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Still Behind the Eight-Ball : Color of Money Keeps Longtime Pool Player Ronnie Allen Going

July 02, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

Ronnie Allen is heating up under the bright lights, almost jogging around the pool table to get to the next shot.

The Japanese champion, Kazuo Fujima, has been taking it to Allen all afternoon, beating him at this game of nine-ball. But Allen, one of the old-timers, is coming back. And Allen is talking.

"This is a tough table. I mean tough. They got tables like this where you come from?" he says, nodding toward the silent Fujima. "These pockets are so tight it's scary. I'm just about afraid to shoot."

Allen sinks the 7, then the 8 and 9 balls to win the game and pull even. He's playing tougher, talking louder, fidgeting and walking into the gallery between shots to joke with friends.

This is a scene right out of Hollywood: the tremendous, lavish hall in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with its polished-wood-and-perfectly-green pool tables, the site for a $50,000 tournament featuring the world's top 64 players. The other competitors play without words. There is silence save for the smacking of balls and the sound of Allen's voice. The audience shifts to Allen's end of the room to watch the show.

"Fuji-yama-mama!" he yells, pretending to take his own pulse. "This guy's too lucky."

Even the stoic opponent has to smile. Allen pulls out some snapshots of a recent fishing trip and shows them to spectators. Within a half-hour, he has stormed back to win the match.

"I don't want to sound cocky," he says in a soft Oklahoma accent, "but I knew I was going to win. I've got a better game than that guy."

Lore has it that Ronnie Allen was the real-life inspiration for "Fast Eddie Felson," the fast-talking, hard-living character that Paul Newman made famous in the movies "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money." Allen used to go by the name Fast Eddie. And some other names. That was almost 30 years ago, when he traveled the country making his living on the tables.

Allen played 20-hour matches of One Pocket with Minnesota Fats in those days. He played anyone who would put money down. He was taught the game--not how to shoot, but how to play--by the smiling, story-telling U.J. Puckett.

But Ronnie Allen is 48 years old now. His belly puffs out over his belt and he looks more like Buddy Hackett than a pool shark. He's been a businessman of sorts, living in Burbank ("Burbank! Can you believe it? Boring."). He isn't the player he once was.

You see, pool is a young man's sport, demanding strong eyes and steady hands. The game has slowly emerged from dark pool halls into the bright lights of hotel ballrooms. At tournaments like last weekend's Peter Vitalie Co. Nine-Ball Championship the prize money has climbed to new heights. Pool has become serious business.

Allen, in "Fast Eddie" style, is trying to hang on a little longer.

"I can't beat these younger guys. Look at them," he says, pointing to match play on a row of tables beneath hanging brass lamps. "But maybe I can still make a few dollars."

And why not? For the past 30 years, Allen has most often found himself leaning over pool tables from Los Angeles to New York. How Allen got started in the game, he explained, is the same old story.

Jimmy Allen died when his son Ronnie was only 11. A family friend owned a pool hall in Oklahoma City and invited Ronnie to drop by anytime. Allen did, and he learned the game quickly. In his first tournament, at age 20, he won $1,250.

That kind of prize money wasn't enough to live on, so players made their living playing each other in the practice rooms.

The name for that sort of thing is "hustling," a term that sends Allen into a state of anger that approaches seizure. The stereotypical scene has an unknown player rolling into town, dumping a few matches, then catching everyone by surprise and taking the big-money game.

"I go into a strange town, lose two games for $5 and then raise the game to $100? That's Hollywood hype," Allen complained.

In reality, anyone good enough at pool to bet large sums of money would know who the top players are, Allen said. You couldn't sucker anyone. Still, you survived by being quick on your feet and quick with your mouth.

As Allen explains it, he would do a little homework before getting into town, find out who the best players were and how good they were. Allen was nationally known, so he had to give up a few balls as a handicap to such players. How much he had to give away depended on what he could talk the guy into.

"We'd negotiate a game, just like negotiating a business deal," he said.

In those days, Minnesota Fats said of Allen: "Anybody who plays him for money ain't go no chance at all. I'm the only guy in the whole world who can beat him." (Allen contends that he has beaten Fats. He has lost to him, as well.)

It was also in those days, as Allen tells it, that writer Walter Tevis was hanging around pool halls, collecting material for his book, "The Hustler." Allen and others in the world of pool say that Tevis based his book on the Oklahoma City player.

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