name. Fats claimed that the character Minnesota Fats was based on him and immediately started referring to himself with that name (he had been known as New York Fats in his younger days). The next 2 decades would see Fats become a celebrity. He appeared in movies and on TV as himself or as a talk show guest. Fats would have a heated rivalry with world champion Willie Mosconi. The 2 would have the 2nd highest rated televised episode of the year on ABC’s Wide World of Sports playing each other in 1978. Fats lost but was adored by the fans for his jovial attitude.

Fats would lose several more times to Mosconi over the years, but in his last televised game, the Resorts International Shoot-Out in 1984, Fats won.

That same year, Fats was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame.
In 2009, he was inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame.

He died January 15, 1996, a few days short of his 83rd birthday.


Some of the greatest pool hustlers were those who were around in the 1940s-1960s. It was a simpler time. They did have to fear mass media that would broadcast their images. They could just sneak into a pool hall, make a bet, and play a game. With modern technology, these players couldn’t keep a low profile now. It’s a time that’s lost to us all.

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  • Ty laha | May 8,2019 at 8:10 PM

    Ernie Allen. Very tough player. For the cash. Tylah

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