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Albert M. Frey: the First American Pool Shark

Who was the first pool shark? Much depends on how we define the terms "pool" and "shark." But I think a good case can be made for Albert "Peter Pan" Frey. Also known as "The Magical Boy," "The Boy Wonder," "The Boy Expert" and "The Blonde Boy," Albert Frey was the first American pool shark, in my opinion, because he dominated the earliest American pool games: fifteen-ball, 61-pool, continuous pool, straight pool and eight-ball (the latter was then called "pyramid" because of the shape of the balls when they were racked). The only reason Frey didn't dominate nine-ball as well is that he died prematurely in 1890, and the game was not invented until the 1920s. Frey was the first master of cue ball position, or "playing shape," so there is little doubt that he would have dominated nine-ball, since it puts a premium on cue ball control. Michael R. Burch

The father of American billiards is almost without question Michael Phelan. But when he was winning championship and big stakes matches, the game being played was carom billiards, not pocket billiards. In carom billiards, the goal is not to pocket balls, but to make one ball touch another ball. Carom billiards games often became mind-numbingly boring affairs in which players would "run" hundreds or thousands of balls by barely nudging them, "nursing" them along rails, or making them rock slightly in "anchored" positions. Understandably, audiences soon grew weary of watching such tedious matches. Therefore in the late 1800s and early 1900s new games were invented, in which the goal was to pocket balls. These games were the forerunners of what we call "pool" today.

So if we are going to identify the first pool shark, we need to look at the earliest forms of pool, and figure out who was winning the most loot, and "sharking" the other players. If you're a fan of carom billiards, I will gladly concede that Michael Phelan was the first American master. But I don't think he was the first American pool shark, because he wasn't running the table by pocketing balls. Albert Frey won the first American eight ball tournament (then called "pyramid"), the first American straight pool tournament (then called "continuous pool"), and the first American tournament in which the ball and pocket were called. Furthermore, according to Phelan himself, Frey was "almost invariably winning" matches against the top pros when he was in his prime. How good was Frey? He burst onto the pool/billiards scene at age seventeen in 1880. Within a year, and for the next decade, he would dominate pocket billiards. Even when he was very ill toward the end of his life, after having been instructed not to play by his physician, he was still beating the best players in the world more often than not. So he was the first American pool shark, in my book, for whatever that's worth.

Now let me define what I mean by "shark." Someone who "sharks" other players goes beyond just beating them. He hustles them. He embarrasses them into playing games they should have avoided, then takes their money. When the chips are down, he makes shots that should be unmakeable, and in the end the other players can't help shaking their heads, wondering how the hell he did it. Albert Frey certainly fits that description, as we can see by consulting the Chronology below ...

Cigarette trading card from 1887

San Francisco Call, Volume 68, Number 141, 19 October 1890: Charles H. Manning, who is now recognized the champion player of America, was recently interviewed by a representative of the New York Herald in relation to the game. To be a successful player, said Mr. Manning, a man must combine natural adaptability to the game with steady, untiring practice. Some are fine players, because they are naturally adapted to it, while others are experts, because by conscientious practice they have mastered the mechanics of the game. An illustration of the born player was the late champion, Albert M. Frey. Frey was an originator where others were merely imitators. He was a man who needed very little practice to prepare for a match. Where Frey would practice two hours a day, it would be necessary for some men to play six or seven. When I first met Frey, I was electrified by his marvelous intuition. He would seem to grasp the idea of a combination or intricate shot with greater perceptiveness and ease than anyone I have seen before or since. 

In other words, Albert Frey was a "natural."

Timeline of Billiards and Pool

1099: According to Michael Phelan's The Game of Billiards, the sport was introduced to Europe by Knights Templar returning from the First Crusade.
1300: Medieval illustrations depict "ground billiards," a lawn game related to croquet and golf. Rich enthusiasts would soon move the game indoors, perhaps due to miserable European winters.
1470: Records show that King Louis XI of France purchased a billiard table; it had a single hole at the center, like an indoor putting green.
          A "mace" was used to push the balls. It was a crooked stick with a sizeable head, like a golf club, and a slender cue ("tail") used when balls were too close to rails to employ the bulky mace head.
1564: Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes numerous references to billiards in his plays. (Phelan)
1587: Mary, Queen of Scots, complains that her captors have deprived her of her billiard table at Fotheringay Castle, just before her beheading.
1605: King James I of England orders a table to be made by "Henry Waller, our joyner."
1737: According to H. Savile Clarke, the Earl of Chesterfield is hustled by a "notorious gamester" called Lookout. (The first pool shark?)
1776: George Washington records his gambling winnings; Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette also play billiards.

