"St. Louie" Louie Roberts: Pool God and Immortal Shotmaker
by Mike Burch, with quotes and anecdotes by pool insiders
"St Louie" Louis Roberts was the best shotmaker I've ever seen, and I've watched
a lot of top-notch pool in my day.
I've seen the best modern-day tournament pool
players, sharks and hustlers: Johnny Archer, Buddy Hall,
Allen Hopkins, David Howard, Keith McCready, Steve Mizerak, Alex Pagulayan, Jose
Parica, Efren Reyes, Mike Sigel, Earl Strickland, Nick
Varner. I even saw Steve Davis score a perfect 147 in snooker. (I was on vacation in
England when he hit the magical number, in a match televised by the BBC.) But
the most charismatic, audacious, exciting, crowd-pleasing pool player that I have seen
personally was "St. Louie" Louie Roberts. He was an incredible,
fearless shot-maker. There was something otherworldly about his game, when he was "on." I remember watching him advance through the
losers' bracket at the 1981 U.S. Open Nine-Ball Championship, promoted by Mike
Massey at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As I remember things, Roberts had lost his opening round match,
and then almost lost a second time to the little-known Nat Green.
In that match, there was a controversy about someone breaking out of turn and the referee not
catching it, so that Roberts ended up breaking the last two games despite an
alternating break format.
Roberts took advantage and won the "double hill"
game. After that, he seemed
to freewheel, drinking openly, bantering with fans, and disdaining
safeties. If his opponent made a ball out of turn, and two balls
were lined up evenly on the spot, Louie would hit the head ball with so much English
that he banked the second ball in "long rail" ... a shot that I have never seen anyone else
attempt in a major nine ball tournament. Roberts went on to defeat a perplexed Buddy
Hall, who just shook his head at Louie's crowd-riling antics and incredible
shotmaking. I believe it had been a longtime dream of
Louie's to beat Buddy Hall, who was the world's best nine-ball player at the time.
What Louie accomplished that day, and how he accomplished it, was magical, and
I'll never forget how he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand until
he was proclaimed the victor, to wildly delighted cheers that included my own.
It was reported that Roberts committed suicide at age 40 by shooting himself at
a motel in Phoenix (the year may have been 1990). However, people who ran
with Roberts have questioned this, pointing out that he had an extreme
aversion to guns and refused to touch them, much less fire them.
There are links to rare video footage of Louie Roberts in action, at the bottom
of this page.
"St. Louie" Louie Roberts has been described as "charismatic," "fearless
"ridiculously talented," a "phenom," "incomparable," "one of a kind," a "pool god," a "legendary shotmaker," "the greatest
shotmaker ever," a "legendary action player," "fast and loose," a "high roller,"
a "showman," a "leading man," an "Elvis look-alike," a "genuine star," and simply "great." He
was a two-time world champion at nine-ball, winning the U.S. Open in 1979 and
1981. He also had a cameo in The Color of Money, which starred Tom
Cruise and Paul Newman. In the movie, playing himself, he was introduced as "the
incomparable 'Saint Louie-Louie' Louis Roberts." During the filming of the
movie, Roberts kept a large audience of extras entertained between takes with
his showmanship at the table. And he was a marvelous teacher and ambassador of the
game during his stint as house pro at Highpocket's in Memphis.
How good was St. Louie Louie Roberts?
Steve "the Ratman" Major, who ran with Louie Roberts, said: "When he was on his
game nobody on the planet could beat him ... Without question, Louie was the
most feared player in the world at the time [the late 1970s and early 1980s]. 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.
Another insider agreed, saying: "I think everyone I've ever met that knew him
has said the same thing about his game ... When he was on there wasn't a human
alive that could beat him."
Blackjack David Sapolis concurs: "When Louie was on, nobody could be beat him.
According to Jay Helfert, who lived with Roberts and traveled with him for
several years, "No one before or since could cut balls in like Louie. He could
slice a ball that was one-eighth of an inch off the side rail all the way down
into the corner, and the ball would stay one-eighth of an inch off the rail all
the way to the pocket. It maintained a perfectly straight line and never touched
the side rail. He could do this along the end rails from the far end of the
table just as well. And he fired them in at warp speed."
How did St. Louie Louie Roberts get started?
