Remembering Don Willis


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I posted some of this several years ago, but it’s worth updating with his daughter’s notes.
The following are emails I received from players who knew Don. The information has not been verified:

Here's one from Leon Martin:​

“ I am from Akron, Ohio, just north of Canton. Don (Canton) Willis was the greatest pool hustler that ever lived, bar none. He taught me the game when I was very young; how to shoot without twisting the shaft, proper english, etc. I could tell you stories about the man, but hell, you probably have heard enough of them. I set up a game with a man named Donnie A...... from Virginia who professed to being the best bar room hustler in the country, and he could shoot the eyes out of the balls. In 1968, it was Don who beat the man out of his shirt and shorts at the D&D Bar in Akron, bad legs and all. I split the pot for setting up the game - $3,000.00. We went out and had steak and champagne, as he called it. I asked him how I could learn to shoot like that? He said to pay attention and keep my mouth shut. Thanks for the information on this great pool hustler and man.
Leon Martin"

Karl Kantrowitz, from New Jersey writes​
I was a college kid, hanging out at Paddy's 7-11 Pool Hall on Broadway, above the Metropole Cafe near 51st Street in NYC. Walter Tevis' book, "The Hustler," had been made into a movie and pool was hot in NYC. It was a late Spring Friday night, I believe, in 1965 when Don Willis and Dean Chance strode into Paddy's. They were both wearing white linen suits and cowboy hats. I never saw anything like it. Johnny Ervolino, Pots 'n Pans, Brooklyn Jimmy, Fast Eddie, Slim, New York Blackie, Deano....they were all there. The entire room turned their attention to Willis and Chance, who were fooling around on a 5x10 billiard table. After joking around and missing most of their shots, Willis worked the crowd, masterfully, into a proposition bet: he said that he could play a billiard by hitting the cue ball into the red ball, then jumping it off the table, running the cue ball across the floor and then completing the billiard on the floor by touching the other cue ball, which was about thirty feet away, nestled next to the foot of a Brunswick Gold Crown across the room. Willis and Chance were laughing and joking about how impossible such a shot really was, as if anyone was stupid enough try even try it. Dean Chance, who had already won the Cy Young Award in the American League, tried to shoot it and couldn't even jump the table with the cue ball. He "paid" Willis some money and then said that nobody could make that shot. Willis played the crowd some more and drew them in for the kill. He "bet" Chance, I think it was $1000, that he could make it if he got three tries. On the first shot, he almost miscued, missed by a mile, and there were snickers heard all over the room. Now, Don moved in for the kill. He side bet with anybody for any amount before the second shot. A few guys in the room were holding the stakes. I don't know what the total bet was, but it was a couple of thousand at least. Now, Don Willis chalked up, jacked up, and struck the cue ball perfectly. It jumped the table, ran along the uneven and worn out floor boards of Paddy's, and slowly came to rest as it struck the other cue ball, which Willis had "casually" placed against one of the feet of the old Gold Crown. The entire room erupted. Men were almost falling down, laughing, gasping, pointing and shouting. Don collected the money and he offered to bet again because he said that it was a lucky shot and he wanted to give everyone a chance to get their money back. There were no takers. Then Willis and Dean Chance left Paddy's. I never saw either of them again. I didn't even learn Don Willis' name until years later when I recounted this story to George Fels. George told me that Willis played the same con in Chicago at Bensinger's, where the cue ran down a flight of stairs. The gimmick, of course, is that Willis would go into the room when nobody was there several days before and figure out where the cue ball would naturally come to rest on the uneven floor. The rest was simply taking candy from a baby. This story is true, although I don't know who was on the "in" and who was on the "out" of the con.
Karl Kantrowitz,
New Jersey

Jay Helfert writes:​
Thanks for the info on Don Willis, one of the more amazing human beings to inhabit the planet. I saw him first in Johnston City in 1964. He didn't play anyone there, but I overheard players talking about him with reverence. They equated his ability with Luther Lassiter, the master 9-Ball player of that era.
A few years later I was working as a referee for Fred Whalen at one of his Invitational tournaments in L.A. He had invited Don to come out and be his guest. Every day Don would sit in the practice room and tell stories with all the pool players. Once in a while he would get up and shoot a few wing shots. Most of the time his face was buried in the newspaper studying college basketball scores and checking the lines on upcoming games. Another talent of his was the ability beat the sports books. I was told by those that knew that Don Willis beat college basketball every year for a big number.
While he was there, someone challenged him to a foot race and gave him a handicap because he was an old man. From what I understand (I didn't see it), the handicap was 25 yards in a 50 yard dash, but Willis had to run backward. Danny Diliberto told me the story and said Willis won easily.
He was said to challenge anyone to a game of ping pong and he would use a coke bottle. He always took a cue off the rack when he played and usually picked a warped one. In the pool world the stories about him abound. The consensus seemed to be that he was the best road man ever.
Thanks again,
Jay Helfert

