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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
March: Skylines
March 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from November 2001]

When I first wrote about looking at the skyline of any strange city and immediately free-associating, “Who and where and how good are the pool players?” the city I had in mind, of course, was New York. Even now, with the horrible hole the madmen left in it, the skyline is still the finest in the world; the pool is less indisputably so, but right up there.

The first time I ever visited New York, in 1965, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the city at her very, very best. I had just begun a new job in Chicago with no less than The Wall Street Journal; they flew me to Manhattan for a week’s training, let me bring my wife, and put us up at the Waldorf-Astoria. It was Broad Street by day and Broadway almost every night (including Streisand live in the original “Funny Girl”; talk about thrills). And yet somehow, in the midst of all that splendor, I still found an hour someplace to sneak away to the Times Square poolroom called 711.

Pool was going strong then; the post-“Hustler” boom was still alive, and Barbara Walters, of all people, had just done a short feature on the plump Rudolph Wanderone, visiting him at Ames. (The porcine one, during the interview, not only advised Walters, “You’re in my way, doll,” but, responding to her good-natured hint that she might stop by again for a friendly game, asserted, “Hey, I’ll play ya for money if ya like.”) Manhattan then had three well known players’ rooms in the midtown area alone, the third being McGirr’s, but nothwithstanding the momentary fame visited upon Ames by “The Hustler,” 711 was the best known by far, especially in the Midwest. By ’65, its best player, Jack “Jersey Red” Breit, was already gone to Texas, but there was oodles of talent there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of it; it was late afternoon and hardly anyone was there. I took out a pretty tight 9-foot table — they had 10-footers too, the customary venue for one-pocket — and in half an hour or so of practice, I ran 23 once, which I considered a suitable christening.

Later in the same wondrous week, we went to see a series of controversial one-act plays collectively called, “American Hurrah,” way off-off Broadway. In fact, the theater was on 14th Street, just a few doors down from the famous German restaurant Luchow’s. And guess what’s above Luchow’s? New York’s fourth famous poolroom, Julian’s. But I never saw that room either; not only was I not about to ask my wife to indulge me in a visit, but the vibes from that room were frightful, even at street level, and later I learned from two veteran New York players that strangers who scored at Julian’s had excellent prospects of being maimed or worse for their efforts.

Two years later, business had me traveling regularly to a Philadelphia suburb called North Wales, roughly 25 miles from the city. One day, business concluded early in the afternoon, and I decided to take a real drive and visit New York again. Ames was already gone, I think, and McGirr’s had descended to armpit status, but 711 was still around even though the action had begun to shift to the Golden Cue in Queens. I got to the poolroom around 7:00. Two tables were going — some punk who seemed to resent me even watching his game, and the deskman, practicing on a 5 by 10 — and seated on the side rail of the table where I had practiced two years before, swinging a leg and devoutly studying The Racing Form, was the immortal Brooklyn Jimmy. Just about 10 years before, when I was still a fuzz-cheeked teen, Jimmy had made me for my last $15, and besides he seemed too deep in thought to interrupt now.

Then I committed the gauche error of asking for a telephone book.

The counterman, who was wearing a toupee that looked like roadkill, paused in his practice and nastily read me his version of the “This is Ames, mister” speech from “The Hustler.” His prose was something like, “The principal business here is pool,” but the movie’s treatment was way better and I told him so, further suggesting that he find a better-fitting hair piece; scowling, but otherwise unmoved, he returned to his Paradise cue and his practice. Later I learned that he actually was a pretty fair player everyone called Tommy the Hat. But I took a final look at him, and the punk, and the studious Brooklyn Jimmy, and the hostile room that even charged a dime to visit the men’s room where the commodes had no stalls, and walked out to treat myself to Angela Lansbury onstage in “Mame.”

But in keeping with my lifelong fascination with the best-of-the-best, the concept of pool in New York continued to mesmerize me. So I was really pumped up about going to the Amsterdam Open at Amsterdam Billiards, scheduled to follow the U.S. Open but cancelled after Sept. 11, not just for the pool but to see good friends.

The thing is, pool is important, to the extent that you and I have all given it a portion of the most precious commodity we have to give, love. If that were not true, you wouldn’t be reading this publication and I wouldn’t be writing for it. We have to get back to our lives, or else the bastards win, and that is unthinkable.