Pool Shark, Hustler, World Champion, Businessman...
The gray beard, steely eyes, diamond rings, garish dress, and colorful vernacularisms still belie the true nature of the hustler turned businessman. The trappings, however, conceal a man on compassion, kindness, and business acumen betrayed by his environs. A man whose forty-nine years of struggle up the ladder to billiards world fame via a nightmare of smokey, stenched, and dimly-lit pool rooms; sleepless nights; days without food; weeks of constant travel; and the never-ending quest for recognition among the billiard greats - Minnesota Fats, Fast Eddie Taylor, Willie Mosconi, etc. - that lead him to the World Bank Pool Championship still finds himself unsung and in a virtually total state of anonymity in his own home town of Cincinnati. The only indelible mark left by those years is the legendary name Cincinnati Kid - a name to which several lay claim and a name that was erroneously given to a card player in a 1960's movie.
But who really is the man behind the name?
The true pretender to the name Donald James Anderson began his run at fame and fortune on June 9, 1929 - the year of the "big crash" and an omen on things to come - in the Northside area of Cincinnati. Born of a poor Catholic family, Don's youth was a typical bourgeois existence of the depressive era, giving little indication of what the future would hold. He was a devout altar boy at St. Patrick's Parish, and starred as a forward on the grade school's championship basketball team while only a sixth grader giving evidence of the sensitive touch so necessary to the game of billiards.
As with so many of the young people of that era, Don was deprived of a secondary education so that he could contribute to the economic stability of his family. Clarence "Andy" Anderson, Don's father, then worked for Mergard's Bowling lanes, and was able to procure a job for Don as a pinsetter. The future Cincinnati Kid worked night and day setting pins for the next three years. During this time, he developed quite a skill as a bowler; however, it was the ivory on Mergard's pool tables that caught his fancy. Having free access to the tables, Don soon was spending his every spare moment learning the game of billiards under the tutelage of his father who was quite an excellent player himself.
By the time Don was fifteen, he was so good that he was beating all "comers" at Mergard's. About this time, he found that he was good enough to make considerably more money through his pool efforts than by setting pins, and he began to hustle factory workers from Formica and American Can for two bits and half-a-dollar a game. He was so successful that it was commonplace to see the fifteen-year-old pool shark carrying over a hundred dollars in his pockets.
As his reputation spread throughout the area, competition vanished and young Anderson was forced to seek keener adversaries in downtown Cincinnati. The first to fall to his mighty stick were the best players at the Old Realto Pool Hall on the corner of Thirteenth and Vine Streets, then those at Pitton's on Sixth Street between Main and Sycamore, and finally those at the class of the city's pool emporiums Demas Billiards on Fifth Street across from the Post Office Building. There at the age of seventeen, Don Anderson defeated the finest billiards players in the Tri-state area - Joe Sebastian, Joe Crimmons, Garland Hutchison, and the legendary Tom Smith.
As Don's eighteenth year approached, the great Rudolph Wonderone alias Minnesota Fats (at that time New York Fats) found his way to Cincinnati and the Demas Billiard Lounge. The brash youngster promptly challenged Fats to a match at $30.00 a game (big money in those days). To the amazement of the billiards world, Anderson beat Fats six games to none, and a legend was born.
So awesome and overwhelming in victory was the newfound billiards phenom, it became impossible for him to find a money game in Cincinnati. It then became necessary for Don to take his hustle on the road to such places as Lexington, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Evansville, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and all points in between. Joining him in his ventures were two other rising Cincinnati billiards stars Joey Spaeth and Clem Metz, the Three Musketeers of the pool world. The fruits of their barnstorming were realized as all three became rated among the top five players in the world with Don and Joey winning world championships in their respective specialties of bank and one-pocket pool.
Their act was right out of a Hollywood Marx Brothers' comedy. A successful hustle would be comprised of their dressing like and imitating the mannerisms of farm boys out on the town for a good time. Upon finding a pool hall in their selected town, one of them would proceed to ask the local patrons, "Anybody wanna shoot some pool?" There was always some local hustler who thought that he had found some "easy pickin's" and the fun began. The three would usually set up their mark by throwing a few points in order to invite higher stakes, and then one of them would go for the kill. Don seemed to be invincible. Even those at the House of Benzinger in Chicago, the country's largest and most renown billiards emporium and home of the greats, found him unbeatable. The Anderson reputation spread far and wide. He could not enter a town without someone saying, "here comes that kid from Cincinnati." From these words grew the legend of the Cincinnati Kid.
