By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1989]
There’s no way to prove this, but I have a theory that says the inventors of pool had no notion whatsoever that one day the player of their game would run hundreds of balls with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.
On the other hand, those pioneers were not exactly pure of heart either. It’s almost certain that the very first forms of billiards were played for modest stakes almost as soon as they evolved, and it’s known that snooker came to be because a group of British naval officers figured out that more balls on the table meant more gambling possibilities.
Of course, you can still find purists who simply enjoy pool or billiards for the game itself and simply will not risk one penny above table time. But it’s cheap action that remains the real soul of the game over all those centuries.
The first pool game I ever gambled at was called “Pea Pool” in Chicago. It is called “Chicago” or “Pill Pool” almost everywhere else; we played it for a nickel on the other guy’s ball, a dime on your own, and even at that level, styles and personalities began to emerge. Some guys were sociable and showed sweators the numbers they had drawn, as though those numbers and only those had cracked a secret code and the game now was theirs no matter what. There were the secretive, who covered their peas and fanned the numbers out agonizingly, like poker players in a rigged game. Others feigned coolness by leaving their peas face down on the rail, exposing them one at a time whenever need be. And there were the super-cools, who left their peas not just face down on the rail, but under it, right on the playing surface, almost in kinship with the balls; the gesture seemed to say, “It’s only real players who belong down here.”
And not long after, we graduated to quarters and halves, and jacked up the straight pool and billiards stakes to $2 or $3, and we thought we were hot stuff. Especially when early visits to Chicago’s greatest room turned up almost the same percentage of players playing for $3 or less. The regulars in that marvelous room called Bensinger’s, for all that room’s reputation, were simply not into tough or high-stakes action that much. Instead, the grandiose hall offered lots of other sideshows.
One was the late Iz “Pony” Rosen, in reality a player with near world-class talent once, who addressed the cue ball exactly where he did not plan to hit it. It could make you nuts, watching him bend to a shot that you knew required right-hand draw, address the cue ball at seven o’clock, then hit at five o’clock anyway. Some of the old-timers called it “Pony’s whirl-pool.” Some said he did it so nobody could learn anything from him. But as Iz grew older, his technique became more and more pronounced, until his aim had so little to do with the cue ball that it looked like he was sleepwalking. “First time I ever played Pony,” recalls the marvelous Freddy Bentivegna, “I remember declaring to myself, ‘I am gonna win here … because this guy is not going to hit the cue ball.’” Nobody who remembers Pony today is quite sure how he pulled the whole thing off.
And there were Caroline and Highpockets, two wonderful old gents who played $2 one-pocket on the 10-foot tables exclusively. Each man played at the pace of the two-toed sloth; each played to the same strategy; regardless of score or point of the game, bunt as many balls as possible up to the wrong end of the table, where they can be picked off no more than one at a time. Any single game could go on for hours (or was it eras?).
Also, as Highpockets aged he tended to dodder a bit, and his typical response to any decent shot was “Wah-wah-wah!” No one knew quite what it meant, except that Hy was somehow affronted by his opponent’s fortune that inning. Carolina, by contrast, was quiet and studious at the game, so the only real commentary to be heard was the mysterious, “Wah-wah-wah!”
Carolina and Hy drew their own special crowd for their jousts, and no wonder; some of them could have been embalmed and some probably already were. On a nightly basis, Carolina’s and Hy’s sweators toppled off their benches in boredom like so many Humpty Dumptys. They brought a guy in to Bensinger’s once who had been in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” for not having slept through a night in 32 years and having a case of the hiccups for the last six, planted him in front of Hy and Carolina, and carried him out in five innings with a beautiful smile on his face, at long last deep in the arms of Morpheus. Aging pets in need of The Big Sleep were brought into sweat the one-pocket match, and those tiny souls drifted off to their maker licking the hands of those who ushered them out so soothingly.
The real joy of cheap action, of course, is that you never think of it as such while you’re involved in it. So what if others in the room are betting more or playing better? Your own private universe has been connected and interfaced with that of others; you get caught up in the competition and the gambling, and maybe even the companionship until you feel a glow that those who play for thousands might very well miss out on. I came to pool as a mediocre basketball player, and every single time I got lost mentally in cheap action, I saw myself as the spearhead of some otherworldly fast break, Cousy and Maravich and DiGregorio all in one, ready to go behind his back for the flashy score. Cheap action, as the name implies, keeps us active, tests new skills, fuels our dreams.
How much higher praise can there be?