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.
Best of Fels
April: Odds & Ends, Mostly Odds
Each of us is said to accumulate 30 million facts over the course of a lifetime.
• As the star of his California high-school golf team, John Schmidt actually went head-to-head with a promising young contemporary named Tiger Woods. (You needn’t ask how he did.)
• As the star of his Missouri high-school cross-country running team, Danny Harriman was national-class.
• Nick Varner’s college classmates at Purdue included basketball icon Rick Mount and, closer to home, pool trick-shot star Paul Gerni.
• Pool instructor nonpareil Fran Crimi was one year behind Jerry Seinfeld in college (Queens College, N.Y.), not that there’s anything wrong with that. Torturing the same metaphor a step further, she has also given pool lessons to ex-baseball great Keith Hernandez. Whether or not he subsequently asked her to help him move is unclear.
• Crimi played the accordion when younger. Not only did she master the requisite “Malaguena,” “Lady of Spain,” and “Tico Tico,” but she spent extensive time interpreting the wistful ’70s ballad, “I’ve Got A Brand-New Pair of Roller Skates,” and its elusive francato tempo.
• The most talented pool player/musician, however, has to be the late Gene Nagy. Not only did he study at New York’s fabled Julliard School of Music for about a year, but he was poised to become lead trumpet in that school’s symphony orchestra when pool came calling.
• The only college degree-holder really active in American men’s pro pool today is Max Eberle (James Madison). With the Seniors’ Tour having lapsed, Dick Lane (Oklahoma University) doesn’t have a lot of competing to do. And Washington State’s Dan Louie, like Eberle a former intercollegiate champion, can only play a few events a year because of health problems. (He scared his friends by swooning at the 2007 U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship.)
• Tiffany Nelson holds a black belt in the martial art of tae kwon do; Kelly Fisher has the equivalent in kung fu. The most accomplished male players along similar lines are probably Tony Annigoni (aikido) and C. J. Wiley, who studies an obscure art with a private instructor.
• Dan’s Fantastic Fours: The venerable player/analyst Dan DiLiberto has won prestigious titles in all four of pool’s major disciplines. So have several others, of course — but not in part of four different decades, as Dan did. Nobody else ever has. Dan has also fathered children in parts of four different decades, and is one of those rara avises who have played four sports professionally (pool, bowling, baseball at the AA minor-league level, and 12 wins, 2 draws, and 0 losses as a 135-lb. boxer named, for no real reason, Kid Torrance). It was only a case of the dreaded “glass hands” — he broke them twice, and risked losing use of them — that shut down his fighting career.
• DiLiberto is not the only pool player to flirt with major-league baseball. Noted hustler “Brooklyn Jimmy” Cassas, discovered playing ball in the Navy, went to AA ball as a strong-armed pitcher. Jack “Jersey Red” Breit was drafted out of a Police Athletic League by the New York Yankees, and went all the way to AAA before getting hurt. Legendary manager Leo Durocher played some tournament pool as a young man; so did the Dodgers’ Walter Alston. But none can top Johnny Kling, our 1909 world continuous-pool champion (no, smart-mouths, I wasn’t there to see him win). Not only is the great and extremely rare Brunswick table model named for him, but he was the starting catcher in that same era for the very last world-championship team the Chicago Cubs ever fielded. In the modern era, pitchers Dean Chance (who was actually a buddy of the legendary Don Willis) and the late “Bo” Belinsky got far more ink for their pool interests than either man deserved; neither could run a rack.
• Hall of Famer Dallas West is one of 15 children. He credits his parents’ prolific tendencies for his being able to quit school early and play pool full-time. “They really lost track of where the hell I was,” he says.
• Talk about naturals: The first time Allen Hopkins ever touched a cue, or so he attests, he ran 12. Old-timer Joe Bachel did Hopkins one better, running the entire table on his very first try and subsequently getting in a fight with his buddies, who thought he was hustling them. (Gee, I wonder why.) And the late Al “New York Blackie” Bonife, one of the finest 9-ballers New York ever produced, didn’t even start playing until his early twenties!
• Eat Your Heart Out Dept.: Cuemaker Bill Stroud once quit pool for two years — mainly so he could teach skiing — yet was back in stroke, by his own account, within five hours. The late Johnny Ervolino took several such leaves, but, largely owing to his extremely compact stroke, regained top form even more quickly than Stroud. The all-time comeback story goes to the late Joe Balsis, who went on a 17-year hiatus to work for his father-in-law — then returned to become a world champion within two.
• Dumbest Single Thing I Ever Heard Around Pool Dept.: You may have a story to top this, but at least you’ll have had a decent run for your dough. A local single-mom player, who shall remain nameless (although that’s far better than she deserves), used to leave her two small daughters with their grandmother for up to six months a year — so she could run off to Arizona, where she somehow existed as a bar-pool groupie of sorts. Her rationale? “I really just can’t deal with being cold.” Ignoring for the moment the parental aspects of her lifestyle, I once attempted to point out that one of her favorite players was a human slug whose IQ could very likely be measured in single digits. “I know,” she sighed, “but he sure can play that bar-box 8-ball.” At which point I gave up.