Battle Royale IV

From the desk of Carpet Jimmy, to set the stage:

John Schmidt and I have been texting/calling each other. He is making arrangements to come to Richmond to play Mika “The Iceman” Immonen in Battle Royale IV. John is in Tipton, Oklahoma. He is on the road in his RV, in the center of the country, wondering whether to go home to California and fly out at a later date or just to fire up the RV and get his ass to Richmond early. He is concerned about money. He worries about the costs of his travels and he worries that the small stipend Greenleaf’s happily contributes is too much. He feels guilty; like he’s taking advantage of an old friendship. This is John. He is kinda nutted up. In his life and in his game maybe he overthinks. To be clear—we are discussing Mr. 400, John Schmidt, the greatest straight-pool player alive and one of the best all-around players in the game’s melancholy history. He is a World Straight Pool champion, a US Open 9-Ball champion, and a stone-cold road hustler who, for over two decades, has played all comers for the big money. His play is charismatic, fast and decisive. He is a ball running machine. His stories are hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy.  

Still, John is nutted up. As great as he is, he is riddled with self-doubt. This may be real or a motivational tool. Either way, it informs his career and is always present. John knows how hard, how unfair, the game is. Maybe it is a preemptive deflection of the suffering that will surely come. John views himself as an under-achiever, a footnote. He is haunted by and feels akin to certain players from the past; legends like Babe Cranfield and Mike Eufemia, now all-but-lost to history.  

He is also haunted by a number— 526, pool’s only relevant statistic. It is the highest documented run in history. Established by Willie Mosconi at The East High Billiard Club in Springfield, Ohio on March 19 and 20, 1954. Mosconi’s high run of 526 is an almost mystical marker and a throw-down from history. It is a height to aspire to and a weight to be crushed by.  Of the hand full of contemporary players that have a chance at the record, John is the favorite.  He has run 400 balls twice and owns multiple 300 ball runs. This is staggering. 526. John chases it. In his quest he has gone through homes, cars, boats, businesses, relationships, friends and money. He is still in his prime. He knows the time is now. It just may signify redemption. 

John Schmidt is a pool hustler, maybe the last of his kind, motoring around the country. He is an authentic American anti-hero, a night errant, and a guy I just dig. He is on our wall, on our coasters and soon, will be in our room. Can’t wait. His match with Mika promises to be epic.     

I have also been in touch with Mika about Battle Royale IV. What a contrast! I never know what time zone he will be in. Mika flies all over the world, garners fame and money, has all kinds of escapades, and posts selfies with his shirt off. He is stylish, vain, urbane, and looks like a Bond villain. A world citizen, Mika’s politics are nuanced and left-leaning. [By comparison I am reasonably sure that John keeps his shirt on and likes to fish and drink beer.  And, I suspect, somewhere in his RV lurks a MAGA hat.] Mika, unlike John, is unburdened with self-doubt.  Actually, he seems unaware of the concept. Mika possesses that intangible quality, that combination of talent, will and grit, like Michael Jordan or Roger Federer, that separates champions from their contemporaries.  

Mika’s pool resume is glorious. He is a 2-time US Open 9-Ball champion, World 9-Ball champion, World Straight Pool champion, and was voted “Player of the Decade” for 2000-2010.  Mika was inducted into the Billiard Hall of Fame in 2015. He has beaten everyone from Toledo to Timbuktu and continues to thrive on the world stage.   

 John “Mr. 400” Schmidt

John “Mr. 400” Schmidt

 Mika “The Iceman” Immonen

Mika “The Iceman” Immonen

It is tempting to view Battle Royale IV as a snapshot of the game itself, of a clash between what once was and what will be; between American history and pool’s new world order. John Schmidt lives in the box, playing for the cash. Mika lives everywhere. The Iceman runs balls as a means to an end. For Mr. 400, running balls is the end. Though direct contemporaries, Mika embodies pool’s future, John Schmidt is a summation of a grand past. They like each other. They also don’t want to lose, even if it is a charity match in a friend’s pool room. They will be performing on Table 1, Tuesday, October 30th at 7pm.  

