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
(from May 2004)
MY VERY FIRST thought at age 15, upon seeing Willie Mosconi for the first time, was eminently correct. "This guy is not playing the same game I do." But it was my second thought, however wildly Pollyanna-ish, that shaped my destiny: "His game is the game I want to play."
Fifty years later, my game resembles his the way a sheet of glass resembles Laique crystal. But that doesn't seem to have cooled my ardor. On nights when I choose to leave my home and visit Chris' Billiards instead, I will practice straight pool anywhere from three to six hours. The general objective is to try and run 50 or more at some point; the more specific objective is to try and hit a stretch, however long or brief, where I play perfectly. This will rarely exceed a rack at any given time, but I know when I've hit it, and that makes the evening a success.
"You mean you wouldn't rather take some nice lady to dinner, than do that? Or see a good movie? Or read a good book?" crow the outsiders. No, I would not. I have reached a point in my life when the peaks of that life, for better or worse, have a goodly amount to do with the quality of the pool I play. If I like it that way, why should it be a problem for anyone else? So I play on, audibly talking to myself most of the time (I generally address myself as "Geez" or "Porge"; occasionally I pronounce the latter with a soft "g" and rhyme it with "portray", as though mocking the French. I never said I wasn't crazy), sometimes singing (Kristofferson's timeless "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" is a particular favorite), and sometimes erupting in demonic anger. Until you've seen a senior citizen bellowing, at jet airliner decibel levels, "Move yer albino ass!" at an innocent white plastic blob, you do not know the true meaning of passion.
Next door (Chris' is really three adjoining rooms, separated only by plastic strip-curtained doorways), my playing neighbor pursues a quest of his own. Jeff Gates, trim, handsome, articulate, a graphics designer by day and amateur jazz pianist by night, hopes to pocket 40 balls with a single stroke of the cue. Perhaps the TV versions of "Ripley's Believe it Or Not" or "The Guinness Book of world Records" will be interested, perhaps not; Jeff Gates does not seem to care. He has already sunk and videotaped 32 and 36 balls successfully, and feels that 40 will be the point at which to quit, recalling the famous novelist, W. Somerset Maugham's declaration, " I shall write until I am 75, and then it will be time to lay down the pencil." To describe the table layout he utilizes would be both unfair and impossible. But he sets the object balls in place with the aid of a blueprinted template and a jeweler's visor complete with interchangeable lenses. If he moves spryly enough, he can set the thing up in 20 minutes or so. It really isn't much of a spectator sport, but that's okay, because each and every attempt is videotaped. On a competitive basis, Jeff Gates' one-pocket game would be roughly even with mine, but that's academic. We each have loftier goals to tend to.
I have a favored table for my quest, but the room does not reserve it for me, and I take potluck as to whether it's available or not. Jeff Gates is smarter than that: his table is his full-time. "We call it 'The condo at Chris'," says room co-owner Rich "Doc" Herbert. "It doesn't matter if the room is stone empty or we have a waiting list with a line around the block; nobody gets Table 26 except Jeff Gates." When he's not around, Table 26 sits forlornly covered, the only table in the room so shrouded, as though it were the lone corpse in the morgue, gloomily waiting for the first of the bereaved to make the wretched ID.
Most of the time, Gates practices his shots with no more than half the object balls he eventually plans to use. But the ball return still sounds like a machine-gun attack on a tin hut. The teenyboppers he has for playing company are used to him by now: the room's muscular sound system does what it can do to drown out his din. My playing company, by contrast, includes the billiardists and all the serious pool players. Given the nature of our respective quests, some would say that this is just And I do make slightly less racket than the jukebox.
Six months to the day after I ran the 107 I wrote about here a few times back, the game sent me a delightful Valentine in the form of 110. Thus, the interval between the first two 100-plus ball runs of my life was nearly 18 years; between runs #2 and #3, a bit over 14 years. But runs 3 and #4 were only six months apart, so three or four times a week I sally forth to probe whether it's mastery or false hope that's truly involved. I may never get my answer. At one time or another, I call out every psychological "trigger" I've ever stumbled upon. "Knuckles down. Back hand loose. Follow through and freeze. Feel the ball. Hear the shot. Follow the cue ball." Listening to the shot, a tip proposed to me by short-games specialist and friend Mark Jarvis a few years ago, is particularly useful in soaking up all that "mind chatter." Every successful pool shot has three distinct sounds - cue tip against cue ball; cue ball against object ball, object ball into pocket - and focusing on the cadence of those shots, which varies each time with shot length, while it takes some getting used to, really works. Thus I have completed the relatively rare parlay of both talking to the cue ball and listening to it talk back at the same time. The ball's IQ is a matched set with his shape, yet I have anthropomorphized it into a life of its own. I am therefore not striking it so much as attempting to enlist its friendship.
And next door, the poor tortured half-return of Table 26 once again noisily swallows the excess of Jeff Gates' fervor. He has his quest, I have mine, and as in the most enduring of all relationships, each of us secretly thinks he has the better part of the bargain.