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
July: Indians & Arrows
THE PLACEBO effect.” In medicine, in its simplest form, it’s a doctor prescribing a sugar pill to a hypochondriac, and the patient then gets better simply because s/he thinks that’s what’s supposed to happen. In the cue games, it’s more complex than that, but it frequently comes down to a player’s deciding that a given new cue is going to transform him or her competitively.
In my first poolroom, the only guy who had his own cue was 72 years old and played caroms exclusively. Even the best billiards players, one of whom finished third nationally once, were at the mercy of what stood in the cue racks on the wall (there weren’t any decent pool players, least of all me). My personal favorite was 18 ounces — it said so — and had no rubber bumper on the end. I used to put that sucker back in the exact same place each time and hope no one else would notice, despairing in anxiety when it was missing, rejoicing in confidence when we were reunited, not unlike a one-way love affair. The house inventory of cues at the Morse Avenue Recreational Center was often rainbow-shaped, sometimes without tips, sometimes without so much as a ferrule, but we still returned daily to clutch them to our hands and hearts.
I can’t honestly say I remember my first two-piece cue, but it was probably ordered out of the Brunswick catalog and it couldn’t have cost much; even the great Herman Rambow (and I wouldn’t connect with him personally for years) was barely charging $30 for his finest two-piece cue with modest inlay work (usually little ivory dots, or, as they were called then, sites) plus two shafts. As I recall, I got that cue when I was in college; it was four-pronged but without veneers; it survived my wretched temper for maybe three days.
Now there’s certainly little debate that a personal cue does figure to improve its owner as a player, especially when that player has never had one before. What’s slightly less certain is exactly why, although the answer probably begins with confidence. The two-piece cue will surely be straighter than its house cousin; equally important, it will just as surely have a better tip; it will be better made in general. And even better than that, it will (or should) help the player feel the hit for what is probably the very first time. I’ve known players who never outgrew their first cues, most likely for that reason alone — but I haven’t known many. Most are in an unending search, as though a lone piece of wood were some sort of Holy Grail.
Exactly what that hit does feel like is about as subjective a matter as exists in sports; it’s nothing that words can readily be put to, no matter who the writer is. Just about 40 years ago, a Sports Illustrated article introduced the sporting world at large to the brilliant Ernie Gutierrez (of Ginacues). While the piece largely dealt with his furnishing cues to celebrities such as the late Dean Martin and Telly Savalas, the great player Richie Florence was quoted too: “In a cue by Ernie, the balance is always mellow.” No offense to the late Florence, but would anyone care to explain exactly what that means? To this day, the only three words I’ve ever heard to describe the hit of a given cue were “mellow”, “solid”, and “stiff.” I suppose they all work, in a very limited way.
For many years, the given wisdom in choosing a cue was that metal joints do indeed offer a hit that feels different — specifically, less “stiff” — than those of ivory or some synthetic material. The latter seemed to be the province of 9-ball experts; virtually all the great East Coast 14.1 players used cues with stainless steel joints, often from the immortal George Balabushka. Does that make one category of cues superior across-the-board to the other? It clearly does not.
And the period in which that differentiation took place also saw many cuemakers advertising, “…hits as solid as a one-piece.” If that claim had any truth to it, and the hit of a one-piece cue really represents the all-time ideal, how come we don’t see any accomplished pool players using one-piece cues? (Only snooker players do.) It’s one of two pool questions the answers to which have eluded me for all my 50-plus years around the game (the other being, “How come black players favor bank pool to the extent they do?”). I certainly invite your opinions.
The other factor worth noting in choosing a new cue is that just about any sensible change in your game will generate short-term improvement. Shorten or lengthen your bridge; play slightly slower or faster; hit the balls a bit harder (or better, softer); chalk your cue with the hand you don’t normally use; you figure to be pleased with your results with any of them, and none of them costs anything. When I taught pool at Northwestern (our own Larry Schwartz teaches that course now), I used to point beginners toward The Great Escape, where a perfectly capable two-piece cue in either fiberglass or graphite costs about $40, and those who took my advice were unanimously glad they did.
But you’re obviously still free to fantasize about, even pursue, a cue that costs thousands; I know that delicious fantasy all too well. The cue I use now is one I personally designed, and Connecticut’s stupendous Paul Drexler made it for me almost exactly 26-1/2 years after I conceived that design. In the interim, I dreamed of running thousands before presidents and royalty, leaving Mizerak and Strickland and Archer and all the rest in my dust: “This is the one that’s gonna do it.” It didn’t.
And it’s a fragile dream at that; it only takes eight ancient, politically incorrect words to bring it crashing to earth: “It ain’t the arrows, son. It’s the Indian.”