First Annual Rômcoming

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This is Roman.  He is beloved at Greenleaf’s. He also (a little exasperatingly) leaves every summer to go back home to Lake George, visit family, and swill beer with old friends. He is our prodigal son. This year, as the undercard to Battle Royale IV, we commemorate his return with the first annual Rômcoming Tournament where our great staff [except Jesse and Jim] will compete for charity and glory. The game is straight pool to 25 points. Every ball pocketed is a dollar to support the great work of Richmond Animal Care and Control and Louisa Humane Society.  

Players will square off on Sunday, October 28th, with the finals on Monday, October 29th at 7pm on Table 1.  As if that isn’t exciting enough, each player in the finals will have a celebrity coach—Mika “The Iceman” Immonen and John “Mr. 400” Schmidt, who will enthrall us in Battle Royale IV the following night—to guide, exhort, chastise, and plead with their player to win the coveted trophy and their name on the wall for all of posterity.  Come root them on.  Admission for the Rômcoming is free but a hat will be passed!

Aching Tourist Finds Comfort

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Tonight I am in Soria, Spain; one of the hauntingly beautiful areas of the Western world. It is a cold, rainy night and I am drinking a glass of Rioja under the awning of Bar Chayofa. OK, that’s it for the faux-Hemmingway stuff. Just an intro. Cut me a little slack. I’m brooding. My Pilgrimage this year was supposed to be a walk of 600 miles. I walked 150 and hurt my back. Tonight is all pain and distress. This year’s walk is over and I am brooding. There is some pleasure in it. In fact, it’s kind of a hobby of mine. I like to ruminate about life’s mutability and my own intransigence. I stole those last words. They are from the greatest novel of the 20th century: Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” “Ruminating” has been a guilty pleasure since I can remember. It bears a high cost (like learning to play pool) and, most times, the truth I seek comes as partial as it is bitter. 

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The door to the bar opens. Primi and a man come outside. Primi is one of the owners of Bar Chayofa. She has a cool haircut. Earlier, when we met, she gave me that sweet, Euro, both-cheeks-to-kiss move which I always bungle and will never be comfortable with. The man is showing Primi something. I eavesdrop. I can’t help it. It’s a pool cue. A good one. A player’s cue. In Soria, pool is played. 

I horn in (I am Carpet Jimmy after all!). My Spanish is as clumsy as the kisses I gave Primi. No one minds. Carlos is a 3-Cushion player. He gives me his number and warmly invites me to meet him at Soria’s private billiards club. He also mentions a good player, Javier del Santo, who lives in town and pines for competition. Carlos gives me Javier’s number as well. I wait a couple of days for my back to get better [it doesn’t] before I call Javier. Again, such a warm conversation. We have already googled each other and it turns out he knows about Greenleaf’s from a mutual friend, Mark Vidal; a solid Spanish player I got to know in New York and, later, saw a lot of action in Seattle with Vince, Harry, Z, and the crew from a previous incarnation of my pool life. 

As Javier and I chatted my brooding subsided. I was no longer a tourist with a bad back. I was somewhere I knew, among people I knew. We spoke in pidgin English and descompuesto Spanish and laughed in common over the instrument of our passion and suffering. We shared stories about the absurd behavior of pool players. I told him about life at Greenleaf’s; about Phil, Jesse, Roman and Camille. I told him about Devon’s improvement and Everett’s private life. We agreed about Everett’s private life. Javier was on his way to a tournament in Austria but promised to come see us around the time of the U.S. Open in the Fall.  

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Later that night I found Carlos at his club. I drank a beer and watched him play 3-Cushion Billiards with his friend Eduardo. It was artful; speed and spin, a physics lesson with every shot. 

We’re a far flung community. We struggle and yearn. We dedicate ourselves to a discipline impossible to master. We partner up, scheme, bicker and refuse to speak to each other for months. Just like families. In the end the reward these fickle pool games allow us is that we know for certain that anywhere we happen to be we find something akin to a home.  

