24 Hours in the life of a Pool Hustler's Daughter

I happen to be a woman who loved her father - adored him - and my father was a pool hustler.

For the past ten years, I've had to accept the fact that my father would not be in town for my birthday. Why? Because every year, late in January, he was relocating to Derby City for his buddy, Diamond Billiard's genius visionary, Greg Sullivan's pool tournament, The Derby City Classic. Greg realized that pool is about characters and action and he’s done everything to promote those two most exciting elements of the game. Pool players don’t want to wear tuxedos, and they don’t want to play low-risk/reward games.

Even Minnesota Fats, the most recognizable name in pool lore, could never win a game unless there was high risk, with the chance of high reward. My father, Freddy "the Beard" Bentivegna, had the same mentality; most hustlers in the “secret society” do.

And Greg’s made it a meritocracy where the pool bug or amateur also gets the chance to rub elbows with the world champions – which is thrilling – and fulfills the deepest desires of the revelers at the tournament – to be a part of something, “big.” Derby City operates more like an old fashioned pool room, where everyone has a chance of winning, making their mark, with an affordable entry fee. Who knows who you’ll pick to play in the first round??? Just the opportunity to play a world champion fuels the fire of many entrants. This is America, there’s always the chance for upward mobility. And "desire rules the world," according to my father.

World Champions and pool bugs, legends and neophytes, now had the chance to all convene at one location and make one interesting and democratic roux…and it reminded the old timers of the glory days of the famed Johnston City...

The fact that this event was in Kentucky (or across the river) was another motivating factor for my father to attend, because anyone with half a pool brain knows Kentucky (like Chicago) is where the world's best bankers are born and bred. Those kids - like DCC 2015 Banks Champion Shannon Daulton, grow up playing banks. Since my Pops was not only a player, but a scholar of the game of banks, "the Foremost Pool Scientist of America," the author of “Banking with the Beard,” he spent most of his pool life learning and perfecting this particular game culminating in his instructional books and dvds on his website bankingwiththebeard.com. Knowing how to bank balls is a great asset in almost every other game offered on the tourney ticket.

My lord, the old man even had a theme song, written for him called "Banking with the Beard" that you can listen to on his website. His motto was “Bank on, Brother!”

I had not attended this tournament before this year, because, like most children of gamblers, I held a superstition that I might distract my father from winning games. I often stayed in the hotel, or at the hotel pool, while games were going on during a tournament, or when he was hustling. My theory was that when I did this, I helped him win a lot of money. He told me I never affected his play, so it really was my own nerves that got in the way. Like most little girls, I always wanted my Daddy to win. It was the one day I decided to stay at the hotel, and not accompany him to the racetrack, that he returned that day with forty grand. This happened when I was a tween, and I never forgot it. There was also the time when I was around six years old, that my Dad got into a fight at the basement at Bensinger’s in Chicago(the other guy punched first) and my Dad had a bloody nose. Between these two incidents in my formative years, I tended to not stick around when my father was gambling.

The last official tournament I attended was in South Philly in the summer of 1990. I was eighteen and on summer break from college and my father convinced my brother and I to drive to Nashville for the pool expo there and then on to Philly for the one-pocket tournament. Of course, we were only included on this trip because my father didn't want to do the driving, so we took turns driving his decade old giant green Cadillac gas guzzler while he reclined in the spacious back seat, timing himself while completing New York Times Crossword Puzzles, speed reading books, and constantly asking us to pull over for something to eat or drink. If I was his backer, rather than his daughter, I would have probably left him on the side of the road, he was such a pool prima donna.

When we arrived in Nashville, he spotted Minnesota Fats immediately and my Dad grabbed me and introduced me, "Fatty, this is my daughter." I was in awe. All the other players swarmed Fatty, just as my father always preached, that the man had a magnetic personality. Fans hung on his every word – the way he told stories in such a unique, hilarious and captivating way. Who knew my father would also be in possession of a similar gift? He also told me that Fatty was good for a "bite" i.e. twenty bucks for a player to get some action, and always had pretty "broads." "How do you think he gets those broads? Like…pageant winners?" my father would ask me, his extremely insecure progeny, “Fats ain’t no great looking guy!" he joked. “Personality!" he shouted, "Personality!!!"