1792: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette play billiards on the eve of their imprisonment. Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington are also enthusiasts.
1807: Captain François Mingaud is released from prison and demonstrates the "draw" backspin possible with his invention: the leather cue tip.
1819: Michael Phelan, the father of American billiards, is born; at this time backwards Americans use the mace almost exclusively, but in England the cue rules.
          The Dutch Baron is a "gentleman of the green cloth" who played "poorly" until it mattered, but at important points won "as if by accident." (The second pool shark?)
1825: John Carr introduces chalk to billiards then becomes the first English "road player" when he travels to Spain and robs all comers.
1854: The first American public stakes match on record, for $200, is held in Syracuse, NY, between Joseph N. White and George Smith.
1858: Michael Phelan defeats John Seereiter, claiming the first American billiards title and $15,000. Side bets are estimated at a quarter million dollars, real money back then!

1860: The first college billiards match: Harvard vs. Yale; the first pro match at Phelan's billiard hall; position play was "unknown even to the best of them" but Albert Frey would soon change that.
1863: Albert M. Frey is born in New York to German parents, according to his obituary in The New York Herald (April 26, 1889).
          The first pro championship on a four-pocket table is held at Irving Hall, NYC. Dudley Kavanagh wins over Louis Fox and John Deery. Deery runs 313 balls by "jawing."  
1865: Abraham Lincoln is a self-confessed "billiards addict." On April 13, John Wilkes Booth, another pool enthusiast, gets loaded at Deery's Billiard Saloon before shooting Lincoln.
1867: Joseph Dion runs 616 balls vs. John McDevitt, using a "jawing" technique. This led to the barring of "jawing."
1868: John McDevitt runs 1,483 billiards (unfinished), then runs 1,458 and averages 166.67 vs. Joseph Dion in Chicago on Sept. 16, 1868. Such huge runs led to the barring of the push stroke. 
          According to Michael Phelan, "The old style of game came thus to an end." But a new game was just starting to take off ...
1869: Snooker is invented by bored British army officers in India, one of them being future prime minister Neville Chamberlain.
1871: John McDevitt perishes in the Great Chicago Fire. Michael Phelan dies from exposure suffered while saving his grandson from drowning.
1874: Wild Bill Hickok pistol whips seven thugs who try to prevent him from entering Chicago's St. James Hotel to play billiards.
1876: Mark Twain and Bret Harte write a play in the billiard room of Twain's Connecticut home. Twain is a self-confessed billiard nut.
          Cyrille Dion beats A. P. Rudolphe with runs of 141, 177, 114, 216, 99 and 228. The Times calls the game boring, predicts disaster. But Albert Frey will soon bring real excitement. 
1877: Fourteen-year-old Albert Frey is employed by William "The Comanche" Sexton in his Bowery pool hall.
1878: The first American pool tournament (fifteen-ball pool aka "61 pool") is won by a Canadian, Cyrille Dion. Ah, the irony!
1879: Jake Schaefer Sr. scores 690 points in one inning of a straight rail match and is hailed as "The Wizard." The "champion's game" counteracts rail nursing, but Schaefer develops the reverse rail nurse technique.
1880: Maurice Vignaux, playing straight rail, runs 1,531 balls against George F. Slosson, who runs 1,103. Maurice Daly observed: "Such work put straight rail billiards to sleep as a competitive test for professionals."
          Albert M. Frey, the teenage "boy wonder" and darling of the gambling crowds, makes his public debut on Dec. 30, 1880.
          This is in a tournament preliminary to the upcoming world fifteen-ball championship, with the winners advancing; the tournament takes place in the amphitheatre of Connor's Union-Square Billiard Hall. 
          According to The New York Times, Albert Frey's "precocious skill" has already given him "quite a reputation in local billiard circles."
          Frey was around 17 in 1880, but probably looked much younger; Frey was also apparently very short, being "very little taller than a pool table." (TNYT March 27, 1887)
          In his first match, Frey defeats Leslie E. Slosson, the brother of George F. Slosson; other contestants include Charles Schaefer (the brother of Jake Schaefer Sr.), Joseph King, Otis Field and Frank Smith.
1881: On Jan. 5, 1881 the preliminary tournament concludes with Charles Schaefer first and Albert Frey a very surprising second.
          Albert Frey was coached by his brother, George Frey, who promised that Albert "would hereafter play to win at all times."
          It seems that during Albert Frey's game with an overmatched Otis Field, he may have "slowed down" and came close to be being barred from the championship.
          Charles Schaefer, Albert Frey, Otis Field and Joseph King advance to compete with the top pros for the national championship.
          On Jan. 15, 1881 the national championship concludes with Gotthard "The Swedish Phenomenon" Wahlstrom first, Samuel Knight second, Albert Frey third.
