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.
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I WAS semi-horrified, but not especially surprised, to learn several years ago that Efren Reyes plays mah-jongg expertly. That raucous game was a pastime of my mother’s, for Lord’s sake. And the memory of her and her cronies, cackling their loony “Two-bam, three-crack, four-dot” at one another, at jet-liner decibels yet, like a coop of deranged hens, haunts me to this day.
Efren plays formidable gin rummy too. As for his chess, here’s how two local grandmasters analyzed his game when he lived here in Chicago about 25 years ago: “He’s no more than a few hundred points away from us. He’s a tad reckless, especially in endgame, but if you show him the sliver of an opening, he’ll tear you to bits.” Doesn’t that sound like an expert breakdown of his one-pocket play too?
The point is, Efren is simply a superb player of games. Thus his appearance as a finalist in the recent World 14.1 Championships is not that great a surprise. He last played the game competitively 12 years ago; he won a fairly prestigious tournament at it in New England in the mid-’90s. But the game is totally useless in his homeland, as it offers no action, so he never plays it otherwise. (Why would he? He is already the finest one-pocket player who ever lived; never in that game’s history has one player, at his peak, been two balls over the rest of the playing universe. Additionally, he has beaten every player and won every 9-ball title that exists.) Yet his temperament for 14.1 is ideal; his heights of emotional reaction to game mishaps — rare though they are — range from a shrug to a head-scratch to the embarrassed tight-lipped grin of a young boy who has just heard an elder say “doodie.” And he falls upon position patterns that the masters of decades ago would have played, not because he studies them or their game — he does neither — but because he is such a world-class player of games. It doesn’t hurt that his natural cue-games skills and instincts may well be the greatest of all time. But it also doesn’t hurt that straight pool is nothing more than one more game to him, and as with all others, he naturally perceives the way to play it properly.
Fellow finalist John Schmidt only plays, or played, golf. And he plays way more 14.1 than Reyes, in his own estimation maybe three times a year. (Indeed, he states for the record that if he applied himself to it, he’d be a candidate to catch the immortal Willie Mosconi’s 60-year-old record long run of 526.) But he does practice it, to the extent that there’s a whole mini-portfolio of DVDs out there showcasing his long runs, sometimes with his own after-the-fact commentary, sometimes not. Thanks largely to the remarkable generosity of Chicago straight-pool fan Dennis Walsh, I own that entire collection. And what one observes first, after viewing a few of those performances, is that on the vast majority of his break shots, the entire rack flies apart. The thorniest problems remaining for him to solve are usually the tickling apart of two- and three-ball mini-clusters. With the exception of the meet’s defending champion Thorsten Hohmann of Germany, and his celebrated draw shots all the way to the head rail and back out, nobody hits break shots harder than John Schmidt. “Send me the player who likes to chip off three, four balls at a time,” he says, “and I will give that player a big spot at straight pool.” Tournament play, of course, with its new cloth and polished balls, plays right into that concept.
John Schmidt’s overall approach to 14.1 is, by his own admission, relatively simple for a guy who routinely runs so many balls that he doesn’t even really get interested until the count reaches 200-plus. Hit the balls at pocket speed; play with rhythm, and fast; don’t run into balls without a purpose; use insurance balls; pick off the up-table stragglers early; play position for multiple balls whenever possible. And don’t miss. There’s absolutely nothing startling, new, or revelatory in that, just common sense combined with a pocketing ability that the late Grady Mathews called the finest he had ever seen. I won’t go so far as to caution you not to try this at home; by all means, experiment with a tad more velocity on your break shots and see if your results don’t improve. But be advised that your experimenting is not likely to turn you into the 400-ball runner Schmidt is, because (a) you are not going to be the same kind of nonchalant shot-maker; (b) his level of confidence, which borders on monstrous, is likely to escape you too; (c) your local venue may or may not be able to replicate tournament conditions for you.
The more countries represented in a meet such as this, the more individualized approaches to the game you are likely to see. Straight pool is played regularly and competitively only in Europe today, and those players, especially the Germans, exhibit the most classic styles. The Filipinos, except for Reyes and his decades-long second banana Jose Parica, seem to work their way through racks a ball at a time, not quite certain of how to handle the exotic luxury of shooting any ball into any pocket at any time. Ditto the world’s current No. 1-ranked player, England’s Darren Appleton, making his tournament debut at the game yet going undefeated until the semi-finals.
No two racks of pool are ever quite the same, but nowhere is the difference more marked than when it comes to 14.1. Indeed, the game’s objective, at advanced levels, seems to be to reduce what is unknown to what is simple and familiar. Thus no one approach to it can be finally and fully endorsed over any other. What it all comes down to, as the old-timers used to say, is who’s got the oil in his elbow.