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
December: Playing Cheap
"TIME AND a buck, time and a buck, time and a buckbuckbuck " It looks like gibberish, which it probably is, but it does syllabicate roughly to the famous "William Tell Overture." And that's what we used to chant as teenagers, in my first room, because that was the basic playing stake in that room. We didn't play anything except straight pool, and this being nearly 60 years ago, table time was a buck an hour. We could usually finish 25, or even 50, points within that frame, so the loser would cough up a buck and change in total while the winner had his buck free and clear.
And as ho-hum as that sounds today, the disappointing fact was that the fabled downtown room Bensinger's wasn't all that much better. Fats Wanderone used to brag about winning a three-cushion match there for some $200,000 during the Depression; fat chance of that, when there may not have been that much spare cash in the entire city. The room goes back far enough that there was indeed a plentiful supply of walk-in suckers for the regulars, so there was some 9-ball play. But the game of choice among those regulars was overwhelmingly one-pocket, and rarely did the bet exceed $3.
One of the players down there who was of more than casual interest to me was a man named Harold; nobody seemed to know anything more than that. Harold intrigued me because (a) he was clearly a white-collar guy bobbing in a sea of bums, (b) he wore glasses, and (c) he was losing his hair. With that three-pronged foundation of potential kinship, I watched Harold's cheap action quite a bit, although we never spoke. He also presented one of the oddest playing mannerisms I have ever seen, before or since: Upon completion of his last practice stroke, Harold would swing his cue out to an approximate 45-degree angle to the cue ball, somewhat in the manner of flapping a wing. Then he'd bring it back in line, and execute the shot as usual. I never saw him take any shot without that quirk, but the bottom line was that Harold was a slightly above-average performer who was still willing to take on better players for $3 a game or less. Once, during a weekday lunch hour, I saw Harold playing a match for which the sweators were standing six-deep. It seemed that the two men must have had life savings involved. But I was told they were betting $5 a game. Hell, even as a teenager, I was playing loose-change poker where you could win or lose more than that. But in that poolroom, in that era, that was some highfalutin' gambling.
Now I don't have any doubt that whoever invented pool (the French, the Persians, whichever Theory of the Week to which you subscribe) foresaw that their game would invite gambling. The game's very name, all but senseless on its surface, comes from a French word that translates roughly as "a pooling of the bets." It's unlikely, though, that the innovators predicted small fortunes would indeed come to be wagered, any more than Abner Doubleday could have envisioned 100-mph fastballs and 500-foot home runs, or Dr. Naismith could know that his baby, basketball, would one day be played above the rim. More realistically, pool's creators were thinking of a small wager between gentlemen. And I continue to believe that that's where the soul of the game truly exists, not at the level of how much you can bet to motivate you, but how little.
Back when Chicago's Yellow Pages directory offered three full pages of billiard-room listings (that's the '70s), any number of those rooms included a regular cadre of competitors who would play cheap, and there was little to no resentment of visiting players, even strangers, who came in to do the same. I was one of those, sometimes even in rooms where the only white face was mine. But today, the same directory displays about a third of a single column of those listings. And low-stakes players, as with most of pool, are becoming similarly harder to find.
Chris's Billiards, where I play, has largely evolved into a room where three-cushion billiards is the game of choice, with at least a dozen solid-playing regulars. What gambling those competitors do is largely among themselves, as road players really have no reason to visit the room any more. But it's much more common that they simply play for time. And on the other side of the room, at least as rare as competitive caroms play, is a clique of players, maybe as many as six, who will play low-stakes one-pocket for hours. One pair rarely chooses any other opponents. They all seem somewhat frozen in time; after all, how many commercial rooms today put caroms and one-pocket at the top of their respective lists? And within those rooms, how many capable players will even consider playing cheap? One-pocket was clearly meant to be a gambling medium, and its stakes have clearly gone the way of inflation. Table time costs $8 to $10 an hour in most rooms today, and it's the rare bird indeed who has not declared that he will not even un-case his cue for less.
One of the regulars at Chris's got himself barred not long ago. The details aren't important, but this was a guy who was not just an afternoon player; he would stay until well into the night too, putting in as many as 8 to 10 hours a day. I've known him for 50 years, and I've known few men who loved to play more. $3 would have been about as high as he'd normally bet. But he's retired, unmarried, and playing pool cheap was a humongous part of his life. I can't help but wonder, where in this town is he going to go next to find the same kind of friendly action? What's he going to do with himself?