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.
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April: The Huddled Masses
THE FIRST pool player who ever bad-racked the balls for me was a guy whose real name I wouldn’t learn till over 50 years later. Back then, he was just “Tennessee,” even though there was nothing particularly “yahoo” about him. He was quiet, plump and balding beneath a hat that never came off, the kind of guy you’d probably never notice in the poolroom. While he was in Chicago, Tennessee was pals, and occasionally partners, with both “Brooklyn Jimmy” Cassas, about whom I’ve written many times, and “Tall Al” Lamoreaux, who would eventually become a pretty good friend. So this, in a way, completes the little subculture trilogy of the three hustlers.
Tennessee had me trapped playing $2 9-ball. I was about 18 then, and barely knew I was alive at that game to begin with. On top of that, he was racking the balls loose, not that I noticed nor would have known the difference if I had. This was at the old downtown Bensinger’s, and it took one of the younger kids from my regular room to tip me off. “He’s not racking the balls tight; that’s why you can’t make anything on the break.” I took a closer look at his next rack — he may even have spotted me the break — saw enough oxygen in there to sustain six miners in a cave-in, and quit in indignation.
“You want some more of me, the game is straight pool,” I announced. “Raise the bet, too.” He agreed greedily, and as a 9-ball oriented southerner, proved to be even more inept at my game than I was at his. I got my money back, and Jimmy and Al had a good horselaugh at Tennessee’s expense. (Jimmy immediately tore me a new one anyhow.) Two years ago at the DCC, the great one-pocket artist Marshall “Tuscaloosa Squirrel” Carpenter told me that Tennessee, real name Walter Jakey, was still alive and kicking, a nightly patron at the Birmingham dog track. He’d be past 80 now; I doubt he ever finished grade school. What a survivor.
This all came to mind when my good friend Grace Nakamura announced she’d be unveiling a new racking template (www.racktight.com) at the Valley Forge show. What attention we all lavish on that innocent little act! Inventions have been created for it (Sardo). DVDs have been made about it (by the redoubtable Joe Tucker; nobody isolates segments of the game better). There’s even thorough instruction on how not to rack the balls, in the form of all the ways unscrupulous players can cheat.
Do people like that even exist anymore? After all, it’s supposed to be a gentleman’s game, and besides, inspecting the other guy’s rack is so commonplace that some tournaments even bar it as unseemly, preferring to let competitors rack for their own breaks. Tampa’s rising star Donnie Mills pores over freshly racked balls as though they were a prized stamp collection. From all four sides, from directly above, and at eye level, Mills studies, stares and swoops as though he spotted something dead in there, a good two or three minutes at a time. I imagine that would make for one hell of a sharking technique if he had you stuck, as he does most. On a purely functional level, though, it sure seems like overkill.
If you come across a wooden rack today, chances are you’re in a poolroom of the old school. The accessory, like the balls it houses, has mostly gone the way of plastic. And if there’s one thing I despise even more than having my telephone call put on infinite hold (and periodically being reassured as to how important my call is to them), it’s those plastic racks that include an extra little “rim” at their bottom. They’re flimsy; they’re oversized, so you better get your fingers in there if you want the balls truly huddled; and that useless rim is a threat to 14.1 break balls that lie barely outside the racking area.
One of the more intriguing racking questions I’ve heard came from Eddie Miller, the night manager at Bensinger’s. Because of downright embarrassing dental hygiene (wiseacres would later refer to him as “The Green Mile”), Miller was loath to open his mouth very wide when he spoke, and was therefore not easily understood. But one night I overheard him muttering, and demonstrating, a straight-pool racking technique I had never seen before or since. “Everybody wants to put their fingers in between the rack and the back row of balls, to tighten things up. But what if your break shot is near the top of the rack? Am I not permitted to tighten the rack from the top down, instead from the bottom up?” (He got a response, not from me, that went something like, “Cheez, Eddie, I never give it a t’ought!” The rulebook is vague on this, but apparently you cannot.)
A few months back, the acclaimed pop artist Leroy Neiman visited Chris’s Billiards here in town with several students. (Neiman has treated pool twice in paintings, although unkind critics have suggested that he is to fine art as Ripple is to fine wine.) When I play, I like to hang the rack on a nearby coat-hook so I don’t have to bend for it. And one of Neiman’s students saw fit to photograph that very thing, just a close-up of the rack on the hook. “See character in that, do you?” I called out. She nodded with a gleeful grin. I suppose it did at that.