Doin' the Hustle

You've sauntered into the crowded, smoky pool hall with some friends on a Friday night for a few games. On a whim -- and after a few beers -- you invite the dark-haired, thirtysomething guy who's been watching you to play. After some prodding, he sheepishly agrees. You graciously allow him to break, and as you chalk up your stick, he proceeds to run the table, sinking every ball in less time than it takes to reheat a cup of coffee.

Unlike your usual shady hustlers who prowl pool halls, Baytown native Jeremy Jones would dust you with a warm smile and advice on how to improve your game. Jones ranks third in the United States Professional Pool Players Association, and he won the U.S. Open Championships -- professional billiards' most difficult tournament -- in 2003. So he's got no need to shit-talk. No, he'd rather get you in the game and tell you all about his mentor, pool great Jack "Jersey Red" Breit, who helped make the game known as One Pocket famous.

One Pocket is considered the most strategic of all billiards games. "It can make you crazy," says Jones with a laugh. A single match can take well over an hour, with players forced to sink balls in only one corner pocket each, while trying to keep the cue ball away from their opponent's pocket. It's a game that Breit, a feisty, red-haired New Jersey native (hence the nickname), perfected in the late '50s, when professional pool was in a slump and the only money to be made was in hustling. "Pool hustling is very working-class," says R.A. Dyer, who profiled Breit and other pool legends in his book Hustler Days. "They're usually high school dropouts and often lifelong bachelors who live a difficult, nomadic life."

Such was the path of Breit, who quickly became known as one of the finest hustlers in New York City, at that time the mecca of America's pool greats. Though he was a punishing, smack-talking player who'd regularly dispatch such greats as Minnesota Fats and Luther "Wimpy" Lassiter, Breit was often homeless, sleeping on or under pool tables. It wasn't until the late '60s, when pool regained credibility and some competition was televised, that he gained any prominence. Breit finally got his day in 1969, when he played Lassiter -- who was ranked first in the nation -- in Houston at a U.S. Open major tournament. But the event was raided by police, and some 80 players, including Breit, were arrested for gambling. "It was very symbolic," says Dyer. "Red could never get away from hustling."

And though he died virtually penniless in 1997, Breit's legacy lives on in Jones, his protégé for many years. Jones will pay tribute to Breit this week at the One Pocket Hall of Fame ceremony. The event will take place at the Heights pool hall Cue & Cushion, one of Breit's favorite haunts.

Jones has traveled the globe, winning over fans and promoting Houston's pool scene. And his mentor would be proud. "More than hustling or skill, Red taught me that pool's a people game," says Jones. "If people appreciate you, well, it's hard to go wrong."

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