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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October: Falling Softly
I AM in all other respects a perfectly ordinary man,” wrote snooker’s immortal Joe Davis, concerning his total blindness in one eye. The statement is absolutely stunning for its modesty; Davis, said to have attained more perfect (147-point) frames than any other player in his game’s history, was no more ordinary than Waterford crystal is ordinary glass. For decades, fans marveled at the mystery of a one-eyed man firing teeny balls into only slightly less teeny pockets, on a table half the size of the Houston Astrodome.
Well, now I can offer a tiny clue to that mystery: Joe Davis was probably as good as he was with that one eye because he never had to take on the game any other way. Had he been required to transition from normal vision to that lone eye, the snooker world would almost certainly have seen an entirely different set of results.
About 30 years ago, I was somehow made aware of an old pool hustler from the Pacific Northwest named Yakima Alex. Like Davis, Alex had only one working eye. Years back, BD ran a cover story on Florida’s late Tom Brown. Longer ago than that, Fats Wanderone often told a very funny, if earthy, story about another one-eyed player (challenged to remove his eye if he wanted another turn at the table, the player obligingly rolled his glass eye right out there among the balls. “Uh-uh, Joe,” he was told, “the other eye.”). But those were the only examples of mono-vision among the cue games I could recount.
I have now endured three eye surgeries since February of ’12. I’m far from blind in that eye; it’s more as though Vaseline had been smeared across the left lens of my glasses. But when it comes to pool, the eye is totally worthless, and neither of my two opthalmologists is willing to get specific as to how long recovery will take. “Could be weeks, could be a year and a half,” is the vague time frame I’ve been given. And in a vacuum, that would be negotiable; 18 months, after all, represents only 2 percent of my life.
But my last run of 100-plus was just a few weeks before the first surgery. Today, if I run more than 25, I feel schools and banks should be closed on the next available day. It’s an uneasy existence.
Naturally I have to close the bad eye when I shoot, as though it were a rifle in my hands instead of a cue. (I wasn’t bad at all with a rifle when I was in the Army. But that was 50-plus years ago, and a pool table is no rifle range.) My natural cue-games talent is such that even if I were somehow gifted with thirty working eyes, like some sort of human fly, I would still not be the next Joe Davis, nor the next incarnation of Yakima Alex, nor even remotely close. With just one good eye behind my game, even the well-worn putdown “helpless” still understates the case. My field of depth is basically gone, and with it my sense of ball speed. About all I can do is utilize the great Mark Wilson concept: Just focus on producing the very finest stroke you can. Remarkably, though, the balls do not seem to notice exactly what it is I’ve done to them.
The thing is, no pool player improves in his mid-70s, not even when in dandy health, nor when equipped with ultra-low deflection shafts, gloves, hand weights, foot weights, blue-blocking glasses and super-soft layered tips. Realistically, you have to anticipate some form of falloff in your game. (The great Jimmy Moore was still running balls well into the eighties when he was well into the 80s himself. But that didn’t represent improvement, not for him, and besides, once again, I am not he.) Many players believe it’s the shooting eyes that begin to go first; others single out the legs, or the back, or just plain nerves. If you’re lucky, the decline will be gradual, maybe even plateaued, as your improvements were; the going up, to borrow from Kris Kristofferson, is worth the coming down. Or you could simply wake up one day and find the balls in a state of total revolt.
Pool is pretty much like meditation to me, at this point in my life, one to two hours in which to lose myself. I compete at billiards now and then, but I haven’t opted to play anybody pool for years now. So I’d say I’ve handled the disappointment pretty well. I still show up at the poolroom almost daily, burnish my shaft with demonic fervor (God knows what that looks like from across the room), and proceed to execute my exquisitely stroked misses. The pocket jaws are my benign enemies; it doesn’t seem fair that they get to move on me. It’s not unlike that great quote from Philadephia’s Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts: “I’m throwing as hard as I ever did. The ball just takes longer to get to the plate.”
Colossal goof that I am, I’ve always believed that the game of pool was not just waiting to be played, but talking to me in the interim. What it seems to be saying now is, “You’ve been pretty good to me over the years; here’s your reward. You get to fall off softly; in fact, you won’t even know what your real decline is, because it can all be blamed on that one bad eye. For all you know, your whole game is still waiting for you. You could have it all back together again one day, running more hundreds.”
Uh-huh. All I know is, I’d be happier with runs of a lot less than hundreds if only I were looking at them with two good eyes. And the bad one is indeed making perceptible, if infuriatingly slow, progress. I’ll just have to wait and see. And that’s an unfortunate choice of words.