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
December: Schoolrooms & Poolrooms
BY AND large, they go together just about like shipwrecks and sharks. Here at this publication, though, my editorial-staff colleagues include a physicist (Bob Jewett), two engineers (Bob Byrne and Dave Alciatore), and an attorney/college professor (Mike Shamos). As I can hardly mention my measly English degree without suppressing a giggle, that leaves me as way low man on that particular totem pole. But none of us ever depended on the cue games for his sustenance.
When I was in high school, nimbly dodging Tyrannosaurus Rex on my way to class, dropping out for any reason was just about unheard of. To do so for the sake of pool, especially in my part of town and in that era, would have been little short of psychosis; $2 already represented serious action, and it wasn't easy to find either. (Just about the only reason anybody left school early back then was pregnancy, and I never knew any of those cases personally. It was, after all, the time of the girdle, and how many young men even wanted to work that hard?)
My folks pushed education at me the way most middle-class parents would, but there were limits as to how strenuously my father could object to my being smitten with pool without becoming hypocritical; he had spent plenty of time in poolrooms himself when younger, and even played decently. I understood why he tried so hard to steer me into journalism: he had his own advanced degree in it from Northwestern, and a highly promising career that was thwarted only by his having graduated college into the Depression. What I never did figure out was why he stumped so hard on behalf of physics, of which he knew next to nothing. He brought everything back to that. Let him hear a tire squealing half a block away, and he'd point out, "See, if you took physics, you'd know why that tire squeals that way." Ditto with a door slamming, or lifting a bag of groceries, or any other damn thing that involved motion or energy.
"And why would I want to have that information?" ran my typical if somewhat irreverent response. Then he'd put his palms toward heaven, as though searching for relief, and play his trump card.
"If you understood physics," he'd say with forced patience, "you'd be a better pool player."
"So you're saying that Pittsburgh Joe," I'd answer, inventing a name and trying to sound thoughtful, "out there in his Skid Row flophouse, with a laundry rope holding up his pants, he's secretly some kind of fine physicist?"
"I can't talk to him," my father would sigh to my mom. "He knows everything."
Chicago's famous room Bensinger's was the first place I ever met anyone who actually dropped out of school to hustle pool, and there I also learned that that seemed to be way closer to the rule than the exception. Even back in Willie Mosconi's champion days, it was only Irving Crane, among the top players, who had as much as a year of college (at tiny Hobart, in upstate N.Y.). And Crane's family was relatively well off, with a Cadillac dealership at which the great player himself worked on and off. Most of his peers, though, including Mosconi, saw their teen years take them smack into the middle of the same Depression my old man faced; their families could not have afforded to send them to college even had they been inclined to go.
Back in what I call "the 711 era," when pool was probably played better by more people in New York and New Jersey than at any time in its history, a high school diploma would have had you pretty much at the top of the educated pack. The two hustlers with the pseudo-first name "Brooklyn," the late Johnny Ervolino and Jimmy Kassas, had one grade school diploma between them (Jimmy's). Jack "Jersey Red" Breit never finished 10th grade. Future billiards champ and author-to-be Eddie Robin didn't finish, either, but earned his General Equivalency Diploma in the Army. Robin's buddy the late shortstop "Pancho" Furio/Corelli/Strauss actually graduated from a prestigious military academy, which seems an unusual choice by him until one understands that that choice was made for him by the New York system of justice for juvenile offenders.
Education hasn't fared all that much better among today's pool experts. Hall of Fame players Nick Varner (Purdue) and the late Steve Mizerak (three schools) each had four years of college. Add to that Max Eberle (James Madison), Richard Lane and Jay Helfert (both Oklahoma), and Dan Louie (Washington State), and what you have is one mighty skimpy list. High school dropout status is a lot closer to the norm.
The women, on balance, do better than that when it comes to school; virtually every visible female player today has at least finished high school. Palmer Byrd Vallaincourt, cofounder of what is today the WPBA, received an M.B.A. from Hartford (Conn.) University while a corner-office executive at United Technologies. Master Instructor Fran Crimi has a bachelor's in accounting from N.Y.'s Queens College; there she was a year behind one Jerry Seinfeld, who shunned pool yet still seems to have done OK. And Nesli O'Hare, yet another pool player expatriate now playing poker, sported two separate master's degrees, in applied math (what on earth is math that doesn't get applied, anyhow, and why would you bother to learn it?) and computer science.
But the very peak of the educational hierarchy in the cue games today has to be British snooker/straight-pool player Jonni Fulcher. He has over 50 perfect frames at snooker, and competed well in the 14.1 World Championships held last October. Still, what I like best about Fulcher (besides his disadvantaged hairline) is that he holds a Ph.D. in, of all subjects, nuclear physics. Boy, am I ever glad he wasn't around for my father to see. I'd never have heard the end of it.