By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 1990]
In the summer of 1989, speaking before the BCA Hall of Fame banquet and Mike Sigel’s induction, I mauled the noble Greek myth of Sisyphus almost beyond recognition. I feel bad about that, and as the only son of Jewish parents, I already have far more guilt than I can handle.
So I’d like to balance the books somewhat by setting another Grecian myth straight. It’s been foisted upon the masses — at least, those six or seven who know it — far too long now, and it’s a complete crock. Or, in Grecian terms, perhaps “urn” would be more appropriate.
This, then, is the myth of Tantalus. It carries no heavy-duty moral of relevance to pool or anything else, and indeed its only contribution to our culture today is the word “tantalize.”
What the myth would have you believe is that Tantalus, like Sisyphus, was a friend to Zeus. Everyone knows who Zeus was, either from my speech or some other Classic; Zeus is the “Z” in Shazam, thus his contribution to Captain Marvel as we know him today is inestimable.
The thing about Zeus was, nothing good happened to people who hung out with him. In that sense, Zeus was something of the Andy Warhol of his time. And like Warhol, Zeus was a social gadabout, forever throwing Olympian feasts and parties on all the trendy mounts. Tantalus wanted in on that action, and Zeus agreed to take him under his wing. “Come on up, kid,” he said. “You’ll see how The Beautiful People live; make a few contacts; you might even get lucky.”
Tantalus took to life in the fast lane at once, and even aspired to be the same kind of host. Soon he was ready to throw a party of his own, and he invited his new Olympian friends up to Mt. Society. It’s at this point that the myth asks for your giant leap of faith; like many finicky hosts, Tanty grew anxious over whether there would be enough food. So he carved up his teenage son, Pelops, and added him to the stew. Now Pelops, like many young Grecians, was fairly muscular; somebody bit into one of his chiseled deltoids, cracked a crown, and there was hell to pay.
The court looked askance at Tantalus’ new version of ground beef extender. He was sentenced to hang for all eternity from a special branch of a special tree. Beneath him was a pond of clear cool water, above him ripe, juicy fruit. If he tried to lower himself to drink, the water would recede and turn to mud; if he tried to raise himself to eat, the food would withdraw, as fruits often do.
What a crock. (Rather, what an urn!)
Here’s what really went down.
Tantalus played a little one-pocket. Oh, he might go for some last-pocket or Alabama 8-ball too, both thinking games; Tanty liked to have his edge. And he truly was tough action for 10 drachmas or less.
One night he was hanging out in Greece’s finest room, The Pillars of Pool, when in strolled a handsome yuppie and his date. The date was ravishing, in a pleated white mini-toga and matching mini-boots. She played well enough, she enjoyed her game immensely. But alack and alas, the poor miss hadn’t been taught the proper use of the mechanical bridge.
Well! Imagine, if you will, the consternation and befuddlement to befall the room upon the very first unreachable shot confronting the woman.
Tantalus, for his part, did what any thinking pool player would do; he first obtained an advantageous angle. Then he became fumble-fingered with his pet piece of chalk and took his own ultra-sweet time picking it back up. He couldn’t quite make out the young women’s collarbone, but apart from that, she had no secrets left.
As he returned to his seat, trying to collect himself in more ways than one, the yuppie approached him somewhat contentiously.
“Odds bodkins, sir! Did I observe you staring at my woman friend’s knees?”
“Why, no,” replied Tantalus, in truth. “I had no interest whatsoever in your woman friend’s knees.”
“Well then, sir,” said the yuppie, “I think you’d better stand up, so we can have this out man to man.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that just yet,” Tanty apologized. “But if you will give me a few minutes to get myself together here, just between us guys…”
“No good, sir!” the yuppie protested piteously. “Either thou art mightily pleased to see my woman friend, or else thou hast a jump cue in thy pocket! See here, you’ve embarrassed the poor creature. By the gods, she’s blushing from head to toe.”
“Yes,” Tantalus replied. “That I noticed.”
They called the Police of Greece to The Pillars of Pool. Poor Tantalus was arrested and booked, history’s first known case of Disturbing the Piece.
For punishment, Tantalus drew life without parole in a 42-table poolroom. The slight catch was that the balls were a tad too big, the pockets a tad too small, so nothing could be made. Ever. And as far as the eye could see — clear to the skyline, for 360 degrees — suckers! O, suckers!
Each sucker would happily play to the point of collapse.
Each sucker had a bankroll fit to plug a toilet.
Each sucker’s bridge wavered haplessly ’twixt ring and social fingers.
But you couldn’t make a ball.
You want to take down the cheese when you can’t make a ball? You better be one hell of a game-maker.
Now that’s tantalization. And that’s the true Grecian myth of Tantalus. I hope you feel edified.