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
January: Second Generation
MY MOTHER's ignorance of pool was such that she literally did not know cue ball from object ball; her lone conviction was that anyone who had anything to do with the game was a bum. My father, on the other hand, had spent a decent amount of time in poolrooms as a young man, and was even a fair recreational player despite the fact that he almost never played. Thus his license to be critical of my passion, once pool came calling for me, was seriously compromised.
I'm close to six inches taller than my father was, and he in turn was nearly that much taller than his own dad. Yet my grandfather, barely able to see over the table rail, was the billiards champion of his gentlemen's club for years. The first time the two of them came to see me play at the local room, they hit a few balls together first, and my jaw dropped wider than the pockets in that room, which is saying something. My father was given to hype - in offering me a sensible pointer, he'd say something like, "If you play this one first, you should have about 20 open shots after it" - but he did seem to know what he was talking about, and to this day I wish the two of us had shared the game more.
Granted, we would have been a fairly rare combination. The only other father/son duo that appeared regularly in my first room played billiards exclusively; mostly fathers appeared there to fetch their wayward sons, sometimes by the collar, and return them to something more respectable like homework. Pa and I did play out that gloomy scene once ourselves, although my collar was spared. But during my first few months at pool, I could see the corners of his mouth twitching with amusement as my left hand automatically formed a perfect orthodox tripod bridge around my salad fork. And my mother would make a strange, single tch-ing sound that made the entire experience even more delicious.
Our two greatest pool champions, Mosconi and Greenleaf, were apparently self-taught for the most part, even though both men had room owners in their immediate families. Indeed, the only father-son team to reach the cue games' highest rungs was also the first; perhaps they scared off other such would-be pairings. Jake Schaefer Sr. and his son Jake Jr. both played three-cushion billiards at the championship level, knew hardly any other passion in their lives (Senior's deathbed request to his wife was reportedly, "Promise me you won't let Junior become a professional unless he turns out to have championship potential"), and along with his genius for their game, Senior also passed along his dead-fish handshake and near-total lack of personality.
Pool has nothing remotely comparable when it comes to tournament credentials among fathers and sons, but there have still been plenty of notable such couplings. More often than not, the sons become better players than their dads, but there's no guarantee of that. The late Gary Spaeth, for instance, became a slightly better banker than his dad Joe, but Joe was still the better all-around competitor by a goodly margin. Probably the best-known contemporary duo is Ernesto Dominguez and his son Oscar; the latter is neither the caroms player nor the table mechanic that his dad is - yet - but he's a very, very talented young work in progress and will almost certainly be the better player. The brilliant cuemaker Pete Tascarella and his son Pete Jr. are both regarded as A players. And the late Steve Mizerak's dad, Steve Sr., was a New Jersey straight-pool champion too.
I'm always amazed when genetics reward a highly gifted father with sons who own the same gifts; NBA great Rick Barry, for example, fathered three sons all of whom also played pro hoops, and what can the odds possibly be on that? When it comes to pool or billiards, though, the phenomenon becomes even harder to understand, because exactly what is it that the fathers are passing along? Hand-eye coordination, naturally, because that's at the core of all sporting endeavors; my own father's was slightly above average, and that's exactly what I inherited. But beyond that, what? Mental calm? Spatial-relations aptitude? An unhindered nervous-system neural path, to govern one's sense of ball speed? All of the above? Or none?
The game my dad favored, remarkably enough, was line-up pool, and I couldn't begin to tell you how or where he came by that. It's a predecessor of 14.1 - when each player's inning ends, he re-spots all the balls he just pocketed in a line starting with the foot spot, so the incoming player always faces all 15 balls - but it's so obscure that American records for it aren't even kept. The few times we did play pool, that's what we played. But since there was nobody else in my universe that would even consider playing that with me, I didn't take much away from my sessions with my father.
And today, I suspect that one of the true reasons we didn't share more pool together is that play itself was such a foreign concept to my dad. He was a bona fide workaholic, who would come home late for dinner, all but totally exhausted, just about every single night, and dragging paperwork with him into the bargain. Thus my passion for pool, which was sufficient to devour my high-school and college grades just for openers, was probably one of the worst things that could have come between us; he was all about work and I was all about play. He didn't live to see this column, and that's too bad, because journalism was the one career path he tried to push at me. But he did see my first book, and "Very good job" were the last words I ever heard him say. Considering the source, I took it as a standing ovation.