Tom Ferry: "I think I can safely say I knew Louie longer & better than anyone in
the pool world other than a fellow named Roger Reel. I've known Louie since he
was 15 and hadn't even gone into a poolroom or the U.S. Air Force yet. He had
learned to play on a 4 X 8 in his father's Rathskeller and alcohol was always
prevalent. At 16 he came onto the St. Louis pool scene by beating a decent
straight pool player named Frank Tullous. He went into the Air Force a year
later and when he got out he played even better. His ability rapidly grew &
grew. He teamed up with Roger and they were good friends and road companions for
years. This all started in the early 70's. Buddy [Hall] was the best 9-ball
player on earth and Louie became fixated on beating him. It cost him dearly but
he never gave up. He spent years building a bankroll On The Road and loosing it
to Buddy. But he got better & better every time and at some point decided to
dedicate his life to playing pool forever. Now you have to remember this was now
the mid to late '70's and drugs were everywhere especially in the pool world.
The players would be introduced to the uppers and play longer and better so
many, many of them began to rely and depend on them. With the road life Louie
was leading, I can easily understand, not condone. My personal belief is that we
don't have complete control over our drug or alcohol dependency as our genes and
environment predetermine it. I personally have tried uppers, downers, cocaine,
and marijuana. All of these, I had one time and one time only. Just never liked
the idea of not being in complete control so never did any of them again except
uppers and that was only to drive long distances when absolutely necessary (like
having to drive straight from Miami to Albuquerque to take off a $7K score).
Louie had a lot going for him—and Louie had a lot
going against him. Louie was one of the best-looking men I've ever known. I
always thought he looked somewhat like Elvis only better. I say this because he
had many female admirers and they always kept his ego inflated. He played so
well and was such a great shot-maker that backers and bystanders fed his ego as
well or more. Many don't know what a great gymnast Louie was. He could stand
flat-footed alongside a Gold Crown and jump straight up and come down on the top
rail on his hands. Then walk on his hands completely around the table. His
tumbling acrobats were phenomenal and he had a personality to match all of this.
I have always felt Louie could have made a fortune in sales, BUT. [Ferry goes on
to describe how he took Roberts on a road trip, around 1980, on which they won
Competition with Buddy Hall
Buddy Hall, aka "the Rifleman," said that Roberts was one of the hardest players
he ever faced with cash on the line.
Teacherman: "No better shot maker ever lived. He would make shots others
wouldn't try. I'll never forget a match between him and Mike Carella at
Tournament Billiards in St. Louis. Played two shot roll out back then. Louie
would roll to ridiculous spots, and then make the ball ... Quite a showman also.
Quite a personality. Didn't win as much as he should've. Wanted to play so bad
he'd make bad games. As far as Buddy was concerned, the story I've heard was,
Buddy tortured him when they first played, but Louie kept coming back and it got
to where Buddy didn't want to gamble with him. My experience is limited but I
can't imagine a better shot maker in the history of pool."
Tom Ferry: "For about a 2- or 3-year period, every time Louie got ANY meaningful
cash, he would go to Shreveport and play Buddy. During these times he was On The
Road with a fellow from St. Louis named Roger Reel. If anyone ever does anything
on Louie's life, IT MUST INCLUDE ROGER'S INPUT. Buddy started out giving Louie
the 7. Always on a perfect GC [Brunswick Gold Crown billiards table]. Busted
Louie many, many times that way but all the time Louie was progressing and Buddy
could see it getting harder & harder. Many people in this forum ask what does it
take OR how do you become a top player. I'm not saying Louie's way is
recommended OR the only way, but this is what made Louie GREAT. He was so
focused on beating Buddy (because he was The Best) that he didn't care about the
money at all. ALL of his talents and suffering were devoted to that ONE THING."
And as I mentioned in my introduction, Roberts did come through the losers'
bracket at the 1981 U.S. Open to beat Buddy Hall on his way to becoming world
champion for the second time.
More quotes and anecdotes
In his book Running the Table, L. Jon Wertheim called Roberts the
"exemplar" of high-rolling pool players and a "legendary shotmaker" whose
"appetite for action" remains the standard by whom all other players must
be judged. Wertheim also compared Roberts to Elvis and called him "a character
of the first order."
In the book Poker Players and Wannabes, James Woods said that Roberts
was the second best-looking man he had ever seen, next to Elvis. According to
Woods there was only one "glitch" in Roberts' pool game: his drinking.
In an interesting side-note, Jay Helfert has claimed that Roberts was a better
Elvis impersonator than any of the professionals!
In his book Pool Wars, Helfert called Roberts the most charismatic
pool player he ever met, and said that he attracted crowds wherever he went,
with the girls going "gaga" over him. In an online post Helfert said:
"He was one of a kind, with more charisma in his little finger than any other
poolplayer had in their whole body." Helfert also mentioned Roberts' "inner
demons," which included drinking, drugs, and wanting to play so
badly that he often gave up what another observer called "the mortal nuts." Sometimes
Roberts' wonderful abilities couldn't overcome his not-so-great game-making and
Thinking of those demons, I am reminded of a quote I found on the Internet about
Roberts: "He made Keith McCready look like an altar boy."
