[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 June 1996]
They were, in their respective ways, two minor legends; and even though the three-cushion billiard bets between them rarely exceeded $5, the mystique that surrounded their colliding added lustrous sheen to their games.
Bill Romain, the greatest schoolyard basketball player my part of town had ever produced (barely 6'1", he was offered a tryout with the NBA's old Chicago Stags at age 18), and a billiards player so sophisticated he did not even seem to be playing the same game as the rest of the room's patrons.
vs. Charlie Kimmel, whom the immortal Red Smith had already praised as "the world's greatest man on a scoreboard," and who claimed to have once played 50-or-no-count straight pool at Bensinger's. In an era when $2 or $3 a game was fairly serious action, Charlie Kimmel covered every side bet available for his contests with Bill Romain, but rarely won a game.
The world had not quite discovered rock music or James Dean. I was 15 and already the best pool player in my crowd, yet surrounded with steady action. It was, all things considered, really not a bad time to be alive.
I had a special interest in Romain even before I discovered that poolroom: my collection of the best-of-categories had already begun, and all three coaches at my high school agreed Romain was the finest pure talent they had ever seen. But the praise usually came soured by solemnity; Bill Romain was in and out of school, actually played in just one exhibition game as a varsity player, didn't even graduate with his class, and, characteristically, turned the pro tryout down.
Of course, he was also the best billiards player any of us had ever seen, because none of us had been around very long and would not have recognized real talent if we had. He probably played somewhere around .85 or .90 on tired, old equipment, not that we had any concept of that statistic back then; and while he delivered a stroke that seemed like a funny wrist-flick to our naive eyes, what he was secretly exploiting was the "stroke up" technique many advanced players use to help them create shorter angles. Thus, his game looked like no one else's, either in execution or results, one of the shallow symptoms of greatness. The fact was, while he would go on to play the feared Larry "Boston Shorty" Johnson to a standstill in the mid-'60s and finish third in the 1971 nationals, that was all decades hence; and while we could only sense his greatness, rather than have any real knowledge of it, we were not far from wrong.
Romain didn't look like anyone else on the basketball court, either. My seeing him play was limited to the annual slaughter in which my high school varsity began their season by offering their throats to an alumni squad, plus league ball in the local park district. He could have been called the Lloyd Daniels of his time, with the same gangly build, a jump shot on which he barely elevated, and excessive use of the no-look passbut this was the early '50s, for Lord's sake, even before Cousy, and nobody but the Globetrotters played like that.
On the other hand, Charlie Kimmel's heyday was something we could only take his word for. He legitimately belonged in my modest collection of "greatests", not only because of the Red Smith laurel, but because I was certain I would never encounter anyone else in his category again. For scores of years, Charlie Kimmel was employed by the Professional Golf Association to tend the scoreboards on the grounds of its most prestigious tournaments, and he did so in a gorgeous, flowing, Old-English hand, lending that noble game even more of the grandeur it deserved. In golf's off-season, he simply turned that same skill to hand-engraved wedding invitations and other calligraphy, which left him ample time for pool and billiards. He played each pristinely, with a sense of speed that let him deliver pool balls to the lips of pockets, where they would tremble before falling, or score thee- and five-cushion billiards so softly as to not disturb the third ball more than a ball's width of movement.
His involvement with the game, especially billiards, was as exotic to us as his skill. Charlie's eyes would grow as the cue ball approached the final object ball, and he would peer goggle-eyed over those impending balls until it appeared that four orbs were about to collide, two on green cloth, two hovering closely above in space as though to "beam up" the first two. The closer the miss, the more Charlie's eyes would bug, and he probably suffered more misses-by-a-quark than any player in this galaxy.
He was neither the player nor gambler that Romain was to begin with and, on top of that, his luck was nightmarish. Yet he would still point at you dramatically as you asked in on the side action, narrow an eye and speak the word, "Bet!" as though it were a classic oration. Then his eyes would bulge for a while, he would hitch colorfully but quietly, and pay off.
And as we all marveled at how easily we had won side bets from Charlie Kimmel, he went home in gorgeous clothes and a new Cadillac to a woman he adored all his life, paid his taxes, played with his grandchildren and lived to be close to 90. Romain, our mortal cinch and champion of our score, was divorced at least three times, was perpetually broke or close to it, staggered in and out of mediocre sales jobs most of his adult life before backing into a decent living as a Las Vegas croupier, and was just getting a bona fide career launched in casino management when a heart attack took him at 50.
But who can tell you anything when you're in your mid-teens with money in your pocket? "Gotta bet Romain," we'd agree clandestinely, as Romain and Kimmel got together one more time. "He's a lock. He's a winner."