Cat Nelson Givens, Granddaughter of Don Willis, writes
from Portage Lakes, Ohio
I'd like to thank you for your work about my Grandpa. He was such a fun man, always sure to entertain us kids with his amazing trick shots and card tricks after he had a few cocktails. My favorite was when he would have one of us place the 8-ball someplace down the hall and around the corner from the pool table room, then he'd carefully get down on his knees, eyeball and eye level with the ball and he'd get us all to be quiet for the length of time it took him to inspect the area and then set up the shot. Of course, he'd hit the cueball which would glance off the ball he'd call and that one would leave the table, glancing off this wall or that chair and inevitably ending up kissing that 8-ball one of us had planted. He NEVER missed. NEVER!
Grandpa could also list on demand all the capital cities of the US in any order you wanted; alphabetical, by population or whatever you wanted. Or, anything else “m” countries of the world by alphabetical order, population, anything. He made a living betting on games and on his knowledge. And, of course, by playing pool.
The saddest was when it became too painful for him to stand at the table any more due to his prosthetics not fitting over his swollen upper legs. He'd had both lower legs amputated due to diabetes. Then he lost his ability to read due to diminished sight also from diabetes. He lost his two best friends that way, as he had always been a voracious reader.
I will always remember him as a big loving man who had a special scent and a toothpick in his mouth we'd have to watch out for when we'd kiss him. Also, I see a little of him every day now that I am older and those lovely jowels of his have decided to grace my face as well! Thank you!
Cat Nelson Givens, Daughter of Barbara Willis Nelson
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(From Bob Roth, in Hawaii)
"Let share some additional stories about Don Willis. I can vouch for a few of the stories and would like to share some additions. Some of these facts can be corroborated by my uncle (Marv L...) still living in Canton and possibly my cousin (Tom W...) who recently retired as Canton's Chief of Police.
My uncle told me this one.
Apparently, there was a Sportsman's Club that met occasionally to get together have a few drinks and share some war stories. On one occasion, a highlight of their meeting was an exhibition match with a prominent pool player from a neighboring state. This player was scheduled to play a local favorite named Don Willis. Don was late for the match. While the group was waiting for Don to show up, they asked the featured pool player to run through a little history about himself. He told the crowd how he became the champ in his local and then got so good he had to search for games throughout the state. Nobody could beat him. He said although he was the recognized champ, that winning streak came to an end a couple weeks ago. According to the pool player, an old man in bib overalls came into his pool hall and gave him a beating like he never had before. While he was still talking, Don Willis arrived for their match. The pool player exclaimed "why there's that son-of-bitch, right there!"
Over the years, some other things about Don Willis I heard.
Don loved to bet on anything. Some of the best bets were made in bars and naturally were part of his Hoorah. I heard that he once bet a guy that he could hit a golf ball over a half-mile. Once the wager was made, Don drove out in the winter to a frozen Myer's Lake, teed up and sent the ball flying. Another bar bet I heard was that he could throw a peanut over a two-story building. Again, after the wager was set, Don had an angle. This time he took a hypodermic needle from his vest pocket that was filled with liquid mercury, injected the peanut shell, and threw the peanut over the building. Another scam he played on the road was while having a casual conversation in a bar with a stranger, Don would introduce himself (not sure if he used his real name) and asked the mark what was his name. More often than not, the mark's name might be Jones or Smith, etc. Don would say something like "wow, everyone in this town must be named Smith. I'll bet there are x number of Smith's here in town?" The mark would say no. Of course, a bet was in the making. After the wager was placed, the mark would say "how can prove how many there are?" Don would say, let's check the phone book. You probably have figured out the scam. Don had already counted the names of the all the Jones's and Smiths to have a lock bet.

I had the pleasure of meeting Don Willis on a couple of occasions. He was the life of the party. Don was an accomplished magician and an avid story teller. He could definitely captivate an audience. I was a half-assed magician and I picked up two excellent tricks from him. One was having a person imagine picking a card and putting it in the deck upside down. Don would take an un-opened, sealed deck of cards from his pocket. He then opened the deck fanned the cards and there was only one card upside down--the picked card. The other trick was making a shot glass (full of whiskey) disappear and re-appear on the bar. What a guy! You may not know this, but Don was also a three-card Monte expert. He could bend the target card, accidentally (yea, right) drop and show the card, and un-bend and re-bend another, to fool the mark. Amazing to watch.
Anyway, thanks for documenting the memories."


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