          Other contestants in their order of finish were Joseph King, Thomas Wallace, Albert Lambert, Jake Schaefer Sr., Charles Schaefer, Otis Field.
          On Feb. 7, 1881, Albert M. Frey creates "wild excitement" with his daring play as he defeats ex-champion Alonzo Morris Jr. 21-20.
          On Feb. 25, 1881, Albert M. Frey openly challenges Morris to play him "in any public hall in New-York City" for $250 to $1,000 a side.
          The May 7, 1881 edition of the New York Clipper contains a challenge by boy wonder Albert M. Frey for the fifteen-ball championship.
          Gotthard "The Swede" Wahlstrom remains the world fifteen-ball champion, twice beating Albert M. Frey head-up in the championship tournament.
          Frey the "boy expert" (TNYT) tied with Joseph King and Alonzo Morris Jr., then beat them both head-up in playoff matches to finish second.
          Frey went to the table "smiling and confident" to beat King. Spectators "rejoiced at the little fellow's success."
          Frey then defeated Morris 11-9 with "dazzling" play and "great brilliancy and daring" that included a massé combination shot involving four balls. (TNYT)
          Frey "often looked up at Morris in a roguish way when he had a difficult shot, and then with a laugh drew back the cue and sent the ball whizzing into the pocket."
          Frey's "unusually brilliant play" and "making an astonishing variety of the most difficult shots" had spectators cheering him on, and eating up his act.
          During Frey's 11-5 upset victory over heavily favored Jake Schaefer Sr., the referee, ex-champion Samuel Knight, "frequently made admiring remarks about the lad's play." (TNYT)
1882: Albert M. Frey, the "boy expert" defeats Samuel F. Knight on March 8, winning $1,000 with crowd-exciting long shots from difficult positions.
          Alfred M. Frey wins the First Tournament at Pyramid (Eight-Ball) at Republican Hall, NYC, May 3-17, 1882.
          John Dankleman finishes second, George Sutton third (his debut) and Jacob Schaefer Sr. and Thomas Wallace tie for fourth.
          Albert M. Frey is the world fifteen-ball champion from 1882-1883.
1883: An 8-inch balkline is implemented, in an attempt to counteract nursing techniques.
          This led to the development of the anchor nurse technique by Jake Schaefer Sr., Frank C. Ives, and others.
          George F. Slosson, cushion carom billiards, runs 38 balls, a new high run that will stand for 50 years.
1884: The first Call-Ball-and-Pocket Tournament is held in Syracuse, NY. At this point, Albert M. Frey is "almost invariably winning" (Phelan).
          James Louis Malone wins the Third National 15-Ball Championship at Music Square Hall, NYC, over Albert M. Frey and Joseph T. King.
          The last "champion's game" public match is played.
1885: Cap Anson, the major league baseball hall-of-famer, beats professional Frank Parker 500-364 in a match in Chicago on March 25, 1885.
          James L. Malone challenges Albert M. Frey to play a championship match for $500 a side, and Frey confidently offers to double the stakes.
1886: Albert M. Frey wins the 61-pool championship and defends it successfully three times in 1886-1887 against James L. Malone.
          According to an article in The New York Times about one of the matches, Malone seemed nervous while Frey "wore a confident smile."
          In one of the matches the applause was so loud that the massive table shook, and Frey's fans were "electrified" by his "dash and nerve."
          In the 1887 match, Frey doubled the score on Malone, winning 80 games to 40, and taking 14 of 15 games in one stretch.
1887: Albert M. Fry retains the championship emblem by defeating Alfredo de Oro 11-10, then J. L. Malone in the finals 11-8.
          James L. Malone becomes the world fifteen-ball champion, defeating Albert M. Frey in a match at Maurice Daly's Brooklyn billiard hall in May 1887.
          Malone and Frey played so well that they "wrought the spectators into a great state of excitement," according to The New York Times.
          Alfredo de Oro of Cuba wins the first of 41 world titles. According to Billiards Digest, Alfredo de Oro is the #4 pool/billiards player of the 20th century.
          Alfredo "Balbo" de Oro's first world title is in fifteen-ball (61 pool), over James L. Malone.
          According to "Banker" John C. Horgan, the three stars of this era were James L. Malone, Alfredo de Oro and Albert M. Frey.
          The first "continuous pool" tournament is held at Daly's in Brooklyn and is won by Albert M. Frey.
          Continuous pool is also called "fifteen-ball" and "fifteen-ball continuous pool."
          Continuous pool would evolve into 14.1 continuous pool, which is the modern game known as straight pool.
          In continuous pool, every ball is worth a single point and the game is played continuously until a numeric goal is reached, such as 150 points.
          In an article before the event, TNYT says that Frey is the favorite in the betting, and that new rules will hopefully "do away with tiresome safety play."
          The contestants included Frey, Malone, de Oro, Albert Powers, Charles Manning, Samuel Knight and Daniel Lawlor.
