“St. Louie” Louie Roberts and the Tragedy of Talent
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about my misspent youth. Or at least, that’s what Mark Twain would have called it.
I grew up playing nine ball. I began playing pool in October 1988 (I was 11) and played seriously until my first year of college. As you can imagine, I met some interesting people during those years.
This week’s death of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of the one professional players I knew. He was both personally fascinating and ridiculously talented—“St Louie” Louie Roberts.
Louie was a rarity in the world of nine ball. He combined good looks, charm, and world class skill. A genuine hustler/money player, he also claimed the greatest of all American nine ball titles, the U.S. Open, in 1979.
I spent a limited amount of time around Louie. He was the house pro at Highpocket’s before I took up the game and he returned to Memphis from St. Louis in late 1990.
A gifted teacher, Louie influenced many of the players I competed against. Most people assumed he would begin working with me on my game. I never put much hope in that assumption, as his style of play was different than the one I was developing; but I was open to learning what I could.
We played exactly two shots of one game together.
One Saturday morning, after Louie had been in town for a few weeks, he came into the pool room early. I was practicing on my favorite table and he asked if I wanted to play.
Louie racked the balls and I broke. I don’t remember what I made on the break, but I will never forget my next shot.
A pool table is twice as long as wide. A full size table, which we played on, measures 4 ½ feet by 9 feet. After my break, the next shot was on the one ball. Nine ball is played in numbered order. The one ball sat almost touching the long rail on the table’s right side. It was between the corner pocket closest to the where a person stands to break and the side pocket. The cue ball was near the middle of the table, slightly closer to the short rail. Or in pool terms, just below the object ball. What I had to do was hit the one ball, but just barely, with what is called a thin cut shot. The one ball would then have to travel about seven feet, without touching the long rail, to the corner pocket on the far end of the table.
I had learned from watching Louie for a few weeks to lengthen my bridge on thin cut shots. The added space between my bridge hand and the cue ball helped to line up that particular shot.
I took my stance, aimed, pulled my cue back, and shot.
I still remember the feeling of that stroke. I knew the instant the cue tip contacted the cue ball that I’d made it. The cue ball struck the one ball paper thin. It traveled the seven feet to the corner pocket and never wavered.
Louie exploded with praise. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed. Fortunately, I had a shot on the two ball and could move on. Unfortunately, I never took that shot. A phone call came for Louie and he had to leave.
Within a year, Louie died.
Like many uber-talented people, Louie struggled with addiction. His main weakness was alcohol, but he wasn’t limited to it.
In the 1970s, Louie was a force of nature. By the 1980s, the chemicals began to erode his skills. The player I watched was a shell of the former national champion. He still played world-class pool, but not top tier.
By 1990, Louie was a man near or just beyond forty with nothing to show for life lived at full speed. I would guess that he never paid a dime of Social Security and certainly had no plans for retirement. You see, pool hustlers don’t retire. They give all they have to the game and the game likes to settle up in the end.
Whether in despair, depression, or just a stupor, Louie took his own life. We were all sad to hear the news. Louie had moved on from Memphis but hadn’t been gone long when we received the word.
It was a shame.
It still is.
Louie’s story resembles many others. John Belushi, Hank Williams, Sr., Tim Richmond, and countless others, with talent that wowed even their contemporaries, died too soon.
I’m no psychologist, so I can’t pretend to have an overarching and unifying explanation for this phenomenon. What I do believe, though, is that many of these superstars found their sole identity in what they did, rather than who they were.
Genesis 1:26–27 says, “6 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (NASB).”
God created humanity in His image. This truth means that we are unique in God’s creation. His image separates us from the plants and animals. Our talents reflect the image of God.
For instance, have you ever noticed that animals don’t produce art? They don’t create things just to be pretty. Humans do, because God is the creator and that aspect of His image inspires creativity.
While the fall into sin marred that image, enough remains in each person to produce amazing results. Salvation through Christ brings full restoration of the image of God in man (glorification), but even non-Christians show us a bit about God’s nature by using their talents.
The tragedy of talent occurs when giftedness becomes a god, rather than that ability being used to glorify God.
In Louie’s case, like others, a talented life ended tragically.
Christians have the opportunity to avoid such circumstances. We understand that our abilities glorify God. We don’t have to define ourselves by the speed of our fastball, our singing voice, or business acumen.
Our talents are not about us.
Our talents are about the God who graciously granted them.
I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with the great Louie Roberts. I’m pretty sure his manager/handler Larry L. didn’t like the fact Louie and I would hang out as much as we did since I was perceived be more of a “bad influence” in regards to Louie’s demons. I was quite the opposite actually. Louie certainly lived with his demons of booze and drugs, but when he would get crazy with it in my company, I never hesitated asking him to leave. When he was on his game nobody on the planet could beat him. I was invited by Louie to join a group of players in a guys basement for some cheap, friendly, cash game in the year 1981 I believe it was. He told me to make sure I brought my pool cue I had purchased a few months earlier from Jim Davis, owner of Affton Billards at the time. I purchased a rare (didn’t know how rare at the time) Buddy Hall “Rifleman” Cue. Anyway, when I entered the basement of this guys house, to my amazement, there stood Louie, Jimmy “hippie Reed, and Buddy Hall himself. I was in heaven! I immediately showed Buddy my cue and he told me it was one of maybe 5 made and I should never sell it for less than $1500.00. I paid $250.00.
