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The first time I saw Benny Conway was eighteen years ago in a small Mississippi town. He was on a road trip down from Missouri and I was managing the local pool room. When I noticed him standing just inside the door. He looked like anything other than a pool player, but, since he carried a cue case, I sent a few of the local players over to challenge him. He politely declined and I passed him off as a nobody.
During that time, there was a hot action spot out at the state line which, at night, had become a gathering place for hustlers from Alabama and Mississippi. It was a real lion's den and only the sharpest players survived the action that sometimes lasted for days. I was somewhat surprised to see Benny enter that room later on the same day. The hustlers immediately started playing position on him, and before long they had matched him up with a game. The opponent they chose for him was a road player from Birmingham who had become a regular and who had all the local's confidence--and their money backing him.
I watched with amusement as one person after another approached the man, who had come with Benny, and asked for "just a little sweet bet." Benny timidly assured his partner that it was okay. After the stage was set, the hungry crowd gathered to watch the slaughter, but two hours later they sat in stunned silence as the two Missouri men walked out of the club with everyone's cash. The only sound was an occasionally murmured, "Who was he?" The would-be champion from Birmingham sat in his chair (where he'd been forced to sit rack after rack) with a look of disbelief on his face. After that, the story spread and became legend on the Gulf Coast.
It was two years before I saw Benny Conway again. This time it was in New Orleans at the famed Sports Palace Pool Room. He had just moved to that city and made his home there. I was working offshore in the Louisiana oil fields and spending my fourteen off-duty days around town, soaking up action that was non-stop.
Benny and I got to know each other and started taking short road trips together. One of our favorite spots was just seventy miles away in Baton Rouge. Greenway Billiards had become famous for monthly tournaments in an era when tournaments were few and far between.
Back then, most professional pool players still counted on gambling for their livelihood, so it wasn't unusual to see players the caliber of Mike Sigel, Buddy Hall, Larry Hubbart, Danny Jones, Grady Mathews, "St. Louis" Louie, Junior Goff, Don Watson, James Christopher, Billy Wier, "Jersey Red". Ritchie Ambrose, "Flyboy." and "San Francisco" Jack at Greenway participating in the action. At first, I felt a natural apprehension about trying to gamble with veterans of this caliber, but soon I learned that whenever you had Benny Conway on your side, you were never at a disadvantage. He could play in any league, and this was proven by the fact that he won several of the monthly events at Greenway. I also was to learn that no matter what the odds, Benny never gave up; he was one of the few pool players who knew how to win.
Many times over the years to come, I would have the unique opportunity to travel with the man who was known to pool players everywhere as "The Goose." In the course of these travels, I had the rare chance to hear about the events in this man's life that had molded him into a Real Life Pool Hustler.
Benny was born forty-six years ago in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the son of a man who made his living with a pair of dice, a man who was known all over the state in gambling circles as "Shipwreck" Conway. In the forties, Kansas City was a hot spot on the Missouri River for pool, cards, and dice action. Ben Conway, Sr., and his brother "Whitey" opened a small pool room which was a front for their card and dice games. So it was at Aladdin Recreation where Benny Jr. hit his first pool ball at the tender age of four. It must have been an amusing sight to the hardened locals to see the youngster standing on a Coke case trying to play. Little did they know that they were witnessing the birth of a hustling career that would span forty years. To say the least, he grew up with a different set of heroes than most kids. Names like "Omaha Fats," "Cornbread Red," Bill Lawson, and Gene Welch were held in high standing by the Conway clan. These were men who knew how to get the cash.
By the time Benny was seven, he was playing road players who traveled through town - for money. Ben Sr. would match up the games and the younger Conway had to win to get the spending money most of today's youngsters take for granted.
When Benny was twelve, his dad introduced him to a different part of pool society. They took a trip downtown to Kling and Allen's, a pool room that was a legend in that era. It was mandatory to wear a sports coat in the room, and you couldn't enter if you weren't properly dressed. The famous old pool room was owned by Benny Allen and John Kling, two former world straight pool champions. Men like Willie Mosconi and Walter Franklin made stops there, and young Benny watched spellbound as these great players performed their magic--and inwardly knew that pool was going to be his life.
During that year Benny was thirteen, his dad closed the pool room and Benny had a three year spell when pool was not the only thing in his life. But when he was sixteen, he discovered Van-Brunt Recreation, a neighborhood pool room where the dominant game was snooker. Fascinated with the game from early on, Benny dove headfirst back into the pool hall world and by the time he was eighteen, he was on the road making a living from pool and snooker. His first few trips were across the state to St. Louis and just over the neighboring Kansas, but soon the whole country became his work space.
With fellow players from Kansas City, he went to the famous tournaments of the decade. Events like The Stardust Open in Las Vegas and The World All-Around Championships in Johnston City, Illinois, became his training ground in the following years.
Benny remembers it was his first trip to Johnston City when he got the nickname he was to make famous. One of his best friends, a player named Al George, told promoter George Jansco to announce Benny as "The Pear," an affectionate nickname the Kansas City players had given him because of his unusual shape. But when George got ready to announce the players, he had forgotten the nickname. He guessed, and to the surprise of all, Benny "The Goose" Conway came out.
When later asked about his choice, George Jansco said, "Well, he reminds me of a big goose."
Benny's first match that day was with the one and only Eddie Taylor, a legend in his own time. After a 11-1 thrashing by Mr. Taylor, Benny was the first to admit that Eddie was one of the greatest players of all time. Benny's second match was with Ronnie Allen another superstar of the era. Benny won 11-7 over that West Coast star. Afterward, he overheard "Cornbread Red" remark, "The Goose cooked Ronnie." The twenty-year-old liked the sound of that, and the nickname became a part of the colorful career of Benny Conway.
For the next few years, Benny dealt blackjack and handled craps in Las Vegas, ran a gambling hall in Kansas, and lived in major pool cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles. During this time, he played all the greats and became one of the best-known road men in the country.
Two years ago, Benny saw the change in the pool world coming. He knew that, for the first time, pool players were going to have the opportunity to make an honest living out of the sport they loved. He was tired of the long road trips and yearned for the chance to spend more time at home with his two children and his wife, Sandy, who had been at his side for twenty-two years.
Benny brings with him a wealth of knowledge earned over a forth-year span of playing pool from one end of the country to the other. He also brings the kind of wisdom that can only be achieved by paying the hard price of long months on the road and long hours at the table. And, of course, winning!
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