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
June: With Apologies to Morris Albert
FEELINGS. Of course it remains one of the sappiest songs of the half-century; according to vicious rumor, diabetics were frequently warned to leave any room in which the ditty was performed. But since this isn't Rolling Stone, let's consider the mighty effect feelings have on the cue games.
For starters, we'll stipulate that it feels better to win than it does to lose, at least for most. The good Rudyard Kipling, of course, has counseled us, "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same ." But the fellow who can indeed bring that off would be perceived a gibbering imbecile by most of us. Further, if unkindly, while Kipling did write some dandy kids' fiction, when it comes to poetry he gets the wild-6 and the crack from just about every writer who ever published a poem.
So that particular set of feelings is a given. Suppose we consider how any particular shot feels to you. Do you even think about that, or are you too wrapped up in the results (which isn't necessarily a bad thing)? If your playing experience includes both metal-joined and wood- or synthetic-jointed cues, the chances are you noticed some difference in the hit (at one level of consciousness or another), otherwise why would you have experimented with more than one category of cue?
Even before cuemaking reached today's glorious state of its art, the conventional wisdom held that cues with joints of stainless steel (or its forerunner, brass), had a more "mellow" or absorbent-feeling hit; synthetic joints produced something that felt a bit stiffer. It's sheer folly to speculate as to which plays better. But it's also worth noting that almost all the great 14.1 players of the East Coast, in an earlier era, used metal-jointed cues, most often Balabushkas. 9-Ball experts seem to favor synthetic joints.
And at that, we're terribly spoiled compared to the enthusiasts of other individual sports where you hit a ball with something. Tennis' oversized rackets, and golf's so-called "compensated" clubs, themselves represent good-sized industries within their own industries - and every last dollar of those industries is invested in rewarding the player with a "sweet-spot hit." The very reason the first large-head tennis racket, the Prince, was invented at all was to increase the sweet-spot area, where the player "feels" the ball best. (Winning tennis players invariably report they were "really feeling the ball well" after their matches.) In golf, the irony is that a perfect sweet-spot hit is one where the golfer doesn't feel the ball at all; instead he hears a wondrous "click" and gets the rest of his feedback visually. But as pool or billiards players, unless we miscue, we get to experience the sweet-spot hit on virtually every shot - if we allow ourselves to perceive it. Which isn't quite as easy as it seems.
When you consider all the ways we at least occasionally allow ourselves to lose focus other than how the shot feels, you can see why it's such a stepchild. We indulge ourselves in the wretched "mind chatter" that even allows us to accurately predict our own misses. There are diabolically whispered thoughts of winning or losing, making or missing, what spectators will think; above all, we worry about the behavior of spheres over which we have no control. The truth is, almost that mental effort ought to go into managing our bodies and our cues, because that's where the control potentially is. But you could do a whole lot worse than focus on how the shot feels to you.
And that's just how the cue ball feels against the tip of your cue. More subtly than that, when things are going well, don't you have a peculiar sense of how the cue ball/object ball "feels", even though it's several feet away from you? Doesn't a straight-in shot, with its full-ball hit, feel different somehow from a shot where you slice part, or even most, of the object ball? Needless to say, you're not doomed if these things don't occur to you. But they're definitely your allies - especially since they can help you achieve dead stroke.
So can playing by sound; like playing by feel, it's a technique for bypassing all those negatives. Every successful pool shot has three distinct sounds: cue tip against cue ball, cue ball against object ball, object ball into pocket. (Any given successful shot in three-cushion billiards, by contrast, has at least six if you count the murmurs of the cue ball against the requisite rails.) The intervals between those sounds, of course, vary with each shot. But to focus successfully on those sounds, and as little else as possible, is to get closer to losing yourself in your game.
How about how slick your shaft feels in your hand? Today most thorough billiard-supply houses offer an entire category of shaft accessories; keeping your shaft slick is billiards' cottage industry of its own.
After that, there are all the seemingly inexplicable things we do to which we have ceased to give much thought. Fastidious players constantly manicure the table free of lint, hair (in my case, a loss I could ill afford), and those strange little yellow specks that look like they fell out of a phantom pygmy's whiskbroom. Players' ring fingers flutter in forming their bridges, as though waving a happy hi to the shot (really just a very simple example of right-brain activity, but clearly the kind of thing you feel much more clearly than you can explain). They "air-stroke" before shots, and/or slip-stroke on most if not all shots; both have to do with the same thing, a player's subconscious attempt to capture his inner rhythm in preparing his stroke production. But all that gets back to, you guessed it, feelings. And the ones we're not aware of can count just as much as the ones we recognize.
It might be a kids' game. But nobody said it was easy. Not to play well, anyhow.