OBITUARY: Rudolph Wanderone

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The Independent Online
Disdained by the top tournament players but loved with a wink by nearly everyone else, Rudolph Wanderone, known for much of his life as "Minnesota Fats", was America's billiard character of the century.

He was fat, at 300 pounds, but he wasn't from Minnesota. In like fashion, much of his life was lived in half-truth. So, when Wanderone died last week of heart failure, he left many fans and not a few journalists wondering whether he was really the vivid "Minnesota Fats" character of Walter Tevis's atmospheric novel The Hustler, portrayed on the screen by Jackie Gleason in the 1961 film.

He wasn't, but in a stroke of marketing genius, when the motion picture was released he immediately proclaimed himself to be that fictional player. He possessed just enough skill, the correct girth and more than ample swagger to convince audiences that he was the genuine article. So persuasive was his story that Tevis was forced to add a note denying it in later editions of The Hustler.

Born, by the most reliable accounts, in 1913 to a Swiss family in the Washington Heights section of New York City, Wanderone (nicknamed "Roodle" as a child and later "New York Fats") was exposed to pocket and three- cushion billiards at the age of four and claimed to have started playing for money two years later. His was not the polite world of English billiards and snooker, but the basement society of fast nineball games and proposition bets. He avoided employment his entire life, preferring the anxious existence of the "road player", an itinerant cueman whose lone objective is the separation of opponents from their life savings. This life suited his first wife, Evaline, to whom he was married for nearly 44 years. When aged 70 Wanderone finally took a job promoting pool tables, she promptly won a divorce.

He was a good shooter, excelling at the money games of One-Pocket and Bank Pool, but his surpassing talent was in "making a game", figuring just how much of a handicap he had to give his victim to keep the cash flowing. Wanderone long eschewed tournaments, since he couldn't see the point in playing for three weeks for a chance at $2,000 when he could win more by hustling in a single night. His lack of refereed public victories hinders any genuine critical appraisal of his prowess with a cue, but in his prime, in 1948-55, he was among the best in private money games.

In the 1960s, he hosted a billiard television programme in Chicago and later played a televised series of challenge matches against Willie Mosconi, who since 1941 had been regarded as the best pool player in the world. Mosconi had the better of these contests, but Wanderone attracted a large following with his exaggerated tales of hustling (he once estimated in mock seriousness that his lifetime winnings had totalled $100m) and was credited with keeping American billiards thriving for almost two decades at a time when it might otherwise have died out.

In 1984, in a gesture of appreciation, the Billiard Congress of America inducted him into its coveted Hall of Fame, an honour so rare it has been bestowed on barely 30 individuals since 1966. Yet even this prize rankled, since he was honoured in the "Meritorious Service" category rather than the exalted wing reserved for "Greatest Players". After his divorce in 1985, Fats took up residence, rent-free, in a Nashville hotel, where he held court each day at a pool table especially installed for his use. Ever seen in the company of attractive young women, he married Theresa Bell, 50 years his junior, several years ago.

Wanderone lived to see pool's second modern renaissance, spurred by the 1986 film The Color of Money, a sequel to the original Hustler, and knew that he had a substantial hand in bringing it about.

Mike Shamos

Rudolph Walter Wanderone, billiards player: born New York 19 January 1913; twice married; died Nashville, Tennessee 18 January 1996.