By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 1986]
It has been pointed out, accurately if unnecessarily, that losers do not get the credit they deserve; without them, after all, there would be no winners. (I may have said that myself.)
If thereís a flaw in that logic, itís that very few losers take proper pride in their role. Ever hear a road pool player talk about a loser he booked? I wouldnít tread water waiting until you do, either. And, Freud to the contrary, most pool players I know who do lose would lots rather win. The various expressions of that exact sentiment can be very creative.
At the very darkest end of the spectrum, thereís no question that billiard cues have occasionally been graduated from instruments of touch and precision to weapons of assault and even murder. Ugliness goes down far more often in bars than in commercial rooms. Most pool is played in bars these days, almost never sociably, and liquor and gambling go together like blood and sharks. It might not be the exchange of money itself that foments the explosion; the vagaries of 8-ball rules, or conflicts over cue ball fouls, for instance, are amply volatile when cash rides on the outcome. But cash is usually the ultimate villain.
On the other hand, I donít play bar pool, and I was nearly killed over a pool game once. Whatís more, I canít even become a stiff-spined moralist and directly blame my woes on gambling either; no money changed hands. I had split four games of straight pool, at three dollars per. I paid my share of the time and was walking silently away from my opponent when he did his best to brain me. To this day I have no idea why.
But pool tantrums generally have a much lighter side to them, and cues more often than not are not so much weapons as victims. Iíve seen the handiwork of the gameís greatest wandmakers, right up to Balabushka, turned to driftwood by disgruntled losers, and sometimes even by practice players. Now my slate here is not quite so clean; Iíve confessed to my own cue-busting days in print before. When I was competing regularly, I had a pool buddy named Jack Gunne, with whom I played far more often than anybody else, and we regularly drew sweators who cared not so much about who would win as who would first change a cue into flotsam. When Jack and I would run out of shafts ó assuming we were lucky enough not to splinter the butts too ó we were reduced to house cues, and weíd routinely select slews of six or eight sticks apiece before entering combat, in the manner of tennis starts taking Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Occasionally, the six or eight would be enough to see us through a session.
Now given my voluminous experience, I can tell you that a mangled cue, unlike physical mayhem, is not the direct result of blowing the cheese. It has far more to do with anger at oneself, and overloading of emotional circuits to the point of an explosion that whites out all logic. I have never in my life whacked a rail while thinking about money or anything anywhere near that rational; my point is just the opposite ó that the act takes place quite without thinking at all. Iíve always prided myself on being a reasonably smart guy ó not remarkably, but reasonably ó and I state in all candor that Iíve never felt more like the village idiot than I did when my so-called senses returned and I found myself with a severely circumcised cue in hand. And one day I stopped, not that I can tell you exactly when or how. I just stopped. There are those who claim I havenít been the same player since.
But while Iíve outpaced a lot of guys when it comes to sheer volume of lumber, I rate myself a piker as to outburst imaginativeness. We used to have a local player named Harold Johnson, whose demonstrations were recounted and exchanged among those who knew him with few repeating the same story twice. Road players would gather to watch Hal play and see what new fables of temper might arise, for comparison with and/or addition to their existing collections, like scholars sifting the sonnets of Donne. Hal had a level of talent that partially justified his sensitive temperament; in stride, he gave players like Joey Spaeth and Dallas West fits. But his share of immortality will forever accrue to his being off-form, not on.
Perhaps because I understood Hal Johnsonís problems of self-control better than most, I gave him very little grief and even felt sorry for him. Similarly, I have a tough time choosing between these three splendid Johnsonian descents into hell. See what you think:
1. He broke an opponentís cue once. Iíve never heard anything else like this in 30 years, but there were witnesses. (The opponent, a practical fellow, responded by breaking Haroldís too. Quid pro quo.)
2. In an inversion of the victory dance that scoring football players do in the end zone, Hall Johnson danced on the table in defeat. His purpose was not the betterment of terpsichorean science, but the kicking of the offending balls. (You could hardly expect him to take the balls on barehanded; Harold was expert at billiards, not martial arts.)
3. The kamikaze sprint. (This one gets a lot of votes, from many quarters.) Harold seized his cue in mid-shaft with both hands, pointed it at his breastbone, and, with rich primal scream, dashed into the nearest wall. Just how many things he wanted to break remains unclear.
Winning isnít just more fun than losing. Itís considerably cheaper. And much, much better for you.