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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.

Best of Fels
March: The Stakehorses
Mar 2016

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1986]

If one were to rank the creatures of this planet as to fickleness, the pool backer, or "stakehorse," would likely finish in the place position, just behind the Great White Shark. He is, however, in considerably greater demand.

Is there another form of gambler, businessman or any other high-life vertebrate willing to risk 100 percent of the losses in pursuit of 50 percent of the profits? You'd think every last one of them would have been escorted off, one by one, on the proverbial slow boat to China by now. Yet they keep coming, to surrender that ghastly proposition, the odds made even longer by the possibility that they can lose on the square or on the fleece. As more and more players won't, or can't, bet their own, more and more backers offer up important cash for a roll on the wheel of friendship and trust. That wheel has been know to wobble severely, and this cannot be discounted as a factor in the fickleness of the stakehorse as we now know him. Some stakehorses, though, have no difficulty climbing those mountainous odds to become consistent winners. One such shrewdie is Franklin Lovely of Indianapolis, more commonly known as Brown Man, who has nurtured such mortal locks as Steve Oaks and Buddy Hall through their baptism under fire in heavy action. "I take it down ever'where I gom" he says, genially. Raised on a farm in Ohio, Brown Man owns a bachelor's degree in Animal Husbandry from Ohio State, and - this is the part I like best - sharpened his skills as a judge of pool talent by judging cattle first. It gets even more bizarre than that; cattle-judging is so serious a discipline that that the judges actually compete at it as well as the cattle, and Franklin Lovely has proved himself a cattle judge of award-winning caliber. A state champion, in fact.

Like many backers, Brown Man is no great shakes as a player (I'm not sure he can beat me), and I suppose a part of all backers' willingness to gamble against constant odds of 2-1 has to do with their getting a lot of kicks vicariously through their players. If your guy slaps home a cross-corner bank the long way that you couldn't make once out of 20 tries, and you then share the winning bankroll with him, in a way you're sharing the bank shot, too. Next time you watch a stakehorse-sponsored match, I'll give you a sweat-bet on the side that the winning player's stakehorse shows a lot more animation than the player ever does. Now and then you can find serious backers who are total non-players; despite what you might think, their success records see few blemishes. When a stake was sought for a ballyhooed match between Johnny Ervolino and Fifth Avenue Red in New York years ago, most of the cash-raising credibility could be traced to a well-known bookmaker named Aaron, who declared his seed money in first. Liquid assets flowed after that; with Aaron in, Ervolino would not dare play less than his best. (He won, took his new bankroll to the track, and was back at the 711 the next night, looking for more backers.) A Florida shot-making wonder named Sam Blumenthal had a backer named Horace who just sat there with a paper bag of cash that apparently had not bottom. "Just keep bettin', Sam," Horace would grunt, and between the staggering weight of Horace's ever-increasing bets and Sam's missing a ball every third equinox, opponents either took apart their cues or risked cardiac arrest. The five-and-the-break was the standard offer to any human who came through the door at Horace and Sam's room. And takers were scarce.

Probably no player ever cultivated a more awesome backer than the New York shortstop and smartass Vince "Pancho" Furio. When Pancho played Chicago, nearly 20 years ago, somehow he got together with the late Felix Alderisio, a.k.a. Milwaukee Phil, a truly terrifying creature and a two-star general with The Outfit. Phil never smiled, not even when winning, but he still placidly subsidized Pancho for some $3000-a-game one-handed bank pool with Chicago's great Bugs Rucker. Milwaukee Phil seemed fond of Pancho's ability, perhaps because of their mutual Italian blood; and for his part, Vince played brilliantly and brought the cheese, perhaps because of his own fondness for breathing.

The most vicious scorn for pool backers comes, predictably, from old-timers who claim that the stakehorses have sired a whole new breed of pampered, over-cautious players. These critics are not altogether wrong, and their accuracy is keenest when they point out that today's pool player who will bet his own is one rara avis. "Wit'out backers, mosta these kids wouldn't bet fat meat was greasy," growled Minnesota Fats, who, whatever else you care to conclude about him, shunned sponsors all his days.

If there were any doubts as to the preeminence of the stakehorse, those doubts were dashed in 1976, when Jim Rempe's sponsor brought him to an Iowa tournament site astride a genuine horse. Lest anyone miss the point, the backer had stuffed cash into the saddlebags. Unfortunately, Rempe strolled over to the practice table, set up a break shot with cue ball in hand and ran 17 racks. His action thus became as attractive as your basic leper's, leaving his stakehorse with an ample supply of busted dreams and riding-stable bills.

It's a fragile business.