Vernon Elliott: Greatest Pool Hustler

"Burnie" was renowned as one of the billiards' greatest bank-shot artists.

Vernon Elliott - Pool Legend
Vernon Elliott - Pool Legend. Photo courtesy of All About Pool

Vernon Elliott (1938-2009) was arguably the greatest pool hustler ever -- a pocket billiards legend who never played in tournaments but defeated many of history's greatest players, often taking their money in the process. He was renowned as a banker, a player who could make seemingly impossible bank shots. But, he made a point of staying under the radar: "Burnie" -- as his friends called him -- saw pool as a way to have some fun and make a living the process.

Ultimate Hustler

 

Elliott, who was born in Kentucky, "raised a family of six by playing pool and hustling his whole life, until he was finally forced to retire in the 90s after suffering several strokes," noted  OnePocket.org. He shunned pool tournaments, preferring instead to keep his identity secret as he traveled the country, baiting other players to wager on games, which he rarely lost. 

"They always thought that I was just a damned old country boy, that I couldn’t do nothin’," Elliott told OnePocket.org’s Steve Booth in a 2006 interview. "I got big action everywhere I went, damn near, because I always had that ability to make 'em bet. They didn’t ever know my real name because I wouldn’t tell them, and I never played in a tournament, so they couldn’t find out.”

Winning History

In the early 1980s, Elliott steamrolled many pool legends, including Keith "Earthquake" McCready in Knoxville, Tennessee. In North Carolina, he beat Efren Reyes several times at bank pool. And Billiard Congress Hall of Fame member Nick Varner wouldn't even play him.

Elliott also bested pool legend Ronnie Allen, whom the "Los Angeles Times" called "the real-life inspiration for 'Fast Eddie Felson,' the fast-talking, hard-living character that Paul Newman made famous in the movies 'The Hustler' and 'The Color of Money'." 

Elliott and Allen had been hanging around the same pool hall for some time, often seeing each other but not talking. Finally one day, Allen yelled out, "I'll give anyone in here 11-8 for a $1,000 a game!" Elliott answered without hesitation: "I'll take that bet!" The two played quite a few games that day, and Elliott ended up taking about $10,000 from Allen in the process.

Cashing In

"Vernon hunted the big game players, seeking out the ‘big score,’ which he was very successful at," OnePockete said admiringly of Elliott when it inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2006. "Reliable sources report that on several occasions he matched up in single set races for six-figure amounts."

Elliott's abilities did eventually become known in the billiards community, and he sometimes found it difficult to find players willing to stake money on a game. That didn't stop him.

"If he couldn't get a game for the money he wanted, he had an array of impossible looking proposition shots that he could win at," notes Untold Stories: Billiards History. "Once he even cashed in with Eddie Taylor on a bank shot that even the great Taylor was convinced was impossible."

Elliott summed up his philosophy of pool -- and life -- in the 2006 interview with OnePocket: "I wouldn’t let nobody play cheap. "I always made 'em bet."