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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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December: George and Sam
December 2015

By Sam Fels

[Sam Fels is George's youngest son and works as a writer as well, forever ill-fitting in George's suit.]


Until I was about 12 years old, or until I started going to bed after my father (and given my entrance into teenage years and his aging, those two lines passed quickly on the Venn diagram), I fell asleep to the sound of clicking pool balls. It probably wouldn't be the material for one of those CDs, like calming ocean or forest sounds. And it certainly wouldn't be when it was George who was making those pool balls click, because every so often that clicking was accompanied by what I'd call "vocabulary expansion." Some of it was quite creative. Where else would you have heard the screamed phrase, "Where are you going, you albino fool?" What was on the other side of the spectrum was almost always followed by a "George!" from my parents' bedroom, where my mother sensed that her husband's late-night expletives were sending her precious young son down the wrong path (and rightly so). Maybe that's why I don't sleep all that well now, either because I don't have the soothing rhythm of clicking pool balls and their journey down the ball return, or I miss the swear words, which is infinitely more frightening.

My brother and I used to joke that in the list of priorities of Dad's life, it went: 1. Pool Table. 2. Dog. 3. Kids. (If you knew the beagle, that ordering would make some sense.) Of course it wasn't true, but I wouldn't be terribly upset if it were, as the pool table was essentially the only reason anyone wanted anything to do with me for at least the first part of high school and probably much longer than that. You'll take what you can get when you're a gawky looking doofus who weighs about 90 pounds, as I did in my mid-teenage years.

Obviously, pool became more than my nighttime soundtrack. Whether I knew it or not, I would pick up the game in my own house because it was basically foretold that I would. I don't know that I was terribly excited to start playing, but was there ever really a choice? Subliminally, George had been planting it in my head since the crib.

(Apparently a crib I used to regularly launch myself out of, which explains a lot. That act's greatest sin was probably interrupting another good run of balls from Dad, when I invariably failed to stick the landing.) I look back and I wonder how much George faked his outrage at my tantrums at missed shots when I first started playing. Surely he recognized the behavior, which is probably what upset him most. I broke a cue or two, but that phase passed quickly. I pretty much figured out it was always a game that was going to vex you, and that torturous aspect is almost certainly what drove every Fels to it.

Dad played me left-handed when I first started, and I still don't know if he did it because he enjoyed playing with his son or he just enjoyed the chance to get better on his opposite hand. It was probably equally both. Somewhere around the time I was 14 or 15, maybe earlier, I could beat him while he played southpaw. Not every time, maybe not even consistently, but every two of five, or approaching half the time. It wasn't long after that, without any announcement, Dad started playing me right-handed. Just walked up and shot normally, making it clear that indeed the boulder had rolled back down Sisyphus's hill and I would have to climb again to be competitive. And any missed shot from me, no matter how many balls Dad had left, was always greeted with him telling me through a sinister grin, "Nice game, Son." And then he would run out and I would start this Herculean and almost certainly futile task again.

Dad took a unique joy in beating his sons. I can't quite describe it. Only once after I was a child did all three of us play in a poolroom. In my early 20s, Dad and I went to visit my brother in New York and we hit up a pool hall near the Village in the afternoon. George spent the next two hours beating our skulls in Cutthroat, and gleefully so. Dad would run his balls out, and run around the table, cackling, "Rack 'em again, boys!" It had been at least a decade since I'd seen my father run anywhere, so the excitement of turning his kids into burger in public must've been more gratifying than I could possibly imagine.

As life moved on and I played away from the house and Dad, I always felt like I still had to carry the family name and crush whoever I was up against. I stopped playing regularly, so that became harder and harder to do. It used to be when I was invited to a table at a friend's or at a bar, one of my companions would say, "Oh, you don't want to play with him, his Dad is like a pro." It took too long to explain what George actually did, and the compliment certainly sounded cool then. (Though now, as more and more of my friends have seen my father's writing, his stature is even more impressive.) That stopped when it was clear I didn't contain anywhere near his skill anymore. And when I couldn't say to an opponent, "Nice game, Son," with balls still on the table, confident I was going to run them out as he had done hundreds of times to me, I felt as though I was letting our last name down. Maybe Dad was just training us to take revenge out on the world. In pool and in writing, George is a ghost I will always chase.

Obviously, there are many things I could talk about when it comes to George Fels. It would take up this whole issue if I tried. I hope, like me, that when you think back on George, even if it's just from this column space for so many years, you just laugh. That's what he'd want. Through that sinister grin. (Though more than one female friend/ex-girlfriends of mine described it as a winning smile, and George was all too eager to agree with them). And sometimes, late at night, I can still hear the clicking balls. And if I really focus, every so often it's interspersed with, "How can you do that to me?" It's a strange, but total comfort.



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