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
MOST INDUSTRIES, including ours, pretty well conform to this characterization: "Nothing much happens until somebody sells something." And when our business gets around to one of its lower levels - the prospect of two guys playing pool for money - the concept rings more true than ever. The late Luther "Wimpy" Lassiter used to say, "You lay up in a hotel waiting for a call back, hotel bill eats you to death." But all Wimpy was really doing was waiting for a prospect to approve a sale.
I was never interested in making a living at pool (which, given my talent, was exceptionally foresighted of me). But I remember how totally transfixed I was by the realization that it could be done. Or course, the term "living" in that context bears closer scrutiny; "survival" probably says it much better. My family lived in a clean, safe, middle-class neighborhood that I left only occasionally. Chicago's downtown poolroom represented my first experience at spending time around poor people. And one of the first things I noticed was how dependent the various players were upon their "customers".
Virtually all the research available on compulsive gambling suggests that its victims subconsciously want to lose. I'd be inclined to dismiss that as a lot of psychobabble - except how else would you explain a given pool hustler's customers? Not only do they never win, they never had a chance to. And yet they keep coming back for more. "I took his life savings - I think it was that much - and he loved me like a brother," the late "Jersey Red" Breit fondly recalled once. "Weird, ain't it?"
Here in town, there was a loner everybody called Telephone Harry. The moniker suggests a 1920s bookie with stogie and in three different plaids, but Harry was simply an older, quiet little guy who had a desk job with the phone company. I never played him myself, because one-pocket was all he was interested in and I was a few years removed from even trying that. But he was genuinely terrible at it. Most of the Bensinger's regulars offered him a proposition that at least forgave all his scratches. Harry was no dummy, and could easily stretch a $2 or $3 game into a 90-minute or two-hour affair by ducking the cue ball into the end rail seemingly endless times. (A commonly heard refrain was, "Aw, come on, Harry!") Still, he almost never won. One of those jerks, 20 years younger and half again his size, even cold-cocked him one night. Yet he was back a couple nights later, looking for other guys to spot him Your Scratches Don't Count.
And Harry was far from being a singular case. Guys were regularly coming in all the time to be played one-handed, or one-handed standing on one foot, or with the mop handle, or some other damn thing. Why exactly did they do that? Did they see pool as some form of roulette, wherein sometimes the ball magically rolls your way and sometimes not? Did they really think the results would be any different? Where did they tell their wives the money went? The same guys always won, and the same guys always lost. Granted, the opportunities to gamble, compulsively or otherwise, were nowhere near as plentiful then as they are now. But you'd still think that glum bunch had better things to do than slough off a few bucks time and again to the same dreary hustlers.
One group of customers with nothing better to do - and this easily qualifies them as the finest customers in pool history - was the servicemen in the Naval Shipyard at Norfolk, Va., at the outset of World War II. Many of those gallant young men were secretly concerned that they were about to be carved into either schnitzel or sushi, depending on their theater of military operations, so what the hell was the worry over losing a measly few bucks? Hustlers from all over the South and even farther swarmed the area, giving away such idiocies as, "I'll bet I can sink 50 balls before you make the 1 ball in a side pocket." Another was, "Let's play Rotation, and you can shoot from the 15 on down while I go from the 1 on up," and the sucker supply was apparently inexhaustible. As the late Danny McGoorty put it, "You couldn't trip over some bum in the gutter without hearing, 'You win. Here's your 10 bucks.'"
Sometimes the humor inherent in the hustler/customer relationship goes away. One New York shortstop told me about a guy who was so bad that his tormentors played him a version of one-pocket called Nothing I Do Counts. It sounds like something out of the Marx brothers, but as the name suggests, nothing the hustler does counts toward score, plus or minus. Any ball he makes anyplace immediately comes back up again; his scratches don't count either. The only way he can win is when (not if) the schmuck has made all eight balls for him, one at a time. The game can really only be offered to the most rank of pool morons.
"But I had to give him up," the hustler explained, with discernible sorrow. "The last time I beat him that way, he parked his ass right on an open window ledge. He said his gambling was out of control, he couldn't say no to anything, and if anybody else asked him to play again, he'd have to jump. So I never did. Come to think of it, none of us did. Which surprises me, to a certain extent."
Today suckers such as that, like the hustlers who preyed upon them, are mostly gone with their times. There's "Dippy Dave," a high-stakes poker player who's willing to bet five digits on pool if he's given monstrous handicaps, but that's hardly the same thing. You simply can't just sit around a poolroom and wait for customers anymore. If the starvation doesn't get you, the boredom will.