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
March: Bump & Run
IF DICK and Perry had offed the Clutter family anywhere in between New Albany, Ind., and the Southern Indiana Horseshoe Casino, the bodies would still be undiscovered and there would be no "In Cold Blood" as we know it today. If you're willing to undertake that forlorn a drive, you deserve at least one shameless indulgence at journey's end. There's little debate that the Derby City Classic, pool's marvelous answer to déjà vu, qualifies. But the DCC ‘s triple banana split comes in many flavors, and a particular favorite of mine is the chance to watch bank pool from above.
Now admittedly that's a pretty small circle within a spiral, but when your focal point is the game itself rather than who wins, bank pool should be observed from on high. Especially when there's no other game in sight, no balls being pocketed directly except for defensive bunts, that exotically long interval between the sounds of cue ball/object ball collision and pocket drop. The tables stretch to the edges of your peripheral vision, like a display counter full of emeralds on steroids even though they carry the name Diamond. And from here, it becomes way easier to see the way expert players use English and/or speed to make history of an object ball's natural rebound angle off a rail. Many of the entrants are, or were, kings of the hill in their home rooms, and even though the finals will ultimately pit a pair of twenty-something players whose credentials reside mostly in the rotation games, experience is one more brush in many players' palettes.
One intriguing early match put together contestants whose combined age is almost exactly 142. "Seventy and a half!" proudly chirps legendary cuemaker Bill Stroud when asked his age, as though the first integer were seven instead of 70. After 30 years of trailblazing the way for his cuemaker peers, designing and innovating, presiding over their association and its collectors' shows, Stroud has made the charming decision to become a pool player — again. He lives in eastern New Mexico, not far from the famous quarter-horse racetrack Ruidoso Downs (which hosts not pygmy horses, but full-sized ones who run a quarter-mile or less); there is no place whatsoever to play pool in his neck of the woods except in his basement, where he has installed yet another Diamond table. For competition, he plays tournaments here and there in the Southwest, finishing third once, nowhere on another occasion, in his cheerful race against time.
Forty-five years ago, when I met Billy and his road name was The Colorado Kid, he was a holy terror at the short games; show him the open edge of a ball and you might as well reach for the rack. That was when he sported the finest comb-over in the history of all billiards, a wall of hair rising from the left side of his head like the waves off Tierra del Fuego, to sweep across his crown and cover that bareness as though camouflaging it from overhead marauders. Men have been hanged with shorter strands.
Stroud's first-round opponent at the DCC was marketing colossus Freddy "The Beard" Bentivegna, who has known Stroud just about as long as I have. Freddy has finished as high as fifth in banks competition here, but the proliferation of T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, DVDs, discounted cues and sundry other product lines he oversees has largely swamped his competitive game. Attention is to Freddy as pollen is to bees, and a lone victory over a name opponent would make his day, his night, and in fact the entire trip. So he applied himself in the Stroud match and brought the cheese fairly easily, 3-1, going out in game 4 with a spectacular massé cross-corner bump of a ball to which he was originally frozen. If Eddie Taylor had been alive to make the same shot, he'd have brought the house down.
One aspect of Derby City's banks competition that has always puzzled me is that it doesn't seem to attract many black players. For as long as I've been around pool, banks has been the game of choice among African-Americans well ahead of one-pocket; in that same time span, I have not heard one reasonable answer as to why that should be (allowing that "It's just what they play" is no answer at all). Chicago's Glenn "Piggy Banks" Rogers and Ike Runnels are usually prominent here; Rogers, who has adorned the cover of this publication, has been to the final three of banks play here, and Runnels customarily goes to the final eight of any tourney he enters. But neither went particularly far this year, Piggy Banks taking an early loss to the great Earl Strickland, the latter still producing genius-level pool with an extended cue that pokes a few inches above his head like a chalked antenna.
Still, this is the mid-south, where bank-pool indoctrination usually follows on the heels of potty training. Whatever color the entrants might have been, in 2012 there were a staggering 404 of them — yes, a field of 404, any one of whom may buy back in after one loss — and the meet took nearly five days of non-stop play to appoint a winner. Bank pool doesn't produce the thrilling shot-making runs that 9-ball does, or the aggressive-defense strategy of one-pocket. It's pretty much a pool of its own. The real magic is in finding out just how deep that pool goes.
[Errata: My alleged brain apparently went on brief sabbatical during the writing of the column on the late Burton Spain, two issues back. I reported that Mr. Spain had furnished cue blanks to the great Gus Szamboti; I have been reliably informed, however, that he never did. Far worse, I foolishly confused the last series of 42 cues he produced with his career output, which was easily 25 times that. Clearly no harm was intended; still, BD and I deeply regret, and apologize for, my moronic errors. No excuses.]