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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ONE OF the most brilliant shows The Twilight Zone ever ran (my opinion, anyway) was an episode called "Time Enough At Last." The plot details are not significant here, but the late peerless character actor Burgess Meredith starred as a harried bookworm who, after somebody drops The Big One, finds himself alone on the earth with all the books of the world available to be read. Now be honest: haven't you ever fantasized the same thing, about being totally isolated with your favorite cue game?
The late three-cushion player and author Walt Harris, I would say, came closest to accomplishing the same thing. After retiring to Cocoa Beach, Fla., he and three billiards buddies sat down and calculated how much each man figured to spend monthly playing his beloved game in a commercial room, plus travel (the nearest such room was at least 40 miles away). Then they went out and bought themselves a loft, with each man's share of the mortgage almost exactly the same amount he would have spent on billiards anyhow. The loft's lone furnishings were a new, heated, perfectly maintained billiard table and a lightly stocked refrigerator. Had they not all had other homes to go to and loved ones to greet them there, the four men could have played around the clock if they had so chosen. Doesn't that sound like a sneak preview of heaven?
Walt's passion for his game was probably not the equal of that of the late Joe Diaz; as a solid business success, after all, Walt demonstrably had a life well beyond family and billiards. Both men were mid-level players whose love clearly exceeded their skill, and by a goodly margin in each case. Walt chose to express his through a series of books, superbly chronicled as usual by Mike Shamos in our October issue. Harris even solicited me for a quote he could use as a cover blurb, which I furnished. What the Shamos tribute didn't examine was that those books had their critics, and the latter group was not bashful in the least. Two former national 3-C champions have told me that most of Walt Harris' systems are very unlikely to translate beyond the table on which he devised them. (They're somewhat more accepting of those systems authored by better players whom Walt included, and fully credited, in his books.)
Now this kind of sniping between billiardists is hardly new, even though as a group they're infinitely more generous with their knowledge than pool players are. A generation ago, former national champion Eddie Robin produced the first and only American book on the topic, "Position Play in Three-Cushion Billiards." As with his later one-pocket books, this was an extremely ambitious effort, some hundreds of pages long with hundreds of diagrams. Robin's competitive nemesis and former 13-time national champion, the late Allen Gilbert, offered this succinct critique of Robin's piece: "Preposterous." Yet Gilbert himself was the author of a near-inscrutable pamphlet on a diamond system of his own, so we must consider the possibility that his objectivity in judging the work of his peers may have been a tad clouded.
Robin and Gilbert didn't like one another, either, and even in a game that universally attracts gentlemen, you can find outright boorish behavior here and there. Most famously, that would include one Robert Cannefax, who played decades before any of the above men were alive. The late Danny McGoorty, captured brilliantly by Robert Byrne in a book that has had five separate printings, told of the charming Cannefax' tendency to stroll around the arena before his match began, shaking his fist and promising, "Dis bum won't get 10 points." Cannefax became one of America's top players despite the challenge of a wooden leg; he bolstered his own frightful reputation by stabbing himself in that leg in frustration when opponents were at the table, possibly as a sharking technique (and I'd guess that it was an extremely effective one, especially the first time any given opponent saw it). He actually utilized that same knife to savage his table's cloth once - in a match with the patrician Willie Hoppe, yet - because he felt the balls were not rolling properly. Fortunately, the loony-tune's table-leveling procedure never did catch on elsewhere.
And McGoorty himself, though a fine player and teacher, was no bargain where gentlemanly billiards behavior was concerned. Before he launched his own recovery from alcoholism - and he quit cold turkey, without the benefit of support groups, religion or meetings, simply because another tournament competitor protested that he (McGoorty), as a drunken idiot, was not fit to represent their beautiful game - "The McGoor" was a well-dressed but foul-mouthed and usually bombed-out creep. And he only donned his omnipresent clean shirt and suit to fool his suckers.
But neither Gilbert nor Robin nor even McGoorty is destined to have the last word in caroms instruction, because a new book and DVD, "The Concise Book of Position Play," by former Midwest star Bill Smith, offers players some sensational learning opportunities in an easily understood format. Refreshingly, Smith (www.mr3cushion.com) does not care to get in on the peer-bashing, preferring to promote his effort on its own considerable merits. I'm not enough of a caroms player to opine meaningfully which of these works is best, but Robin did not have the advantage of an accompanying DVD to demonstrate his concepts as Smith does. Further, Smith's book is spiral-bound, so you can take it to the table and lay it flat as you apply what you learn. Everything seems perfectly logical in sequence. You should appreciate the way he's able to categorize and group shots offering juicy second-shot opportunities; at the same time, his DVD clearly shows that all the various systems he offers do indeed work. And our own Robert Byrne will thrill to the concept of Smith's teaching five different strokes.
If you're serious about your billiards game, you're going to like this.