          According to de Oro, continuous pool was suggested by an Englishman who offered to put up $200 if each ball would count only one point.
          Malone confirmed de Oro's account, saying that a match in which Frey beat him while pocketing 39 fewer balls prompted the new rules.
          The rule change was prompted after Frey beat Malone while pocketing few balls, but Frey then beat Malone again under the new rules.
          A TNYT article dated Dec. 30, 1887 says that Albert Frey originated the game of continuous pool and named it.
          An 1887 World Champions trading card lists two pool players, Albert Frey and J. L. Malone, in the august company of Cap Anson, Jack Dempsey and John L. Sullivan.
1888: Vincent Van Gogh paints Night Cafe in Arles with a billiard table as the central feature.
          Albert M. Frey trounces James L. Malone in a championship match held at Maurice Daly's pool room in Brooklyn on Feb. 11, 1888.
          Malone, however, insists that Frey forfeited by not showing up on time for the match and plays under protest.
          Alfredo de Oro is the world fifteen-ball champion, defeating James L. Malone in Feb. 1888.
          Frank Powers is the world continuous pool champion.
          Albert M. Frey purchases Daly's pool hall at 234 Broadway. His brother George Frey serves as the superintendent.
          A bio for young hotshot Albert G. Powers says that he has defeated all players except Frey and will bet $500 against anyone, except Frey.
1889: Contestants for the world continuous pool championship are Frey, Malone, de Oro, Manning, King and hotshot newcomer William Clearwater.
          Albert M. Frey defeats "young" Powers, confirming his fears, by a score of 100-77, at Hardman Hall, NY, on Feb. 26, 1889.
          Albert M. Frey defeats Charles H. Manning, 102-51, doubling Manning's score, at Hardman Hall, NY, on Feb. 27, 1889.
          Albert M. Frey loses to Alfredo de Oro, 103-87, at Hardman Hall, NY, on March 1, 1889.
          The loss came as a surprise to Frey's fans, who considered him to be "almost invincible" according to an article in The New York Clipper (March 9, 1889)
          This is confirmed by an article written by Michael Phelan, the father of American billiards, who said that Frey was "almost invariably" winning his matches.
          It is worth noting that by this time Frey was approaching his death and had been advised by his physician not to play pool.
          Albert M. Frey defeats William Clearwater, 105-61, at Hardman Hall, NY, on March 1, 1889.
          Albert M. Frey defeats James L. Malone, 103-91, at Hardman Hall, NY, on March 2, 1889.
          Frey ran the first rack in the "quick and impetuous style peculiar to him" and ran the last rack to win. (TNYC, March 9, 1889).
          Albert M. Frey wins the world continuous pool championship in playoff matches held March 11-16 at Daly's Assembly Rooms in Brooklyn.
          Frey defeats James L. Malone 158-127 in 19 innings then overwhelms his other main rival, Alfredo de Oro, by a score of 168-98 on March 14, 1889.
          According to a March 29, 1889 article in The New York Times, Frey was 28 at the time of the tournament, but looked much younger.
          Albert Abrahamson, the chief clerk of the Green Hotel's billiard room, refused to let Frey enter at first, not believing he could be 21.
          Albert M. Frey wins a match 125-105 against Alfredo de Oro at the Union League Annex in Philadelphia on March 27, 1889.
          After the match, Frey does a "fancy shot" or trick shot exhibition.
          A reporter says that Frey "plays a quick game, but every shot is as sure as the course of a bullet." (Philadelphia Times)
          The same reporter notes the marked contrast between the tall, dark mustachioed de Oro, and the short, fair, boyish-looking Frey.
          Frey dies suddenly of pneumonia on Apr. 25, 1889, leaving the title vacant.
          Albert M. Frey was "widely known as the champion pool player of America," according to his obit in The New York Times.
          According to the Rome Daily Sentinel, Frey was a master of combinations and positioning the cue ball (playing shape). Before Frey, playing shape was virtually unknown.
          Frey's pallbearers included his fellow billiardists Harry Mount, Joseph King, Charles Manning and James Malone.
          Malone had a crown delivered to the funeral, a touching tribute since he had been Frey's greatest and most determined obstacle to the crown.
          George F. Slosson and William Cavanaugh also paid their respects, as did John D. O'Conner and Edward Glover of Brunswick-Balke.
1890: According to an article in The Sporting Life (Nov. 15, 1890), "more than anyone else" Albert Frey was instrumental in continuous pool being adopted by the pros.
          Straight pool, or 14.1 continuous pool, became the American game of pool champions like Ralph Greenleaf, Willie Mosconi, Irving Crane and Jimmy Caras.
          But long before they ever picked up cues, it was the game of Albert M. Frey, and he dominated it like no other before him, or since.     

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