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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THE LATE Tom Spencer had no known enemies save for himself, and even if one or two had somehow fallen onto that same glum list, they would never have even contended for the lead. Spencer, who passed last December at not quite 60 years of age, was one of Chicago’s better-liked pool players of the last 50 years, quite possibly the city’s best pure shot-maker ever, and even more possibly one of pool’s sadder stories to tell.
Part of that story was told right here, about a generation ago. Tommy was the youngest of four sons, born to a regional-caliber straight-pool tournament player named Pete and his gorgeous wife Jackie. Pete would have been happy to see all his sons playing the game; unfortunately, his ideas about teaching were of the semi-selfish “Rack the balls for me, watch what I do, then you do it” persuasion. One by one, the brothers left their dad to rack his own balls within a few weeks each. A few years later, it was Tommy’s turn, and finally one of Pete’s sons said, “Sure, Dad. I’ll rack the balls.”
Pete taught Tom patiently for the next four years, to age 15. His own game was eroding anyhow, hardly even perceptibly at first, but his meticulous 60- and 70-ball runs were becoming 40s and 50s, his tournament finishes more like upper-half than last-eight. And at long last, he had a son who would listen. Tommy was a decent player by 15 and seriously formidable within another year or two.
But he took his talents in a questionable direction almost at once. I remember running into him and another mid-teens buddy in the room where I used to play at lunchtime, looking for cheap 9-ball action when they had no legal business being in the place at all. “It’s Christmas vacation,” he explained to me — his dad and I were quite friendly, and that’s how I met him — “and we’re just gonna go from one room to the next, see if we can get some $1 or $2 action.” Chicago had enough rooms back then to make that a viable way to keep spending money in your pocket; while Tommy’s dad was a white-collar working stiff who put dinner on the table every night and sent three of his four sons to college, he was tighter than a Mosler safe with his cash. So Tommy found plenty of local kids to beat up on at the tables, plus a good dinner and a warm bed at night. Things were good; so good, in fact, that Tommy could never quite see past them.
Although he grew up in an era when 14.1 was still the tournament king, Tom’s game did not resemble Pete’s in the least. Pete would play cheap 9-ball, especially in ring, if he knew the competition, but he was really only interested in straight pool, authoring a beautiful, finesse-driven game. Tom played everything, and he took on all comers at all games the exact game way: “He plays without fear,” opined no less an expert than Freddy the Beard, and it was true. Tom gripped his cue just above the butt plate and clobbered just about every single ball, tight pockets be damned.
Tom shot so well that he really had minimal need for a mental game. His best game was 9-ball, because that was the format most likely to forgive his go-for-it style. But his 14.1 tournament resume included a win over all-time great Irving Crane; at his long suit, I saw him win $8,000 once, not that I know whether that represented his all-time haul. There was a point in his life when he was not interested in any action less than $500. (His dad, by contrast, rarely bet more than $5, and achieved his all-time high bet — $20 — and long run — 92 — in the same game, against Milwaukee’s luckless Todd Covington.) Tom did not particularly have the patience necessary to play top-shelf one-pocket, but his shot-making and banking were strong enough that his one-hole game lacked shabbiness too. Bangers have come and gone from the game before, but we’re talking about an extremely high order of shot-making here. Most of Tom’s matches were won at least partially through intimidation.
Tom stayed in his parents’ house long after his three brothers left. He was married for a while, and had two beautiful daughters, but the wife eventually made some frightful choices, and stuck him with sticky demons. Pete would have been glad to take him into the business he owned, maybe even leave it to him someday, but the attempts to integrate Tom into the workplace just went noplace. All he really wanted to do, if he was to get off his buns at all, was play pool.
By the time Pete died, there was nowhere for Tom to turn even for a job, let alone a career. So he decided to devote his life to caring for his mom. If he left the house at all, it was for groceries. He would see to it that Jackie was warm, fed, bathed and happy; he would come obligingly no matter how many times called. When she would fall asleep, he’d retire to Pete’s table in the basement and slam the balls, often for hours on end. It was about the only way he could keep the awful boredom at bay and still remain functional.
When Jackie also passed a few years later, Tom had been so immersed in her life that he really had nothing of his own left. Even all those hours slugging balls at home had not kept his game fully competitive; he showed up at a Derby City Classic or two, and actually defeated Darren Appleton at one-hole. But the last time I saw him play, he even griped about the tightness of the pockets.
Rest in peace, Tommy. It’s just a damn shame you couldn’t get yourself a better shot at it than this.