A Life's Story
October 20, 2018
A good sport, and a great shot
Well-dressed and always cheerful, 'Fast Freddy' made his mark as a hustler in city pool halls
By: Bill Redekop
The first time that Darcy Ratte saw legendary Winnipeg hustler "Fast Freddy" Dumas was at the former Nordic’s Billiards at Main Street and Atlantic Avenue.
"I was in there with my teenage buddies and in walks Freddy Dumas and he challenged the owner to a game," Ratte recalled. It was the early 1980s.
Dumas was a larger-than-life figure. He was dressed to the nines, as always, in a suit, tie and vest. Ratte and his friends just gawked at his shot-making.
"He seemed to make long shots down the rail with ease. Those type of shots are not easy on a 6 x 12-foot snooker table," said Ratte.
Alfred Joseph Dumas, who died Sept. 12 at age 78, played back spins, bank shots, bank corners and caroms across the green felt of life. He was a Damon Runyon character and one of the last of the pool hustlers in Winnipeg.
"He was known as a hustler and he made no apologies for that. He’d go around and look for players he thought he could beat and he’d gamble with them," said Ratte, who played in provincial championships when he was younger. That included Dumas purposely losing at times before raising the stakes.
Not that he had too many peers. He once beat Cliff Thorburn two out of three. Thorburn is the former Canadian snooker champion, and won the World Snooker Championship in 1980.
"Sometimes, I shoot like a champion," Dumas told the Free Press in a 1981 interview with freelance writer Charles Wilkins. "A funny thing comes over me and I can’t miss a ball."
"His era was more the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s," said Ratte. "Back in those days, there were literally pool halls all over the place and a guy like Freddy would hustle from one place to another."
For example, right across the street from Nordic’s on Main Street was Sportsmans Billiards. There was Orpheum Billiards downtown, and Las Vegas Amusements on Vaughn Street across from the Bay, which now operates under the name Bourbon Street but is no longer open 24/7.
Some other pool halls included Olympic, Crystal Palace on Edmonton Street, Obee’s at Main and Alexander Avenue, City Billiards, Toppers in North Kildonan, and Pop’s on Logan Avenue, which was run by the father of Bill Werbeniuk, who won the North American snooker championship in 1973.
Werbeniuk’s father, Adam "Shorty" Werbeniuk, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a testament that shady dealings once went on at pool halls. The father "committed armed robberies" and "was one of the biggest fences (of stolen goods) in Canada," according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.
The pool halls today are mostly for playing 8-ball instead of snooker, and on smaller tables than in Freddy’s day.
Dumas, who was Métis, was born in Ste. Rose du Lac, northeast of Riding Mountain National Park. He quit school at age 13 and got work in the local pool hall so he could play billiards. Back then, you had to be 16 to legally enter a pool hall.
He moved to Winnipeg at age 16 and would spend 12-hour days playing at Obee’s Billiards, owned by Lou Oberman. Oberman is believed to have given Dumas the "Fast Freddy" nickname, after the Paul Newman’s Fast Eddy character in the 1960s classic movie, The Hustler.
Dumas then returned to pool halls in Ste. Rose and Dauphin, where people didn’t know how good he’d become, and beat them out of their money. That may have been where he learned to hustle.
Throughout his lifetime, Dumas was a person you couldn’t help but notice. People might not know who he was but recalled seeing him downtown or riding the bus: a handsome aboriginal man with a great Elvis-style pompadour and always nattily dressed.
That’s what people told his granddaughter Jessica Dumas after Freddy died. She posted her grandfather’s obituary on Facebook and got more than 200 comments. "People said, ‘I never knew him, but I saw him all the time,’" she said.
That included bus drivers. Dumas took the bus everywhere. He never had a driver’s licence. Bus drivers got to know him and some even attended his funeral.
His dress code extended to his grandkids. "When we were kids, he’d always take one or two grandkids downtown with him to McDonald’s and he’d always make sure we were dressed clean," said Jessica, the former president of the Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce who now sits on the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. "If not, he would tell my mom, ‘Dress this kid.’ I think that’s something I got from grandpa."
Neither did Freddy smoke in a sport where it often looked like contestants were playing in a low-hanging cumulous cloud. But Jessica said he always carried a pack of cigarettes as a courtesy in case someone asked for one.
How Freddy supported himself was always a bit of a mystery. He took random jobs, as far as Jessica knows, but never had a steady job other than shooting pool. He boasted in the 1981 Free Press article that he’d already supported himself by playing pool for 13 years.
Alfred and his wife Eva, who died four years before him, had 10 children, 16 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandkids.
Peers describe Freddy as very friendly and approachable. Ratte doesn’t know if anyone ever roughed Freddy up. In the movie, The Hustler, Fast Eddy has his thumbs broken. "Certainly that element existed back then," he said.
Jessica said her grandpa was not a fighter. Instead, Freddy’s trademark was his cheerful disposition, win or lose, say friends.
"Freddy, over the years, won more than he lost but he was always a good sport," said Ratte. "He was never a sore loser. Even if he lost, he always joked around."
In fact, that first time Ratte saw Freddy play the owner of the Nordic’s, whose name was Sam Czemeras, Freddy actually lost.
"He was gracious. He paid the guy, then came over to us younger guys and said, ‘I’m a hustler. I’ll get him next time.’"