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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
 
January: Bugs
January 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 2003]


From the cradle, and frequently all the way to the grave, most of us court approval. The way we go about seeking it dramatically shapes our lives. As most of us are destined not to be captains of industry or pillars of the community, we learn to accept approval in smaller doses.

Those of us that pool chooses to be serious players, or at least followers, are not immune to being noticed, even if the audiences in question will always be limited to a relative handful of people. Assuming the player has his head on straight, the approval of the gallery will rank well below victory on his list of priorities, but that assumption, like many assumptions, is a dangerous one to make. The late Louie “St. Louis Louie” Roberts is a prime example of a player for whom playing to the crowd was first and foremost, and that actually held him back. But he’s far from the only one. On the other hand, sometimes that adulation can literally be a lifesaver. Maurice Cheeks, former NBA star and later coach, grew up in the heart of the savage Chicago community known as Blackstone Rangers turf, and has said publicly the main reason the gangs left him alone was his status at basketball. But there are several black pool players who could have told Cheeks that would happen. And Leonard “Bugs” Rucker is one of those.

Bugs (the nickname derives from buck teeth, hence a resemblance to Bugs Bunny, not his love of entomology) was born a few miles south of Cheeks’ neighborhood, but he walked the same wicked streets. Chicago was far more segregated during his post-World War II formative years than it is now, and in one square mile of the city’s south side alone, there were 15 or 20 poolrooms, with action at every single one. Close to a generation before him, Chicago had not one but two African-American pool legends: John “Lefty” Chapman and Javanley “Youngblood” Washington. Most of the rooms in which they played boasted teenagers or even pre-teens, playing with the orthodox scorpion bridge (in which the cue wavers haplessly betwixt ring and social fingers) and declaring, “I don’t play nuffin’ but bank!” That’s where the hero worship began for Bugs, but it hardly ended there. Lefty and ’Blood had national reps — Lefty for holding the fabled Clem to a three-day standoff, and ’Blood for going down to Knoxville, Tenn., and beating up on the immortal Eddie Taylor in his own room. And Leonard Rucker was their heir apparent. Chapman won a city straight pool title, and played just about every game. Washington did too, but only grudgingly, as he considered 14.1, banks and rotation the only really worthwhile games. But each man found his mainstays in banks where there were seemingly none, utilizing a variety of strokes that would have done a tennis champion proud — bending cue balls with all sorts of chops, slices, lobs and smashes. Washington was more content to let the game come to him and execute flawlessly when it did. He was frequently known to challenge an opponent in a long race to bet the whole bankroll on one game or even a single shot. Unlike those two men, Bugs played nothing but banks and one-pocket. He had neither Chapman’s quiver-full of strokes nor Washington’s conservatism, but hardly anyone could beat him except Bugs himself. Leave an object ball one-eighth of an inch from a corner pocket jaw, with the cue ball on the lip of the diagonally opposite corner, and Bugs would still try the cross-corner bank virtually as often as he saw it. Never mind that the hit alone on such a shot is no better than a one-in-10 proposition, or that two big fat scratches await (one rail into the side pocket nearest where the shot began, or two rails into the opposite corner). Bugs would still be firing, and the inescapable conclusion was that the money was very likely secondary to all those “oohs” and “aahs.”

For all his brilliance, Bugs had two opponents with whom he could do very little. One was Bensinger’s Artie Bodendorfer, who was as conservative as Bugs was reckless and was usually over-spotted to boot. The other was Efren Reyes, whom Rucker never beat. I was there the last time the two men played, with 20 grand changing hands between their backers, and disappointingly the match was a total failure artistically. Bugs missed a straight-in shot of no more than two feet that turned out to be pivotal. But mostly he ate up shortstops like breakfast biscuits, including the greatest single shot-making exhibition I have ever seen in my 50 years around pool, banking eight and out on a five-by-10 table from 0-7 down, to beat a genetic missing link named Mexican Johnny, then one of the best players in town.

I last saw Bugs at the U.S. Open One-Pocket tournament of 2001. While he is a big man, with an athletic build when he was young, he is also diabetic and near-legendary for taking poor care of himself. He can no longer walk or even stand for very long, so of course his playing days are over. Yet the crowd still parted with deep respect, and he was allowed to make his way haltingly to a front row seat.

Not long after that, Chicago’s black pool community organized a testimonial dinner for their hero, at $40 a plate, advertised in the city’s two primary action rooms. “It won’t be filet mignon and champagne,” the word went out, “but you’ll get a decent meal and we’ll still have a few thousand for The Man.” Sadly, the event was canceled for lack of interest; those few men who actually put up cash did themselves proud by not requesting refunds, and what sparse bucks there were went to Bugs. Proving, once again, that pool pays no pensions. As though further proof were needed.


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