May 22, 2023


His real name was Rudolf Wanderone, though nobody calls him that anymore. He

His real name was Rudolf Wanderone, though nobody calls him that anymore. He doesn't even call himself that. When it's time to just sign here, he’ll scrawl "Minnesota Fats."

He's the son of Swiss immigrants and no stranger to hard times. He grew up on the streets of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, learning about life from the saloons, backroom card games and the people.

The people. The wonderful concoction of hard-work folks who left Europe at the turn of the century, seeking a better life but finding Washington Heights with its dollar-a-day jobs and nickel beers.

They taught Rudolf Wanderone the billiard and card games they had played in the old country. He taught himself how to be good with his mouth and how to hustle a man who believes in his specialty too much.

There would be no dollar-a-day job for Wanderone. He had found a way to escape the ghetto: With a cue stick in his hands, with an ace in the hole, with his gift of gab jammed over onto fast forward.

He made Broadway his beat. Then Brooklyn, Coney Island, New Jersey, and finally out into the expanse of a country that was young, restless, growing rich and heading for war.

Like all the hustlers of his day, he had a nickname. It was "Double Smart" because he could talk you into a game and wager – you pick the game – and then he could take over your bankroll.

One day he ran into Smart Henny, pool player extraordinare. Smart Henny lost his stake to this guy with the golden mouth. Double Smart became known as Triple Smart.

How long ago was that? Rudolf Wanderone will only say, "You can't get much older than me. I’m so close to a hundred, it's not funny.

"You figure it out this way: I raised myself since I was two years old. I never went to school. I never needed no parents. Everything I needed, I got from the streets.

"I’ve been five times around the world. I went down on three ships in three oceans. I’ve been in three revolutions – I had 50 machine guns stuck in my mouth in Cuba.

"I’m the greatest card player in the world. I’m also the world's greatest pool player and I can talk from now until the year 2000 and never repeat myself. You tell me what kind of game you want to play and I’ll break you."

He was still known as Triple Smart when he first saw Hampton Roads. He played cards in Buckroe and Phoebus and he took the ferry to Norfolk to play a pool player he had been hearing about.

The player was named Luther Lassiter. Wimpy they called him. His backer was a rich North Carolina tobacco farmer. Wimpy was one of the best players in the country. Triple Smart was the best.

"Every time we played, I’d iron him out. When it comes to pool, I raised Wimpy from a baby."

He said that Wednesday, sitting in the air-conditioned splendor of a Newport News hotel. He said that while waiting for a late-afternoon meeting that would explore the possibility of bringing one of his pool-restaurant layouts to the area.

A writer named Walter Tevis followed Rudolf Wanderone around the country, gathering information for a book.

Tevis created a composite character, piecing together bits and quirks of all the players who fell victim. He called the character Fast Eddy Felser. He left Rudolf Wanderone true to life.

The book was named "The Hustler." Hollywood bought it and turned it into a movie. Paul Newman played Fast Eddy. Jackie Gleason played Wanderone.

But the Wanderone character needed a better nickname, one that rolled off the tongue easier than Triple Smart.

"Jane Russell and Judy Garland gave me the nickname," he was saying. "They called me Minnesota Fats. They liked how it sounded. I ain't ever been fat and I ain't been in Minnesota much.

"Jackie Gleason played me real good, though. He knew all my moves and the lingo. He picked that up when he was my rack boy back in Brooklyn."

The movie helped bring pool out of the closet and made a legend out of Minnesota Fats.

He lives in Nashville now. He calls the Hermitage Hotel home. He has a pool table on the mezzanine and he plays whoever comes around – mostly musicians and movie stars looking for kicks.

"I don't do much traveling anymore. For more years than I can remember, I went where the money was. I played them all, at the game of their choice. After I broke them, I moved on to the next game.

"You go into any poolroom on earth and ask them. They’ll tell you about when Minnesota Fats was there."

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