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 April 1989)
THERE'S JUST NO debating the greatness of a game that impels you to be something other than what you are - no matter whether you're pleased with the metamorphosis or not.
Not long ago, I had an hour or so to kill in the suburbs, and I gravitated toward a sleek bowling alley and billiards room where I had never been before. The pool crowd was such that I could easily have been a grandfather to every player there. But one conversation I overheard took me all the way back until I was their peer.
"You wanna play?" one kid asked another. The challenger was oversized, with a beefy red face; it was not hard to picture him in another 20 years, with beer-and-cigar breath and an idiotic fez, tossing chairs out of hotel windows or picking up ladies' dresses at a downtown convention.
"I'll play for time," the other answered. "That's all I can afford." The same conservatism was in his face and his manner, too; him I could picture going unchosen in schoolyard ball games, being left out of conversations, or the one in a crowd that nobody remembers to introduce. There was no shortage of bases for identification with him. This one's honor needed defending.
"Forget about that," Beefyface said. "You know my lessons cost more than that."
Aha! So I had picked out the room bully and braggart in my first few minutes there. I already had the first tool of lemonading, a house cue. I also already knew his type all too well, and with my rousing distaste for bullies, I immediately shifted into an unskilled, open-thumb bridge and waited for nature to take its course. It didn't take long.
"Play a game?" he said a few minutes later. "Sir?" I hadn't expected the "Sir," but I think it had less to do with good manners than his uncertainty over how to address geezers in that youth-infested room.
"The sea refuses no river," I said, preparing to give him all the crap I could possibly muster.
"What did you want to play?"
"Little 9-ball? Deuce a game?"
No, none of that. I had decided to give him nothing, not even the chance to get lucky.
"I don't play 9-ball," I said with stifling dignity, "but I'll play you straight pool for a few bucks."
"Fifty points for a deuce?"
"A deuce?" I sneered. "The time costs six bucks an hour. What am I gonna do with your grubby little two dollars?"
"You ain't won it yet."
"I will," I said, "but I ain't playin' for no two dollars." I figured the grammatical lapse would lower his guard, and it did. We finally settled on fifty points for a fin.
I didn't leave much out of my performance. There was that hapless bridge, for one thing. And I added the following embellishments, among others: cueing my chalk, instead of the other way around; leaping out of my stance with such aplomb and fear that I joined Dwight Stones and Dick Fosbury as America's top white jumpers; selecting bank shots and combinations where there was no real reason to; calling ball and pocket on every shot, including hangers. When that wore thin, and Beefyface advised me that such detail was not necessary, I segued into, "That ball, in there."
Like most bullies, he folded early. I could see him pursing his lips and nodding with synthetic wisdom on my very first few shots. "Hooda bleep is this?" he snarled, as I posted an intimidating run of eight.
The first rack went 10-4, my way. His four balls took him well out of position for any kind of break shot, and as I racked the balls, I plaintively asked, "You can play better than this, can'tcha?" We had attracted fuzzy-cheeked sweators four rows deep by then, and his red face edged closer to vermilion.
Moving on, with the score 18-8 after two racks, I won the third rack 12-2. This was on a Gold Crown, with the scoring dials on the rail: another fertile lemonading opportunity. I added the 12 to my 18 and came up with a total of 20. The look on his face as he checked my math was more than worth the 10 missing balls.
"20 to 10?" he asked hopefully.
This was mastery of a sort not seen since Svengali dominated Trilby. I greeted his best shots with "Not bad" or "I've seen better"; I challenged his shot selection ever time I could make a case for a better one; I sharked him innocently but shamelessly. And I resuscitated most of my antique one-liners, too.
"I'da won the game if I'da made that one," he lamented at one point.
"If?" was my sizzling rejoinder. "If a bullfrog had wings, he wouldn't bump his privates on the ground so much. Six in the corner."
Beefyface was now the color of rare prime rib. He was inexperienced at losing in front of all his buddies, and had very little idea of how to handle it. I nursed him along with awkwardness, misses and taunts until my leisure time was just about up, and then I ran out, although "lurches" describes it much better.
"I, uh, wish I coulda played better," he muttered.
"That's the way it goes," I said, offering smug solace. "Goes the other way, too. Don't forget that." The line was totallh meaningless, but I had liked the way it sounded when Clark Gable spoke it in "The Misfits."
"Maybe we can play again sometime."
"If you've seen 'Lentl,' my man, you know anything is possible," I responded in final flourish. "Now go pay the time and give me a fin, and you won't have so much."
Beefyface turned to the sweet nebbish he had challenged in the first place, and said, "Gimme a fin." And that's what he paid me with. So I had succeeded in heisting the very kid I was altruistically trying to defend.
"Here," I said, trying to foist the kid's fin back on him as I left. "I don't need it. I was just trying to show him up."
"Bleep, no, Mister," the young man said angelically. "It was worth every single penny." So I left five dollars richer, although just who were the actual winner and loser on that day remains unclear.
You can't always get what you want. Or so I've heard.