By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1993]
Nobody young seems to want to play it; and that might normally be considered a death knell for any game. But billiards isn’t just any game. And except for Harold Worst, way back in the early ’50s, the game has survived without much recruiting among callow youth for close to two generations. Its players seem to age gently, tribute to the game’s greatness in case further tribute is ever required, which looms unlikely.
If a player is to come to billiards seriously, chances are it will be a frustrated pool player who has delivered object balls to cushions instead of holes for too long. There might as well be some purpose in beating the rails to death, and billiards certainly offers you that. Yet, I can point you toward a good many players who hold the no-pocket game in even greater reverence than they did pool, who wonder aloud whatever kept them from coming over before (it was probably their youth), and who preach the gospel to strugglers such as I. “You’ll feel the same way, once you make the change.” They say, with tranquil understanding smiles, and I try not to remember that’s what the town told Becky and Miles in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
There are some real pool players who move to billiards, though, and maintain crucifying games in both. It’s well known that Greenleaf, Mosconi and Crane all played knockout billiards. Many latter-day and contemporary players do too, but under much lower profile. Larry “Boston Shorty” Johnson is the best known of these, and is rumored to have given up pool for billiards. But John Ervolino played just a whisper under Shorty, and managed to keep it fairly secret. Eddie Kelly did, too. Artie Bodendorfer, Chicago’s best one-pocket player, plays 3-cushion at close to .85. So does “Flyboy” Spears, and so do a whole flock of other players, many of whom get by merely by hitting the first object ball well. What’s more intriguing than how well they play is why they bother. There is almost no action; despite what “The Hustler” would have you think, billiards, unlike pool, produces hardly any pure-bred, non-playing suckers. (I still remember Shorty advising Chicago powerhouse Bill Smith, “Billiards against pool is like t’ousands against millions!”)
We had some marvelous billiards players right in my first room — the late Bill Romain and a Classic League bowler named Alfy Cohn, who was within a cuticle of Romain; and a patient old coot named Harry Lewis who was then 72, wore glasses, never hit the ball hard, knew whether he had scored immediately upon contact with the first object ball and was probably better than either Cohn or Romain. Watching them spew out eights and 10s with only slightly more effort than shooting craps warped my view of billiards somewhat. Their greatness wouldn’t dawn on me for years; I thought that was what you were supposed to do. Depriving oneself of the joy of scoring some ones and two every so often, because you think you’re supposed to be knocking off eights and 10s as though there were pool balls, is a masochistic exercise of rare degree.
You won’t find many poolroom clichés older than “Bums play pool; gentlemen play billiards.” Danny McGoorty echoed the cry in the wonderful book Robert Byrne fashioned of his life, and added that it was as true contemporarily as it was 50 years before. I’ll leave the first half of the equation alone, but I sure can vouch for the second half. One of the many factors that made downtown Chicago’s Bensinger’s one of the classiest rooms was its billiards trade, which flourished from roughly 11:30 until 2:00 on weekday afternoons. It was composed almost exclusively of white-collar men, and many are still perking right along today, unaware that I’ve been sharing their play and their love from a distance through parts of four decades. Ernie Presto, a billiards encyclopedia, has played every U.S. champion of the past 60 years. Marvin Goodman, a sprightly 78, is known and respected among billiardists from Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, there are others, and these are all the kind of impeccable gentlemen whom you’d want your kid to stand up for out of respect if they entered the room.
And most of all, there is Jose Diaz, my favorite player and just about everybody else’s. Joe has a voice approximately six octaves below middle C; had he gone into voice-talent work, he would need a staff of six just to microfilm his money. But it’s hard to conceive how any man could be any more comfortable than Joe is, simply with his family, work and billiards. When Joe Diaz laughed, it was routinely picked up on the Richter scale; and almost nightly you could anticipate at least one of those magnificent throaty burbles, stopping every game in the room and shaking old Mrs. Bensinger’s timelessly idiotic paintings on the wall. It wasn’t that anything particularly clever had been said to Joe, or that anything even mildly funny had come up in his game. He was just so happy to be there.
Joe Diaz plays a thoughtful, gentle game, much like the man himself; and his love for what he does is right there on the surface to be seen. The love lingers, too, in the noble little four-man, winner-take-all matches he occasionally sponsors with Ernie Presto, featuring the classic Luis Campos, Bill Smith and two other top Midwesterners. Joe and Ernie put up 40 percent of the pot themselves, for no greater joy than just watching their beautiful game played well. Neither man is rich, and billiards adds to their riches only spiritually. But how wealthy their game truly makes them. And how it keeps them young.
In one sense, billiards has no young players. Seen another way, it has nothing but.