This was the year of the St Louis Open Billiard championship that was being played at the Electricians hall off of Hampton ave, so that’s why these guys were here at the same time. The next day Louie and Buddy scheduled a cash game at the billard room that was at Grand and Gravois at the time, so of course I was going to get their early. This is a true story that I haven’t shared in 30 years.
Buddy was there first and we started chatting, wondering where the hell Louie was. We wasted a half hour or so, and sat in Buddy’s beat up old car, sitting in a parking lot across the street (lets just say we chatting and “sharing” a cigarette) while Buddy was warning me not to bet against him because he was hitting the balls so good. He knew Louis and I were pretty tight, so I considered it a friendly warning from a guy who took a liking to me the previous day when we met. Like a fool I didn’t take his warning serious enough because I loved Louie and believed he could beat anybody.
Louis showed up and the match began. 9- ball for $100.00. Both had backers and I was betting Buddy on the side another $100.00 a game Louie would win. If my memory serves me right, Buddy beat Louie 12 games in a row out of the shoot and Louis was busted and his backer said he had enough. I was down $1200.00 and had $100.00 left in my pocket. Louie came to me begging me to spot him some money to continue the game. Anyone who knew Louie, knew he usually didn’t pay back a loan. I was hesitant, but I caved in to his pleas because I thought if he could win one game, he could turn it around and win 20 and everyone could witness one of the greatest comebacks in the history of billards during a cash game in a billiard parlor.
It only got worse for me personally. I walked over to Buddy and offered an extra bet so I could get some of my money back. I told him I gave Louie my last $100.00 so he was down to one last game before Louie couldn’t play anymore. I told him I would put my Buddy Hall Rifleman stick up an additional $500.00 bet but any money that changed hands had to go through me because I was backing Louie now. He gave me a chance to bail on that bet and warned me not to do it but he would accept the bet. It took all of 2 minutes for Buddy to destroy Louie and I was broke and lost my beloved Rifleman stick to the guy it was made for. Buddy went on to win the St Louis Open and every tournament that year, except the U.S. Open. Wouldn’t you know it, Louie won the U.S. Open that year. I’ll never forget that week and I’ll never forget either Buddy or Louie for a week of great pool, great memories, and most importantly, when Buddy Hall warns someone not to bet against him……..you better listen!
On a side note. When I was in the car with Buddy that night before the match with Louie he told me he had $350.00 to his name and he desperately needed to win the $5000.00 grand prize that week. $175.00 was the buy in for the tournament too. He left St Louis with probably 7-8k and went on to win around $100,000.00 that year. The rest is what they say…….history. As bad as it hurt my bank roll back then, I have no regrets about it now. What a week back in 1981 for a young 20 year old kid like me.
Without question, Louie was the most feared player in the world at the time. He either beat the pants off of you, or he was messed up and couldn’t compete, but nobody knew what type of game he would bring until they had to play him. And that scared the hell out of every opponent that drew his name.
Great story, Steve. I’ve always thought that it was such a shame that pool never figured out how to become mainstream. Your story is about Buddy Hall when his game was at its best, but he had no money. If pool had followed golf’s model and made each tournament a charity, then they may have grown in general popularity and prize money, and guys like Buddy Hall, Earl Strickland, Mike Sigel, and Johnny Archer would be well know athletes. Thanks for sharing your story.
Louie told me there was one player he didn’t want to play “early” in a tournament, it was Earl the pearl Strickland. He thought Steve Mizerack was a joke and wished he could play him everyday in front of a million people so they could watch him beat the pants off him. He owned Steve in the 79 US Open final to win his first of two US Open titles. I agree, the pool gods deserved a better model to make the game more profitable for the guys and gals who could put on a show. Louie was a great motivator too. The night I played with him, Buddy, and Jimmy Reed, and won a few games with an occasional run out, he would say……Ratman, you just beat the current 8-ball world champion, the US Open 9-ball champion, and Buddy Hall, in the same night. My confidence level was never the same when I played pool after that. Being reminded I just beat the 3 top players in the world I never felt pressure playing anyone the rest of my life, which was the reason I could beat players better than me, at times. All and all, I lost much more money than I won, but I feared nobody anymore.
Here’s another story.
Louie, Buddy, and I, walked into Affton Billiards one night to have fun and knock some balls around. Louie looked at Buddy and said….pick anybody out of the people that are here and lets play team one pocket. Louie chose me and we played 4 games of one pocket wagering $300.00 a team, per game. The guy Buddy chose, and myself, didn’t have to pay on the bet, so there was no pressure on us. It ended up with both teams winning 2 games a piece and we hung around for a bit before leaving. The people in the room were amazed when told later who these guys were. Another great night for a nobody like me and the guy Buddy chose at random from the people in the building. That’s how Louie rolled. Walk in, entertain the hell out of whoever was there, then leave. What a blast he was!
It seemed every single player had their own “cocktail” mixture that they felt gave them the edge to play their best pool. I believe Louie’s was….a valium and a couple high balls, or maybe martinis. I forget. One things for sure….you knew within the first couple of games if Louie had his perfect fix on. On the flip side, you knew pretty quickly when he didn’t!
I don’t think louie killed himself he still loved life
I heard that his newly married wife was suspected. I was a teenager in my Dad’s shop when I met Louie, spent a lot of time with him. He threatened to give me lessons. I wasn’t serious enough though. I have a great picture of him and me.
Kim I would love to see that picture
I knew Louie from the same pool hall in Memphis. I now live in Phoenix AZ and my game has gotten so much better at 60! This is Steven Chisholm and I can say St. LOUIS Louie was my friend. Miss him and thi k of him and others in the game often.