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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
August: Rolls
July 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1991]

There was a time, somewhere between the discoveries of fire and the wheel, when I was actually young and accordingly filled with idealistic and melodramatic notions about everything, including pool. And I used to focus on a table — particularly at Bensinger’s, where it is easy to fantasize gambling of heroic proportions — and wonder, “How many thousands of dollars have changed hands over the intervention of the point of the side pocket?”

Of course, the villainous side pocket point is merely the most physical and obvious symbol of the game’s fickle factor of luck. There is no sport or game known to man that precludes chance completely. And since pool and gambling are eternally entwined, it’s probably perfect justice that the most elephantine accumulations of knowledge and technique can be completely undone by the tiniest squeak of a mouse called luck.

The cue game’s best-known story of ill fortune is undoubtedly the tale of the somewhat maladjusted billiards player who, disconcerted by a fly’s landing on his cue ball, fouled, lost and promptly offed himself. While the dour doer in question, one Louis Fox, might be faulted for his inability to fit punishment to crime, his saga surely underlines the fragility of luck in pool and billiards.

I can still remember the first stupendous roll the game ever gifted me with: the object ball I wanted was close to, but on the far side of, a side pocket, requiring a very thin cut. I miscued wretchedly, imparting some kind of horrendous spin that drastically shortened the angles of my cue ball’s three-rail route and brought it back to knock in the desired object ball cleanly. With typical teenaged sportsmanship, I beamed happily at my opponent. Notwithstanding his innocent age, he seemed attuned to the subtle principle of not giving your antagonist the satisfaction of recognizing your pain; he shrugged and, suddenly sounding decades older, muttered, “That’s part of the game.”

Not long after that, confronted with a very similar shot except that cue ball and object ball were much closer to one another, I missed the object ball completely but knocked it in with the cue tip on my follow-through and got away with it. The proximity of those two fortuitous strokes so early in my love affair with pool convinced me that good fortune would be smiling at me all my days. Unfortunately, the game, along with the gods who control it, insists on a balanced ledger and has been trying to catch up with me ever since. Here, then, is a pittance toward the total price I’ve paid for those lone balls:

Have A Seat On My Chest.
Following a break shot, the last rolling ball on the table is attracted to the cue ball like a fly to feces. It limps over there, freezes in unmakeable position, and eclipses every other makeable ball from view.

The Tailgater.
Similar to the above, except that the cue ball attacks from the rear. Takes place only near center table, where bridging over a ball is least comfortable and convenient — and only when it can interfere with the one open shot that does exist, and render position play quite impossible.

The Governor’s Reprieve.
Seems to be the exclusive province of opponents: The object ball is drilled toward a corner pocket, catches both jaws and careens drunkenly toward the opposite corner, then returns to the intended pocket as faithfully and unerringly as a retriever clutching a partridge.

Cockeye Dunn.
Originally an evil-doer from that forum of fun, the New York docks, Dunn is now departed, having died of natural causes when the State of New York donated 2,200 volts to his cerebellum. Yet he lives on in the form of the object ball that winks hideously before skidding to a point about a half diamond from where you had hoped. Especially obnoxious when the object ball is a stripe, because the wink is so much clearer. No more an example of cue ball/object ball friction, it surely rubs this player the wrong way.

Spit It Up. You’ll Feel Better.
The cue ball roars through the stack like water through shampoo, tailgates an object ball all the way to the rail and, upon impact, squirts directly into the near corner pocket. Theoretically, it should be at least as possible for the object ball to go in instead — and that’s just what happens when it’s my opponent who breaks the balls.

Not long ago, I made a very bad, thin hit on a 9-ball break. Most of the object balls went to the right; the cue ball came off the left-hand two rails and began rounding up object balls like a sheep dog, sending three into the right-hand corner and pocketing six in all, including the 9. I wonder what I’ll be charged for that one.

And we haven’t even begun to explore three-cushion billiards, in which the cue ball can bypass the second object ball with barely a quark to spare; or runs a route about as straight as a rattlesnake’s rectum in order to miss a shot otherwise unmissable; or the meddlesome first object ball decides to involve itself further with the shot, and preys upon the cue ball with hopelessly maddening kisses that are much more like the bites of mosquitoes and chiggers in the dankest swamp; or, contrariwise, steers an opponent’s hapless miss into a nasty score and, inevitably as night follows day, a victorious run…especially when you need but one more point to win yourself.

It’s safe to say that none of us enjoys these events (not when we’re the victims, anyway). What’s far less certain is why we keep coming back for more of them.