Everyone wanted to "try" the Kid. Much like a fabled gun fighter, Don Anderson was a marked man. Everyone wanted to "gun him down." But the Cincinnati Kid refused to lose. Unlike most money players who are staked by their backers, Don played on his own money during this period of his life. The pressure was terrific, but the Kid cut a swath through billiards' legions never to be forgotten. During one session in Irvin, Kentucky, Don won fifty-nine straight games of nine-ball at $10.00 a game. And throughout the years of competitive billiards play, Don "Cincinnati Kid" Anderson lost no more than a total of six matches. There is not another billiards player alive that can lay claim to such a feat.
Former mayor and chief of police of Lexington, Kentucky, Gilbert Cravens, a top player in his own right who defeated many of the finest players in the world, has always relished the opportunity to match sticks with the Cincinnati Kid, but has yet to score his first victory against Don - after thirty years of trying on his own table!
With the outbreak of the Korean War, the merry-go-round of fun and games was soon to halt for the Cincinnati Kid. Donald James Anderson became Private Anderson of the U.S. Army undergoing basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. As lady luck would have it, Don was sent to Nuremberg, Germany as a cook with the Sixteenth Army Field Hospital. It was a great move for Don, but not so great for the Army. So adapted did he become to Army life - or perhaps I should say to the "Anderson Army" life - that he opted for five more years of military service beyond the two for which he was drafted. The story of those years is too unreal for the realm of nonfiction.
The fairy tale begins with his trip across the ocean on one of those fabled Army troop transports. The kid's love for the hustle brought abut the loss of all of his hard-earned service dollars playing "craps" with a different kind of hustler from that whom Don had been accustomed to in the past. To further elevate the cruise to the lowest ebb of his life, Don contacted a good case of sea sickness which kept him green and incapacitated for nine days.
Arriving in Germany, he was obviously very broke and disheartened with his new-found role in life. However, it never takes a true hustler long to allow his natural instincts to put him back into financial prosperity, and Don was no exception. After duty hours, the Kid would head to the local service clubs and find easy marks for "small change" games - within two months, he had $1,700.00 in accumulated winnings.
Having amassed more money than anyone in his outfit, our man Anderson decided to become the Robin Hood of the Nuremberg Field Hospital. Lending $10.00 for $10.00 to the needy of the camp soon earned the wrath of a certain unscrupulous Master Sergeant who was in the loan-sharking business lending $10.00 for $20.00 in return. So the Kid, chancing repercussion from the sergeant, decided to try a good thing himself and began lending $10.00 for $13.00 which soon put the good sergeant out of business. He covered his position by including many of the officers as clients. Soon most of the men in his company were on Anderson's list of accounts, and he took over Uncle Sam's role as the financial mainstay of the camp.
Upon acquiring this highly important and functional Army position, it became necessary for Don's superiors to provide him with a billet befitting his stature. Thus, the Cincinnati Kid was promoted to corporal and put in charge of the Day Room (game room). This required all of twenty minutes of his time each day during which he made sure that the billiard tables were to his liking. He also provided a weekly Black Jack game and a monthly "craps" game for the troops from which he deducted 5% for the house, which, of course, was the "House of Anderson." Utilizing his wits and skill wit the stick, the Kid soon accumulated such a large sum of money that he became known as Baron Von Anderson, a name befitting such a man involved in high finance and gamesmanship.
After two years, the Kid's tour of duty would come to an end; however, his enjoyment of royalty being what it was, he extended his stay in Germany for another year with an option for one additional year - not exactly Army regulations, but made possible due to his high ranking on the base. And by this time, the officers were so in his debt that they found it "necessary" to promote Don to sergeant and find a less-demanding job for him. Soon, Baron Von Anderson was assigned the duty of motor pool dispatcher - a post that required his presence only every one in three days for a limited time.
Life was becoming truly princely for the hustler from Cincinnati. Nothing was the want of the Nuremberg financial baron. Anderson soon began acquiring the trappings of his role. Never having been taught the rudiments of driving an automobile, Baron Von Anderson quickly purchased two luxury autos complete with chauffeur - one a rather ostentatious Mercedes Benz limo - to transport him between the hospital base and the four hundred-year-old castle that he called home. No general ever had life better than the Baron. Indeed it was so pleasant that he enlisted for three more years after his year expired. He was looking forward to the continued reign over his barony with his beautiful baroness whom he had recently acquired in marriage. As fate would have it, however, his benefactors were transferred from the command and Army "red tape" finally caught up with the Kid. The legend of the Baron had filtered out to other Army units all over Europe, and several "red neck lifers" decided to have Anderson atone for his Army indiscretions.
Paradise quickly turned to the hellish realities of regular Army life as the Kid was transferred back to the States and Ft. Knox to a "gung-ho" armored cavalry unit. Billiards shooting time was almost non-existent for Sergeant Anderson as he pulled sergeant-of-the-guard and labor party details day after day. Finally he was sent to tank commander school, but was washed-out because tank rides made him physically ill.
