[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.]
Every room seems to have one. Even "The Hustler," in book form, opened and closed with one, telling evidence of their universality. Money players regard them with slightly more respect than that accorded the amoeba. And lesser players yearn for their technology, or even magic potion, that will finally blend their own competitive drive with the consummate private skills of the practice player.
It's hard to think of another sport, except possibly bodybuilding, where sole practitioners will train so hard, yet shun competition so completely. A healthy percentage of practice players would prefer not even to play for the time.
You can learn from watching a good one, but not because he ever volunteers to tell you anything. And watching a pool soloist stalk around the table for hours, with a fervor and patience most of us wish we had, but won't say so, it seems so easy, so tempting, to wave him off with a sneering, "Why bother?"
But the truth is that practice players take something out of the game not only well in excess of what they put in, but something which most of us don't achieve or even think about very often. On those infrequent occasions, when playing competitively has fattened my hip pocket (and, remember, even a stopped clock is right twice a day), I'll happily admit that there was a rare kind of glow in attendance, nothing you could ever hope to buy on the steps of the Manhattan Public Library. I can tell you from experience that it isn't absolutely necessary to score the cheese in order to have the game of pool transport you to other mental plateaus, and practice players have known that for many years anyway.
Sometimes a practice player can get lots more out of the game than mere high-energy meditation, though. Probably the most famous soloist of modern time was New York's Mike Eufemia, who laid down practice runs of 200 with such regularity and nonchalance that it became a nightly standing bet in his home room, and one with few takers. Part of Mike's reputation as a practice player was also due to his tournament record, which showed that in tournament play, Mike was a hair over Ray Charles most of the time. But insiders will tell you that once you set aside that rich, dimensional facade, Mike Eufemia played solid for the cash.
A generation ago in Chicago, when Bensinger's was still one of the great rooms, we had a practice player named Harry Paul, still alive and well in the Los Angeles area. With his silver hair and rimless spectacles, Harry looked more like a librarian than a pool player; to go with that, he had one of those flowing, spaghetti-wristed strokes that seems to make love to the cue ball instead of merely stroking it. And to go with that even more, Harry preferred to rack the balls for practice with his hands, not with the rack, rolling balls simultaneously into position with flare, flourish and verve. Every time those long, thin fingers raced forward to capture the fourteen balls perfectly, and hold them in frozen hostage, you could hear the hustlers growling clear across the room.
The practice player I enjoyed watching the most, however, was an old-time fable out of McGirr's with a name so perfect, it might as well have been created by James Joyce: the late Joe Bachelor. Joe had the 4-to-midnight shift behind the counter, and within a few minutes of knocking off work, he would don one of those tasteful hats, bring out his own set of object balls (polished almost daily with clear shoe wax), set up a break shot with cue ball in hand, and run balls 'til the place closed at 2:30 a.m. Joe racked the balls manually, too, but nobody hooted at him. Mosconi himself had spotted Bachelor no more than 125 to 105 at their respective peaks, going for the gold. But numbers meant nothing when he could practice; he could be at 160 and counting, and the house would ask him to knock off, and he'd merely shrug and pack away his well-waxed balls.
But I continue to believe that some of the greatest gifts go to the soloists whose names you never hear. I mean the ones with that rare ability to draw themselves into that lone white ball until everything else falls away - all knowledge and all memory - and that delicious trance takes over and the player goes inside the game and emerges having found the most faithful picture of himself. They say that a computer built to simulate the human brain, one microcircuit for every brain cell, would require space the size of the Sears Tower. And the practice player that gets a lasting look at his real potential, when it's just him and his brain and the game, is a richer man indeed.
There's a fantasy that goes with practice pool, too. At least, I think it's there, because most players would rather tell you their sex secrets than admit to this. But back in the early 1960's, Sports Illustrated commissioned a wonderfully uninhibited whacko cartoonist named Arnold Roth to examine pool, and he envisioned a championship match where a wavy-haired challenger sank all fifteen balls with a single shot, as the evil champion mashed his cue in fury, royalty among the spectators applauded, cheerleaders pranced, and cannon were fired in tribute. He called it, "A Pool Player's Dream," and what makes it so brilliantly funny is that it's really not too far from this dream that I suspect a lot of practice players have, about substituting their cues for lances, tilting them at the windmill called New York, and riding off into the mystical East to take their games quixotically among the best competitors the world has to offer, at a tournament played there every August.
At least, this one does.