By George Fels
[Reprinted from March 1998]
The fact that you had to climb a flight of stairs to get there was only the first thing to like about Chicago's North Shore Billiard Club. Pool without stairs is like a hot dog without mustard, and besides, the place was permanently insulated against the ennui of watching recreational players hack away. Every patron in the room was good - very good - at something.
Which was, of course, exactly what part-owner Fred Bentivegna had in mind: the one place that legit road players would head for immediately when they hit town, just as they had to Bensinger's decades before. Virtually all the top black players in town were comfortable in that white room and neighborhood, a rarity in Chicago or anywhere else; the great John "Cannonball" Chapman even worked there, and Bugs Rucker and his personal Sancho Panza, the late Kenny "Romburg" Remus, were in the place incessantly. So was the personable high-roller called "Watusi Slim," whose praying-mantis build allowed him to reach clear across a pool table flat-footed to snatch up a cube of chalk on the opposite rail without hardly bending.
So, while Freddy may have envisioned himself center-stage in that high-powered pool arena, he was not even the best white player there. That mantle belonged to Artie Bodendorfer, whose demoralizing, suffocating-type one-pocket game was reminiscent of cuddling up to an anaconda. And with all that blood in the water, you just knew that would come next. Flyboy Spears, Cole Dickson, Jack Cooney, Bill Incardona and others all made North Shore their first stop, just as Freddy has prophesied, and four-figure scores became the norm.
The ongoing pinochle games were not necessarily sociable either, and yet with all that high-stakes action and the room's club status, which entitled it to stay open all night, North Shore was absolutely no hassles. That was partly because hasslers were subject to discussing their behavior with Freddy's low-profile partners, Phil Guagliardo and Bobby Wilkinson. In the club's first four or so years, no one chose that option, nor even remotely considered it. Beyond that, North Shore policed itself extremely well, barring moochers or gamblers who would not pay their debts; the equipment was stellar and the club was always spotless. Its logo, an ultra-classy pair of lions in top hats and formal dress, was commissioned and designed by peers of mine in the communications industry. It may have been conceived and built as a shrine to one-on-one gambling, but the North Shore Billiard Club was one class act.
I had my one plane on which to enjoy North Shore. While I do like to play pool for stakes within reason, I had not the time, cash nor talent for the club's top echelon of players. My main competition was my one and only pool buddy, Jack Gunne, when I could divert his attention from the pinochle, which was seldom. When his world began to blow up in his face, I remember the agony of trying to keep him interested in our pool or billiards games, because even a mishap as slight as scoring into the wrong half of the pocket, or off the wrong side of a ball, would bring all his frustration gushing out, and the game (and often his cue) had but a few minutes left to live. Mostly what I liked to do there was stop in on my way home from work and hit balls for 20 or 30 minutes. Most guys stop at a bar for a drink; my watering hole of choice posed zero threat to my liver.
Since that rationale played spectacularly poorly at home, I took an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance and introduced my wife and son, then about eight, to North Shore. She liked Freddy anyway, and while she could never endorse that level of gambling, she was impressed by how everybody did their best to watch their language around her. Still, I would whisk them away from the libertine vices of North Shore's main floor and take them up another flight of stairs, where the two of them could play 25 points of straight pool and I had a match I could sweat in utter bliss.
My son was blessed with hand-eye coordination far above average, and I had little trouble teaching him to pocket a few balls with an open-thumb bridge. Dale Fels, on the other hand, was cursed, by pool standards anyway, with an ample bosom and claimed that hindered her stroke, a problem I was at a total loss to solve. But she was a good natural athlete, too, and could sink a few occasional shots. Thus theirs was pretty much an even-up competition, except that all three of us were pulling for him to win. He was fiercely competitive even then, overjoyed to the point of giggles when ahead, sulking when behind, and every now and then all three of us could thrill to his sinking a tough out shot to win a close game. And we would leave North Shore gorged on the joyous elixir of fun, competition and love.
North Shore Billiard Club closed only because the partners got tired of working that hard. Bobby more or less disappeared; Phil and Freddy withdrew to other endeavors; and Mort Marzano oversees the attendants who park their cars. Jack Gunne is gone. That son is grown and living in another part of the country; and Dale is gone too. I've seen Hoppe play; I saw Mosconi many times; I've seen Bugs Rucker vs. Efren Reyes. And I'd trade every magical minute of all that in a blink for the chance to watch 25 points' worth of Dale Fels vs. Adam Fels one more time.
There's some small comfort in being smart enough - and lucky enough - to know what you have before you lose it. It isn't much. But it's something.