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 February 1988)
WHAT ELSE WOULD you call them? Un-hustlers? We're speaking here of the absolute non-players who somehow still fashion a life for themselves around playing pool, a tiny outer-outer-outer circle in the few ripples that the pool universe makes. They are a feisty breed indeed, coasting on a repertoire of misses, miscues, curses, leaps from stance and other body language, and no real firepower to fall back on save the ability to run just a few balls. And they generally explain their craft in eight humble, simple classic words, rich in pathos, worthy of somebody's headstone someplace: "You oughta see the idiots I play with."
My favorite among the un-hustlers is Jim "Peaches" Rochford, a well-read and gentle patron of the arts and unusually gifted storyteller. Peaches is also a master cum laude of the grind-away score that turns a few bucks into hundreds over many hours, where seldom is seen a run much over three. "There is just no gambling involved any more when I hit the bars," Jim explains with likable equanimity, "I simply have to win." And so he does; but the road has been long, with many a winding turn.
One of Peaches' semi-steady customers (I use the term "steady" advisedly) at Bensinger's was one Tommy the Drunk, a bedraggled river-rat whose two noteworthy features were his horrific claim to be Peggy Lee's brother, and his occasional ability to stand up straight. When Tommy played, it was considered a part of the decorum to spit in the chalk, manually re-adjust object balls to your liking, and slip him a cue without a tip. After all, Tommy expected all these ploys; they were his game-within-a-game, his version of hide-and-seek, and the rare moments when he would emerge from stupor to delightfully unearth those nefarious schemes against him were probably his most triumphant upon this earth. "Hee! Hee! I caughtcha." Grudgingly, Tommy's tormentors would return object balls to within 10 to 12 inches of where they properly belonged; in Peaches' case, 6 or 8 inches, for Peaches is a patient man.
Tommy would often pause in his action to deliver some unintelligible but undoubtedly heavy rhetoric. One night, as he did so digress, Peaches moved game ball 15 inches closer to the center of the end rail and replaced Tommy's cue with a sleek new model lacking not just tip but ferrule as well. Tommy lurched uncertainly back towards the table - this was on a 5-by-10, yet - seizes his new cue with a Quixote-like flourish, and with Peaches' case $3 on the line, sliced his game ball cleanly home, an almost-backwards cut shot, from 9-l/2 feet away. To watch Peaches' expression change as game ball slithered towards the black hole of his psyche was to know the purest of despair. While sweators howled till they got the dry heaves, Peaches managed to pay the bet off before sinking into a two-hour catatonic funk; never once did he move off the bench, the legend goes, nor change his position. Thar's them as swear he never even blinked.
On another occasion, Peaches found himself victimized by the concept of the pig-in-the-python. He knew the mark in question well enough to know he was not of Harvard or Choate stock; he was, rather, a local slob and tush hog, made more attractive this fine evening by an inability to find the end rail, and a bankroll that looked like a pygmy pumpkin. So Peaches equipped his prospect with a 9-ball handicap from another generation: "Safe-Eight", meaning that if le suckeur sinks the 8, the worst he can get in the game is a draw, even if the hustler makes the 9. It's a grind-away proposition of the old school, and Peaches built a modest bet into a score of $500 plus. By eight or nine the next morning, the bar was empty save for Peaches, the loser, and the loser's buddies. Two known wiseguys, both built like wrecking balls, came in and lo! the dawn, Peaches began to understand that he was scoring Mafia money.
One of the Capos saw Peaches' guppy sigh and pay off another $40, and sized up the situation with fearsome speed. "Why, you bleeper-bleeper!" he protested most strongly, and in the mouths of truly terrifying individuals, that particular epithet becomes a whole new word, and sounds like nothing else you ever heard in the language. "My God," thought Peaches, echoing distantly poor Col. Nicholson at the completed bridge on the River Kwai, "What have I done?"
The only out he saw was to let the guy win it back, a grind-away in reverse; he dared not to ask to raise the bet nor make the re-payment in lump sum, for the pre- payment penalties figured to be swift and severe. So back through the bankroll they went, 14 or15 games worth, Peaches now seen as doomed Orpheus pursuing his prized Eurydice eternally into Hell, running no more than two and having to stall at that. "The guy pulled even at three in the afternoon, and decided to go to sleep," Peaches recalls fondly. "So I feel like I came out ahead, because I'd have gladly thrown in a game or two for goodwill."
Even more intriguing than the lambkiller specie is the flock they prey upon. We're talking largely of bars now, I think; un-hustlers make some king-size scores off creatures who wouldn't be caught dead in a poolroom. Indeed, some of the most important money has changed hands when the lamb has invited the hustler (or un-hustler, as the case might be) back to his fine home to continue the session in private on a well-manicured table. Now the hustlers basically represent the game's lowest competitive plane - that is, if you can't beat one of these, where is there left to turn? - and one can't ignore the psychological inferences in this. The losers in these clashes, after all, go home to three squares a day and a dry roof over their heads, while their victors continue to scrap for their existence. As the lambs in question thus have (a) no visible reason to gamble and (b) no chance whatsoever to win, I think we might conclude that these gents actively want loss and especially the pain that goes with it. Well! Are they not better off, then, bringing their suffering wish to us for highly skilled indulgence, rather than running off to the whores for a good spanking? We're infinitely better company.
Mencken once said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," and P.T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute." And neither of those gentlemen, it's worth noting, could run three balls.