But Roberts could be charming, as
Helfert remembers: "It's 1983, Caesars Tahoe 9-Ball Championship, the first time
ESPN put pool on TV. Louie is playing the opening match against Brian Hashimoto.
He comes to the table for the first time with an open rack and starts running
balls the only way he knows how, fast and loose. (He had been up all night in
the casino, that was how he prepared for a big match.) The camera is following
Louie around the table and he realizes it. Louie stops and stares into the
camera and says, "Don't worry mom, I'll be home to cut the grass as soon as I
get done here!" I had a head set on and could hear the producer and director in
the truck. They both broke up laughing. Louie lost the match, but he won the day
for himself and for pool on TV. Thanks buddy!"
Bob Jewett remembers: "Terry Stonier used to have great tournaments at either
the Jointed Cue or at a hotel in Sacramento. At one of them, Louie and Mike
Sigel were matched up playing [a race] to 11. Sigel got to the hill first, but
Louie caught up. At that point they had missed one shot between them in 20
games: Sigel had missed one ball and Louie none. Louie broke in the match nine
Steve "The Miz" Mizerak, a top pro, commented after losing to Roberts in a
tournament: "I have no excuse, you just can't do much when someone shoots that
good against you!"
ALSTL: "If you want to hear stories about Louie Roberts, walk into any
pool room in St Louis. I don't care which one, black neighborhood, rural area,
doesn't matter. Ask an older guy about Louie. Some of the stories seem
unbelievable except you hear them from a wide cross-section of people. One thing
for sure about Louie, he made an impression wherever he went."
ALSTL also related that a former St. Louis pool hall owner told him that "even
when half loaded Louie played tough, [but] when sober he was the best shotmaker
he had ever personally seen."
Deeman: "He was what he was. I never really saw what some might see as a 'dark
side' to him. We were friends, he was a remarkable player and a nice guy that
was really fun to hang out with. He had a smile that would infect you when you
were down and was pretty optimistic even in the bad times. I can say he would
not mind a few stories about him going around, good or bad. He liked being the
center of attention and that's part of what made him a competitor."
Tom Ferry: "Roger [Reel] & Louie were like Abbott & Costello "On The Road".
Could keep a poolroom in stitches for hours telling Road Stories. A local fellow
(and good old friend of Sonny's, Vernon) always says Louie & Roger could be
telling a story about sleeping (BROKE) on a bus station bench and they made it
sound like so much fun that you kinda wish you would have been with them."
Tommy-D: "I never formally met him, and only saw him play twice, but those two
times I NEVER saw him miss a ball. The first time was also the first or second
time I ever went to High Pockets in Memphis. He took a table, close to where I
was sitting, and ran full racks of 9-ball for over an hour, and never came close
to hooking himself or missing. He would periodically bank the whole rack out.
This went on for almost 90 minutes, and I asked someone who he was shortly
before we left. He said that's easy look at the wall, and there was a large
black and white poster sized pic of Louie posing with a Meucci, and generally
looking like a young Elvis."
Blackjack David Sapolis: "Louie Roberts was one of the most talented pool
players—EVER. He won The US Open, as well as many
other tournaments. As a teenager I idolized Louie Roberts and made it a point to
meet him and become his friend. Some of the times I spent with Louie are some of
the wildest, craziest, funniest, saddest and angriest points in my life. That
says a lot all by itself. Louie had a very challenging personality (LOL) and he
also struggled with many demons. There are many colorful stories about Louie
Roberts, but what needs to be said is that he loved the game of pool and sadly
towards the end, that love was not enough to save his life. To those that new
him best, St. Louie-Louie was a great guy, though somewhat difficult, we loved
him anyway. You cannot compare Louie to anybody.
The Kirkwood Kid: "Louie was a great guy. He used to come in to one of the pool
halls in St. Louis I used to go to as a kid. He was always good for a laugh and
helped me and tons of other young punks like me with their game. He was our hero
and we all miss him dearly. Some of the demons got a hold of him and he couldn't
shake them off and the world lost a truly great player because of them."
Lunchmoney: "I remember the first time I met Louie, when he walked into the pool
room it was as if a major Hollywood celebrity had walked in. Everyone dropped
what they were doing and stared. Later on, Louie was standing at a table BS'ing
with a some friends and every few seconds he would lean over the table, stroke
once and then fire in unbelievable shots. I had to use the rest room and he
followed me in and asked if I wanted to play some. I told him that he was way
out of my league. His response was "We can work out a spot". I still declined.
