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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
August: On Being Away
August 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from November 1983]

Like other of life’s creamiest indulgences, pool is largely a matter of “Use it or lose it.” We all know the game’s bitter fickleness even as she is being played; but that is only a whimper compared to the tantrums she will raise if you stay away for any time at all. Strangely, the only excuse accepted at all by your pool game for your abstinence seems to be, “I stayed away because I was tired of you,” and only to that extent does pool finally stop acting as most women do.

There’s an abundance of cult legends that are, or were, exceptions to that. At that game’s top plateau, Jack Colavita came back after back surgery and being told he well might never play again; and Joe Balsis had an astonishing 16-year layoff before returning to championship play. Strong top money players who brushed off two-year hiatuses and returned to stroke in no time include cue artist Bill Stroud and John Ervolino, and no doubt several others. Beyond that, there are parallel stories of good-to-very-good players who did the same thing in virtually every major American room.

Ervolino was also a member of that maddening segment of the game which turns all our eyes greener than new Simonis in envy: super players who couldn’t care less if they ever play again. I don’t know how they do that; there’s little I wouldn’t pay to drink of their elixir. In my experience, the society is densely populated with Italians, particularly when the dreaded bangtail fever co-exists as a symptom. There was Ervolino, of course, and Pancho Furio; in the Midwest, such fine Mediterranean names as Bentivegna, Guagliardo and Abruzzo proudly carry on the tradition. In the great desert to the west, the noble Incardona marches to the same drum, and the intoxicating tarantella of indifference spins on. Only in the case of the insidious Brooklyn Jimmy does my theory falter in the least, and then only because he was half-Italian. These are the gigolos of pool, who scorn her deeply as can be, yet return to enjoy her sweetest favors almost at will. Some guys get all the breaks.

But mostly the game pays you back, and sternly, for being away. Just playing missing the game hurts enough, and I think part of that has to do with your apprehension about what awaits you at her hands when you do come back. The competent shot maker who returns from layoff only to behold his cue ball engaging the wrong half of the object ball is either in intense psychological pain or giggling wildly, maybe both. You can pick out recent returnees in any room where meaningful competition exists; they’re the ones with the expressions of frozen horror, wordlessly shrieking, “What have I done?” Barring serious physical mishap, of course, the game will eventually welcome you back and probably permit you to take up where you left off. Many players claim a brief layoff actually helps. It’s the fragile correct state of mind for the game that’s the most elusive, but the first unfamiliarities are usually in the body. The balance of your stance feels like an approaching stranger; unused muscles are inexplicably stiff. For all the times you might have absently formed a perfect tripod bridge around a pen, fork or soda straw, the ultimately proper object of your affection does not feel right down there now. All your little orgies with -0000 steel wool, the caresses of tip-shaping, the loving shaft-rubs of baby powder have seemingly gone for naught. Your arms are unfeeling goalposts holding a cold, hostile crossbar. And then finally she comes back, not with a giant forgiving rush but with little quiet coquettes. You may recognize her tactile sounds first, the taps and clicks and plops that became your mantra. It may be her speeds that speak to you early, your playing cadence returning timidly as a raw recruit would march it, or the hypnotic fast-and-slow marriage of the thinnest cue shots. Or you can fall for her prettiness all over again, all colors and angles and the blush of risk. The game creeps up on you with delicious tweaks; the sense of an anvil-like bridge hand, a wrist that feels like linguine, the sensation of the cue ball contact in both your playing hands. All of this is foreplay until your head explodes into the game too and all else falls away; rather than playing the game, you become an extension of it, pumped up with otherworldly confidence and prescient, God-like notions about where all the balls are going.

The bad news, of course, is that this joyous no-worlds-left-to-conquer state can dissipated in a run of three or four balls sometimes. If you’re very lucky, it might take you to your peak, be that 10, 25 or all points beyond — but one quick look at that is probably all you are going to see, not one whit further and maybe not at all for a short while. The game knows you’ve been gone, how long, what kind of price you’ll pay. She crosses her legs expertly, showing you only what she wants you to see. They’ll lead me off one day insisting, in a wheezy and perhaps straightjacketed way, that the game has a personality of its own, that a pool table in your home or life is a living, breathing dependent that you don’t have to declare on your Form 1040.

We’re redecorating now, including carpeting, so my pool table has been down for six weeks and will be for three more. There isn’t time to play anyplace else. But I’ve maintained an excellent exterior calm, and no one has to know about my innter churnings, because I put up such an expert inscrutable front. Nobody could ever tell.