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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
February: Cherubim
February 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 1991]

“By the time I was four, I could run six. By the time I was six, I could run a rack. By the time I was eight, I could beat any livin’ creature.” Do I really have to tell you who the speaker is?

As with all of Fats’ fabulous lines, I suggest you consider the source in determining veracity. What can’t be argued, though, are the spectacularly early ages at which many top players first learned to play. Michelangelo taught us that the great sculpture already exists within the stone; the sculptor’s task is merely to chip away the waste. Similarly, pool is a kid’s game to play but an adult’s game to love; chip away at that adult and you’ll unearth the kid within.

Mosconi, Hoppe and many other immortals began their play at a single-digit age; milk crates were the customary boost they received so they could see the table. Their improvement was meteoric, of course, but that takes in many imponderables, such as stupendous aptitude for a foundation. The common denominator, though, was clearly their youth, and the concomitant clear head that goes with it: hardly any memory, hence hardly any distractions to concentration.

Grade or junior high school was a more common starting point for most of today’s top players. Among those who were high school dropouts — and their percentage among pool pros is distressingly high — you can be certain that their very first score was a factor of considerable significance.

One of the most appalling — yet still funny — examples I’ve heard of the pool/school conflict is the saga of a character called “Jersey Frankie.” At the loony age of 11, Frankie was already a veteran road player, complete with 9-ball rollout knowledge. And his backer was his truant officer! Officer “Jersey City Augie” would show up in the fifth-grade classroom, beckon with the most stern of index fingers, and growl, “I need to talk to you, Frank.”

“Aw, no, Officer Augie!”

“Right now!” And Frankie would leave the classroom, his classmates biting their lips in embarrassment. How were they to know that Officer Augie’s ostensible ass-chewing was really, “Let’s go, kid. We got action?”

(The stress and strain of hustling at that outrageous age did not leave Frank unscathed. His hair fell out good and early; and today it is universally agreed that Jersey Frankie has somehow stumbled upon the universe’s most enduring hairpiece glue. Through sleep, shower, breeze, rainstorm, hurricane, cyclone and typhoon alike, Frank’s pompadour stanchly stands the test. Requests for details on the glue have been received from the construction industry and NASA.)

Frank still plays quite well, but he’s been at it so long now that his viewpoint is shaky. During a recent trip to Chicago as Fred Bentivegna’s guest, Frank sang so many choruses of “Gimme 30, gimme 40, gimme 60, gimme, gimme, gimme,” that he began to sound like Herman’s Hermits doing their timeless, “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am.” Finally, he scored modestly — and gave his guppy all the money back, in an effort to hustle him. Across the room, Bentivegna wore the expression of a man who has just had an anvil tied to his family seeds with razor ribbon.

I didn’t start playing ’til I was 15; that left me a year or so behind my peers, but none was very far out in front anyway. I had an unusual inspiration, the late Willard Motely’s famous novel, “Knock On Any Door.” Kids my age were passing the book around for its steamy sex scenes; I skipped those and instead focused on Nick Romano’s pool playing. Motely wrote reasonably well, if sparingly, about the game, well enough that I was able to slop in six balls in a row my first time, just by thinking about what I’d read.

One day, age caught up with me. I was still too young to drive; one kid in my crowd had wheels earlier than anybody else, and he would squire three or four buddies to the movies, or wherever, on the weekends. I desperately wanted to crack that circle; I suppose the real reason I couldn’t was that the driver just didn’t like me.

I balanced the books with that selfish shtoonk at billiards. Half of me wanted to kick his booty to Tierra Del Fuego; the other half still wanted to gain his favor. We played about the same speed, if you could call it that, but it was one of those days where he couldn’t have scored using medicine balls, and I couldn’t miss using BB’s. I beat him, 15-0, and I can still sense the acidic bitterness of attempting small talk that could keep him cheery. The Driver paid the time, and I continued to travel to movies by bus and alone. He went on to suffer a massive heart attack during a Bears’ game. He recovered, but part of me maintains the unspeakable hope that his last vision before the onset of chest pains was not the misplays of the Chicago Bears, but rather the 15-0 juggernaut that was Fast Georgie Fels.

Ed Kelly began his pool career at 12, and Richie Florence was dubbed “Young Mosconi” in his early teens. And there’s always some phenom from somewhere, running googols of balls fresh from his afternoon bottle and nap, clipping customers years before he can shave himself.

My late mother was fond of regarding my pool playing with that corny quote from the quotation-rich Book of Corinthians: “…when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” I suffered her semi-wisdom in silence, knowing I could no more put pool aside than she could become a man. Maybe it’s just as well she can’t see me now. If she were still alive, my involvement with pool would surely kill her.