That same night he matched up with a local. Louie got the breaks and his
opponent was spotted every ball on the table. It was an incredible display, he
hit high gear and didn't miss. The match didn't last too long. I had also heard
that he was listening to some self-hypnosis tapes at night while sleeping. Rumor
had it, the tapes made him such a feared 9-ball player that eventually someone
DRW remembers: "I saw Louie play many times over the years. I'll recount a
couple of those that are crystal clear in my memory. I met Louie for the first
time in Indianapolis in 1976 at a tournament. I had been playing for two years
at that time and still got extremely nervous when I gambled. I approached Louie
between matches and asked how he had dealt with that or if he ever did get
nervous. He talked with me and suggested that I get hypnotized. My friends all
laughed, as did I. I later looked in the yellow pages and found a "Sports
Hypnotherapist" in Tinley Park, IL. His advertisement said he had worked with a
few White Sox players. I drove over from Hammond, Indiana and saw the guy three
times over two weeks and he recorded the 3rd session on audio tape. The whole
deal only cost me $65 bucks. Cheap even back then. I listened to the tape
everyday for six months and it definitely helped. Saw Louie in Alabama by
accident in the late seventies or early 1980's. I went there for my
grandfather's funeral and saw in the local paper that there was a pro pool
tournament in Birmingham, AL that week. A cousin and I went several nights and
watched matches and action. Louie went broke and was walking the bleachers
asking everyone for a twenty to get up enough for another set. I gave him a
twenty and thanked him for his earlier suggestion. This tournament was put on by
a local funeral director named Gaston. He split with the money on the last day.
Steve Cook had won, don't remember second place, but Billy Weir was trying to
sell his third place, as he had gotten wind about the money not being there. It
made the nightly news and later some players got a lawyer and got paid. Never
saw Louie again until 1984. I had joined the army and my first duty station was
Ft. Bragg, NC. The bar scene there at that time was great. Can't remember if it
was the Strac lounge or the one next to it, but Louie came walking in one
Saturday while I was hitting balls on a four-by-eight with a big cue ball. Louie
never tried to hustle anyone. He asked me if I gambled and I said I sometimes
did. He announced that he was Louie Roberts, one of the best pool players in the
world. I never told him that I knew him very well, as I was curious about what
may happen next. He asked if I was in the service and I told him I was in the
army. He told me he had been in the air force. It was a military pay week at the
end of the month and we were still going to the gym for pay call getting cash.
Salute the Captain and leave with your money. Louie offered up the 4/5 and the
breaks playing 6 ball. I'm sure he expected the table to be like most where it
was hard to make a ball on the break. It wasn't the case and I won six in a row
for 50 a game. Louie smiled, shook my hand and went out the door. Saw him later
in the week at Ricks and he was having a good time. I was stationed at Yuma
Proving Ground when Louie killed (?) himself. Don't think anyone has come along
with his charisma since. Sorry for the length, could have went on much longer.
Roberts is memorialized by the annual Louie Roberts A/E Award, awarded by the
Horseshoe Southern Indiana casino during its annual Derby City Classic billiards
event. A&E stands for "action and entertainment," which Roberts exemplified as a
player. Attendees of the Derby City Classic vote, and the player who displays
the most action and entertainment, a la Roberts, wins the award. According to
the onepocket.org website: "The A/E Award is named after the late Louie
Roberts, who embodied the kind of high-rolling free-spirited and talented player
that crowds have always loved to gather and watch. Louie was a rare talent and
genuine star in the action/entertainment side of pool. Whether he was flat broke
or flush with cash didn’t seem to make a difference; Louie would find a game,
and the crowd would find Louie. Whatever cash he held, he might wager on one
match, on one game, or even on one shot; Louie had the confidence to bet it
Winners of the Louie Roberts A/E Award include: Alex Pagulayan (2003), Tony
Watson (2004), Scott Frost (2005), Cliff Joyner (2006), Chris Bartram (2007),
Shane Van Boening (2008), Scooter Goodman (2009), Jeanette Lee (2010), David
Peat (2011), Tony Coleman (2012), Chris Gentile (2013), Richie Richeson (2014).
"St. Louie" Louie Roberts
Louie vs. Gary Serville, spotting the 7, 8 and 9 ...
In the videos above,
"Navy" Gary Serville hits the pool balls pretty sporty, but is no match for the
Elvis Presley of pool, "Saint Louie" Louie Roberts.
Jay Helfert again: "Yes, he was unique. Intelligent, handsome (the girls adored
him), personable and extremely talented (he was a great athlete in high school).
He could do a better Elvis impersonation than any of these clowns out there
today, believe me. His death was a loss for pool, but he was lost to us long
before he finally passed. I hope he is in a better place now. I loved Louie."
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