Our next stop was South Philly, which I will have to write about separately, as it was such an incredible experience - from the mobbed-up pool room - to the decadent Italian meals and retro neighborhood that made you think it was 1945. Better than any “Rocky” movie. In one incident, our Cadillac had to come to an abrupt stop as the car in front of us braked suddenly and an angry Italian man got out of his car with a tire iron in hand to threaten the driver ahead of him. "Brings a tear to my eye!" my father said, watching the "Mean Streets" like, drama unfold, "It's like my neighborhood was 50 years ago. They're like civilized now, like Yuppies compared to these eggs. Philly’s like a time machine."

The other highlight of that trip was hanging out with Cornbread Red, Jersey Red, Johnny Irvilino Grady “The Professor” Matthews, and Jack Cooney - my unofficial pool godfather. So, yes, an extra-special week 25 years ago was the last time I went to a pool tournament with my father. And it was so magnificent and magical, that I never believed it could be topped – until now.

This year, I would go to my first pool tournament without my father, who passed away June 18th. Everyone told me my father "held court" at Derby City and it wasn't until I walked over to the main arena at the Horseshoe Casino, that I began to feel…important…and my father’s importance. DCC's King himself - Greg Sullivan - was like the sweetest grandpa (who might rob ya’) that you’ve ever met; I can’t begin to tell you the generosity, hospitality and kindness his wife and daughters lavished me with. The mantra was that “it’s not the same without him.” I could barely walk two feet without a pool “hustler,” star champion or “bug” to come up to me to give their condolences.

Shannon “the Cannon” Daulton barely had a minute to himself after beating Efren Reyes in the banks tournament before he walked up to me to tell me how much he loved my Dad. He was still wiping his brow and catching his breath, a Kentucky boy who had known my father since he was a child. A champion who my father inducted into the One-Pocket Hall of Fame. And you bet he was at the dinner that night (before he won the Banks championship two hours later!)

Then there was Cornbread Reds son-in-law who said “they don’t make ‘em like those two anymore!” We shared how funny Cornbread and Freddy sounded when they were yelling at one another – Cornbread with a thick southern accent and my father with a thick Chicago accent.

The Candyman made sure to tell me a story about how he found a game and told his backer he was going to play “Freddy the Beard” and his backer told him he wouldn’t back him.

Legends Truman Hogue, Danny Diliberto and Billy Incardona told me the best stories about my Dad and had me in stiches. I mean, they had known each other since they were kids! That’s when the pool bug gets you, I guess, when you’re a kid. It was the first time, in a long time, when I heard people besides my Dad speaking in the pool hustler’s language that my father so eloquently teaches the world in his “Encyclopedia of Pool Hustlers.” He was the “nutz.”

Everyone – even vendors- wanted to remind me that they were in my Dad’s book. My father always emphasized how important it was to acknowledge other people. Confident people can do this. Jealous people can’t. My father tried to acknowledge as many as he could in “The Encyclopedia” and made it his mission to give credit to integral people in the world of pool and pool hustling that may have been forgotten. It was my father’s passion for showing respect to those who passed on, especially, that drives me to provide the same service to him and his legacy, today.

The onepocket.org Hall of Fame dinner almost didn’t happen this year. Onepocket.org’s Steve Booth was worried who could take over the Master of Ceremonies role, who get the pool players to show up, make sure everyone voted for the next inductees. But he held the course and the dinner took place. When we all started crying during the memorial, Steve said not to worry as my Dad “used to cry through the whole thing.”

What a great night honoring my Dad, Fred Bentivegna, at the Hall of Fame dinner in Derby City. My father was inducted in 2006, but he was also the beloved emcee. There were so many world champions and top players in attendance last night, paying their respects to the 'old man, I nearly fainted: Efren Bata Reyes, Scott Frost, Shannon Daulton, Nick Varner, Mary Kenniston, Truman Hogue, Alex Lely, Ike Runnels, Danny DiLiberto and William Incardona just to name a few. Pool documentarian Angel Levine...

