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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[Ed. Note: George was nine months ahead on his Tips & Shafts column at the time of his death. Billiards Digest wouldn’t deny his faithful readers the joy of seeing those columns in their rightful place on the last page.]
I invented a pool game called 2-ball once. This magazine’s Robert Byrne was kind enough to say he liked it, but I don’t know that he ever actually played it with anyone. As far as I do know, there has been exactly one game of 2-ball ever played, which I won.
As the name suggests, the game is played with two object balls; the obvious choices would be the 1- and 2-balls, but it doesn’t really matter. The balls go on the table’s two spots, head and foot, to start the game. The idea is to pocket one ball and complete a billiard on the other in the same shot. If you pocket the first ball, but miss the billiard, the ball is re-spotted. If you complete both aspects, you get a point, the pocketed ball comes back up, and the second ball is left where it is. Thus the ability to pocket a spot shot is critical.
My one and only 2-ball opponent was a Bensinger’s semi-shortstop who called himself Reno (he had actually been there just once, resulting in a vagrancy bust). The first time I met Reno, he stiffed me for $30 with the ancient dodge, “I must have left my wallet at home.” I let it go, re-stiffed him at the first opportunity, and thereafter beat his brains in at every game in the house except snooker (which I don’t play). Because 2-ball was an experiment, we agreed to play just five points. I made what I still consider to be my single greatest shot ever, pocketing the first ball on a carom off the second, and then scoring a time shot on the second ball for my billiard. Since Reno had never seen anything like that, I had to point out the shot’s greatness to him, and his response was to quit immediately.
The point, if indeed I had one, is that the odds are about googolplex-to-one (a googolplex is the number one followed by two hundred zeroes) that a new pool game is ever going to emerge. Remember the desperate idiocy of the ‘80s called 7-ball? Remarkably, you can still buy racks, or racking templates, that accommodate it, but except for the game’s very few appearances on TV, I couldn’t give you a single name of anybody who ever played one rack of 7-ball. “Must’ve laid awake nights thinking this one up, Charlie,” the immortal Willie Mosconi sighed audibly on CBS-TV to his pal and premier fan, Charlie Ursitti. The late Steve Mizerak once tried to pitch the game to 7up, which I suppose makes some promotional sense, but the beverage bottler wisely wasn’t having any.
The only pool game my father would ever play (he actually preferred billiards) was line-up, which he probably learned from his father. Straight-pool rules apply, except that at the end of each player’s inning, all the balls he had just pocketed would be re-spotted in a line, in the manner of a one-pocket player paying off multiple fouls. (If the shooter ran the table, he got a full 15-ball line and continued to shoot.) Thus the incoming player always had 15 balls at which to shoot. But the game is so obscure that the only records even kept for it are in Canada, where the fine player Pierre Morin can tell you everything there is to know about line-up pool and its best players and feats. Astonishingly, the all-time long run in the game seems to be just a bit past 300.
All of which is why the recent furor over TV’s pay-per-view concept called Bonus Ball is so puzzling. How could anyone possibly think that lunacy was going to work? Presumably, because it was based on good players shooting balls into holes — but what good does that do when nobody can figure out how or why or when which balls go into which holes? The game was clearly created by people who don’t know pool and have even less of an idea as to how to promote it. Would you watch the Super Bowl if it were touch-tackle with flags? (That’s essentially what pro football’s all-star game is, and it may very well be discontinued.) Would you watch the World Series if it were played on donkeys?
Today, 10-ball is making a respectable effort to replace 9-ball as the tournament staple, and to all outward appearances, it does seem to be at least as good a game; its break is considerably less dominating. But it’s hardly new; I played it as a teenager, for Lord’s sakes. It’s simply new to the pro ranks.
If I personally had the resources to bail out pro pool today, I’m pretty sure I’d insist they put heavy emphasis on 8-ball. That’s the game the masses fiddled with in their youth; that’s still the only form outsiders can relate to now (they tend to dismiss the rotation games as “lucky”; Mosconi did too). If any pool form can help us bridge the audience gap — the way the Beatles did for rock, or Arnold did for the bodybuilders — it’ll be good old Stripes and Solids.
You can theorize why pool continues to struggle until the proverbial cows come home, but hardly any of those reasons will link directly to what pool game is being played. The market for straight pool will probably not grow wildly, but the game’s followers are too devoted to let it disappear. Entire leagues are formed today around 8-, 9-, and 10-ball, and pool experts will always have one-pocket to turn to. 15-ball rotation was the game of choice in the Philippines — precisely why the Pinoys excel to the extent they do in the shorter rotation forms — but hardly any pool in any form is being played there today.
So we’ve got exactly five pool forms to satisfy the game’s theoretical 30-plus million American players. But they always have. And I surely wouldn’t seat myself on a hot stove to wait for Number Six.