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The Greatest Pool Hustler - Vernon Elliott

"Burnie" Couldn't Play Them All - They Refused To Play Him


Vernon Elliott - Pool Legend

Vernon Elliott - Pool Legend

Photo courtesy of All About Pool
Arguably the greatest pool hustler ever, Vernon Elliott was one of those pocket billiards legends who never played tournaments before the public but cashed against all the great. Here's his story.


Few know the whole career of the legendary Vernon "Burnie" Elliott. Some say he was by far the finest money player ever to wield a cue stick. Never a tournament competitor, he was named to the Bank Pool and One Pocket Halls of Fame.

In the early 1980s he steamrolled over one of my heroes, Keith "Earthquake" McCready in Knoxville, Tennessee. In North Carolina, he beat Efren Reyes several times at Bank Pool. And BCA Hall of Fame member Nick Varner wouldn't even play him on his road trip through Chattanooga!

An unknown legend of the pool world... a master at his craft... not just in 9-Ball but a One Pocket champion and Bank Pool specialist.

He played Louie Roberts, Kenny Rhomberg, Bugs Rucker, Ronnie Allen, etc. The first time he shot against Allen it was to cash on a standing offer for some One Pocket at 11-8 for $1,000 U.S. per game, worth even more today. Allen was destroyed until he could only offer to play Elliott straight up.

How it went down was like this: Burnie and Allen had been hanging around the same pool hall. Seeing each other and not talking, but both in and out the same time. Please understand, Burnie was NOT the typical hustler. He didn't pick up a cue and just hit the balls around, trying to pick up a game. NEVER!

Finally one day, Ronnie Allen having a lot of heart as was well known yelled out, "I'll give anyone in here 11-8 for a 1,000 a game!" Burnie without hesitation said "I'll take that bet!" I can't say who won what games, or how long it took, but after a little while and a $10,000 loss, Ronnie said, "HELL, I didn't even know he could play pool."

True story and Burnie didn't lay low, because we both know Ronnie Allen was probably one of the greatest one pocket players that ever lived and known to gamble with great "heart". Burnie was known just to sit, a very quite man and seemed to study people (or perhaps the way they played). A man of few words but he never minced words when it came to gambling.

I can't say for certain whether he played Ronnie Allen again, heads up even, later. I honestly don't think they played again. If you know anything about gambling ethics, and I do, then if you adjust the game, you're at least obligated to lose back the money you won...

...Little is known of Burnie, the tough man with the Kentucky drawl, but all the real players know and respect his legacy. Ask around... Rest In Peace, one of the greatest hustlers and money players ever, Burnie!


Yes, I played him for 12 hours in Indianapolis without knowing who he was. We ended up breaking even, and I "called in sick" the next day. After playing him "2 Shot roll out" for 12 hours I had a splitting headache....he was a super player and showed me how important it was to know how to bank with the TOI. I got to know him more a few years later through some mutual friends in Kentucky....I always had a high level of respect and admiration for Vernon "the faceless man"..

Legend CJ Wiley once played Burnie for about 12 hours with "push out" rules up in Detroit (Wiley did not know who he was playing). Push Out 9-Ball is old school pool, where the player can choose to push (defer to the other guy at their option) on any shot. In the 1970s it was played a lot for cash.

CJ said, "Vernon Elliott is truly a legend and taught me a lot about banking but this was after a 12-hour match in which we broke even at 2-shot rollout." This was when CJ was at the highest echelon of hustlers in the world. They made plans to play again the next day but CJ had such a headache lasting for several days they never rematched. CJ got to know Burnie more a few years later through some mutual friends in Kentucky. He maintained a high level of respect and admiration for Vernon, "the faceless man" of hustling.

Note carefully: CJ was at the top of the hustlers pile and all pool players have peaks--and Burnie's peak wasn't in the 1990s when they played and he still gave CJ "a headache" at the tables. I further suspect Burnie picked the "push out" game to take advantage of his fabulous banking ability and knowledge of CJ Wiley's skills.

All the great bank players seemed to haunt Louisville, Kentucky, once upon a time, including Burnie, who once made bucks off a proposition bank that even the great Eddie Taylor avowed was an impossible shot.

Once Nick "Kentucky Colonel" Varner comes looking for action in the mid-1980s, while already a world champion and one of two dominant players of his day along with Captain Hook, Mike Sigel. He's being guided around town for short matches of about $5,000 U.S. each.

At a local action hotspot the owner is asked who might jump in for $5,000 a throw with Varner giving a spot to anyone who wants a piece of the action. "I have to give spots, that's only fair," as Varner told it. Some calls are made and Varner's backer hears a local (Burnie Elliott) will play--but not for less than $10,000 a set.

