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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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Jan: Stairs
January 2015
[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.]

[Reprinted from February 1984] Stairs first made me think of "Sorry Wrong Number," and weepy old Barbara Stanwyck, crippled and helpless alone in bed, while a sinister silhouette that still gives me gooseflesh ascends slowly to feed her some lead hors d'oeuvres. But when it's pool, instead of Barbara Stanwyck at the end of the stairs, the game is somehow enriched for me, and I'm glad the stairs are there.

Many of the game's best-known rooms existed on this benign form of other level, whether the stairs led up or down: Ames, 711, Allinger's, Palace, Detroit Rec, Bensigner's (which had two floors and an elevator, too). One reason is fairly obvious: Pool can never be totally divorced from stakes, and there is some logic in shielding the brazen misdemeanor of gambling from the innocent public eye. Too, billiards rooms were traditionally places where men and men only went to gather with their fellow male chauvinist pigs, and that purpose would surely be defeated if gawking were available for m'lady. Well-bred women did not gawk, of course; in the game's heyday, they were not even supposed to peer through windows of barbershops, for Lord's sake. But pool has not always attracted creme de la creme femme, and the men were probably better off with the sanctuary of a flight or two of stairs. I was an adolescent when life fixed me up with pool, and adolescence was a place to visit without wanting to stay, not then, not ever. So, the stairs meant some distance (or, in today's parlance, space), and I gorged myself on that pleasure for four or five stairs to a stride. Like the game, stairs were a matter of task and reward. Go to the top (or the bottom) and you were cleanly exorcised of the awful demon that made you pray that some guy in the schoolyard whom you didn't even especially like would point your way and say, "I'll choose him." The stairs wiped away anxieties about basketball tryouts, report cards, prom dates. The old wife's tale that recommends cold showers for horniness probably had poolroom stairs in mind instead. They're much more effective; there are no evil temptations; and you don't even need a towel.

And all that cerebral wonderment takes place before you even get to the richest unknown of them all: who will be there to play? The only sound to be truly dreaded as you climb the stairs, of course, is the sound of silence; no one there, life is stagnated. But detect even a single crack of balls, and there is at least a game to be sweated, perhaps players to greet, an hour to kill, a connection to be made. Life, in short, has not passed you by just yet, and that discovery would be less delicious were it not for the temporary suspense of the stairs. But I've climbed stairs to empty poolrooms, too, as we all have, and I know of few more stirring anticlimaxes. You might acknowledge the counterman, or you might be feeling nasty enough not to; life, after all, is temporarily empty. Somehow you cannot receive the lovely transmission that it may be you and you alone the room has been waiting for. This time, the stairs have blackened your thoughts: Why did I bother, now or ever? What am I doing here? What am I doing? What am I? It is no more possible to feel comfortable after conquering stairs to an empty poolroom that it is to look cool wiping dog poo off your Guccis.

You can flip that coin, through the mere application of temperate hours and a little logic, and enjoy one of life's great highs by traveling the stairs to a busy room. The multiple clicks and taps and plops and cracks of the game become an excited babble of chance and fun and life; and there is unflawed harmony in all that human chatter. Now the stairs to more than promise a connection; they offer involvement if you want it. Who will play? Who will win? What will happen? The great game and life are a perfect blend once again, and the stairs shield the answers as surely as the dawn.

In and of themselves, stairs don't guarantee the greatness of any room. The Golden Cue in Queens, certainly one of the world's fine halls, is street-level; so is Detroit's fantastic action room, Capitol City; and so is a personal favorite of mine, State-Madison Recreation in Rockford, Ill., although that room also offers a downstairs for tournaments. But stairs help the game tell us even more about ourselves; our pace on the stairs counts our birthdays as well as any calendar. Win and the stairs loom flat as Kansas; lose and they become either an Everest to climb or a lead-booted descent to hell, depending on the architect's whim.

Contemporary poets have looked at pool before. Bob Dylan has said that he can take the pulse of a strange town more quickly in the poolroom than anywhere else. Pool or poolrooms or pool playing are in the lyrics of Tom Waits, his ex-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones, Jim Croce and a flock of singers and writers whose names begin with "S:" Stewart, Springsteen, Seger, Simon. But no one ever talks about the stairs that frequently get you to pool first, and that is mostly because balladeers are doing their singing from the outside looking in. Only when the game has you good and captured do poolroom stairs become a challenge less to your legs than to your soul.



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