By all accounts, Joe Sebastian was a hustler who worked the pool halls around Chicago in the mid-20th century. His specialty was 9-ball, a version of pocket billiards that emerged in the 1920s. In those days, the game was much less popular than 8-ball or straight pool using a full rack of 15 balls. Indeed, 9-ball had earned a reputation among pool enthusiasts as “the money game” because it was played by mainly by gamblers.
Sebastian liked to play 9-ball wearing a plain black business suit. He was allegedly very good at his game and almost always won. Nor could he afford to lose very often. It was an era when cash tournaments were few and professionals could only make living off less-skilled prey. Occasionally, however, one pro would challenge another to the money game, in order to prove who was higher in the pecking order.
The story of Sebastian’s famous 9-ball challenge bet has been retold and embellished so many times since the 1950s, that it is impossible to separate the whole truth from the wonderful fiction. Some elements, however, run through all versions, so it is quite likely that the action went down in much the way it has been described by Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame member Harold Worst and others.
The 9-ball Challenge
Born in Philadelphia in 1913, Willie Mosconi was widely acknowledged as the world’s top professional pool player between 1940 and 1957, when he won the World Straight Pool Championship an unmatched fifteen times. In 1954, he set a world’s record by running 526 consecutive balls without a miss during a straight pool exhibition in Springfield, Ohio. His nickname was “Mr. Pocket Billiards.”
As one version of the Sebastian story goes, Mosconi was having lunch one day at a bar in downtown Chicago with a friend—possibly Andrew “Ponzi” D’Alessandro, a fellow Philadelphian and 3-time straight pool champion of a earlier decade, or perhaps Jimmy Caras, a Scranton native who won four world titles between 1936 and 1967.
Before the pair had finished their meal, into the bar walked Joe Sebastian. He would have been quite familiar with Mosconi. Archives of the Boston Daily Globe indicate that Sebastian was the head referee for the 1952 World Pocket Billiard Championship held at Bonds Bowling & Billiards in downtown Boston, which was ultimately won by the defending champion, Mosconi. He would certainly have known either Ponzi or Caras, too.
If Sebastian had a fault, it was overconfidence. He knew the two diners were straight pool experts, but 9-ball was his game and Chicago was his turf. According to reports, Sebastian began goading the visitors. Knowing who would be the less accomplished of the two at the money game, he challenged Ponzi/Caras to join him at the pool table. But his target was more interested in eating than being hustled, so Sebastian increased his taunting until at last Ponzi/Caras said to Mosconi, “Why don’t you play this guy and teach him a lesson?”
The Money Game
Some say the wager Mosconi accepted was for $50 total; others say it was for $25 a game or perhaps $50 a rack, while many believe it must have been much less. Most agree that Sebastian had a financial backer that day, so the Chicago pool hustler really had nothing to lose. It was more about bragging rights than cash for him.
The venue they chose was most certainly Bensinger’s Billiards at 29 West Randolph. It was a Chicago landmark among local pool players, opened in 1929 and moved there in 1948 from its prior location on Wabash Avenue, where Mosconi had made his 1931 debut against Ponzi, Ralph Greenleaf, Erwin Rudolph and the like. The tables then measured 9-feet by 4½-feet, and Bensinger’s had at least 28 of them to choose from.
The two opponents lagged to see who would go first and Mosconi won, earning the right to break the first rack of balls. They would play until either of them won seven racks, it’s been told, or perhaps it was eleven racks or thirteen. The numbers tend to grow as the story gets retold. But no matter what the total agreed upon was, the outcome would be the same. Mosconi ran the first rack, then the next, and the next and the next and so on, without giving Sebastian the opportunity to take a single shot.
At last Sebastian’s backer squealed, “Joe, I think we oughta quit.” To which Sebastian famously replied, “How can we quit? You ain’t seen what I can do yet.” And nobody ever did. Mosconi, on the other hand, was the technical advisor for the 1961 film classic “The Hustler,” starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason; he was inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame seven years later.