Long story short, Varner asks his opponent's name and then Varner and his backer go into a huddle and suggest the match is on if Mr. Varner can have at least the 8-ball as a spot. Call it a dodge or a hustle if you don't want to impugn the champ but Burnie's reply was he'd certainly give the eight away if there was serious money on the table, so the two didn't play! No worries, sources tell of countless other big money matches for Burnie, who never worked a straight job in his lifetime.

And our sources could tell you stories on top of stories but people wouldn't believe the tales.

Another Hall of Fame great, Buddy Hall, knew Burnie as well as anyone and could tell tales to make your hair stand on end. They were the Kings of the Road together, although we may never know whether Burnie gave Buddy spots when they played during time on their own as has been told elsewhere.


A friend of About.com worked at the North Georgia poolroom where Burnie often visited, meeting him for the first time in '74. Burnie never played anyone at that spot for years due to his fearsome reputation but would win proposition money once in a while on one of his famous backwards bank shots. YouTube shows this shot with other players imitating Burnie (and admitting they are extremely difficult shots to master).

1979, and this fellow drives to little Portsmouth, Ohio, nestled along the banks of the Ohio River near the West Virginia border. He was meeting Burnie, who had been roaming in the area and shooting with another player.

This fellow visited to assist them by buying the car they were driving back and forth. He's a player so naturally he figures to pick up a few bucks, too. Not the case as no one would play anyone even associated with Vernon Elliott.

But during his brief stay in town, the locals brought in Howard Vickery(former Senior U.S. Open champion) to play Burnie--yet another match never to take place due to the "power of Elliott".

Next, around Chattanooga, Burnie called out Mike Massey, taunting that he was "a dog for the money". Never to Massey's face, of course, but he told his confidantes how Massey could not compete for big money. You guessed right, reader--they never played together. And before Massey moved to the area, Burnie would say, "Actually there's no one in Chattanooga that can really play, a good shortstop would give anyone the 8-ball in this town".


When Burnie beat Keith McCready in the early 80s, some who watched called it the finest pool playing they'd ever seen.

Efren Reyes wanted no part of Burnie after a single match in North Carolina, not at 9-Ball and certainly not at One Pocket.

Pool pals and I have run with a lot of shortstops, players who can handle a table at just below a professional level and often compete for dollars. All the old timers, and we mean all admit Vernon Elliott is a unique legend and probably the best undercover pool expert of all time. But where Burnie differed from all the great shadows of the sport who've won bunches of money but who never played in an official tournament was how his standing offer was to compete against any tournament's champion anytime.


Elliott admitted his weakness for horse racing but kept to the billiards tables. Even as an old hustler in the late 1980s Burnie played some sets for over $100,000 each. High profile pals were involved, and let's say they were like "family" to Burnie and could "make offers pool players couldn't refuse".


Phil Hunt, who owns EJ's Tavern in Chattanooga, is quite a student of the game, and was a dear friend and student of Burnie's. He also swears Elliott is the best ever.

Some even said Burnie played as though possessed by the Devil because he was--his eyes brightly shining at the tables, as in the accompanying photo.

Through the years Burnie's advice to friends, and his pool ethics, were unmatched. His firm conviction was never to jar the gambling with insider moves, unless he was traveling with a trusted pool brother who was in on the play. "Never queer action," he said. "Hell, you didn't take the guy to raise." All suspect Burnie's action got manipulated many times in the past.

Burnie really never talked much about defeating others for the cash, and he didn't like to lay low as do most other pool hustlers. In the end, though, it was about the money and he supported four children and a spouse on his "single income".

Those who know remember how Burnie stirred many road players but kept to his ethics and never double dipped against his hustling colleagues.


What can you take away from Burnie's game? Little as he had an unusual stance. Upright with his chin as far from his cue as you can imagine. Only on rare shots did he hunker down low, yet those who kept him company for years, say he never once miscued.

And on that insanely difficult backward bank of his, Elliott would bet he could can it once every three tries. (And later said that when action was slow, he'd declare he could make it once in two tries before the "smart money" showed up and tried to bust him, then lost. Why would anyone ever accept a bank shot bet from him?)

Burnie Elliott also had the killer instinct. He could be very coldhearted and wasn't a person to cross. He stood six feet tall and weighed 225 pounds, as posted on his Georgia arrest record for the 1990s when he given five years then served two on a charge. Few will speak of his arrest record today but he was one to watch sharp for. He carried his weight well and his piercing blue eyes could cut a man to the bone.

Vernon Elliott, Part 2
Vernon Elliott, Part 3

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