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
(from August 1983)
IT SEEMS TO be a push, among those few academicians who do care, as to whether Cleopatra did or didn't say, "Let's to billiards." Either way, you'd have to agree that it's just about unsurpassed for elegance as pool preludes go. But getting the other guy to the table remains a subtle art.
At the low end of the scale, we have such paramecium-level propositions as "Shoot come pool?", which reveals the challenger's weakness for redundancy (after all, what else could it possibly be that you came to shoot?). The language is unspecific; even if the hearer responds positively, the speaker knows not one whit more about the game or the stakes his plump pigeon will go for. Resolve here and now never to play a stranger who asks you, "Shoot some pool?" The man is a non-communicative, unsubtle dolt stealing seconds from your life with unproductive, short-sighted babble. He also probably plays like The Maker, and is hoping that the real bait in his question will be its innocence.
Now one word less than that is the kind of word economy that warms my heart. "Play some?" has some authenticity to it. In the strange way that words can take on imagery and then slide into extensions of what they originally mean, "Play some?" is unmistakable code for "Gamble?" Pancho Furio was given to that kind of terseness. So was his buddy Eddie Robin, and so was Billy Incardonna. The P.S. man means business, and will open your nose wide with none of the disguises or masks that the cloddish "Play some pool?" host might effect. "Play some?" says that its source is ready to run eights or nines or hundreds every game, whatever it takes, for the cheese, and he doesn't care a fig if you fibrillate.
I once devised an opening of my own, the plaintive and loveseeking "Who wants me?" Unfortunately, my invitation, along with my skill, drew more responses than an oil-field cathouse on payday. So rather than hire Andy Frain to control the crowds rushing me, with dollars drawn, I went back to waiting to be asked.
Sometimes flattery can work its way right into the opening salvo. The late Pony Rosen, an indolent but friendly and likable bum who haunted Bensinger's for decades, would say, "You've got a good stroke," and you knew you were on the way to some cheap grief. Pony played every bloody game in the house well, for $10 or less, and as you and your fine stroke limped away from the table, he'd persist, "When ya comin' back? You got a good stroke."
Brooklyn Jimmy, Hall of Fame hustler, took the same device further, and told the guppy not only how good he was but how much better than Jimmy he was. "You wanna play? You gotta spot me somethin', though," Jimmy would jabber, taking care not to trip over his prospect's white cane. Somehow Jimmy's customers went home with swollen egos to complement their shrunken bankrolls. Jimmy played at New York's fabled 711 room maybe four hundred times, booked one loser, and the loser caused him to up his demands of handicap from everybody else by 40 percent. Little Stevie Wonder, already snared by Jimmy into surrendering the call-7-and-the-crack, had to cough up the wild-5 as well.
But when all the suckers have finally been sent home, punished and well-detumescent, and serous players are left to deal with one another, the most universal language by far seems to be, "What do you want to do?", more often truncated into three words (and sometimes one), "Whachoo wanna do?" The heaviest money flows behind whachoowannado; this is elitist language. Be flattered when a real player approaches you this way. He is offering you the fraternity handshake. What does it matter that he holds his middle finger funny?
I was initiated into the Inner Circle of Whachoowannado by a player named Mexican Johnny. An illiterate taco-bellied sloth with an IQ that hovered perilously in the high teens, Juan was nonetheless bilingual and self-supporting, and even fashioned his own version of pool's clarion call. "Shoo wan do?" Juan asked me, leaning towards me conspiratorially. This was in the early 50's, and I thought he was inquiring into a given strategic battle in Korea. How could I confess ignorance to my Latino neighbor, of anything as important as a police action involving my - our - country's armed forces? "Shoo wan do?"
Juan repeated, and I answered, with ringing pride, "Our boys took some heavy flack, but they're holding the line now." Juan frowned vaguely, and scratched and adjusted his seeds.
But wait a minute. Here were three words not to be taken so lightly; born to no official tongue, they still communicated; they were sinister, secret. Best of all, you didn't have to be Mexican Johnny to speak them; they seemed eminently worthy of Brando and James Dean. Both were topical back then, both spawned legions of inept imitators, and I was not the least of these.
"Shoo wan do?" I snarled mysteriously, to teachers I felt were grading me unfairly.
"Shoo wan do?" I moaned piteously, to Commanding officers dawdling over whether to give me a weekend pass. "Sir?"
"Shoo wan do?" I grunted roguishly, to the girl I had just asked to marry me.
"Shoo wan do?" I smiled smugly, to business executives weighing multimillion-dollar sales, my entire destiny sitting on the fence with picket stakes puncturing both its buns. I tell you, Mexican Johnny as a role model was endlessly useful and took me far in life.
And by far, the rarest invitation, however worded, comes from the stranger who subsequently loses to you. To ask a guy to play pool and then go off to him requires a schlemiel of Wood Allen caliber, and Woody plays billiards only. The humiliation can constipate the asker for 7 to 10 days. I know. Trust me.