By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 2002]
Joe Bachelor and Harry Paul had a great deal in common, in addition to their decades-old friendship and their both hailing from the famous New York poolroom, McGirr’s. Both were unmarried, although the ironically named Bachelor had gone that route three times. Both spent the lion’s share of their time playing alone. And neither played any form of pool other than 14.1, although Paul, an accomplished billiards players as well, would later switch to that game exclusively.
But their most intriguing commonality, by far, was that each man racked the balls by hand.
Not one at a time, either; they would gather the balls, whether 14 or all 15, into a triangle at the foot rail, shove the mass forward, and catch it perfectly in the racking area. They never missed. I never saw a single ball get away, and while neither man had a great deal to say, each declared that their peculiar technique was at least as efficient as racking conventionally.
The first time you observed the feat, it seemed like the basketball guard who goes behind the back when an ordinary chest pass would do just fine, or the card player who rifles the deck into two “fans” in shuffling and then cuts them himself one-handed. But those are show-off stunts, without much functionality to them. Bachelor and Paul not only caught all the balls, but achieved perfect racks into the bargain, thus metamorphosing into walking, talking Sardos a full three generations before their time.
Bachelor was easily the better pool player of the two, a true master who knew precisely where each object ball was going out of a closed-rack break shot. He claimed that the immortal Mosconi himself used to spot him no more than 20 points going to 125, for the money. But that was an off claim, given that the near-universal book on Bachelor was that he could not gamble, nor even compete in tournaments, at all. And as if in confirmation, he would not bet a dime, nor even play for table time. He would play sociably, if asked, but the real magic was in watching him practice. Joe Bachelor played only with his personal set of well-polished balls, seemingly making his racking accomplishment all the more remarkable; it was a fairly safe bet that he would run a hundred before quitting. He worked the four-to-midnight shift at Bensinger’s, then played alone from 12 to 2 a.m., and more than once I sacrificed weeknight sleep to watch him.
Paul, on the other hand, was merely very good. But his stroke production was nearly as distinctive as Bachelor’s mastery, an elegant, flowing move that resembled the bowling of a violin far more closely than a pool stroke. While he was nobody’s patsy, he did have Milquetoastish looks, what with his rimless glasses and silver hair; although he made his living driving a cab, he looked a lot more like the clerk whom one forgets to introduce to his business associates. Between his meek appearance and his racking by hand, Harry Paul quite innocently pissed off just about every hustler in the place. Like his friend Bachelor, Paul would compete only if asked first; quite unlike Bachelor, he would play only for money. One night Ray Maples, a plump vicious oaf with an even fatter mouth but a solid money player, committed the grave indiscretion of calling Paul a “fun player” within earshot.
“Really?” Paul commented mildly. “What did you want to do, besides run your mouth?”
Maples angrily suggested a hundred points for a hundred dollars; in my seven years of hanging around the downtown Bensinger’s, that was the largest single bet in anyone’s memory. Paul, surprising everyone, calmly posted his half of the stakes, and in the coin flip preceding the first game, Maples widened the rift between them by insisting unnecessarily that Paul rack by using the traditional rack rather than by hand. From there, Paul did little to endear himself to his foe, beating the bejabbers out of him four straight times. No game lasted more than a few innings, and the closest Maples ever got was 0-0. “Take the money,” he muttered after game four, without apologizing for mouthing off; instead his seldom seen humility took the form of telling the same story on himself several years later. It was a rare, rare night for those of us who insist on rooting for the underdogs of life.
When Bensinger’s closed its downtown incarnation in 1961, Bachelor relocated to San Francisco, where he eked out an existence giving cheap lessons and working behind the counter of that city’s famous Palace Billiards until his death 10 years later. Paul, when I last asked, was still alive and well in the North Hollywood area. But I remember them both most vividly for the way they racked the balls. Far more than being flashy, the maneuver was evocative of an era when it was still possible for me to survive, if barely, by loitering in poolrooms night and day, patiently waiting for the suckers, many of whom were their regular customers. Just as the legendary Don Willis learned to study the floor of a poolroom and make proposition bets on which way the balls would roll on that floor, racking by hand is the kind of thing you simply can’t learn unless you have great, great quantities of time on your hands.
Today, just about every major American city has at least one poolroom where you can walk in as a total stranger and still get a money game. But those rooms are populated by far younger men than those in the Bensigner’s era, very few hang out for endless hours without activity, and of course nobody racks by hand. Try it sometime, when you have nothing better to do. You have my firm assurance that your first attempts will have you looking, and feeling, like a genuine schmuck. Trust me. I know.