[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 April 1984]
You wouldn't want to sit on a hot stove waiting to find someone who loves the cue games more than I do. Still, somewhere along the way in this 30-plus-years romance, some pragmatic folks have pointed out that for all my love, I don't profit very much at it, and that's valid enough if numbers is all you look at. I guess we all store our own personal stashes of "ifs" in life, and, "If I had made pool my life instead of my game," is a dominant strain of fantasy in my collection.
Actually, there was a time when I was right at the edge of that, back in the '60s, when I was still competitive enough to tour Chicago's playable rooms looking for medium-priced action. At the height of my competitive game, I think you might charitably have lumped me in with the rest of Chicago's top 100, or even 50, and we all pretty much knew who the others were. And if we could find no soft customers, we didn't mind playing each other. It sounds memorable now, but curiously, Chicago has very few of the same breed anymore, and, in fact, has probably produced fewer road players per capita than any other major city.
So I do feel a remote kinship with full-time players, and I generally get along with road players several notches more comfortably than I do with a lot of white-collar categories. The first road player I ever got to talk to in any depth was Cole Dickson, and I met him at the pluperfect time to meet him - right in the glory days of the Jefferson Airplane and "Free Angela Davis!" and the flowers in your hair (if you had any hair), and all that. Reid and Marino surfaced around then, too, and both were called "Hippie Jimmy" in their time. But Cole Dickson could have given either one of them the seven-and-the-crack when it came to pure, unadulterated hippieness. There was the authenticity of his hometown -San Francisco, of course - and he wore his hair at Buffalo Bill length, cussed out his elders with roaring energy, and was generally a fresh-faced introduction of yet another subculture into the game. And since I was still not quite 30, I had a measure of his respect. Even at 17, Cole Dickson traveled with a well-oiled ball glove in his pickup bag, and you only needed to see him hit a single pool ball to discern the supple, fluid hands of a real athlete. Cole would bet important money that he could cleanly field any ball batted or thrown within reach, thereby turning an innocent game of catch into a serious gambling proposition. He's become one of the best 9-ball players in America since, and I run into him every few years. I don't ask about his fielding anymore; he's a married family man and working stiff (dealing cards in Carson City), and besides, he's past 30 himself!
Yet, as much as I like road players, I only envy them partially. I can see the call-of-the-open-road romance in what they do - after all, they're mere modern extensions of the Old West gunslingers, and that's a legend few can resist. And maybe they're even a fair representation of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills of pure chance with an arsenal of inlaid two-piece lances, nicknames, reputations and true grit. And I tried playing the role for just one weekend myself, when the National Guard had plunked me down in an obscure camp in Minnesota, and I used a weekend pass to play-act the hustler in Minneapolis. I played a long-since-gone downtown room called the Lincoln, or something or other, picking it out of the Yellow Pages, because it was the only one in boldface type. And I won enough to pay my tab at a clean hotel and a steak dinner, too. I've been a Chicagoan all my life - never lived in the 'burbs, never even lived in a house - and, according to my birth sign (Cancer), I'm supposed to be a homebody. But I'm just about twice the age I was then, and that weekend still seems like a very special adventure in my life, with its clean thrill of self-sufficiency.
But once you get past the socioeconomic reasons for my not going full-time, I admit to being good and intimidated by the prospective loneliness of it all, and most traveling players confirm that I get that part right. Road pool is like a fluffy cloud, pretty from far off, nothing really there when you need something to fall back on. I think back to "Wimpy" Lassiter's poignant quote, "You lie in a hotel bed waiting for a call back, hotel bill eats you to death," and I feel the bare walls and naked light bulb and beyond that, to the ache of hopelessness. Marriages do not take well among the top road players; even the live-in relationships seem to be short-lived. When the game absorbs a young man, too often it sucks away his personality as well, and his world implodes into a poolroom-bleak, boring recitation of action places and players and the resulting scores, all money long since spent. And nobody, but nobody, talks about their losers.
Not long ago, I came across a solid, respected road player I had met in Chicago a few years before. Call him Steve. Ironically, I saw him on the very weekend he was planning to chuck it all and go to work. "I'm 41 now," he said. "I've been out there 10, 12 years. That's plenty. The action was fantastic! Five-hundred-a-game action twice a week; I beat a guy outta sixty grand. But can I go to the bank and say, 'I can draw my ball; now can I buy that house?' They don't wanna hear that. All those years - and all that money won - and what do I come home with? A paid-up Cadillac and a girl who wants to marry me. And that's it." So he was going to work selling cars. I pointed out some similarities in his past and future occupations, wished him well and advised him to count his blessings. Lots of road players limp home with lots less.
Not long after, I heard Steve had quit his job, booked some losers, hocked his Szamboti and announced the car would be next. So the game had won out again. Somehow or other, the game always wins. How come nobody understands that that's the only sure thing out there?