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.
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September: Gloomy Gus
I’m SORRY, but Chicago is not, and has never really been, much of a money-pool town. If road players ever came through here, it was only because they were en route to somewhere else; there was very little in Chicago for them to do. There has not been a bona fide room in downtown Chicago for nearly 50 years — and when there was, a $5 game there would draw the sweators six-deep. The few real players who were developed here (most of them African-American) had to either hit the road, or find other interests, before they were done in by starvation or boredom, whichever came first.
What we did have, at least at one time, was a whole bunch of guys who were willing to bet $1 to $3. Even the city’s Yellow Pages had three full pages of billiard-room listings. And a lot of those rooms had decent, competitive players. They just wouldn’t bet anything. What happened to all those guys, when the game began to fade here? Some passed, of course; most just found something else to occupy their spare time. A few — a very few — tried the new incarnation of Bensinger’s on the north side of town, and gave it up quickly, disgusted by the proliferation of tough young kids and what they smoked, if not by the Chihuahua-sized rats. (One critter even toppled off the overhead pipes and actually scattered the balls, in yet another of the new room’s inconsequential one-pocket matches.)
One player I did miss from downtown, and I cannot even begin to explain why, was an odd lad everybody called Gus the Greek. Probably only his mom and I remember that his real name was Lenny. He played decent one-pocket, but no better than that, and that and banks seemed to be his only games. The only reason I paid any attention to him at all, since I wouldn’t play him, was that in an aging room practically wall-to-wall with old bums, he was the only one anywhere near my age, a year or two older. He had a full head of hair, tightly curled like mine except that mine had already begun to go. Gus might not have been a bad guy to talk to, except that he kept bringing conversations around to, “So whaddya wanna do?” There was also the fact that Gus was at least three tacos short of a combo plate, if not missing the plate itself too.
Any day he could win $20 or so was a made day for Gus. Granted, if he could have done that every day, he’d have been making more than seven grand a year tax-free, and back then that was certainly a livable wage, especially since he was still living at home. But a daily $20 score did not come that easily to him. The supply of suckers was dying out just as his poolroom of choice was; even if he found customers, they might or might not choose to stay at the table with him; if he caught anybody good, that person would raise the bet beyond $5, and Gus would then begin to send object balls towards the first diamond instead of a pocket. Besides, Gus hampered himself by being a total slave to impressions. Upon missing any ball, Gus would immediately do a full, frantic yet deadpan 360-degree turn to see who might have shared his moment of weakness, not that I ever did learn what was so important about the opinions of a spectacular collection of antique bums.
Because we were close in age, it fell to me to empathize with Gus, as best I could, when he got drafted; nobody else in that room was remotely fit for service. Gus was apprehensive. Although he claimed a high-school diploma, and did not appear to have come from poverty, it was pretty obvious that any real form of discipline was going to be fiercely novel to a half-assed pool hustler in his late teens. “There’s nothing going on in the Army that you aren’t smart enough, or tough enough, to fade,” I lied. He seemed to take comfort in that.
I was around when he returned from service, too. Except for me, and his occasional friend, the human slug known as Mexican Johnny, hardly anyone else at Bensinger’s seemed to notice he was back, or that he had even left. Gus had managed to make Private First Class and stay out of the brig, as most do. He considered the Army to be responsible for the impending loss of that fine mane of hair; his hairline was rapidly approaching mine. “It’s that steel pot [helmet], George,” he explained. “I had good hair. But they kept telling me to put that pot back on.”
“Perspiration and baldness have about as much to do with each other as architecture and pig farming,” I said, wasting a fairly good line. “It’s mostly genetics.”
“If your mother’s father had hair, Lenny,” I sighed, “the chances are that you will too. If not, not.”
“Tell ya what else I didn’t like,” he said, ignoring my foray into follicular science. “Some of the guys I went in with knew what I was doin’, hustlin’ pool, and they told the rest of the platoon. And they laughed at me. They made fun a me!”
“Well, they’re not players,” I managed. “What about Johnny? Aren’t you glad to see him again?”
“Forget about him,” Gus muttered. “He’s nothin’ either if he can’t play pool. Nothin’ at all. Just like me.”
Decades later, I found myself on the southwest side of town with twenty minutes or so to kill. There was a poolroom on the block; as is my wont, that’s where I spent the time. A nondescript game was taking place, and Gus was one of the sweators, looking bored and totally miserable. He didn’t recognize me. I left it that way.