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
May: Sticks on the Wall
TALK ABOUT humble beginnings: here's how the late, highly acclaimed cuemaker Craig Petersen got his. He was hanging out in a long-gone Chicago room called Howard-Paulina, after the nearest streets' intersection, where he also served as a part-time table mechanic. This was back in the '60s, when Brunswick was still making one-piece Titleist cues, with multi-veneered points, largely intended as inventory for commercial rooms.
The room's counterman/house pro was the late, brilliant caroms player Bill Romain, a highly practical sort. He had already recruited Craig for his table-service duties by asking, out of the clear blue, "Think you could re-cover a table?"
"Probably," said Craig, thinking it was a rhetorical question.
"Everything you need is in the back. Go re-cover Table 12."
Which is precisely how Romain launched Craig Petersen's cuemaking career. "Think you could make a two-piece cue?"
"Fine. Take one of those nice Titleists sticks off the wall and make it into a jointed cue. Everything you'll need is
"Yes, I know, in the back," said Craig, already walking away in his first steps toward lasting fame. He sawed the one-piece more or less in half, fitted a joint and pin from an ancient broken-down jointed cue that was sitting around as rubble, and a cue-making legend was born. Later Petersen would consult on the art with his close friend the late Burton Spain, and the two men undoubtedly made one another better. Today the cues of either artist go for thousands of dollars.
Can there be any aspect of the cue games more taken for granted than the sticks you find on the poolroom wall? Sure, the better rooms have decent-to-good cues for rent, especially for billiards, but the vast majority of recreational customers aren't even aware of that. They get a set of balls at the counter, pick or are assigned a table, and more or less instinctively grab something off the wall. Most of the time they don't even check the cue for straightness. (Actually, at the early Johnston City hustlers' jamboree tournaments, the late Billy Joe "Cornbread Red" Burge added to his legend by doing just that: arranging action for $500 or better and then reaching - blindly yet - for a cue off the wall behind him to take into combat.)
I remember the first house cue I ever favored as though it were still around. It weighed 18 ounces - it said so - and was beginning to splinter at the bottom, with no rubber bumper. But the damn thing had a profound placebo effect on me; I was convinced that it was largely responsible for my improved play. The room would probably have sold it to me for two or three bucks, but I never even considered asking. I kind of liked the daily search for it along the wall, the temporary panic when it could not be found (or was jealously spotted in use), the warm sense of reunion when it could. Most likely it was still around when the room closed, although I had lost track of it by then. I certainly hope that stick ended well somehow, such as on another room's wall; I still remember the thrill of those first eight- and 10-ball runs that we saw through together.
Later in the '60s, Chicago had another poolroom called The Golden 8-Ball, with tables most aptly named for the late Harold Worst. I'm not sure a worse table has ever been foisted on the pool-playing public; Worst tables did not even have real slate as their bed, but a synthetic substitute called Slateen. The color of the cloth on each dismal table was, you guessed it, gold. The pockets were a good 5-1/2-inches wide, but played more like subway tunnels. And the room's original inventory of house cues was actually all jointed cues, also bearing the Harold Worst name. They retailed for less than $30, and were wrapped in rubber that closely resembled a garden hose. For their era, the Worst cues were not egregiously bad; as house cues go, of course, they were sensational. Predictably, just about all those cues took a hike during The Golden 8-Ball's first two weeks or so - and the thieves were taking a far bigger risk than they ever imagined, because the room was transparently Mob-owned. Luckily for them, the actual two owners were rarely on the premises. They'd have been most peeved.
These days, part of any self-respecting poolroom house pro's job is ensuring that the cue inventory is basically straight and includes serviceable tips. At Chris's Billiards in Chicago, where I play, the pro, while not a cuemaker himself, is good enough with a lathe to do a first-rate job of cleaning customers' shafts and changing tips too; he even offers multiple brands of tips and degrees of hardness to choose from. It seems to me that that service is just about indispensable to any responsible billiard room that cares about its patrons as well as its bottom line.
Poolhalls are eminently capable of showing you some pretty forlorn sights, but high among them would be a deserted house cue not in the wall rack where it belongs, but just leaning. The last lazy slob to use it had only another few steps to go before putting the thing away properly. Or maybe it's tip-less, or even without a ferrule. But it was part of a proud tree once, and when that tree was felled, somebody somewhere approved and paid for that piece of wood. Once turned down and made ready for the world, it's highly likely that that piece of wood gave somebody (brief) joy. It deserves better.
The sight is marginally gloomier at Chris's these days, because the wall racks are largely empty themselves. I'm no neatness freak, but if I see a cue leaning against a wall, I put it back in its lonesome rack as if by knee-jerk reflex. It feels like the least I can do.