What you got in there?
In here? [opens cue case, smirks] Doom.
Our reader and storyteller continues:
…Burnie had killer instinct. He was an "all or nothing" kind of man. And I've never before or since seen hustlers move like him. Those who watched him know what I'm talking about. I never got that keen edge, I quit playing and gambling in '92 when I trusted Jesus Christ for salvation.
But back then, I ran at times with Mike Johnson, a good shortstop hustler. Differences between him and Burnie Elliott were night and day. Mike always wanted to play. Remember in The Color of Money when Tom Cruise as Vincent Lauria said, "Yeah, let's play. We're gonna' have a lot of fun..."?. That was Mike Johnson. On the rare occasions where we couldn't find matches for cash, we would play each other for hours on end. Burnie never did this.
The way they hustled was completely different too. So odd and I really don't know which was the best way. With Burnie, you made big money working to help. With Mike we always made money but in small amounts.
I think the biggest score Mike Johnson and I took down was around $500 U.S. We spent three weeks on the road after Mike (luckily) defeated Burnie. Mike's weakness? His girlfriend, he was "whipped". Again like Vincent Lauria by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as "Carmen" in Money.
Uh-Oh, Burnie Has Lost?
Burnie was traveling to the Tennessee mountains with "Billy Johnson", a sportsman who rarely played and almost always backed good players like Mike Massey and Vernon Elliott. Billy could play though, and he busted a lot of local players by fooling them into thinking he could play like a clown. I played him myself around 1982. Billy is a good man and one of the smartest gamblers I've ever seen, a high roller who backed Burnie a lot. Allen Hopkins played Billy Johnson for 10 grand a set in the late 1970s, giving Billy the 5, the break AND the first shot. (Hard to believe, I know.)
I asked Billy, "How in the heck can you lose this match?" He chewed me out with, "Have YOU EVER played a professional player a race to 5 for 10 grand?" A true local sleeper in Chattanooga and a true gambler. Phil Whidem, owner of Chattanooga's Billiard Club, was also with Billy and Burnie on their trip.
They were making numerous travels around, Billy, Burnie and Phil, and word on the street was they won lots of money. I figured it might even have been in Johnston City, (home of the infamous Hustler Jamborees that began about 50 years ago) but who knows?
Meanwhile around 1982 if I remember right, word was spreading like wildfire through the pool world that Burnie lost nearly twenty grand in Johnston City. How could this be? And everyone wondered who could possibly beat the great hustler who top pros feared to match up against without a big spot? Some Young Turk from Memphis by the name of Mike Johnson was the rumor.
"Burnie Bested! Burnie Beat!" traveled fast, and especially through the Chattanooga-area billiards scene. Young Mike seemed even younger in person, and was traveling with a gal. I was at a hotspot called Dee Browns at the foot of the mountains when Mike strode in, easy to spot, youthful and carrying a stick and accompanying a local, David Young. Glenn Young, David's dad, was a well-heeled and well-respected gambler from Chattanooga. So this had to be his Mike, the pool hotshot.
Now, winning money at pool was never how good you played but how well you shaped the match to begin. You know this as do About.com's readers, I think.
Naturally knowing who Mike Johnson was, I laid a trap by playing another local and acting like we couldn't shoot for trying. Mike soon approached wanting action. I replied, "No way, you beat Burnie!" Me and my pal played for about an hour, knocking the balls about and acting like we were betting for around $20 per game. A little bigger than it sounds now back in '82.
Finally Mike came over a second time, with, "Look, I'll give a spot if one of you wants to bet some real money". I told him, "Yeah, I'll take the 5-ball and break 'em for $30 a pop."
Mike agreed and we went to it, but he also wanted to raise the action to $50. In my eyes, I had a mortal lock. Burnie always advised me to take the break away from any good player. He knew the break is a strong spot to control the balls, either to run out or duck safe. And adding the 5-ball, a huge spot, assured me of a win.
I won't give details but will shorten the tale to say holding the break on a dead breaking table did me no good. After about 10 hours of controlled play, I wore Mike Johnson down psychically and physically. Then Mike had a fight with his girlfriend, I finished him off. I felt I won pretty big at just under $2,000.
Mike then explained he and his lady were broke, then David Young left Mike then and there. I patiently explained that there's no action around Chattanooga (if not the United States!) for someone who just beat Vernon Elliott, one of the few beating he ever took.
So on the road we went and I learned a great deal. Mike was indeed a great short stop but in my eyes he couldn't beat Burnie over the long haul. Admittedly, it's hard to judge someone's pool game accurately when they play as well as Johnson.
I remember asking Mike about how he beat Burnie. First thing Mike said was no surprise, "Well, if I knew I was playing Burnie, a legend, I would have stopped immediately". He continued,
"Burnie went by the name of "Ben" and "Billy", who used to back Mike Massey and who matched our game, was our target. Billy talked Burnie as "Ben" into give me the 5-ball. "Bet high!" they told me. "Hell, I'll play anyone with the five."
Mike's backers agreed to play for thousands of dollars per set. Mike said he beat Burnie with the 5, then adjusted to the 6-. 7- and 8-balls in turn. Mike stated Burnie never seemed to like the spot and couldn't get a line on Mike. Finally the two combatants spent six weeks and thousands of dollars laying low to disguise their true abilities, making judging Mike's true speed difficult if not impossible.
Mike explained he only cashed in because backer Billy got scared and not Burnie. I asked, "Well, where's all the money, if you won $20,000?" Mike had paid lay down money, room and board, a split with his backers, it all went fast. Only after the epic match did he come to learn he'd squared off against Vernon Elliott. Mike said, "No way, would I EVER have even PLAYED Burnie". Beating him killed his action, too, and he knew it. So he left town.