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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
 
June: Eye of the Beholder
June 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1984]


There Seems to be no genteel way to ease into this, so let’s get it out up front: I’m sorry, but the cue games simply do not spawn hordes of good-looking men. I offer this merely as an observation, not a judgment. We’re all still friends. But pool and billiards have, have had, probably always will have a peculiar case of the homelies. It’s just one of those little pies-in-the-face from life.

Sociologists have theorized often enough that poolrooms were a traditional bastion where men went partly in order to be away from women. I suppose the dark side of that notion is that poolrooms attracted men who already knew little but being away from women. But it’s as true today as in days of yore: pick any given billiards room at any given time and a substantial majority of the habitués will still look like somebody’s blind date.

Not that it’s a total wasteland out there. I always thought Mosconi made a terrific appearance, but no doubt that had as much to do with grooming as with natural looks. The Master always played in impeccable three-piece suits. Time magazine described him, 30 years ago, “…like a banker surrounded by characters out of a banker’s nightmare.”

Occasionally, the game’s dearth of good looks allows a fortunate few to be overrated. Handsome Danny Jones, one of the country’s best 9-ball and snooker players of the early to mid-’60s, was mostly hype when it came to looks, I thought. He, too, was well groomed, right down to the cologne, and he looked a little like a young James Garner. But no way would you call him handsome unless you were picking him out of a crowd of Cornbread-and-Jersey Reds. “I gotta see a player who’s handsomer than me!” Thus spake, if ungrammatically, former billiards champion Eddie Robin 20 years ago when he was even compared to Tony Curtis. (I always felt that both men were New York Jews, and there the similarities come to a screeching halt.) But that was younger man talking, and what the games have today is fragments of good looks. Here and there guys show some stunning aspect, but few put it all together. Jimmy Mataya does a tux justice, especially in slim mode, and adds another appealing rarity to the game: perfect posture. He did some Golden Gloves boxing as a teenager and, though his training regimen is somewhat altered today, he retains the thoroughbred look of a real athlete. Between that attitude and his incredible hand-eye coordination, you have to wonder what Mataya might have done had he chosen a game a little more in the mainstream. Las Vegas’ Billy Incardona is good-looking in a craggy way, a positive matinee idol by pool standards, and sports what is probably top pool’s best build. Here are the rippling muscle definition and separation that bodybuilders invest six-times-a-week heavy-duty pain striving for; yet by his own admission, Incardona has rarely hefted anything weighing more than 20 ounces in all his born days.

One player with most of his handsomeness components in working order is Paul Brienza, a New Jersey native who now lives in Sacramento. He is gifted with the kind of looks that make men as well as women nod their heads and say, “He’s a good-looking guy,” chisel-featured, reasonably trim. Brienza is striking enough that it calls attention to the other obstacles life has placed in his path to the top of the game. He is fairly well educated (pre-veterinary, hence the moniker “Doc”), and has had a white-collar career (stockbroker). He has a gorgeous wife and daughter, and it seems fair to assume that female attention has seldom been one of his pressing problems. Who knows what kind of player Brienza could have been without all those ungodly millstones around his brawny neck?

While it’s no cinch culling the game’s very best looking players, selecting billiards’ all-time unhandsome player is no contest. Faithful readers might suspect that the nefarious and gnome-like Brooklyn Jimmy is going to get another play from me here, but no such thing. I speak now of the late Cleveland William Johnson, an epic player next to whom Brooklyn Jimmy looked like Tom Selleck.

Poor Cleveland William had been hideously disfigured as a boy, in an oil-heater explosion, and the less said about that the better. The real interest in Cleveland William Johnson anyway was that those looks were just one facet of the most thorough intimidation package you well ever see press fingers to felt. Cleveland Willie paralyzed people. He had spent some time under Ponzi’s tutelage, and among the results was one of those six-foot slip strokes. And hit the object ball hard? Each rack without fail, Cleveland William sent object balls leaping from the table in terror. His game was banks, and his shots frequently sailed in on the dead fly without touching any intervening cloth. How good was he, in the midst of all this? Cleveland William Johnson only sent the oft-fabled Clem to the rack. Now Clem, in his prime one of the best short-games players ever, was a natty little dude who enjoyed high-rolling in rough action in front of his own entourage of backers and women (fresh-faced, recent society debutantes at cotillion all); but he pulled up just a few games to the south. He had seen too many scowling, whoop-and-holler runs of eight and nine, featuring balls hopping directly from cushion to pocket like swollen painted bullfrogs.

“I’m sorry,” Clem said softly, sounding for a moment uncharacteristically but sincerely humble, before a crowd whose mouths were twisted from trying not to laugh in amazement at the gargoyle Cleveland Willie. “I can’t fade this. He scares me shitless.”

Here you’re talking fear that cuts to the heart. And they say beauty is only skin-deep.


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