Confessions of a Pool Hustler

Wiley remembers how easily the action flowed right after the release of 1986’s The Color of Money. Thanks to that film, Wiley clipped off an entire bar in Pittsburgh over the course of an evening. He began with the owner, a pigeon who knew the flick by heart. He led Wiley up to hid private pool table on the second floor, saying, “It’s just like the movie. You saw the movie, right?” The Owner couldn’t hit the floor with his hat.

“After I beat him out of a few hundred, stalling to keep the games close, he quits and has me play everybody else in the building: the bartender, the cook, the dishwasher, five locals and finally the best player in town. By night’s end, I had the owner stuck around 65 hundred. ‘You know kid, you played a lot better at the end than you did at the beginning.’ He says to me. I looked him square in the eyes and said, ‘Well, you saw the movie right?’”

Wiley was part of an elite underground group called “road players,” traveling pool assassins hiding below the radar y never showing their faces in tournaments. “There were only around 30 of us,” says Wiley, who’s run a dozen racks without missing and won as much as $20,000 in a single night. “I’m talking about the solid ones, the guys who consistently got the cash.” These players were known through the grapevine simply by their nicknames: Frisco Jack and One-Eyed Rd, Water-dog and Shaft Man, Big John and The Faceless Man. “We knew each other, and there was a camaraderie. We even worked together taking off scores, calling each other with steers into good games.

“In the pool world, the road player is the most respected, way more than the tournament winners. We’re not just great players. We’re a special bread. We have nerves strong enough to hold up for the big money. We have something extra—a killer instinct, an ice-cold hearts.” He pauses, then, unflinchingly, adds: “I had both in abundance.”

Wake-up Call

High-stakes pool hustling is a dangerous game. Hustlers get hurt. Wiley has been clocked with a pair of roundhouses, been slipped a Mickey at least three times and was robbed at gunpoint twice. “Both times was after I won a lot of money,” he says. “Both, I’m convinced, were setups.” It didn’t stop him, though. Wiley accepted those things as occupational hazards. “I was on an adventure, and I never saw a great adventure movie without the star being chased, shot at and running for his life.”

The first time Wiley stared down the barrel of a gun while hustling, he was 18. It was 3 a.m. in a seedy section of Minneapolis, near Gentleman Jim’s, a 24-hour poolroom well-known for its big money action. Wiley had scored around seven grand and was riding a rush of adrenaline. The gunman stuck his .45 so hard underneath Wiley’s chin it rose the Texan onto his toes. The mugger made off with only $400, speeding off in a car. “luckily,” Wiley says, “my partner was always the one who carried most of the money.”

Wiley was shaken but not stirred. “It had no lasting effect,” he says. “it was just a wake-up call.” In fact, he was robber again a year later, in Albemarle, North Carolina, at some bootleg liquor joint with a backroom pool table by a guy with a shotgun who wore a nylon stocking over his head. He still felt bulletproof, though he finally learned to leave town in a hurry after big wins.

Rack ‘em

Born and raised in Green City, Missouri, a desperately small, poor cattle town 136 miles from Kansas City, Wiley started shooting stick at seven, standing on a wooden soda case to reach the table. Four years later he was the best player in town; by 15 he was outgunning guys twice his age for $20 a game. He found his nirvana in his senior year in high school. During Christmas break, he and two experienced partners embarked on a road trip, working spots all over Oklahoma and Kansas. The trio took in $16,000 in just 40 days. Wiley never sat though another class again.

From ages 18 to 26 Wiley lived constantly on the move. His Sky-Pager would go off in the middle of the night, alerting him to action. In 1987, Wiley relocated to Dallas to be centrally located between both coasts. He’d plan trips on his motor home based on trips from an underground network of informants. “I would take a map, circle spots I wanted to hit and connect them as strategically as I would if I were running a rack of balls,” he says. All the inside info was compiled in a “spot book,” a hustler’s little black book containing addresses of action joints, names of gambling players, how well they played, what games they liked and how much they liked to bet.

He assumed aliases: Mike from Indiana, Chris from Missouri or Butch from Tennessee. “I once went to a spot where the locals were talking about all three of my aliases and arguing which one was the best player.” He posed as a college student, a computer salesman, even a drug dealer. He used fake IDs and phony glasses. (“a guy with glasses can always get played.”) He blended with locals by mimicking their behavior, dress and accents, even occasionally stealing license plates. He did whatever it took to get the game. “There were only three guys in the country I wouldn’t play,” he says, “and I knew who those guys were.”

He also had a favorite line that never failed to lure ‘em in. Wiley would simply smile and say, “I’m very good at pool—is anyone here as good as me?” He found it was better to be cocky than pretend to be a bad player and what could guys say when he beat them? He’d warned them he was good.

Like most hustlers, Wiley traveled with a partner. This guy held most if the cash, watched his back and helped the scam. “Sometimes, I’d act like the stake-horse and my partner would be the player,” he says. “My partners could play, though not as well as I could. He’d beat a guy until he quit, then the guy would say to me, ‘I can’t beat him, but I’ll play you.’ They assumed that I couldn’t play since I was staking the money. They didn’t realize they’d stepped into a bigger trap.”

Eight ball in the corner pocket

Wiley didn’t just roll chumps. “My forte was beating players who were supposedly unbeatable on their home tables. Even if they played as well as I did, I’d simply outlast them.” He built a rep for intimidating opponents, slamming balls into pockets with a popping stroke, making long-range shots as if they were mere tap-ins and shooting so fast he ran racks in minutes. He accompanied this with a mean game face derived from biting the inside of his mouth until he bled. “With good players, I didn’t just want to beat them, I wanted to crush them,” he says. “I got off on seeing their knees buckle, seeing fear in their eyes.”

Wiley’s reputation began to precede him, and the money dried up. He retired from hustling for good and went legit, joining the pros in 1991. Four years later, frustrated with the piddling prize money, he quit that, too, but not before being ranked as high as fourth in the world. “What I made in a year on the pro tour, I used to make in one night hustling.”

Now 38 and more than a decade removed from his poolroom cons, Wiley is still hustling—but in the business world. Today, he owns a 24-hour poolroom and a $3.5 million sports bar. He lives in a three-bedroom home in the swanky suburb of Lake Highlands, outside Dallas.

Does he ever miss the pool-hustling life? “At the time, I loved everything about the life, especially the freedom and being able to travel around the country,” Wiley says. “When I look back on it now, it sickens me. I was a pure predator. I’d hate to ever go back to that, even though I was a winner.”

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