Afterward, Sergeant Anderson played-out his option with the U.S. Army; and in 1959, he returned to his home in Cincinnati.
Having been away from billiards for several years, Anderson decided to seek "honest" employment. For the next several years, Don bounced from one job to another being unable to adjust to civilian life. Down to his last $100.00, and living on hot dogs and soft drinks, Don decided to attend a mixology school in Chicago.
Being a gregarious individual, Don finally found an occupation that he enjoyed and to which he was suited. Armed with his newly acquired mixology license, Anderson quickly obtained employment at the Elmhurst Country Club outside of Chicago. After a season there, it was back to the Queen City mixing drinks in Yeatman's Cove at the Sheraton Gibson for four years, the Playboy club for another two, and then a management position at Mergard's Peacock Lounge.
It was at Mergard's with the easy access to the billiard tables that Don began his transformation back to the role of the Cincinnati Kid. At first, he lacked the old confidence, but after daily two to three hour sessions on the tables, the shadow once again became the man.
A slight difference of opinion regarding his percentage at Mergard's send Don packing for the Guys & Dolls Billiard Lounge in Springfield, Ohio. As manager, Don worked and lived at the pool hall. So dedicated was he to sharpening his billiard skills that he never left the darkness of the pool hall to see sunlight for six months. Notice went out from Springfield that the Kid had a "hot" stick once again. The hustlers came "a runnin" and Don "cleaned" them all.
Wanderlust and the insatiable thirst for glory on the green cloth once again hit the Kid, and again he became "a man on the hustle." For six months, the Cincinnati Kid laid a path of destruction through the billiard parlors of the Midwest and South - Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Toledo. The Kid was unbeatable and untouchable at his specialty of bank pool. The challengers came from all points of the country, and they all left still challengers - great players such as Chicago Freddie, James Brown, California Johnnie, and Louisville Truman.
The renowned and fabled Cornbread Red had long boasted that if Anderson would ever accept his challenge, the redhead would walk away with a "duffel bag full of hundreds." However, the challenge was usually made when the Kid was hundreds of miles away. One day while Don was in Chicago, though, he heard that Cornbread was in nearby Detroit and immediately went to pay the man a visit. When Cornbread heard that the Cincinnati Kid was looking for him, he must have thought there was a "contract" out on him because he hid from the Kid for three days rather than risk the embarrassment of defeat. During this time, the Kid set up shop at the Oak Park Billiard Club and devastated Detroit City's finest sticks.
Even the all-time great Willie Mosconi would not play the Cincinnati Kid in a game of bank pool!
The Kid's success was so great that the competition "ran dry" and he returned to Cincinnati with $24,000.00 which he had won during the six months. Knowing that his days of hustling were over except for a few "wet-behind-the-ears" kids who would want to "try" him, Don purchased a cocktail lounge in Mt. Airy and turned to tournament billiards.
Once again, the Kid stunned the billiards world as he went through tournament after tournament defeating all contestants on his way to winning the World Bank Pool Championship in 1972, a title which he retained through 1974.
With the small purses available in tournament billiards, the Kid lost interest and turned his attention to the business world. He founded a company called Wide World of Billiards and became heavily involved with billiards equipment and promotions. Don was befriended by a successful Cincinnati businessman who became his business manager and took Don into one of his business associations. Don has since risen to oversee the Dayton market for this firm.
Don became so involved with business that he stopped finding time to play billiards; and when it was time to defend his world title, he decided to simply "retire." However, pressure from challengers and his own competitive nature urged him to the tournament with only a few weeks of practice. For the first time in his life, he was defeated in tournament play.
In defeat, the legend of the Cincinnati Kid grew even larger as a sense of mortality and humanism had been injected into the man-legend. Charity show and club exhibitions with Minnesota Fats and women's champion Gerry Titcomb as well as several television appearances show that the greatness is still apparent, and that finally Don "Cincinnati Kid" Anderson is receiving some of the recognition that is long overdue him in his home town.
With the ever increasing popularity of billiards and the ballooning tournament purses, one can only assume that the Cincinnati Kid will again find the time and desire to recapture his world crown and add further fuel to the fire of the legend that is already bigger than life. In the words of the immortal Minnesota Fats, "Next to me, if there's a greater bank pool player in the world than Donnie Anderson, you're gonna have to show me."
Written by Skip Suder
Greater Cincinnati Sports Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 5
UPDATE: In 2007 the Cincinnati Kid was honored in Louisville Kentucky at the One Pocket Hall of Fame for his achievements in the sport of bank pool. He was reacquainted with many old friends from his hustling days, as well as fans young and old that had heard stories of the legend.
Sadly, Donny passed away in his sleep on May 1st, 2015 at the age of 85 years old. He will be greatly missed by his friends and family.