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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
November: When Pony Played Mosconi
November 2017

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 1994]

Isadore “Pony” Rosen was a friendly, likable bum, but above all a bum, who haunted the once-great Chicago billiards room and icon Bensinger’s for parts of at least five decades. As such, he had but one suit (brown) and one shirt (blue print). The pants to the suit held up, if barely; and oftentimes a few square inches of Pony’s ample belly would peek through, betwixt brown waistband and blue print shirttails, for a sly eyeless wink at the day.

Sartorial splendor aside, Pony legitimately qualified as one of the best pool players in town. Not only had he once unknowingly pulverized Ralph Greenleaf (and before that, Patsy Natalie), but he played every single game in the house well for a sawbuck or less — he rarely had more than that in his pocket — including billiards and snooker. His matzo-ball physique did not permit him spryness around the table, but his leisurely amblings were punctuated by pounce-like moves into stance, as though hoping to take the balls by surprise. He addressed the cue ball like no other mortal, before or since; if he wanted high right English, he would aim low left and frequently appeared to be pointing well away from the sphere altogether. It was fun to watch his new opponents, as Pony’s shots would bring him in front of them, and their expressions as they beheld his aiming techniques: first a double take; then a quick look around to verify whether anyone else was in on the gag; then the smug unbelieving grin that as much as said, “I am gonna win here because this guy is not gonna hit the cue ball.” And, of course, the immediate lapse into deadpan as Pony executed perfectly once again, perhaps with a beseeching glance about for commiseration: “Did I really see what I think I just saw?”

Exactly why Pony Rosen, with his smorgasbord of playing peccadilloes, was chosen as opposition for a Willie Mosconi exhibition was never made quite clear. The process of elimination probably applied; in the latter years of his 15-year championship skein that ended in the early ’50s, plus the next few after that, the great man was a semi-annual fixture at Bensinger’s, and opponents were not all that easy to find. Mr. Mosconi gave very little quarter to anyone, maybe a few turns at the table to avoid utter humiliation, but he liked the oohs and aahs he drew by running a lot of balls too, and his standards were high. The hustlers did not want to show their true speed, assuming they would be given the chance; the tournament players did not want to show their inevitable nervousness when they were trying to forge their own reputations for grace under pressure. So Pony was elected more than once: “Won’t be the first time I’ve lost,” he’d shrug cheerily, and then lose without complaint. The house would toss him a few bucks and that would be that.

Mosconi rarely if ever failed to pack the house, but the core audience of pool purists back then was larger and the mass audience smaller. Generally, the only intrusions into those insider ranks were dads who remembered the master from years before and had promised their sons, “Tonight you’ve got a good chance of seeing a man make a hundred balls in a row.” Thus prissy Time magazine, in covering a challenge match, could write, “Mr. Mosconi looked like a banker, surrounded by characters out of a banker’s nightmare,” without being accused of taking much creative license. Still, he would enter the room loftily, like Stokowski before society, his head already nodding in appreciation of, and agreement with, richly deserved applause, which he usually got. Only in his 40s then, he was nonetheless totally gray, and no other shade would have harmonized nearly as well with the ubiquitous and impeccable three-piece, pinstripe suits. New table cloth was a must for these appearances, and into this pristine arena the master carried a custom case that housed not only the immortal cuemaker Rambow’s shining hour, but also a set of well-polished balls. When Mosconi played, the game became le grand dame, having finally decided to show a bit of thigh and cleavage, and a pastime became an authentic art form. Then Pony would shuffle in vacantly, resplendent in brown and blue, his trusty one-piece house cue and tiny trapezoid of tummy both very much in place. Three or four wiseasses would applaud him too, of course; and he would either show a funny little surprised grin or grunt his disgruntlement, depending largely on how badly the local harness race had gone the night before. The Mosconi exhibitions not only paid him a pittance but kept him from the track at the same time, thus briefly enriching him beyond his wildest dreams of avarice.

“Hello, Pony,” Mosconi would generally say genially. “I see you dressed for the occasion.”

Both men were grade school educated, but the parallels ended soon after. The match itself offered multiple concepts of competition; gentleman vs. gambler, perfectly groomed vs. perpetually rumpled, acclaimed vs. anonymous, thriver vs. survivor. Mosconi always won easily, naturally, but you departed convinced you had seen, in that pastiche of contrasts, far more than a pool game. Mosconi was an inexorable part of championship pool, Pony just as inexorably a part of one of the game’s greatest rooms — he worked and even died there, 20 years later — and why and where they came together was to kneel at the shrine of a game so majestic she could make them at once opposites and equal.

Who really won, when Pony played Mosconi, was everybody. And, inevitably, the game itself. The game always wins.