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
May: Mixed Blessing
DAVIS ONLY bothered to flash occasional samples of his brilliance." The subject was not all-time snooker great Steve Davis, nor was it Maryland's superb 9-baller Mike Davis (although both men have no doubt endured moments, at least, that could be described that way). No, this was one Bob Davis, a portly lefty with whom I went to high school. Bob somehow formed his bridge with his index finger running alongside the cue, as though pointing the way, and his long run was maybe 13. But he was still better than I was at the time, although he wasn't long in the overtaking; one day I caught him running twos and threes instead of his customary fives and sixes, and that's when the occasional-brilliance line popped into my head. I knew right then and there that I would someday be a published writer on the matter of pool. And sure enough, I was, just 23 years later. I didn't want to be pushy about it or anything.
A few months after Davis' disappointing (in mine eyes, anyhow) showing, I was in the downtown Bensinger's for the first time, a good 2-1/2 years too young to be there legally. But I, and the two pool buddies I was with, had heard the beguiling praise, "Just like downtown!" around a pool table, imagined the reference to be local, and decided to see just what that joyous shout was all about. What a place! Three full floors of tables including one for billiards alone, crystal chandeliers overhead, carpeting underfoot, humongous (if quite dumb) paintings by old Mrs. Bensinger herself on the walls, table porters and maids to brush the tables and check coats and fetch personal cues from a locked room for regular customers. This amounted to bona fide culture shock, next to our neighborhood room's meager eight bowling lanes and 10 tables.
But it was the play we were there to see, naturally. I was mesmerized almost at once by the playing manner of the great yet unknown Angus MacDonald, even if the game at which he was engaged (which I later learned was one-pocket) made very little sense to me. But my pals wanted to watch something they at least recognized, so we found two old coots fiercely engaged at straight pool. Both men wore suspenders; both had rolled their pants cuffs up a turn or two, a fairly common practice among men of that era that I have still not figured out nearly 60 years later. The carpet was vacuumed daily, so what evil were they guarding against? Rats? Snakes? Landlocked killer squid? And what good would their rolled-up pants do them in any case?
Their names, as we learned by listening to head-shaking spectators, were Joe and Edgar. Evidently they matched up all the time; their customary game was 100 points for $2. Joe was little to start with and a hunchback to boot; Edgar was blustery, and marched around the table as though daring anyone to stop him. They were far better players than we were used to seeing (which wouldn't have taken much), occasionally running 15 or 20 balls each, all the while cussing out the pool gods and each other, while we huddled and whispered in gleeful awe, "Look at the position!" As it turned out (and of the three of us, I was the only one who ever went back to Bensinger's), Joe and Edgar almost never played anybody else but had no relationship outside the poolhall, where they were seemingly lifelong nemeses yet couldn't do without one another. They died weeks apart. I may be the only one who remembers both.
After my first look at Bensinger's, I dug out the paperback book I had hidden from my parents and summer-camp counselors alike (read by flashlight under a tented blanket, too!), "The Amboy Dukes," by Irving Shulman. The novel, about juvenile delinquency in Brooklyn, was later made into a movie called "City Across The River," known to trivia experts for providing that notable thespian the late Tony Curtis with his first speaking role. (For those who must know such things, his first on-screen appearance, just a few seconds long, was in a long-forgotten murder mystery called "Criss Cross," doing the rumba with the late Yvonne DeCarlo.) It also created a minor furor in its era because of a rooftop sex scene (altogether tame by today's standards). Both the novel and its sequel, "Cry Tough," also had convincing poolroom scenes, and I was particularly entranced by this one line, from the antihero's mother: "Tell me, my darling son, my little gangster, are you already the best player in the poolroom?" I also revisited the novel "Knock On Any Door," by Willard Motley, on the same glum subject of doomed city youth. Motley wrote about pool even better than Shulman, describing a two-rail bank/kiss shot clearly and credibly, although the scene was played down in the Humphrey Bogart-starring movie.
Now I don't keep a journal, as many writers do, and I very seldom take any notes. All these vignettes went unrecorded until I wrote about them many decades later, and yet all were formative in my becoming today's columnist. I can't begin to conceive how or why I remember them, let alone that vividly. I suppose Freud would say it's simply because I wanted to.
A few years back, I wrote a column about how I played pool all the way through college. I included a description of a guy I competed with regularly, right down to his stance and favorite song. With a bit of research, I located him and faxed the column to his office, following up on the phone a day or two later.
"How do you remember these things?" were practically the first words out of his mouth. "It was so long ago!"
"It's a mixed blessing," I said. "What about you? Aren't at least some of the same things coming back to you?"
"No," he said brightly, "and I don't remember you at all."