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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September: This One and That One
JUST ABOUT any pool instructional materials worth considering embrace the concept of simplification. No extraneous motion in your stroke. Don’t go more rails than you have to. Make it easy on yourself when it comes to shot selection and position play. Simplify.
And you can hardly get much simpler, when it comes to pool, than to play a game with just one object ball.
Years ago (and this predates even me, if you can believe that), there actually was a game called 1-ball. It was said to have been created in Boston, not that that can be verified nor matters much anyway. It seems distantly related to the so-called “Alabama 8-Ball,” in which the 1 and/or 15 balls must be pocketed in opposing side pockets. In 1-ball, the game begins with a 15-ball rack, the 1 in the middle where the 8 usually goes. The player breaking may either break safe or blast the balls open, with play continuing if he sinks anything, but straight-pool rules apply from there. Whichever player sinks the 1 in a side, at any point during the game, is the winner. In Willie Mosconi’s semi-tedious biography, “Willie’s Game,” he recounts scoring some $700+ in one session at the game during the Depression, with an apparently inept jeweler named Fatty Pincus. Poor Pincus was so overmatched that Mosconi ultimately handicapped their game to the point that all Pincus had to do to win was drive the 1 ball to a rail. And he couldn’t even do that, because Mosconi never gave him the chance to.
But that’s not the game I have in mind. One-ball one-pocket is evidently still played here and there, occasionally even for important money. My close friend Freddy the Beard and I, and a few other regulars at Bensinger’s, used to fool around with the game decades ago, and exclusively on a 5-by-10-foot table to boot; you can’t find those anymore. The game begins any one of three ways. The lone object ball can be placed frozen to the short rail at the middle diamond, or one ball’s width from that same location, but in neither case is the breaking player allowed to try pocketing the ball outright. The way we used to play it, the object ball went on the foot spot and the breaking player did so from the jaws of the far corner pocket on his own side (i.e., the wrong side from which to try the familiar “spot shot”). In the latter format, the breaker could try cutting the ball “backwards” if he so dared, with the caveat that the cue ball was roughly 10 times more likely to disappear than was the ball of color. But we went for it now and then anyhow, especially when ahead.
But it was the game’s deceptive simplicity that intrigued me most. How much more pure can the game possibly become, when you reduce it to just one ball being struck and just one ball to pocket? That we were playing it on the oversized table (5-by-10-footers were overwhelmingly the table of choice for all one-pocket, until they became obsolete) only made it more attractive to me. We were living the role of true purists.
One-pocket is occasionally referred to as “Chess Pool,” especially colloquially, but that seems a misnomer to me. After all, despite chess’ magnificent infinite nature, you are not permitted to leave pieces on the lines between two or four squares; whatever the piece, once your decision is made, its destination is recognized and firm. But in pool, and not just one-pocket, the only times you can be absolutely certain of the cue ball’s final resting place on any given shot is when you can stop it dead upon object-ball contact. All the rest of the time, you’re hoping to send one ball or the other, maybe both, to the location you desire. With no object-ball options, one-ball one-pocket makes that kind of precision somewhat less important.
But success at the game, as at all one-pocket, depends on your ability not only to choose the optimal response, but also to anticipate how your opponent will respond to that. Clearly the object ball could be batted around harmlessly for hours without even presenting a bank shot if the combatants were so inclined. But as the format was intended for experts only, one-ball one-pocket is almost always more purposeful than that. Chess grandmasters do not settle for pushing pawns around mindlessly in endgame, and good one-pocket players almost always play to win rather than playing not to lose.
The game’s only flaw, the way I see it, is that it inspires few if any stories (other than who played and who won/lost how much), and stories are almost as important to pool as table chalk. For better or worse, the lion’s share of all pool tales bring about the (alleged) punch line, “So then I ran out.” But the thing is, you can’t run out here; there’s only one ball to be run. No lucky dead shots, or caroms, or traps to either create or escape; all the ways that lone ball can be sunk (except for lucky shots, and how lucky can you possibly get with just one ball on the table?) are already known, so no surprises there. You can’t even begin a tale with the familiar, “He was here, and the other ball was there,” because all those positions have been seen before.
There’s little question that pool is what you make it. You don’t hear much about front-to-back one-pocket any more, unless it’s the old “711” room in New York that’s being discussed. In Manchester, N.H., they play a game called “Around The World” that’s played nowhere else in the world — and that’s just about all they play. But as the great poet Samuel Coleridge said, “Simplicity is genius.” And he played no one-ball one-pocket that we know of. That’s too bad. I bet he’d have loved it.