The Mosconi Cup gets underway in London today. It’s one of pool’s biggest events with the United States and Europe facing off against each other in team matches. I got hooked on pool in college. The school I went to had a pool room in the basement of the student union run by a guy named Tom whom I’ve written about before. Tom was a great guy with a real interest in pool and had met a lot of famous players and talking to him I became just as interested in the players as the game. When he learned I was from Nashville he started calling me “Minnesota Fats” because Rudolph Wanderone, AKA Minnesota Fats, lived in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel for several years. A pool table was set up in the lobby and anyone who wandered in could play a game with him for a dollar.
Tom described Minnesota Fats as “a real gentleman”, somehow unaware that Wanderone was really a notorious hustler and gambler who gained national fame mainly through his rivalry with Willie Mosconi, the man for whom the Mosconi Cup is named.
I’m not big on national pride but I have high hopes for the U.S. team this year. It’s not just that they’re the outsiders, playing on Europe’s home turf. The U.S. is also the underdog: Team Europe has won the Mosconi Cup six years in a row. Will Team United States break the streak or will Europe get a lucky seven?
There is something deeply American about the Mosconi Cup, now in its 24th year, and deeply European about it too. After all Willie Mosconi was the son of European immigrants, but it was America’s melting pot that produced a child who was half-Italian, half-Irish. Mosconi’s father was a former boxing champion who opened a pool hall, and turned to his pool-prodigy son to provide for the family, pushing the boy into so many exhibition games by the age of eleven Willie Mosconi–arguably the greatest pool player who’s ever lived, who’d go on to win fifteen world championships and who still holds the world straight pool record–526 balls pocketed without a single miss–hated the game.
Willie Mosconi was a strange contradiction: he made money, especially in his early years, by gambling, probably hustling too, but he would downplay this or deny it entirely in his later years. He devoted his life to pool even though several times he called it “a stupid game”. He believed strongly that pool should be a gentleman’s game, conducted with decorum. It was important to him to make pool respectable and change its association with crime and alcoholism. In 1978 when he went up against Rudolph Wanderone on ABC’s Wide Wide World Of Sports Mosconi insisted that both men should wear tuxedos and act with dignity and reserve. Wanderone wanted to wear short sleeves and played to the crowd. This was partly just his personality but, as a hustler, he also knew it was the perfect way to throw Mosconi off his game.
Ironically most players wear short sleeves now or dress casually, but the Mosconi Cup is still serious business. The outfits may be informal but the style of play is Mosconi’s: the game, and the competitors, are treated with respect.
So I hope Team United States does well, but, out of respect for Willie Mosconi, I have to say: may the best players win.