By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1990]
Ultimately, we're all junkies. The addiction may be positive, legal and even healthy; it may be not quite; it may be quite not. We might be up-front about it; me may hide it behind elaborate fronts. But it's still even money that even the most upright, puritan, shorts-with-lots-of-starch-but-never-a-stain person you know has one unshakeable habit or another. Our personal addictions are by far the highest-octane fuel of our lives; there is no treatment; withdrawal can be fatal.
My private jones that I'm willing to go public with, other than pool, is praise. The latter came first, naturally, at about age two weeks; and as hopeless an approval junkie as I always was, the parlay of praise and pool playing has generally been uncashable, no matter how I box it. That's as it should be; what's to praise? I beat on the rails as though I was Chuck Norris; I need a defibrillator for action involving $10 or more; like many of us, my playing is a factious fraction of my knowledge; I approach my true playing potential once every seventeenth Michaelmas.
So my insatiable drive for approval has generally had to be filled in arenas other than the poolroom. But some months ago, when I relieved a suburban room's fat fat-mouth of $5 (only to have him snap the fin from the very kid I was trying to redeem), I finally wore the pool hero's mantle. And sure enough, the time arrived when I was ready for another fix.
Beefyface was easy to find, and the game even easier to make: 75 points for the dreaded $10. But in preparing not just for the score but the adulation as well, I had armed myself with a hustler's arsenal that would do Schwarzenegger proud: a Sneaky Pete cue and, far sneakier and an almost pristine, ivory cue ball.
The cue ball switch, well-rehearsed and even better thought out, was a bit easier than you might think. It simply involved storing the bogus rock in the ball rack nearest the return. If I did scratch, and I saw to it that I did, slipping him the ball was easy enough; when he scratched, which was inevitable, I took the plastic cue ball back. The switch was covered by standing close enough to the table to hump it (if need be), and, of course, my customary rich inventory of one-liners.
Our initial audience was the same teen Milquetoast with whom I'd had that unspeakable empathy before, the cherub who refused a refund of his $5 with the cheery, "Bleep no, Mister; it was worth every penny." This time, we promoted him to stakeholder. Beefyface told me his real name was Biff; he'd have done better not to tell me at all. Thus equipped with both material and audience, I put my back, as The Who say, into my livin'.
"You oughta go into junk jewelry, Stiff," I advised sincerely, retrieving yet another of his scratches. "You missed that ball by half a genuine diamelle, with cubic zirconium centerstone." Milquetoast howled helplessly. Biff growled, "Comedian," and added, "It's Biff."
"Thirteen in the corner, Jiff," I continued. "Funny, I always thought that was a peanut butter."
"Biff," he insisted. "And that's another thing. You don't have to call the obvious shots."
"Whatever you say, Biff. Orange stripe, down there." The crowd was forming; teenaged smiles were sprouting like popcorn.
"Shoulda seen Biff draw his stone off four rails," announced our stakeholder, growing quickly into the role of Town Crier. "'Course, he missed the ball by a genuine diamelle!" The kid learned fast; I'll give him that.
"Naw, I didn't hit that one good," Biff sneered, obviously pleased with these early tremors of praise. "Think I can't suck my stone? The Biffer sucks like Electrolux!"
The carnage continued. "Know what you oughta do for your game, Riff?"
"It's Jiff!" he yelled. "I mean Biff! No, I don't know. What should I do for my game?"
"Take up chess."
The sweators were three-deep by now and roaring; if my patter were to go slack, they still had my new Town Crier to turn to for analysis. Shtick in stereo.
And the thing was, it wasn't him I was really mad at. I was just using him to get even with the superannuated jackanapes who did the same thing to me 35 years before. I didn't even care about the money; it was being laughed at I couldn't handle. Now I had a chance to gorge on the giddy feeling of just once being the fooler rather than the fooled.
Biff slapped home a six-incher and drew the rock the length of the rail for his sixth scratch. "How is this lad with the golden stroke?" he crowed in glory.
"You sure stroked your rock that time, Biff," Milquetoast threw in. "Whaddya losin' by now? Forty?"
There was no need to run balls even in double digits. Make a few, scratch at will, palm the cue ball. Besides, Beefyface's pride in his newly found cue ball dynamics was selling like snakebite; he had added a double-reverse slip-stroke, throwing his cue into the ball like a jointed javelin.
The final score was 75-28, and he loved every ball of it. "Pay the table, Biff," I gently advised. "And now that I see how you can really hit 'em, I'm not going to play again unless I get a spot!" It was the centerpiece of my tacky tactics; Brooklyn Jimmy would have been very proud.
"So, whaddya need?" Biff asked. He was rapidly becoming one of your more agreeable bullies. Once again, the bastard was going unpunished, except for one of the sweeter sawbucks of this millennium.
When our game pays, it really pays.
Anything for praise.