Cisero Murphy

Wide World of Sports with Chris Schenkel. Only gentlemen of a certain age know what that is. It was broadcast on Saturday afternoons and became a kind of religion. In 1966, I was 12, I tuned in and saw something truly stunning; a tournament final between Luther Lassiter and Cisero Murphy.

Those names! Luther Lassiter. Alliteration made for a marquee. Money player. World champion. And Cisero Murphy. Cisero with an “s.” A strange name. His given name conjures up the Classical World, a name of oration and debate; an Elysian name. The surname is pure County Armagh and evokes images of hardened immigrants in the 19th century; tough men who carried in their pockets everything they owned and would just as soon crack you one as look at you. A name of high and low, of ideal and action.

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I watched Cisero Murphy play. Spellbound. He was methodical. Inexorable. He wore a dark sharkskin suit. On every shot, just before his final stroke, he would pause for a split second. He described it as “taking a picture” of the shot. He won that match. He won a lot. He won the World’s Championship of Straight Pool in his first opportunity to participate.

Cisero Murphy, one of the best pool players who ever lived, was inducted into the Billiards Hall of Fame in 1995, and died the following year at age 60—still owing Danny Barouty 40 bucks (this is a pool story after all).

Murphy’s biography is an all too common one in urban America. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, had 7 siblings, and a gone father. He dropped out of school at age 15, worked odd jobs, boxed, and sought community in the pool room. Murphy has been compared, rightly, to Jackie Robinson as a pioneer of breaking down the color barrier in sport. He knew who he was and where he came from. In a profession not known for its altruism, Murphy was an exception. He often visited veterans’ hospitals and senior citizen homes, and started “Billiards in the Streets” with New York City Parks and Recreation Department—a program where he instructed young people about the game.

Cisero Murphy, champion, world beater, was from a time and place where everything for him was hard fought, hard won and hard lost. He had mettle. He took what he could, gave back what he could, and earned every good thing that ever came to him.

James Evans

At the House of Billiards in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-70s, I got to meet Robert “Rags” Woods. He was an old man. He was tall and wore vintage suits. I quickly realized it was not a “look.” They were his suits. In his day, Rags was a solid hustler and great all-around player. He played Greenleaf. He played everybody. He was African American. I got to ask him the question: “who is the greatest black player that ever lived?” I thought I knew the answer, the world champion Cisero Murphy. Without any pretext of a pause to reflect, Rags said “Mr. Evans.” That was the first time I heard the name James Evans. Not the last. Later, I asked Johnny Ervolino: “no contest, James Evans.” Still later, I asked Cisero himself. Cisero was famous, justifiably in the elite of a generation of the best players. He liked himself and happily shared his own assessments about his skills in all things. He responded: “Mr. Evans.”

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James Evans is a ghost. Scant documentation exists. He owned a pool room in Harlem at the height of the borough’s renaissance. A direct contemporary of Ralph Greenleaf, it is said that they played many times and that Evans more than held his own. It is said that he was a great money player who disdained entering tournaments. Others have compared him to baseball’s Josh Gibson, the best player of his day—but not allowed to compete in the big arena because of racism. It is said that James Evans actually took a world championship in a challenge match against Erwin Rudolph in the late 1920s, and that a plaque on the wall of long-gone Bensinger’s in Chicago proved it. It is said that Mr. Evans was an upright family man. It is said that he drank, womanized, and went to the track. All of this is true. Or false. Or something shifting in between.

James Evans’ legacy rests upon vague recollections of men dead for decades, told to others, and retold, embellished until foggy and translated into folklore. Still, there is a consensus. There is little doubt Mr. Evans was the best black player who ever lived. Being truly great at something is a remarkable thing, even if it is just a game. It’s Black History Month. We honor James Evans and the other men and women who excelled with little hope of receiving accolades and rewards automatically granted to others.