Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bill Lawson - Pool Player

In the 1960's there were five pool rooms in downtown Winston-Salem.  Pool was so popular with the RJ Reynolds Tobacco workers that a law was passed stating there would be no pool games in the city limits after 11pm.  That was so the third shift workers would go to work.  You could tell which room Bill was in by listening for the sound of his break.  WHACK!!!!! the cueball would hit the one ball so hard that you would think surely the cueball or oneball had broken in two. 

Bill didn't look the part.  He didn't look like a world class 9-ball player.  In fact he didn't look like much of anything except maybe a wino with his old tattered sports coat on, his uncombed hair, and that week-old stubble on his chin that he somehow managed to always have.  He stood about six feet tall but had the long torso of someone six-four or six-five.  That's about all anyone noticed about Bill, unless you were (like me) someone who had spent countless hours playing pool and watching hustlers play the game.  I saw something magical when he bent over a pool table and wrapped those huge hands and very long fingers around a pool cue.  He never went one-rail to get pretty good position on the next ball -- he would go 5 rails and get perfect position.

I only met Bill a couple of years before he passed away.  At that time it had been 2 or 3 years since he had played in (and won) a major tournament.  This was 1982 and Bill had long since left the road and returned home to Winston-Salem.  His health was poor and he didn't have a nickel to his name, but he could still play pool at a level that made us all stop and watch when he would practice a little bit.  I say practice - but Bill Lawson never practised.  There was no reason to practice - he was a master of the art.

I had heard that road players, when going up and down the east coast from Boston and New York to Florida and Texas, would take a wide detour around the Winston-Salem / Greensboro area.  They didn't want to risk losing their bankroll to Bill Lawson.  I witnessed the truth in this when one slow evening a couple of black guys walked in carrying their personal cues.  One of them I recognised - a local player with just average ability.  The very tall guy with him was a stranger - but after I played him a few games for $5.00, I could tell he was laying down.  That is - he was playing well below his ability in an effort to get
me to raise the bet.  He let me win a few games and then started his spiel about betting more.  I told him he could win it back the same way I won it - $5.00 at a time.  He knew I was on to him.  At this point he wanted to know if there was anyone around town that would bet big.  He didn't care who they were - he "just wanted to gamble big time".  Sure I replied.  I'll get someone here to play you!   I called Bill at his boarding house and told him the deal.  He said "Curtis, I don't have any money and no way to get there."  Well get a cab, get here, and don't worry about the money.  A friend of mine and I agreed to put up $200.00 for Bill to play with.  Twenty minutes later Bill walked in the door - and the tall black guy said "Damn - I didn't say I'd play a damn world champion."  The tall stranger it turns out was none other than Willie Munson.  Willie was a pro himself and had recently won the US Open in Norfolk.  He wanted no part of Irving "Bill" Lawson.

Bill couldn't drive himself to the pool room because he reportedly had never owned a car or for that matter never had a driver's license.  There was always a backer who would drive him around the country from pool room to pool room.  The tournament circuit in those days did not have purses high enough to encourage many men to turn pro.  They could make a lot more money by traveling the country and stopping in every town, large and small, they all had pool rooms.  They also would have a local champion who was always foolish enough to take on all comers. 

Bill was very humble.  He would never brag about his winnings, but when we were able to drag a story out of him they were always utterly amazing.  He told us about the time he was in a small Georgia town for a couple of days beating the local players until he finally got the chance to play and beat the local champion out of around $2000.00.  Bill then promptly got on a bus and and headed out of town with his winnings.  After a few miles a sheriff's car pulled the bus over.  They took Bill off the bus, took all of his winnings, and threw him in jail for a night.

Billy Johnson (or as he sometimes went by "Wade Crane") came to my poolroom one weekend just to get Bill Lawson to teach him how to break a rack of nine-ball.  Billy was already a well-known pro at that time.
Bill Lawson passed away around 1986 in his late 50's.  He died penniless -- but he died knowing he was the best at something.

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