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
HOW GOOD IS GOOD?
(from September 1982)
"THERE'S ALWAYS somebody better." The haunting cry rings eternally down the hallowed halls of pool players, street fighters, gunslingers, martial-arts masters, gladiators, and probably all the way back to Tyrannosaurus Rex, on whose cape, finally, nobody tugged except Time. The Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops of pool, of course, are Mosconi and Greenleaf, in whichever order you prefer. But it's customary to bypass the two when pool talk gets around to the best and the baddest, because (a) their dominance is already conceded, and (b) there are precious few colorful gambling stories to be told about either man, and those are truly stuffs of which enduring pool legends are made.
Having dismissed the two leaders, then, the question of pool's best is either a vast unknown or a matter of whom you ask for an opinion. I've looked into both areas, as part of my love affair with the game. But it's the theory that the greatest has yet to surface that hypnotizes me; he (or maybe she) is lurking out there in a well-paneled basement or a nightmarish ghetto or a tucked-away country town, and nobody knows! Some people see a jungle from afar and wonder about the snakes; some look at the sea and shudder for the sharks; and I look at the skyline of any strange city and think, "Who and where and how good are the good players?", proving once again how deeply the game has her talons (and caresses) into me, as if further proof were needed.
I ran into one of the genuine Great Unknowns in my very first excursion to Chicago's last great room, Bensinger's, a full generation ago. There is a samurai maxim that says a man who attains mastery of an art reveals it in his every action; this samurai was a dotty, dour old Scott with a one-piece cue for a sword. But even across the room, even after just a few months around pool, I knew the table, game and meager bet were in the hands of a master. His name was MacDonald, and he looked every bit of what that name conveys, with hair that would be fashionably long today jutting out beneath a jaunty plaid cap. MacDonald, once you peeked beneath the hauteur, was a drunken tubercular bum, much in the manner of Doc Holiday but without the glitz. But as long as he was coherent, he had not only a killer game but an oddly patrician delivery to his speech, somewhere between John Houseman and Boris Karloff. "Who's….got change….for the ten?" MacDonald would inquire loftily of the sweaters, waving some poor shnook's sawbuck daintily like Scarlett O'Hara's hanky. Watching him scrap to survive, one could only wonder how great he must have been. And the word on that was that during the 30's - the leanest years pool players have ever seen - MacDonald had gone to New York and blown the competition away as though they were so many spring dandelions. They stood in line to play the daffy hick who shot off an open thumb, and he ran effortless hundreds off that thumb.
But that was another day; more contemporarily, when the rational man talks of pool greatness, he faces East. New York has been depicted as a netherworld unto itself before (The Warriors, Planet Of The Apes, Escape From New York), but in no aspect is that more true than in pool, where the standards are so incredibly higher it doesn't even seem like the same game. Billiards champ Eddie Robin, by his own account "a pretty fair pool player" with a long run of 200 and rock-ribbed short games too, readily admits that in New York in the 60's, he was considered a non-player - and that assessment was handed down by mere shortstops; New York's elite found him beneath comment!
"East Coast Runs Pool" has been around to haunt the game's annals almost as long as "Always somebody better." When the game was going strong, you could turn up teen-aged 200-ball runners in at least three of New York's five boroughs, and they were but innocent apple-cheeked apprentices. The playing rosters of the best East Coast rooms looked like Amazon eddys at the height of the pirhana season: Johnny Irish, whose nonchalance in his big-money matches was so monstrous he hawked neckties while the balls were being re-racked; Jersey Red, who both talked and played the world's best big-table one-pocket; Johnny Ervolino, whose brilliance seemed limited only by when and if he cared to win; Mike Eufemia, who, according to cult rumor, claimed a practice 625; and on and on. You cannot cull the greatness of the Eastern players down to a single all-time king-of-the-hill nominee, any more than you can divine the finest grape in the finest vineyard. No one has explained why the New York area is pool's Mecca, other than to say ( 1) the game has been in that part of the country the longest, and (2) befitting Mecca, it's certainly East.
But for a while there, I thought we had the whole "greatest" issue resolved. Back in the 70's, the Associated Press reported that some dude from Sri Lanka had torn off an 869 in a World Amateur Pocket Billiard Championship, in Calcutta. 869! Only a handful of men on the earth can even hope to run the difference between that and Mosconi's heralded (and confirmed) 526. And his exotic birthplace, with both jungle and sea close at hand, advanced the richness of the Great Unknown concept many times over. It used to be called Ceylon, it's famous for its tea, and The Bridge On The River Kwai was filmed there, but who knows anything else about Sri Lanka or its mystical billiards champion? (For that matter, how many amateur pool champions, or even players, can you name?) The heroic, if predictable, snarl went forth from the East Coast: "We'll play him some; just make sure he brings cash." But I wasn't listening; at last, I thought we had an untouchable Greatest.
It took Dick Helmstetter, one of the industry's great cue-makers and gentlemen, to guide my dream firmly if cruelly back to earth. Helmstetter, who has fashioned fine wands for most of the great European billiards players, not only knew the man but counted him as a customer to boot. But he didn't even give my awe any room to flourish. What the guy had done, it seemed, was score at English billiards, not pockets. It's a game played with two whites and a red on a 6' by 12' snooker table. The game demands cue-ball control, naturally, but otherwise it bears only the slightest relation to pool.
"All right," I moaned, searching among the shards of my dream, "but at least think of the guy's potential. His fundamentals, his control, his mental calm. What a pool player he'd make!"
"Forget it, George," Dick Helmstetter said, and my dream died the hardest death of all. "I played with him. He can't make a ball!"