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Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.


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Best of Fels
 
May: Charlie’s Hands
May 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1984]


I bet he was the only cue games player, other than Hoppe and Mosconi, ever to draw ink from the legendary writer Red Smith, even if the reference actually had to do with golf. “World’s greatest man on a scoreboard,” Smith said of Charlie Kimmel, who for decades made his living on the PGA Tour, attending giant scoreboards with an elegant, flowing Olde-English type hand. Charlie’s work actually visualized all the grandeur and nobility of that game and transposed it into up-to-the-minute news. Instead of the hum of telegraph wires, you could hear the satisfied “Mmmmm” of the 16th Century ghoulies and ghosties at auld St. Andrews.

The golf tour of years ago, of course, was not nearly as sustained as now, so Charlie Kimmel had some months to shift gears from Brobdingnagian calligraphy to hand-engraved wedding invitations, and to hustle pool and billiards at a modest level. His best days included stints at Bensinger’s, but those days were well behind him when I first encountered him, both by his own admission and the few who had seen him play. The stories they told of Charlie’s zenith mentioned 50-or-no-count (meaning he must run 50 or more to win), and the uncanny ability to draw his cue ball back to the jaws of the far corner pocket for a perfect snooker, as often as the opportunity arose. Once again, those fluid, tender hands had molded a reputation.

So, Charlie’s occurring in my neighborhood room was not unlike Henry Aaron’s visiting the clubhouse of a baseball team in the Piedmont League. Only the titanic Bill Romain was any billiards competition for him, and naturally nobody wanted any part of Charlie at pool. The best players in my first room could run a rack or slightly more; from there it was practically a sheer drop to players who could run three or four balls. So handicapping ran rampant in the place. One day I decided that as long as the mountain was there, it ought to be climbed; and I asked Charlie Kimmel for a spot at pool. His answer was a hustler’s classic, a throwback to the palatial halls of the ’20s and times when the games were riding high on the shoulders of colorful gentlemen and even more colorful blarney-and-brimstone language, “Music Man” rich in its texture and character. “Spot?” said Charlie, drawing himself up to his full 5’6” to denote outrage. “Spot? Son, you’re no stranger to the game. You can draw, you can follow, pick one out of the stack, play safe; you shoot like Hoot Gibson!”

At age 16, in the early ’50s, I had very little idea of whom Hoot Gibson might be, or how well or even what he shot. But I had heard something in there I liked. And he did make a fair game with more; sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. But much more important to me then was the awe I inspired for even trying. My peers were playing for quarters and halves, before graduating to the staple “time and a buck,” and here I was betting multiple bucks (no more than three) with Charlie Kimmel. Talk about your all-time double dares; kissing the homeliest girl in the room, or knocking on the door of the ubiquitous haunted house, were as nothing compared to Daredevil George Fels.

And his riposte to me lasted a lot longer than any adulation I ever received. For years after Charlie Kimmel left the place, a healthy majority of invitations to play drew automatic recitations of, “But you’re no stranger to the game,” and, of course, pocketed balls or scored billiards invariably brought forth a squawky-voiced chorus of, “Hoot Gibson!” blurbing from throats beneath eyes that had never set sight on Charlie Kimmel. One more time, with his own brand of dignity, the man had softly left his mark.

He did everything softly, it seemed. Billiards or pool, he seldom hit the ball for anything more than medium speed. I have driven winding mountain roads that were straighter than those tables, yet Charlie Kimmel delighted in rolling the object ball perilously to the lip of the pocket, sometimes trembling for endless seconds with the weight of its decision to stand or fall. Usually they fell. The stroke measuring that treacherous lack of speed was gently manufactured with dynamics you seldom see except in old-time players; his wristy practice swings drew the old Rambow cue up into the palm as well as back, thus his full hand could caress the cue several times before sending it back to the forever-caring fingertips. He wore soft-color clothes, greys and earth tones, real quality. In pool, as in golf, Charlie Kimmel personally restored the original elegance of the game.

His understated game and presentation were a juicy contrast to the stronger rhetoric he reserved for the aesthetics of the time. “Can’t sing worth Chinese bleep,” was a common critique. One evening his ire grew so great that he was moved to show a rare side of himself. “Music? I’ll show you music,” he fumed, and he stomped off to his car to fetch a single-string cigar box violin. Charlie Kimmel played snitches and snatches of Victor Herbert, his eyes blissfully closed, the cheek lowered as though in devotion, the left hand calling out a vibrato in tone as professional and mighty as Menuhin’s. And six or eight cynical smartass teenagers traded their snickers and smirks for unembarrassed smiles and real applause, our hands lauding his. Charlie’s still around, somewhere near 82 now, a consultant to and arranger of golf tournaments; the years have not demanded eye glasses nor much hair loss. Rambow cue and cigar box violin are intact, as are many aspects of the man, who regularly golfs under his age and still plays redoubtably at the cue games. That banty rooster yet remembers the lineup game he won from me. I remember that too. But far more clearly, I remember Charlie’s hands.


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