Tropicana related player stories. If you have a pool or gambling story you would like to share email (richard@golddealer) – thanks for remembering the Tropicana Bowling Alley. And the shooters that visited its historic pool hall.
1. Tex Martin walked out of the Tropicana coffee shop after lunch. He just enjoyed the now famous Tropicana burger, which consisted of a large hamburger, French fries, and a salad with dressing of your choice. I can’t attest to how healthy these were but they were delicious so for a couple of bucks you were guaranteed a good meal. Tex put a toothpick in his mouth and strolled down the main concourse contemplating his meager bankroll. As he walked into the pool hall a local player asks him if he wanted to play pool. Tex considers and answered: “How about some nine ball for $2.00 a pop.” The player reached into his pocket and pulled out a large bankroll. He then looked at Tex and replied: “I think you are trying to run that toothpick of yours into a lumber yard”. The place roared and forever after anyone taking a shot with no money might confide to the closest sweater: “I’m trying to turn a toothpick into a lumber yard.”
2. This is an old Tex Martin story of two local players that were regulars at the Trop. Joe the Barber and Don Murrey (the Lakewood Lamb Killer) would match up weekdays in the afternoon. Neither of these guys were road players; they each had regular jobs but could play pool and liked to gamble. Each in his own way wanted some sort of edge and was willing to “chirp” before any rules were agreed upon. Joe the Barber was really was a barber. Don Murrey got his handle because he had a reputation of always matching up with the best of it.
*Chirping: A time honored tradition and particular way of telling a story which has been developed into an art-form by some players. Usually used to relate a pool or gambling event and created in such a way as to impress, regal, shark, or gain an advantage. Rules: The tale may be true, partly true, or a complete fabrication. But in all cases it must be entertaining. Exaggeration is not only allowed it is encouraged.
The Barber and Murrey played even, and everyone thought that Murrey had the edge. They played golf on one of the two 5 by 10 snooker tables at the Tropicana and used the chalk-boards to keep score. The usual bet was $5.00 a game and a nickel a hickey. Nether player had to put up because each was respectable and with regular jobs they both knew each could win something.
Each player kept his own score, but sometimes Murrey would place a chalk mark, indicating his hickey on the side of the board that belonged to Joe the Barber. After a time Joe might comment that the number of hickeys under his name seemed out of line. Don would simply say he had forgotten how many times he fouled and should pay more attention. If Murrey lost the game, he would put the money in one of the table pockets. And if Joe forgot to pick it up Don would put the money back in his pocket.
Now don’t assume Joe the Barber was a simpleton. He was not and not many people got his money. Sometimes, however he lost track of the details. Joe is not with us anymore, I remember him as a friendly old guy who just liked to play pool in the afternoon. Murrey managed a successful job and marriage. And when he was not working managed to get the best of it most of the time.
I talked with Murry at Mr. Luckys (Hawthorne) before he passed away. And he is still entertaining with pomp and circumstance. He was one of the many Tropicana regulars with stories enough to make everyone laugh. “I’m telling you Richard; keep your money in your pocket. This guy ran out three times in a row, his game will kill corn knee high.” Don was fond of the word “awful” when he took down the money. “It was awful, Richard, they never won a game.”
One of the most outrageous story tellers was Minnesota Fats (Rudolph Wonderone). Now keep in mind you don’t have to be a world class player to enthrall an audience. Ronny Allen told me that Fats was the best at complete fiction. Allen relates a common Fatty theme he first heard in the early sixties: “Why I once swam 100 miles underwater to bust a maharajah.” The more outrages he was, the more people wanted” according to Allen.
Money player and pool commentator Danny Diliberto was once asked what he thought of Minnesota Fats. He replied that the pool community and press “got what they deserved” for encouraging such fabled stories. He could not believe people stood in line to hear how Fatty never lost a game to any living human.
3. Names are sometimes memorable, especially if the player is famous. But a descriptive moniker is unforgettable. Don Hinzo and I talked about how many pool players initially matched up without a formal of introduction. In the beginning this was probably done to hide illegal activity but in the end many players were given second names which made them bigger than life and easy to remember.
This process provided them a kind of immortality, whether they were champions, short-stops, or just liked to gamble and could be remembered for a physical trait. At the Tropicana there were people like The Sweater, Fisco Jack, Bucktooth, Fat Jay, Little Richie, Harry the Horse, Crying Sam, The Bubble, One-Eyed Hank, The Squirrel, Rags, Eight Ball Louie, Little Al, The Tuna, Canadian Don, Las Vegas Tommy, “Mad Dog” Mizerak (No relation to the great Hall of Fame player Steve Mizerak), Careful Lou, Joe the Barber, The Lakewood Lamb Killer, Uncle Joe, Fast Eddie, Clem, Fat Kenny, Buttermilk, and Heavy Duty.
Lyman Moss and his brother Lester were regulars at the Tropicana. Lester was a great bowler, loved pot games, and like me could not stay away from Gardena. Lyman was one of the few that had a good job and was always employed. Lyman liked to play cards, was a handsome fellow and met his beautiful wife Sheri at the Trop. I’m sorry to say Sheri recently passed away – she was always nice to me. Lyman lives in Washington. Both their children saw action in the Gulf War. Here are more player names Lyman remembers : Bakersfield Bob, Glendale Johnnie, Charlie the Tuna, Philly Lou, Hollywood Jack, Barney and Japanese Mike.
Now for the real scoop as to who was who among the world’s greatest road players you will need Buddy Hall: Rags To Rifleman, Then What? (W.W. Woody) for in Appendix B he list no less than 182 players under Who’s Who In Pool, Names and Monikers Of Real People In The Pool World.