It began with a beautiful slideshow narrated by my father’s roommate and DCC partner, John Bosnak; then my Dad’s theme song, “Banking with the Beard” played, while Steve Booth narrated the pool pictures(yes, my father has his own theme song!) Lots of smiling, reverence and love. Scott Frost's speech in honoring my Dad, and how he gave him confidence, touched my heart deeply. Billy Incardona and Danny DiLiberto speeches made me laugh and cry. When Danny D. and my Dad lived in Florida in their early twenties, they used to Karaoke to Frank Sinatra. And Billy got Efren to agree that my father taught him how to play one-pocket. Billy said he was the "most loved" player from Chicago. A "brilliant man" and "articulate." Angel Levine called him one of her father figures in the pool room as a teenager who, like his buddy George Fels, of whom the Straight Pool Tournament has been renamed for, was a "scholar and a scoundrel."

What an honor to be present for 87 year-old “The Squirrel” and Greg Sullivan receiving their awards. They were so touched by the evening - and so modest! Thank you to The Squirrel’s son for wearing my Dad’s “Banking with the Beard” t-shirt, too.

My pool hustler family chipped in and bought me raffle tickets and I won a priceless, signed by all of the Legends pool cue to hang on my wall. Either the fix was in, or my father provided the magic from above to make all of that happen.
Once the ceremony ended, everyone returned to the arena to both watch and play in the televised tournament. And Shannon “The Cannon” Daulton ended up winning the Banks tournament! Oh, my Dad was somewhere up above just loving all of this…wishing he could have gotten a side bet in or two(or three.)

In Derby City, I had the luck of being immersed in everything my father loved, his passion and life’s work, and surrounded by people, sights and sounds that all tie me back to him. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Without my father, I still have this exciting and stimulating world of pool – my extended pool family – from his brothers and sisters in the pool world – to the fans that just want to meet me, call me, write me to talk about my father and how they would have given anything to meet him, or, to tell me that one conversation with my Dad was unforgettable, “Riveting,” “Hilarious,” “Helped my game.”

My father was fascinated by people and different cultures and was somewhat of a chameleon when he was in a pool room. When he was around Hillbillies, he talked like a Hillbilly and dressed in overalls and drank moonshine and shot pistols. The FX show “Justified” where they dramatize modern day gunslingers in Kentucky warmed his heart. He told me, from the sofa, watching from his projection screen, “this shit is real, Catherine!” He could always count on a Hillbilly mobster to hide him in the country if someone was looking to kill him. In return, he would cook Italian food for them.

When he was around Jewish guys, he would kibitz, speak Yiddish and get angry if he wasn’t asked over for a high holiday or get steered to a good deli. He refused to pay for fatty meat. He would needle Jewish girls who dated Christian boys. “ I’m going to rat on you to your mother!” he would tease. And then they all called him every year Christmas morning like clockwork to wish him a happy holiday. Like clockwork. His yarmulke got a lot of mileage.

When he was around black guys, you would have thought he’d been born at 63rd and Cottage Grove. He dressed like a Dandy with loud silk shirts and crocodile loafers from Chicago’s famous Taylor Street and Maxwell Street and spoke with a modified southern/Chicago south side accent. The clothes, with the Cadillac, and Muddy Waters playing, made him look like an Italian pimp. He called middle aged black guys “Pops” and told them they reminded him of his old man. They always called each other “brothers.”
When he was on Chicago’s “black” south side learning bank secrets, World Champion and Hall of Famer, Bugs Rucker told my Dad he didn’t have to worry about being shot at when he was with him, as he told my father, “I know all the gangbangers, don’t worry.” Then one time, Bugs and my father were being shot at as they exited the pool room, and they were forced to jump behind a car to safety. “I thought you said you knew all the gangbangers!” my father yelled, catching his breath. “Well I obviously don’t know those mother f***ers, Freddy!” Bugs retorted.

His mimicry came from such a place of reverence and excitement and playfulness that it never came off as offensive. It was fun, and everyone loved him for it. Remember, my father wanted to experience everything life had to offer – and I do mean everything…He used to call Chinese restaurants and fake a Chinese accent and demand he get the “special mushrooms” only the Chinese customers were served. He always wanted to be “in” on everything – even fungus.

