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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THE LATE Joe Diaz never finished the 6th grade, yet you could scour the annals of Harvard cum laude graduates without finding a finer gentleman. Although he claimed to have been an excellent pool player when he was young, no one could be found who ever saw him play. He had no other loves than family and three-cushion billiards. Those who knew him well would argue that you could take that one step further, and stipulate that Joe was billiards.
I was fortunate enough to watch Joe play for over 50 years. It wasn’t his skill that made that stunning first impression — at his very peak, he was maybe a .7 player — but his voice. In the cacophony that was Bensinger’s when busy, Joe Diaz might as well have been James Earl Jones. In another era, and with the proper guidance, he could have made so much money doing Hispanic voice-over work that he’d have had to microfilm it. But that just wasn’t in the cards for Joe, and no matter, because he considered himself blessed anyway.
If there was anything immodest about the man in the slightest way, it would have been his laugh. The speaking voice was magnificent enough, seemingly a full two octaves beneath middle C. But that laugh seemed to be conjured up from somewhere just north of his toenails, enormous burbles of unabashed joy. You could hear it all over the room; twenty tables away, mediocre pool shortstops complained that he was brutalizing their $3-a-game focus. What was so witty in what had just been said to Joe? What ironic little pie-in-the-face-from-life had those three diabolical little balls dictated in his game? The respective answers were nothing, and none at all. Those bursts of happy thunder reflected nothing more than simply how overjoyed Joe Diaz was to be where he was. In the poolroom, with his beloved game and among its other lovers.
By his own admission, Joe did not really begin to learn the game until relatively late in life. But once started, he was insatiable for knowledge, soaking up the teachings of such Chicago masters as George Pentaris and Ernie Presto; he was more than willing to take advice from players no more accomplished than he. And whatever he learned, he was more than happy to teach in turn. Early in the history of Chris’s Billiards, he and Presto would sponsor little four-man tournaments featuring Chicago’s two top players, Jose Luis Campos and Presto’s protégé, Billy Smith, along with Michigan’s Rick Park and whomever they could find for fourth; Smith usually won. Joe and Ernie, neither of whom was rich, had nothing whatsoever to gain from their sponsorship except seeing their elegant game played unusually well. But billiards made both men quite rich in other ways than monetarily, and helped keep them young too.
There are not many men, in my 55+ years around the cue games, whose passion for those games I would place at the same loony level as mine. But Joe Diaz had me dead to rights there. How many worse nightmares does life have to offer than outliving your own kids?
Joe had five. One night his adult son Porfirio came home and surprised a burglar. That particular form of life, by its very nature, is rarely violent; sadly, this one was, and Porfirio was shot and killed. The detective who caught the case — in fact, he may well have volunteered for it — was another billiards player and a friend of Joe’s, who swore he would not go to bed until the perpetrator was in hand, and accomplished that in less than two days. But if there was one night in Joe’s life that I will truly never forget, it was the night he came directly from his son’s wake at the funeral home to the poolroom. The game he loved so deeply was also the conduit he chose to work out his bottomless grief.
Joe passed away at 86. In all the years I knew him, the only break I ever saw him take from joviality was on his 80th birthday, when I stumbled into the faux pas of wishing him many more. “Not like this!” he snapped, completely out of character, and then, just as quickly, he was himself again, apologizing for his bad manners. His pride was as gigantic as his laugh; he did not mind seeing his game on the downhill side, but he had no use at all for any kind of infirmity. He was at the billiards table for practice play right up until the last few weeks; several of his fellow players would pick him up at his assisted-living center and drive him both ways to/from the poolroom. I’ve written before about how I could coax him into that explosion of laughter by bellowing, “Wrong ball, Joe!” across the room in catching him cueing the red ball. But the last time I did, he pointed out, “It isn’t easy for me to walk around and retrieve the cue ball any more,” so of course I had to stop. In his last year or so, Joe needed devices to help him walk and breathe, yet he would shed both to hit the billiard balls and, remarkably, to sneak into the back room for a smoke. Everybody who loved the guy silently wanted to scream at him. But, all things considered, it seemed a bit late for chidings.
Joe once won a match over the great Carlos Hallon in which he barely averaged .4, and that sort of patience defines the man quite well. On many of the shots on which he did score, the ultimate object ball barely moved another ball’s width. That makes stellar sense in terms of scoring strategy; in Joe’s case, it simply seemed that he adored the balls so much he was loath to disturb them any more than he had to.
Vaya con Dios, old friend. You may rest secure in the knowledge that the game you treasured so deeply will never replace you. It may not even come close.