|WORLD CHAMP: Mays was voted in to the hall of fame, but he declined the honor. He felt there were others more deserving.|
IN A SHADOWY SIDE ROOM of the Highway Cafe & Bar, where the faint odor of stale beer and the thin haze of cigarette smoke mix to set the mood, they have begun drifting in. Young and old, they come to this hideaway on Northwest Highway to wash away the 9-to-5 drudgery, swap stories, have a few beers, and, with a little luck, win a few bucks.
Their game is shuffleboard. Not the sort Florida-tanned retirees pass time with before they head over to Luby’s for the Early Bird Special, but the England-born indoor pub variety. It is a game of delicate touch and war room-like strategy played on a 22-foot, highly polished wood table.
Tonight is tournament night at the Highway. The winner’s pot is small, but there will be an occasional $20 side bet. And before closing time, odds are good that a few hundred dollars will have found its way into the pocket of 67-year-old Billy Mays, a man with thick glasses and an expanding waistline. That’s because Mays is the best—not just in the Highway tonight, but the best ever. Billy Mays is to shuffleboard what Michael Jordan was to basketball, what Ali was to the fight game, what Tiger is to golf. He’s been world champion 27 times. And he might never have taken up the sport had he not broken his back when he fell from an off-shore oil derrick when he was just a kid.
Mays grew up in Emory, Texas, where his father was a farmer and sawmill owner. He was the youngest of 10 children, an athletic kid who played centerfield and batted leadoff, fought as an amateur boxer, and could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat. His family moved to Dallas in 1949, and in ’52 he joined the Army. He lied about his age and didn’t let on that he’d been blind in one eye since he was 9. “Two years later,” he says, “I was discharged—five days after I was 17, which was the legal age to enlist.”
He roughnecked in West Texas oil fields for several years before migrating to Louisiana, where he took the fateful off-shore job. In December 1958, at age 20, Mays limped home to Dallas, broke, wearing a back brace, having already been married and divorced four times. (To date, he’s been married 10 times, on three occasions to the same woman. His explanation: “I guess I’d have to say I just enjoy married life.” There’s not a trace of irony in his voice.)
It was, Mays recalls, his attraction to a woman that introduced him to the game he would dominate for decades.
“I was dating this waitress who worked at Sam’s Place over on Haskell and Elm,” he says. “And one night while I was waiting for her to get off work, I got hustled into a game of shuffleboard. Back then, a guy from Oklahoma named Granville Humphrey was the best player in the world, and he needed a partner. I was the only one available, and, thanks to him, I won $45 that night.
“The next morning at 7, I was standing outside the bar, waiting for the doors to open. I played shuffleboard until they closed at midnight. I did that day after day, getting better at making the shots I’d seen Humphrey and the other good players make.”
Once he sharpened his talents and had money in his pocket, Mays hit the road.
HE WAS CALLED TEXAS BILLY MAYS back in the glittery, fast-money ’60s and ’70s, when his skills were the talk of nearly every bar and club with a shuffleboard table. The Players Lounge in Corpus Christi; the Blue Star and the Balboa Club out in El Monte, California; the Green Door down in Abilene. From Maine to Philly, then Oklahoma City and Las Vegas, and finally sunny California, Billy Mays traveled light, building his bankroll along with his reputation.
No slave to false modesty, Mays recalls one 90-day period in the summer of 1962, while working the West Coast, when he cleared $120,000. One year, in one Southern California bar called the Pink Pony, Mays and a doubles partner earned $100,000. He played and regularly beat actor Rock Hudson in $300 games on the tables at the Gay Nineties in North Hollywood.
He’s just guessing, he says, but he estimates he’s won at least 800 tournaments during his playing career.
When a pretty California bartender and shuffleboard player named Jean Ayers repeatedly turned down Mays for a date, he finally appealed to her gambling nature. “I won her at the shuffleboard table,” he says. “I bet her $500 against a date.” Ayers eventually became the fifth Mrs. Billy Mays, and, for the next 15 years, they traveled the circuit together. They played as partners, put on trick-shot exhibitions, and built a husband-and-wife reputation that remains today.
Two years ago, not long after she died of cancer, Jean Ayers-Mays, the 1976 Women’s Singles World Champion, was inducted to the Table Shuffleboard Association’s National Hall of Fame. Mays was also voted in but declined induction, feeling there were others more deserving of the honor, like Granville Humphrey, the man who had first lured him into the game (and who died in prison, where he was serving time for dealing drugs). “He was the best, long before me,” Mays says. “If he’s not good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, neither am I.”
Mays’ biggest take in a single match was $18,450, from a Corpus Christi bar owner. The largest tournament pot he ever won was $95,000. On the other hand, he admits that through the years he’s pocketed in the neighborhood of a half million dollars in bad checks from opponents he allowed to keep playing after their billfolds had been emptied. “It took me awhile to learn my lesson,” he says. “I don’t take paper anymore.”
Money is only part of it. “He’s taught most of the good players you’ll see today,” says David Williams, a Fort Worth body shop owner and one of the nation’s premier players. “He certainly helped me. He just loves the game and the people who play it.” Mays, he says, has become an ambassador for shuffleboard, spinning his colorful tales, giving lessons, making trick shots, and even organizing shuffleboard leagues across the state.
Johnny Carson invited Mays to come on his show and demonstrate his skills, Sports Illustrated profiled him, and, at one point, a young Beau Bridges was cast to play him in a biographical movie with the working title Roadhouse Billy. That was until the Columbia Pictures ranch, where the movie was to be filmed, burned to the ground. But that’s another story.
And if the shuffleboard action ever waned in his heyday, he could always count on picking up traveling money with a series of bar bets taught to him by legendary gambler Alvin Clarence Thomas, aka Titanic Thompson. Take the one in which he blows a dime from the edge of the table into a beer mug. “That trick has probably earned me $50,000 to $100,000 over the years,” he says.
The late Thompson was the infamous golfing, poker-playing, pool-shooting hustler who served as the model for the Guys and Dolls character Sky Masterson. “He was hustling this guy at all kinds of games and asked me if I’d like to make $5,000 for a week’s work,” Mays says. “He wanted me to teach him to play shuffleboard good enough to beat this guy.” Mays took the job and stayed on as Titanic’s “coach” during the match. His reward: 2 percent of the $240,000 Thompson collected after winning.
Now, though, the big-money days are mostly behind him. Mays still plays in the occasional organized tournament, which can mean getting a piece of a six-figure pot. He recently returned from a weekend tournament in Denison with $1,800 in winnings. But he begrudgingly admits his game isn’t as sharp as it once was. He had a mild stroke a few years back, and now the natural right-hander has to play left-handed. “Truth is, I’m probably no longer the best,” he admits. “But I’m still one of ’em.”
Robert Duncan, 61, owns a liquor store in Dallas and plays shuffleboard. He’s watched Mays play for a quarter century. “A few years ago,” Duncan says, “there was a tournament over in Fort Worth—lotta good players—and some of them started kidding Billy about getting too old to play. He laughed with them for a minute, then said he’d play anybody there for $500 a game. And there wasn’t a single taker.”
On this night at the Highway, there are only a few dozen players. Most admit to learning the game from Mays. He points to one man who looks to be in his late 20s, bent over the table, earnestly practicing. “That kid over there?” Mays says. “I used to beat his daddy all the time.” He grins. “Now, I’ll get in his pocket before the night’s over.”
Dallas writer Carlton Stowers is the author of The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson, a biography of the colorful hustler whom Billy Mays taught to play shuffleboard.