[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]
How can a white five-ounce plastic blob terrorize us so? Its imagination, its personality, its IQ are all a wretched matched set with its shape. Still, it enslaves us, exploits our carefully hidden weaknesses and a few more we didn't know we had, tells us what it will and simply will not do; like the old Tubes song, it whispers, "Don't touch me there," and we all obediently and sheepishly withdraw our probes and our plans.
"I've seen guys who I know for a fact are killers, who don't fear nothin'but as soon as they play for big money, they look like they're in front of a firing squad." Thus spoke the brilliant East Coast player Gene Nagy to author John Grissim eight or nine years ago, talking of the dogs of fear.
Pressure hovers over pool everywhere like a demon troll haunting a scenic bridge. Everyone knows it's there, but nobody can tell you exactly what to do about it. Suggested remedies come and go, as they do for hiccups or the common cold. The player faces the game and its pressures alone and unarmed, save for his cue and his heart.
Stories about heart abound in the pool world, of course, and perhaps the classic of the genre is the take of the game played in Norfolk by Luther Lassiter some 40 years ago. "Wimpy" was playing some guy 100 to 60 for $5,000. The guy had him 58 to8, and Wimpy went 92-and-out to leave his opponent in the two-hole. Now that may or may no be the most dramatic retelling that story has ever enjoyed, but it seems to me that the feat really needs no extra drama introduced into it. Every player who has ever noticed an unfamiliar tremor in either or both hands, and/or a bad case of dry mouth, and/or an enlarged Adam's apple, and/or abnormally tight stomach muscles over a $2 game of 8-ball at the corner tavern can immediately identify the enormity of Lassiter's accomplishment. That man executed a run that must be considered world class under any circumstances, risking a $10,000 turnaround every time the balls were broken or the cue ball was sent on an unpredictable path, knowing that defeat was almost certain punishment for missing or even leaving himself tough, and stood eye-to-eye with pressure without blinking for 92 consecutive turns.
Yet, even Lassiter deferred to the late, legendary Don Willis when it came to heart. The two men were road partners from roughly 1947 to 1960, went everywhere and not only never lost a significant match, but rarely missed a significant ball. "If I had one tough shot to shoot, and my choice of the world's players to shoot it, I'd send for Willis," Lassiter gushed publicly, working his way up to cliches in tandem: "He's got the eye of an eagle and the heart of a lion."
Heart is by no means the exclusive province of champions. Most local rooms can tell of players whose heart exceeded their actual abilities and were transformed from ordinary good players into extraordinary money players. Chicago has had at least two generations of examples of the species, the last being Artie Bodendorfer, who now lives in Las Vegas and barely plays at all. The possessor of a colorless, ultraconservative, defensive game, Artie was at times totally unfazed by his opponent, stakes, table layout or results. With modest odds, he knocked off the likes of Bugs Rucker and Jersey Red. Even-up, he had Cole Dickson playing safeties out of spot shots, Jimmy Reid holding the play to $10 a game and still losing, and Grady Mathews paying him the supreme compliment in declaring he never wanted to engage him in pool or any other form of gambling ever again.
But 20 years before Artie Bodendorfer, there was the late Ray Maples, of whom praise was both universal and grudging. Hardly anyone could stand the man, unless they were betting their money on him (and could count on him not to dump). Maples came by all this scorn the old fashioned way; he earned it as a hard-drinking, sometime violent, loudmouthed, fat, unhappy man. Unlike Willis, who in Lassiter had a courtly, true Southern gentleman for a traveling partner, Maples chose for a companion a man whose social graces were a close match for his own, one-time city champion and cuemaker Ed Laube. It was mostly heart that separated the two men; Laube was by far the better player, having sent Harold Worst to the rack once, but he was reliably reported to have trouble catching his breath over a $10 game. He was every bit as loud and unpleasant as Maples, but nowhere near as volatile, and the two made for quite a parlay as they waddled into the unfortunate room of their choice. Laube, backed by genuinely remarkable skills, would badger some poor sap into playing for $3; Maples would take a perfectly ordinary-looking game into combat for $30 or $300. But if the game was on the square, Maples was probably as dependable a money player as this city has ever seen. He died as he had generally lived, alone and miserable. Laube mellowed out and actually came to be pretty good company. Had the two men been somehow able to transplant their respective heart or talent into one another, there'd have been two plump world champions.
Heart is tough to analyze and just about impossible to quantify, and for every legend of a shortstop with more than his share, there's likely to be a corresponding one of a champion with less than his quota. The term "heart" itself is probably a misnomer, having at least as much to do with head as with the muscle that sloshes your blood all around your body. And when two good players get it on, the winner will almost surely be the player who concentrates best.
And if you're looking for something more certain than that about heart, it's this: Someday, somewhere, some time, you're going to be accused of not having any. Don't take it personally; you're in good company.
With about 20 million other players.