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
Sept: When Friends Pair Off
You don’t see nearly as much of it these days, although that could be said contemporarily about nearly every aspect of pool. The subject is guys who play each other all the time, solely for friendship and fun.
I’m not talking about road partners; that relationship usually has as much to do with convenience as camaraderie. (I admit that Fats Wanderone, of whom I was no great fan, actually had a line on this matter that I liked: “Two road players couldn’t find no action, so they played 200 points to see who’d do his laundry first.”) And neither does the reference include long-time gambling rivals, who share a motivation well separated from friendship.
No, this time we’re dealing out props to guys who simply would rather not play anybody else. My favorite example of this is really not two guys, but five or six who get together and play pill pool (or “bottle pool,” if you prefer. We called it “pee pool” when I was a kid, though I never learned why; nobody ever peed inappropriately that I know of! Besides, how many rooms even stock the little numbered pills anymore?). They treat it pretty much as though it were low-stakes poker, seem to enjoy one another’s mishaps and mistakes at least as much as their pocket-change winnings, and the whole thing increases in fun as the players decrease in ability. As a spectator sport, it’s at its peak when the players don’t know what they’re doing. And “Well, I guess I got screwed,” remains one of the best missed-shot laments that these ears have ever accepted.
By contrast, once in a great while you uncover a cue-games friendship that takes its game quite seriously. In Chicago, when Bensinger’s was still a great downtown room, there were literally dozens of such pairings, but most of them were dedicated to caroms. The room had an entire floor of billiards tables (pool was upstairs), and on any weekday from noon to 2:30 or so, it was not easy to get such a table. The same white-collar guys played the same other white-collar guys on a daily basis. On Saturdays, the couplings involved other men, but they were just as predictable. On Sundays, the majestic game would rest.
Many of those pairs disappeared when the room moved roughly four miles north and evolved into just another poolroom. But one friendship that was born there coupled Bud Harris, who would become Chicago’s near-perennial 3-C champion, and a city cabbie named Harry Paul, an expatriate of New York and that city’s famed McGirr’s room. “Are you Harry Paul? Hello from Joe Bachelor!” Harris gushed, pumping Paul’s hand as though priming water and naming a former night manager at McGirr’s, then living in Harris’ hometown San Francisco. It’s unlikely that Paul had ever been greeted that effusively in his entire life, but there was enough credibility for him in the mere mention of Bachelor’s name (which was actually Bachel, inevitably misnamed as Bachelor by someone who wasn’t listening. The error may have been prophetic; Bachel was married three times). The two men bonded and played billiards together almost every night for years — except for tournament play, which Paul shunned. Local smartasses scorned their non-gambling competition as “double funsies,” but the two were oblivious.
I was lucky enough to have a friendship like that of my own. In theory, Jack Gunne and I were gambling, but we became best friends so quickly that the stakes existed only on paper. Our forum was straight pool, which we played at lunchtime nearly every weekday on some of the silliest equipment: 4’ x 8’, with gold cloth yet (the room was called The Golden 8-Ball), and pockets so permissive that a ball frozen to a side rail could still be sunk in the nearest side if you just rolled it up softly enough. But hey, it was still fifteen balls and six holes, and did we ever love it. I won virtually every time, and he still loved it as much as I did.
Then he ran into some ghastly business reversals, and everything changed. Every last 16th–of-an-inch of cue-ball travel that worked against him, every accidental scratch or stymie, even scoring into the wrong half of a pocket was enough to infuriate him and threaten his cue’s existence. The Golden 8-Ball was closed by then, but my other good pal Freddy the Beard had a private club right near where Bensinger’s used to be. I would provide the cheerfulness for both of us, sometimes successfully, more often not; if he wanted to stay for the omnipresent pinochle game, I’d take the bus back downtown even though it added a good 20 minutes to the trip.
One day, his non-stop bitching caught me the wrong way. “If you didn’t want to play,” I sighed, “why didn’t you just say so?”
“You’re the one who wants to play!” he snarled. “You call every bleeping day! ‘Hi! Wanna play?’”
I’ve never enjoyed being mocked, nor do I know anyone who does. And here was my best friend calling out not only the pastime over which that friendship was born, but the friendship itself.
“Fine,” I managed, and to this day I’m not sure how I got the words out, “I won’t bother you again, I guess.” And although we talked regularly on the phone for the few years, he had left — stress killed him at just age 46 — and we had never played again.
There used to be these two guys at Chris’s who played caroms every single morning seven days a week. They were really into it, even to the extent of analyzing and discussing one another’s shots. One morning they got into an argument over something petty and stupid; one of them never even returned to the room. Some guys just don’t know when they’re well off