Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
March: Holy Anticlimax, Batman!
WELL, YOU can't have everything. I still think the Derby City Classic is the most pool fun you can have on earth (I missed Galveston, but I can't drive to it as I can to the DCC, and that's a deal-breaker). But this year's edition produced two of the dreariest final matches, in both one-pocket and straight pool, that you'd ever want to avoid. Four fine players all light-years off their best at the same time is, glumly, part of the game too. Up in the Accu-Stats broadcast booth, the great Dan DiLiberto and his erstwhile partners - Jimmy Mataya for the one-hole, and BD's stellar Mark Wilson for the 14.1 - searched heroically for insights that might brighten the proceedings. Not to be irreverent, guys, but methinks it's not going to matter much what you did wind up saying.
One-pocket purists will find solace in noting that all five games in the final were won by the player who didn't break, but that's not supposed to be the highlight of the match. In most of those games, the balls went up-table and got bunched, and no two players on the planet can breathe interest into such a moribund game. Winner Scott Frost is normally one of the more intriguing players to watch; his game is almost identical to Shannon Daulton's, both lefties taking a highly aggressive approach, even in defense, having mastered the subtle art of sending one or more object balls close to their pocket and hiding the cue ball from those balls at the same time. But he never really got a chance to show what he can do, stifled in part by Texan runner-up Sylver Ochoa's patience, cautiousness and remarkable escapes, which were generally all that was memorable in this event.
Ochoa's prim appearance suggests that he stumbled into the poolroom by mistake while looking for the library (or seminary); he's less than 30 and wouldn't even look that old except for the rimless glasses, which alone make him rare among pool's elite. He has now finished second in two of the DCC's premier events, one-pocket and banks, over the past three years, and is clearly one to watch, but Frost's future looms even brighter. With Cliff Joyner far off his game for close to two years now, the broad consensus holds that the world's two best one-pocket players are Efren Reyes and Daulton; Frost, just in his early 30s himself, may well have a legitimate claim to being No. 3.
The 14.1 finals were equally tedious, and that's a shame because this is only the second year for actual competitive straight-pool play at the DCC; in the past, its inclusion has mostly been limited to a long-run contest, not unlike expecting Home Run Derby to fairly represent all baseball. That competition was in place this year, too, except that the top competitors again advanced to single-elimination play, all made possible, as usual, by the spectacular generosity of this magazine's Bob Jewett. The genial John Schmidt led the qualifiers with 150+ (no news there), with Johnny Archer just nine balls behind, and in the real-game quarterfinals, Schmidt topped his own act with 171. Having already won added prize money for attaining 150+ in competition, and just two racks from winning even more for 200, Schmidt made a shot selection for No. 172 that bordered on masochistic. This was a narrow-angle, side-pocket challenge, with far easier opportunities available, and he nicely complemented his mysterious choice with excessive speed; the pocket point spat the ball back as though in contempt. Schmidt's response was remarkably placid, I thought; with a dazed smile, he simply said, "What an idiot. Thanks for sweating it, everybody." The simultaneous owner of pro pool's best golf game and one of its best smiles, John Schmidt is pool's current answer to Sara Lee. Nobody doesn't like him.
The other memorable line of the tournament came from Schmidt's close friend and former cuemaker, Bobby Hunter. He has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, having once confided to me that he was thinking of getting married with the rationale, "I'm sure I've done crazier things." In losing to Germany's classy player/teacher/coach/author/DVD producer Ralf Eckert, Hunter made it clear from the outset that he was going to be competitive in class only, and generally channeled Stevie Wonder throughout. Asked afterward what happened, Hunter defended himself staunchly. "I ran a 3 and a 9 on the man," he asserted. "Couldn't believe it when he didn't fold."
Would that the final match had been anywhere near that enjoyable. Eckert was no great surprise as a finalist; Charlie Williams probably was, and did very little, in winning, to dispel that surprise. The combined track and swimming events of the last 10 Olympics have nothing on Williams when it comes to false starts. On close to 75% of his shots, Williams would get down, aim, take three practice strokes, and then stand up again to start the whole process over, second-guessing himself more than a lousy horseplayer at post time. At one point, he audaciously asked referee Jewett to announce his shots before he (Williams) got down to aim. How Jewett found the restraint not to ask, "And what might that be?" is anybody's guess. It's not unusual in 14.1 for one struggling competitor to drag the other down with him, but in this contest, the villain was indeterminable. The two men generally traded runs of less than one rack, although Williams did manage a shaky 39 when he needed it most. Yet his somnambulistic performance must be forgiven; along with Jewett, he has been one of straight pool's very strongest allies for years, and both men go well out-of-pocket to keep the magnificent game alive and kicking.
Perhaps it's worth observing that in both finals, the ultimate winner fell to the ground, tennis player-style, in supposed relief. Funny; that's what most of the gallery felt like doing too.