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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
April: Boston Pool
April 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from Octoberr 1988]

Quick: who remembers how the novel, The Hustler, opens (and, for that matter, closes)?

Well, it has to do with a guy practicing one long, straight back bank shot, to the exclusion of everything else; no racks, no competition, not even a third ball on the table, just that lone bank. The idea is not to test your pool trivia skills, but rather to suggest just how well author Walter Tevis knew pool and poolrooms: The game is so great and vast that it creates unique expressions of itself in untold numbers.

I have seen top bank-shooters practice for hours by lining up all 15 balls from the center diamond on the short rail out to the spot and beyond, and firing them all in cross side. Back in the Depression Era, or so I’m told, it was not unusual to see men take out a table for 30 minutes or so of trick shots, then pass the hat. More contemporarily, the legendary Irving Crane made it a daily ritual to play himself safe for 30 or 40 minutes at a clip; one-pocket artist Artie Bodendorfer invested hours of practicing not leaving the cue ball on the rail.

And then there was the old coot that played Boston Pool.

Actually, I’d make it my business to do a better job of identifying that particular gentleman, if I had ever known his name; but I don’t think anybody ever did. The “gentleman” description certainly fits; he always wore a derby hat, even while playing, held a stately cigarette holder, and wore a clean white shirt and tie with a knot no bigger than an acorn. Until the last time I saw him, I never heard him say anything more than “Hello” or, more often, nod in cool recognition. He never asked anyone else to play, nor did anyone ask him. Bensingner’s was a room full of pros who were quick to observe outsiders and accord them their proper space, and it seemed to be universally accepted that all this man wanted from the room was his 30-60 minutes of Boston Pool.

I’ve yet to learn the secret of the game, and I may not have gotten its name right, but I never heard it called anything else. We’re talking here about two balls frozen at the lip of each pocket, with the three remaining balls frozen in center table; and the object seems to be to pocket all 15 in as few strokes as possible. From what I understand, hustlers bet the farm on doing it in nine, but the old man rarely even came close to ducking beneath double digits.

In the downtown version of Bensingner’s, of course, the Boston Pool player was little more than a modest sideshow attraction. Besides the top players, there was an abundance of characters at the great room, well beneath the shortstop level, that would take a chance on playing a stranger for a few bucks now and then. All except the Boston Pool player, deserted on his prim isle of dignity, a man laboring alone, daily and mightily, at what seemed to be mere child’s play.

Then time ran out on the downtown room, and Bensinger’s had to relocate. They chose a site a little over three miles north of Chicago’s Loop, potentially their best location ever because it was surrounded by residential turf. But in the early ’60s, the monied people of that area were much older stay-at-homes; the neighborhood fell off conspicuously. For the first time in its throughout-the-20th-century history, the fabulous room discovered itself infested with a robust inventory of glum staples from pool halls of another level: tough, mean young kids.

For its first few years, Bensinger’s saw an uneasy truce between regulars who were there for serious pool or billiards, and punks who were there for serious bummery. In the sad end, of course, the punks and slobs won out, if you could call it any kind of victory. The room’s last days looked like they had been created by Dante, with stained and torn cloth revealing naked slate, broken cues, filthy balls and filthier players and surroundings.

But long before that, the Boston Pool player was gone. It happened on a day when he had finally dropped eight balls with his first two shots, leaving just the seven to be dispatched in his next seven strokes to meet the elusive hustler’s standard, the center balls perfectly aligned with remaining hangers. You could even see a shy, tentative smile. Then the sharks came in for the Old Man’s marlin.

“Hey, Pop,’ said one bathless creep. “Sure you can stand all this pressure?” “Wanna play me some, twenty, thirty a game?” said another, whose bankroll did not total four dollars.

The Boston Pool player looked around helplessly. There was no aid to be found, no nobility nor virtue left save his, and he as an old man alone, far out of his era in a room that was far out of his realm. He enjoyed his game exclusively on 5-by-10 tables; Bensinger’s were the last such tables available in town. The punk parade, the changing neighborhood and times, the game’s changing equipment, even the rooms dying in the sag that followed the post-“Hustler” boom seemed to be closing in on him. He made eight balls with his first two shots and that would be his luck for the day.

“Listen,” he said weakly. “I’m not bothering you. I don’t bother anybody. I’m trying to have a little fun. Why don’t you leave me alone?”

“I’ll tell you why, Pop,” the first creature said. “Because you’re a real drag.” And he pushed as many of the last seven balls as he could reach at the man.

For the first time in all his years at Bensinger’s, the Boston Pool player did not gather the balls to return to the desk. He put on his coat, paid his time and left. And nobody that I know, in any billiard room anywhere, saw that old man again. Ever.