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
IT’S NOT just a color; it’s a buzzword for our age. Even the car manufacturers who turn our air into public privies want us to think they’re “green” (environmentally friendly). Now I don’t know how or why that color was originally chosen for cue-games cloth, but pool and billiards have been truly green just about as long as the games have been around. How come the same corporations who pour hundreds of millions of advertising dollars into their phony green posturing won’t sponsor us?
Yet we still haven’t arrived at the appropriate category of that shade. That would be the green of envy, a particularly slimy one of the seven deadly sins. And nowhere does it blend more purely with pool’s green than in the case of the guy who barely touches a cue twice a week but still plays like Jesus. It’s really hard to take. The rest of us read books, watch videos, buy new cues and new gizmos to go with them, and practice and experiment until we’re bleary-eyed and our marriages and careers are in tatters. But the damned naturals just screw their cues together uninterestedly, and proceed to run hundreds and win thousands.
One prominent figure at this year’s Derby City Classic was Chicago’s Chris Gentile, who beat John Schmidt in one-pocket tournament play, broke even with him in a grueling after-hours session, and was in constant high-stakes action besides. I’ve known him since he was too young to be in the poolroom legally (he was good, and a good kid, then too). Gentile is a professional poker player, both online and in tournaments, and he is very successful at it. The better his results, the less significant pool and billiards (he’s good at that too) become. He rarely practices, and plays for money only when he plays. Although one-pocket is his long suit, he plays everything as long as action is involved. Chris Gentile hardly even takes any practice strokes before shooting. He just delivers flawlessly, the bastard.
Another case in point is Alex Pagulayan, this year’s bank pool tournament victor. He, too, has turned to poker, not because he doesn’t like pool — he loved it, and at one point it was all he wanted to do — but because he’s burned out all his action. His poker record and reputation are nowhere near as fearsome as Gentile’s, the exact reverse of where the two men stand when it comes to pool. Alex’s story is fairly well known by now. As with the vast majority of the ferocious Philippine players, he was born into extreme poverty. His neighborhood was so fierce that as a pre-adolescent, he was sent to relatives in Toronto not just to live, but to survive. By the time he was a teenager, his pool game was already lethal.
The first time I saw Alex in action was one of the more remarkable performances I’ve ever seen. I assume it was his renowned mentor Ron Wiseman who brought him into Chris’s Billiards, but I didn’t know who Wiseman was then and really didn’t notice. Alex was no more than 18 but barely looked 12, all but lost in a T-shirt that hit him about where a miniskirt would. He matched up at 8-ball, not 9-ball, and that was surprising enough. But as it turned out, the game might as well have been 9-ball the way Alex played it. Break and run out. Break and run out. Break, run three or four, play a killer safe, get ball in hand, run out. Break and run out again. In the same jolly manner he displays today, he butchered one of Chicago’s better players for at least 20 barrels in less than two hours. It was downright scary.
And in fact, very little about Alex has changed since. His haircut is a wild, omnidirectional spike (not infrequently purple-streaked too), so in silhouette his head would resemble a miniature swamp buggy. If he owns pants other than jeans, few have seen them. He jabbers and giggles constantly as he shoots, his “Thass moneyi>, baby,” a trademark by now that has delighted as many backers and bettors as it has rankled victims. (What could possibly be more humorless than a runt half your age calling you “baby” as he heists you in the grand Dillinger tradition?) I happened to walk in on his 14.1 tournament effort, as he wandered through a run of nearly six racks. The Filipinos take to straight pool about the same way the Amish take to the Internet; there’s something seemingly puzzling to them about shooting any ball anywhere at any time. In Alex’s case, his confusion made him even more noisy than usual, as he asked questions of no one in particular, cackled at his own bewilderment, and bounced and rattled the balls in re-racking as though he were preparing an omelet. But his shooting and cue-ball control are such marvels that there really isn’t much need for style. He was a 14.1 semifinalist here last year too, making his way through the racks one ball at a time then as now. Like Gentile, he’s a perfect storm of hand-eye coordination, bulletproof nerves and crystal-clear neural paths for both judging cue-ball speed and visualizing patterns ... and hardly any dedication.
Other neat surprises at the DCC included Earl Strickland’s attaining the one-pocket final, with a cue that appeared to have been borrowed from basketball’s 7-foot-6-inch Yao Ming, 63 inches long and 26 ounces. Strickland was thoroughly gracious in defeat, too; it’s only fair that the man get credit when he earns it. And there was the charming revelation that two of our finest after-hours money competitors are also two of America’s more prominent deadbeat dads. One putz was even hauled before the lace-collared “Judge Judy” to not only lose his ass, but do so on network TV. It’s unsettling that men with moral backbones of marmalade are such brilliant pool players. But hey, at least they play nearly every day. No envy involved there..