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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
October: Ring
October 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1985]

Pool is so tough a game that even its ghosts die hard. And of the throwbacks to golden days of yore that still flickers now and then, especially at or around tournaments, is the ring game, which gathers as many participants as are acceptable to the rest. I’ve heard of as many as seven players, and there are probably stories of more than that.

The game is 9-ball and, when real experts get it on, 10-ball. Variations exist, such as 6-ball on a snooker table. When the game still had its momentum, various rooms had their own inflexible versions, in the manner of legendary poker parlors: 6-ball at Dugan’s, 9-ball at the Arcade, 10-ball at Case ’n’ Cue, and so on. Of course it was possible to trap a chump at any form of the game, but more often ring games gathered players who all expected to run out upon the first open shot. And beyond that, ring games had a certain nobility missing from head-to-head competition, a straight-backed air of respect and pride that all players could share. Except, naturally, the big losers.

Part of why you see ring games at tournaments is that top players tend to be cautious about one-on-one with each other. But ring is a game that dulls the edges of individual abilities slightly, and if the game is on the square, players a notch or two under the best can still be competitive and even win. There’s something about joining a circle of skilled players that tends to drive you towards maximizing what your have, not unlike throwing a football one step farther in front of a receiver to find out how fast he can really run. Thus in ring, a lot of top players can be surprised by shortstops. For many shortstops, ring pool can be a rite of passage into higher echelons.

But if the game goes on long enough, the best players will still win. Ring is traditionally played open — that is, subject to the limit on the number of players, anyone can play or quit whenever he wants — and therefore attracts players short on bucks but long on pluck, hoping to put a two- or three-rack run together early. These confrontations remind me of Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper’; only the ants could endure the harsh winter, for they had worked the hardest and the longest. And beyond the best players in any one ring game, there is the perverse and rare honor of being too good even at that, and subsequently being snubbed, paying what Cadillac called “The penalty of leadership” 60 years ago. At the Johnston City tournaments of the late ’60s — possibly the most ferocious assemblage of talent in the annals of pool tournaments — there was still no ring game open to Eddie Taylor. Allowing how grudgingly pool players yield any praise, could there be any higher accolade than to have the world’s best players tell you that you were too good for them? Taylor, soon to fall upon cataracts, could not see the glory of their tribute either. Satisfaction was a big hit back then, and as its bouncing, bashing chords wafted in from the bar, Eddie Taylor languished between his tournament matches, moaning to anybody within earshot, “Ah cain’t git no action,” sounding strangely like Mick Jagger’s Appalachian great uncle. On balance, though, ring pool and its variants bring together lots more players than they ostracize. Games like golf and pill-pool lose most, if not all, of their character unless they’re played multi-handed. And, in limited doses, it can be as much fun to watch five novices whang the balls around, laughing out loud at the game and at one another, as to watch two hardnoses grinding it out. I like seeing the orthodox scorpion bridge (in which the cue wavers haplessly between the ring and social fingers) and players who drive four object balls to three rails apiece on each shot, closing out their innings with classic kibitzers’ laments like, “Well, I guess I got screwed,” and guys with tears in their eyes from laughing at each other’s mishaps. That’s where the soul of the game is, and any rational room owner will tell you that’s where the bread-and-butter of his business is.

Chicago is rich in playing talent these days, and lineups for the ring games frequently resemble the semifinals of a regional tournament. Chicago must be one of the last bastions on earth where the top players still seem to enjoy playing each other, and they pick their company for the games fairly, to an honor-bright code; regardless of bankroll, you have to be thought of as run-out potential to be invited.

Most good players will admit that to hit a streak in a tough ring game is a feeling unlike any other in the pool universe, maybe unlike any other in the whole universe. To knock off, say, three racks in a six-handed game not only brings the cheese, but guarantees you a chair the next fifteen times the music stops too. But it is a shortsighted player indeed who can’t see the majesty beyond the finances. For the past 20 or 30 shots, he has been the best, pool’s version of the decathlete. And it’s rare that any rack is honestly run out where you don’t hear at least one “good shootin’.” In pool and, as usual, in life, peer approval has a value far beyond the bucks.

I remember my last ring game very well. The field was the usual piranha pond. I was coming off a game in which I had run 45 and out to leave my opponent in the two hole. Thus pumped up well out of my mind, I dove in and came out $20 ahead, money that I probably should have mounted someplace. I can still feel the unbridled joy of my own scoring spurts, a rich blend of the emotions of victory and belonging.

A poolroom somehow feels friendlier with a ring game going on. What a sad commentary it is that, like a good room, a good ring game is getting harder to find.