My point is that my father could get along with anybody...and that's why he had so many friends. And he could get on an intimate level with with even strangers...quickly. Pool rooms are, and always will be, a meritocracy...

My father took a lot of “beatings” in the pool world – real, metaphorical, and financial - but this twenty four hours in Derby City was the first time I thought I was “robbing the joint.” There was such an excess of love and respect coming my way, around every corner. I couldn’t buy a drink and people literally cleared the way for me to see the televised bank finals in the arena. I didn’t have a moment to myself as there was always a new smiling face wanting to tell me about my old man. Maybe it was just the fact that I look a little like him, that is comforting to his friends.

Pool cue maker and player Bobby Hunter approached me while I was drinking coffee. “I came in fourth in the Banks tournament! And I don’t even play banks! Can you believe it?”

“Wow!” I said, “That’s incredible!”

Bobby lived with my father for a while, as did so many pool players, cue makers, backers and hustlers. I never knew who was sleeping on our sofa growing up. I was always annoyed because they stayed up all night and slept all day, so I usually had to tiptoe though the living room. The one exception was Champion Ewa Mataya Lawrence who got her own bedroom and bathroom at my father’s tony high rise apartment building where Mr.T also lived. My father’s house always had a revolving door, where you were fed a giant lunch everyday like you were in Italy. When Bobby moved out, he created a gorgeous, jewel encrusted pool cue as a gift.
Bobby visited my Dad while he was in the hospital this summer and I could see the love in his eyes.

At Derby City, Bobby pointed to the ceiling with his pool case and solemnly said, “I think your Dad had something to do with it. Fourth place! I beat Bustamante! Your Dad would have loved this. LOVED THIS!”
I thought Bobby might cry, I mean, I was starting to. So many of these players wanted to talk to my Dad about their game, but he wasn’t around anymore…only I was - a pale substitute - an amateur of pool if there ever was one. I was never a student, knew none of the secrets…

I know they call Efren Reyes “The Magician” but I’m not so sure my old man wasn’t also a magician. Not only could he grease the wheels of everyone he met, but he had a hand in all the gifts that came my way in Derby City. All the smiles and hugs – and a pool cue I will cherish forever. It's my first one...

Pops, you fulfilled your greatest wants and desires though your passion for this sport of pool, through this lifestyle, through these people. You mattered. You do matter. And will matter, for many, many years to come.

There’s one thing I notice about pool people – they smile and laugh a lot. I attribute this to my father’s philosophy that “pool keeps me young.” Willie Hoppe was one of his idols and he thought he had chosen one of the only sports you could win at both eighteen years of age, and sixty.

Last year in the Derby City tournament, at seventy-three years young, my father won and advanced far enough to be “in the money.” He was right about pool. And I am so glad.

Pops, thank you for making me a Pool Hustler’s Daughter. I’m sorry if I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger, but I love it now. LOVE IT!

Your life was so full and large and loud! You influenced and brought light and laughter and inspiration and comfort to so many people in so many ways. Your words, encouragement and actions and writing changed lives. You made sure, before you left us, that the world knew exactly who you were!

You've left a giant footprint on this world. "The Beard was here." That's for god***n sure. We should all aspire to such greatness. You always aspired to the exceptional. And your legacy is exceptional.

Freddy the Beard was real. That superhero you dreamed of being as a sickly child - you became. You were realized as a human being - fulfilled. You did it. You did it!

Larry Schwartz told this priceless story at the dinner. On the drive back to Chicago from Detroit, hustling pool, they stopped to get something to eat. They only had twenty bucks between the two of them. Larry was starving and starting to order the food and my old man, The Beard, ran in to try and stop him before it was too late. “Cancel the order!” my father yelled. “What?” Larry asked, stomach grumbling. “I need the bankroll to buy these comic books.” The year was nineteen seventy and Larry was maybe seventeen and my Dad was thirty. Poor Larry had to forgo his meal, and my Dad scored the comics (which my children now own as part of the Beard's vast collection.) Now, try and tell me, seriously, if pool doesn’t keep you young?

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