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
"... BE SILLY and foolish all day long;
Boom-boom, ain't it great to be craaaaa-zy?"
I haven't sung that song since summer camp, roughly 60 years ago. And I don't remember any of the verses, just the chorus (although the fragmented goofy lyric "'Woops,' said the flea, 'there's a horse on me,'" seems stuck in my head). But that's OK, because the pool world has enough silliness to offer, on a near-daily basis, to go around and then some.
* Presented for your consideration: Pool player A rats out player B for selling drugs. B, somewhat irked at drawing 6 to 8 years' hard time, manages to get the word out to pool's underworld that A's future is severely compromised. Player A, terror-stricken, flees five states away and changes, you guessed it (or maybe not), his first name. His elaborate ruse seems to have worked so far.
* Decades ago, future billiards champ and author Eddie Robin was in the famous New York poolroom known as "711," practicing and missing a certain shot over and over. The only spectator was a hanger-on everybody called "Send-It-In Phil."
"You ever gonna make that shot?" Phil inquired politely.
"Bet you I do."
"I'll make it. Bet you a buck I make it. Half a buck. A quarter. A dime. Anything."
"Leave me alone, Eddie," Phil said. "I don't have a penny."
"Here," Eddie said, digging into his pocket. "Here's one penny. Will you bet it on this try?"
"Yes, I will," Phil replied with ringing pride, feeling a sudden surge in testosterone. He won his wager, too. They doubled up, for the two cents, and Eddie missed and Phil won again. Then he won for four cents, building his stake to eight. In fact, Eddie missed the shot the next nine times in a row, doubling up each time, and lost his entire bankroll of close to $80 — when what he stood to win in the first place was his own penny back.
* Here in Chicago, pool marketing colossus Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna used to have a customer called Polish Vince, a well-dressed, well-groomed bum whose compulsive gambling cost him a wife and several kids. After the divorce, Vince moved back in with his mom for some years. One day, Mom said, "You know, Vince, you're going to be 46 pretty soon; maybe you ought to look for a job." Poor Vince keeled over immediately with a massive heart attack, and the subject was never broached again.
Vince's long suit by far was billiards, but he played some bank pool too, and that's where Freddy came in. They played exclusively, and often, on 5-by-10-foot tables, of which Bensinger's had many. And their competitions drew many sweators, which Freddy loved even more dearly than the meager action between the two men. The reason so many people watched them was not to see great pool, or even high-stakes action, because the pair rarely if ever produced either one. The spectators were there because they knew they'd eventually be made to laugh. Freddy and Vince were both sure-fire, first-ballot locks for the Humbugging Hall of Fame. In fact, they did so much jawing back and forth, on any subject, that they seldom completed a match. If they got good and heated, ethnicity would enter into it; Freddy would tell the latest Polish joke, and Vince would respond, "These Italian kids, they go off to the electric chair screaming, 'Lord, Lord!'" The only way money usually changed hands when the two men played was if somebody made a side bet that the match wouldn't finish.
Bank pool is probably the simplest of all the cue games when it comes to rules. The object ball must bounce off at least one rail before falling in a pocket in order to score; that ball is not allowed to touch anything else, and the cue ball may contact that ball once and once only. Any other contact between balls is called a "kiss," and the player's inning ends at once. One night Freddy and Vince, sick of all the arguments and non-decisions, agreed to play banks once again, with a special provision: Mum pool, meaning the first player to speak a single word loses the match. And everything went along fine, to the grievous disappointment of the spectators — until the question of a kiss came up.
Freddy thought that a given shot had included a kiss, and Vince disagreed. But remember, neither man was allowed to voice his opinion, upon pain of blowing the cheese. So Freddy simply kissed the air, chimpanzee-like, and Vince utilized the football referee's crossed-arms signal for "incomplete pass." And they argued silently that way — for a good 40 minutes. The spectators got their rocks off far beyond the level they had anticipated, howling until they got the dry-heaves. After a while, Freddy added finger-pointing and -pumping at the balls, and various other hand signals, to his half of the discussion. Point-pump-smooch, point-pump-smooch, point-pump-smooch, while Vince vigorously disallowed multiple forward passes. Had anyone been seeing the two for the first time, no doubt the men with the butterfly nets would have been hastily summoned. Nobody won, as usual.
Of course, it's not the game itself creating all these loony tunes; it's mostly the gambling. Any form of gambling — even horse racing and backgammon, both of which claim to be the sport, and/or game, of kings — will attract bums, and people who continually quest after something for nothing are bound to act, well, exotic. Scour this country's thousands of poolrooms, and you will almost certainly uncover epic tales of silliness in just about every one. Go to the bars, where the lion's share of pool is currently played in America, and the nut-bar stories figure to grow exponentially.
And the notion of trying to make a living playing pool in the first place ought to be silly enough for anybody.