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Alexander ‘City’ Bryant

Ryan Miday | 11/27/2013, 10:14 a.m.

Part 2: The Journey of an old-time pool hustler

*In Part-2 of a 3-part series, we see how Alexander “City” Bryant grew-up to be one of Cleveland’s greatest pool hustlers.

Growing Up Fast:

City grew up fast. His uncle, Barbershop Percy, taught him to play pool. But it was Philadelphia Red who taught him how to hustle.

Red got to know City at P.C. Owens’ Wolverine poolroom at E. 44 St. and Woodland Ave. Red saw a hustle in City and bet that the 16-year-old, bald-headed-kid could improve his chances of making money. Still too young to be drafted into the war in 1943, City went on the road with Red and never returned to school.

Working poolrooms in Pennsylvania and D.C. wasn’t like delivering papers or collecting numbers. Hustling on the road was rugged. For blacks, it was even rougher. City recalled not being able to find a bathroom designated for blacks in D.C.

Until the Army drafted him in 1946, he was on and off the road. One of the first lessons City learned was dealing with crooked, busted tables. Red told him, after City finished complaining, “Unless you gonna bring the pool table in your back pocket, you better learn how to play anywhere.”

Charles, a pool hustler from Canton, gave Alexander Bryant his moniker, City, for the constant travel City was willing to do to earn money.

When City returned to Cleveland from the Army, he reconnected with P.C. Owens, who owned several pool halls. Owens was a sage to countless youngsters and hustlers during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. He knew as much about pool playing as anyone did in Cleveland.

The Craft of the Hustle:

Most of the guys, and a few women, whose ego led them to the door of the poolroom, were fly-by-nighters, waiting on 9 to 5 work. And a majority of those who did hang around couldn’t grasp the craft of pool hustling. The craftsmanship, held tightly by the experienced, is passed down to the chosen few; others are able to learn it on their own.

The elite pool hustlers can smell a mark, sniff out danger around the corner, while waiting patiently to lure the opponent in, without ego, over many hours, many games, and many drinks, to appear to just lucky enough to win and walk away with all the money.

Even with the best teacher and extreme dedication, the craft is, by and large, instinctual: the gift of gab, the coordination of an athlete, the ability to adapt.

As good as City was at playing pool, his hustle was better. There were only a few hustlers who ever beat City, and it was an elite group of old-timers from across the country.

Napoleon from D.C. bested him. New York’s Big Country caught him by surprise. Frog from Detroit “beat me like a drum,” said City. Frog, in fact, beat him playing with his left hand. The lesson wasn’t lost on City: perfect a hustle. Frog was the first to show how effective it was to hustle someone with the bait: “I’ll play you with one hand.”