4. A character that never played pool but was given a memorable handle was Tom Johannedes (Los Vegas Tommy or LVT). He is not with us anymore but he was the first physically challenged people I got to know personally. And he should be remembered because he was a classic. He picked up the moniker because when he got busted in Vegas he would walk up to another dice table and ask the dealer for a bet on the come – before purchasing chips. In the old days this was common practice (a call bet) which they allowed, as a courtesy. The move took timing to make it look right. If you lost and could not make the bet good security escorted you to the front door and threw you out. So the play was not for the fainthearted. Casinos also kept tract of such hustlers because they were not good for business. No matter, Tommy simply tried the stunt at another casino. And kept moving until the casinos compared notes and the pit boss declared “no bet” – an era had come to an end. Helped along by a disabled and broke gambler that did not mind being unceremoniously thrown out. Mike Fagley, another Tropicana luminary of some renown and Tommy were friends. Mike may have given Tommy the moniker. He always laughed saying Las Vegas Tommy was king of the call bets!
Tommy was one of the unforgettable characters that made the Tropicana home. Did his handicap make any difference to the other players at the Trop? Not in the least, as your physical stature, color, heritage, education or lack thereof was not important. The only thing that mattered was whether you wanted to gamble. And how much heart you had. Tommy was physically challenged but had a mind like a steel trap. He knew how to win, on the square or not and was only interested in busting you before you busted him. He did not play pool, but he was down when it came to other forms of gambling and loved to play cards in Gardena. Back in those days each player dealt the table in proper order. There was no button and house dealer – as seen today. Well Tommy was not that good at dealing because his hand coordination was not up to speed. So he would pass the deal most of the time. But sometimes he sensed the table thought his play was too slow and it pissed him off. So he would take the deal to make a point. And if anyone made a derogatory comment his famous answer was: “F_ _ _ Y _ _ / play poker”. Tommy never took abuse from anyone and yet there was a kind side to him easily seen over a cup of coffee. He lived a great life, could make you laugh over your condition or his, had several girl friends and was always ready to bet something, whether or not he had the money. I miss my friend. He taught me about life and expectation.
5. Do you remember the name of the hotel right next to the Tropicana? Originally this two story hotel was modern, clean, and cheap. It’s southern side was the first building to the north of the Trop. It was a favorite place to stay for local hustlers and road players because of the price and convenient location. It was called the Starlight Hotel and was available daily, weekly, or by the month. Their preferred method of payment was cash in advance. There were plenty of players that shot pool all night, had breakfast (if they managed a win) in the Trop Coffee Shop and slept the day away, getting ready for the next night’s action.
6. Hal Johnson was another Trop classic. About 5 foot 10 inches, wore glasses, married to a nice lady. Hal was an interesting fellow to all the Trop denizens because he worked for Northrop Aviation and so had a steady income. He liked to play pool, was pretty good at the game, had a great personality, and liked to do crazy stuff. All of this of course made him a healthy target and always welcome to a friendly afternoon gamble.
Most of the time he matched up playing singles, sometimes winning sometimes losing. When he lost he provided commentary that was usually “x” rated. But always entertaining. In the beginning he played Tex even 9-ball because he did not understand he had little chance of winning. And no one was going to tell him because that is not how people with steady jobs got educated. Hal soon realized that Tex was robbing him and decided to make his usual statement.
In the middle of the game Hal stopped playing. He then took down his pants, including his underwear and proceeded to lean over the table. “Go ahead, you have been doing it to me on the table, you might as well get the real thing”. The pool hall roared, and while Tex never availed himself of the offer, be began to give Hal reasonable weight in the hope of avoiding such future displays.
On this particular summer day Hal made the tactical mistake of playing partners one pocket with three other players that were down on their luck and subsequent bankroll. The named players were Tex Martin, Don Murrey, and Jake Roberts. Tex had a little gamble in him, but Roberts and Murrey were two of the all time great nut hunters. The partners were Murrey and Tex against Hal and Roberts with coaching allowed. Stakes were $20 a game. Hal had a little over two hundred in his pocket. Pretty fair money in those days and of course a big temptation when players were really hungry (which was usually the case). When the game was over Hal was broke and on his way home to explain to his wife what happened to the cash. At the same time, Tex, Murrey and Roberts met in the bathroom, cut up Hal’s money and got a little over $70 each for their effort.
7. Who out there remembers Gorden’s Bar, on Western Avenue close to the Normandie Club in Gardena? A great bar with plenty of action and if you did not over cut the rent money the card action was within walking distance. This short tale concerns Tex Martin and the late Kenny Anderson. Tex was a good player but Anderson was better and they joined forces once in awhile looking for an extra buck. But like all things relating to hustling pool everything is not always as it seems. Kenny and Tex walk into Gorden’s one evening and before long Kenny was down being the superior player. They had a common bankroll on this outing so Tex watched the game carefully from beginning to end. He also kept track of the money and at $10 a game figured Kenny had won $150.00 after the session was over. Anderson excuses himself and takes a bathroom break. When he comes out he and Tex walk to the car and he hands Tex $40.00. Tex looks at the money and questions the count. According to Tex he kept track of everything and Kenny should have been up $150.00, that makes his half $75.00 not $40.00. Kenny tells Tex he can’t count worth a shit and should be a grateful winner not an ass hole. What really happened in the bathroom was that Tex was a victim of the infamous “Rat Hole”, common in many splits. At the opportune time the winning player moves a few extra bills into a side pocket, so when the total is counted, and split, the numbers favor the shooter. Most of the time this common move is accomplished without incident, especially if the sessions are long.
If you have a remembrance and would like to share, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). And thanks for keeping this small part of pool history alive and well.