Third-place finish in 9-ball tourney helps former hustler rediscover love for billiards

Billiards has been a part of Kelly Hatmaker’s life since he was 5. As a 13-year-old in Detroit, Hatmaker would hustle money by shooting pool. Now 44, Hatmaker doesn’t hustle at pool halls anymore, but is still playing. Hatmaker recently finished third in a national 9-ball tournament.

Kelly Hatmaker was back in his element.

The 44-year-old Fruita resident finished third in the 9-ball billiards tournament at the American CueSports Nationals tournament in Las Vegas from May 31-June 6.

Hatmaker, who drives semi trucks for Speedy Heavy Hauling, finished behind Beau Runningen of Minnesota and Don Harp of California.

The two men probably didn’t realize they defeated the player who was once known as “Little Red,” one of the best pool hustlers in Detroit.

Although Hatmaker’s hustling days are behind him, he can recall spending nearly 15 years of his life making a living as a pool hustler.

“It took me all over the country. I went out on the road hustling, and got taught by some of the best hustlers around Detroit,” Hatmaker said. “I’ve played all the top-notch players, played pros, and did a lot of gambling. I didn’t work, so you can imagine where I made my money. It was a rough lifestyle, but I loved it.”


Hatmaker began playing pool at a young age after seeing Willie Mosconi and Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone play on television. Hatmaker was only 5 years old, but remembers watching the billiard greats play, having no idea what he was seeing.

“I was there in front of the television mesmerized, but I didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” Hatmaker said. “My pop explained it to me, and I was like, ‘I want to play as good as he does,’ and pointed to Willie Mosconi.”

Hatmaker didn’t realize he was aspiring to play as well as one of the best billiards players ever. Mosconi still holds the record for the most consecutive straight pool balls made at 526.

Hatmaker’s father liked his son’s ambition enough he bought him a pool table from the Montgomery Ward department store that Christmas.

It was the start of a life-long love of billiards.

Practice until perfect

By the time Hatmaker was 9 years old, he was being taught the tricks of the trade by hustlers in Detroit. The wife of the most notorious Detroit hustler, Billy “Cornbread Red” Burge, even gave Hatmaker his nickname of “Little Red” because of Hatmaker’s fire-engine red hair.

“It was a lot of time and effort. I would practice 16 to 18 hours a day,” Hatmaker said. “If I had the flu, I would drag a five-gallon bucket around the table with me. I was that dedicated.”

At 13, Hatmaker began hustling bars. The time he spent at the table consisted of learning everything he could. Known to be a good hustler, he had to give his mark any game they wanted.

“Nine-ball, 8-ball, one pocket, straight pool, I can pretty much play any game someone can play on a pool table,” Hatmaker said. “I lived, ate and breathed billiards. I needed to know how to play all the games.”

Hatmaker was also a good baseball player, and said he was seen by scouts of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, who told him they would give him a contract if he graduated high school. Problem was, Hatmaker’s focus was on the pool table, not in his studies.

The pool table was providing the Detroit youngster a cash flow by doing something he enjoyed. Hatmaker dropped out of high school to keep pursuing the lucrative hustling game.

He eventually got his GED, but at the time, the pool hall was much more important to him than the classroom.

life of a hustler

When Hatmaker was in his element, there was no stopping him.

“There were eight bars where I knew the barmaids and bartenders, and they would call me if there was someone in there saying they wanted to gamble,” Hatmaker said. “I did whatever it took. If I had to make them mad, if I had to build up their ego, I gave them advantages in games just to be able to play and make money.”

Hatmaker’s opponents weren’t always happy being hustled. He said he’s had pool cues broken across his ribs as well as knives and guns pulled on him because the players he defeated didn’t want to pay.

“I got to the point where I would pay a couple of guys $100 a night to go with me, I’d play and they’d collect,” Hatmaker said. “I knew a couple of the motorcycle clubs in Detroit, and before going out, I’d go get a couple of those guys.”

Hatmaker said when he was traveling around working the pool halls, his first reaction to people he would meet is how to get their money.

“Back then when I met someone, it was, ‘how much money do you have, and what kind of game do I have to give you to get it?’ ” Hatmaker said. “That’s all I thought about, guy or girl, it didn’t matter.”

That’s how he put bread on his table. Hatmaker always did well hustling, really well, but his frustrations built over not being able to get onto the professional tour.

“I wasn’t able to turn pro because of the expense,” Hatmaker said. “At that time it was like $35,000 to get onto the circuit, and $800 a week for expenses. Plus once you get there, you have to play really well, and there are a lot of great players out there.”

Not-so-merry Christmas

By the time Hatmaker was in his late 20s, he was in a situation where the weaker players wouldn’t play him and the only players that would take his game were the ones he couldn’t beat. Regardless, he still had big days. Hatmaker recalled one Christmas where he hustled his way into $8,000.

“I hustled him out of a Christmas bonus, overtime bonus, which ended up being close to $8,000 in six hours,” Hatmaker said. “His wife came in with a couple of their kids looking for him, and she asks the bartender if he cashed his checks and if he has any money left.”

“The bartender said ‘Nope, he’s got it all,’ and pointed to me. That was one of the first times I felt bad, because when you were hustling, you had to be cold-hearted, or you won’t make any money.

“Basically, I ended up giving her $5,000 back, and told her she needed to get him some help because there are hundreds of guys in the city that would have kept him broke.”

Shortly after that incident, Hatmaker got out of the hustling game, moved north to Grayling, Mich., and worked different jobs such as dealing at a casino, and managing a hotel.

He moved to Grand Junction in 2006 to work in the oil and gas fields.

love of the game

Hatmaker doesn’t put in the time he used to, saying he plays only three to four times a month.

That’s mostly because of Hatmaker’s busy work schedule, but when Hatmaker’s off work he can usually be found at Grand Junction’s Bank 8 Billiards. He’s not the “Little Red” he once was, hustling anyone he could, Hatmaker said he enjoys helping others learn the game.

“I love teaching people to play. If they have questions, I show them,” Hatmaker said. “A lot of the better players don’t want to show anyone anything for free, and I feel that takes away from the game. This is the greatest game for families, and the more people that know how to play
it, the more entertaining it is.”

Hatmaker’s third-place finish in Las Vegas lit a spark for playing competitively again.

It had been nearly a decade since he played in a tournament of that size, and being back at the table brought back that old fire.

“I felt that feeling of ‘I can do this again and still be competitive,’ ” Hatmaker said. “It’s one of the best feelings.”

Hatmaker said he will continue to look for billiards tournaments, and with the blessing of his wife, will again pursue the professional tour.

“It’s my release,” Hatmaker said. “Even when I was hustling, I loved it. It’s something I’m going to do until I’m not physically able because it’s in my blood and in my heart.”


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