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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April: Back to Schools
FRANZ LISZT and Frederic Chopin were both pianists and composers of immortal classical music; they were also buddies. And what else the two men had in common was that they could play one another's incredibly difficult compositions, when absolutely nobody else could.
I was reminded of that triviality watching Scott Frost's relatively new DVD, "Power One-Pocket": Those are brilliant ideas, but who else other than Frost could possibly execute them? (Cliff Joyner's DVD presents the same paradox; compounding the felony, he is not nearly as polished a presenter as Frost, nor is the video quality especially good.) It's not just a matter of pure abililty; Frost is one of a small circle of competitors who simply do not play the same game that one-pocket has always been.
A modest consensus holds that today's most creative 1-P players today include Frost, Shannon Daulton and Jeremy Jones (Joyner would be up there too, but is rallying from health concerns). Jones had the late Jack "Jersey Red" Breit for a mentor in his native Houston, and Red was certainly one of the more aggressive players of his era. Frost had hometown help too, in the form of the fine player/room owner Don McCaughey, who accommodated him for a buck or so a game - except that Frost spent that precious time striving to emulate another offense-oriented genius, the Philippines' all-time great Efren Reyes. Dalton's game, nearly identical to Frost's right down to the left-handedness, has been self-nurtured from the astonishing age of 12.
The point is that all these men eschew what Frost sneeringly calls "the squeeze-out games of the '90s," where the balls go up-table to be bunted stupefyingly for 90 minutes or longer per game. In today's top one-hole, the balls tend to stay down-table and then disappear fast. The basic concept seems to be not to keep the opponent on the defensive - that's traditional - but under constant pressure, even when daring to take the offensive, either in response or desperation.
All of which is quite a revelation to somebody who grew up (if at all) watching wheezing geezers dawdling through seemingly endless games on 5-by-10-foot tables for a buck or two. I had roughly six years in between the time I first saw one-pocket played and the time I first tried it myself, so that ultra-boring process was virtually the only education I had. I also lacked the visualizing ability to bring anything of my own to the game; all I could really do was pocket a few balls. So I wound up just imitating the general mediocrity I had seen. Fortunately, my near-daily opponent as a beginner, Freddy the Beard, was well ahead of his time in that he wanted to bank just about every ball in Christendom, so I wasn't charged too much for my cautious plodding approach.
Eddie Robin's two fine books on the game comprise the solutions that each of six top players would propose to various complex situations. In his first, one of those experts was the late Hall of Fame competitor Larry "Boston Shorty" Johnson, whose choices were clearly far more conservative than those of his five peers. At the time of publication, in the early '90s, Johnson had won more one-pocket tournaments than anyone else in the game's history (that record may still be his), and there's certainly a lesson in there someplace.
If today's game is really different, though (at least at the top), does that automatically make it better? There's no definitive answer to that. The first American player to be just about unanimously perceived as "the best," the late Eddie Taylor, stood out basically because nobody else could bank as well as he could. And no one American player has similarly stood out from the fold since. Instead, we have seen just one competitor - Frost's icon, Reyes - who was even more outstanding, ultimately an unheard-of two balls over the rest of the playing universe. Reyes took, and still takes, the same balls-out approach to one-pocket that Frost does today except that now Frost can beat him at it.
Not long ago, Frost took on a $20,000 one-hole challenge match against Alex Pagulayan, who has also beaten Reyes and, these days, would have to be considered almost equally terrifying. The match was streamed over the Internet; the commentator, at least for the first five games of the eight-games-ahead format, was the fine Southern Calfornia player "One-Pocket Rich" Grenier. (The moniker stems not from the quality of his play, although that's certainly stellar, but from the fact that he will not play one ball's worth of any other pool form known to man.) Notwithstanding a gaudy string of F-bombs that eventually got him asked to leave the booth, Grenier was really first-rate at his job, consistently pointing out shot options that clearly made more sense than those Frost chose in the first four games.
"Come on, Scott," Grenier would implore, "Play old-school. Stop trying to do too much. It's a simple game: Clear out your opponent's side and leave balls on yours. That's all there is to it." Frost's new-school method cost him those first four games.
In game five, Frost was forced, both by table layouts and the heat of being four games south, into the conservatism he normally avoids; the game was simply not giving up anything else. "That's it," Grenier cooed placidly. "Just follow this one down, take the easy bank, play safe, go up three balls instead of trying to run six. Old-school." Frost did indeed win game five, but nobody spots Alex four beads on the wire playing eight-ahead or any other way; the match, predicted by some to go at least three days, ended in fewer than 20 games.
Baseball is usually won by catching the ball better; football, generally just by blocking and tackling better than the other team. Those games seem to have endured OK by simplifying things. Maybe one-pocket should take a lesson.