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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
 
September: Tres Bien Ensemble
September 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 1991]


Picture this: Yonder plump follow is wearing white wing-tip shoes — yes, white wing tips — and black socks, ankle height. You can tell the socks’ color and height because he is wearing green Bermuda shorts, too, and a matching Balon shirt, complete with bulging pocket-protector, stretching where it oughtn’t stretch. He appears to have grown the hair on the back of one side of his head for some years, Rapunzel gone cockeyed, so he can execute one of those always-deceptive global sweeps across the top, a part running horizontally along the nape of his neck as though he expected someone to approach and whisper into his nose.

He’s playing with a house cue, too. Is this not the primo egg in the henhouse of life? Would you or would you not ask him to play?

Well, they damn near had to call in Andy Frain security forces to restrain the howling mob that did; and all those players whose avarice was showing were severely punished for their haste. The splendid tonsorial/sartorial smorgasbord waddling before them was none other than Bill Stroud, then a.k.a. the Colorado Kid and a future cuemaking genius. Recalling Stroud’s chic ensemble, his former partner, Danny Janes, says, “If the shoes and socks didn’t get you, the legs sure would; if that wasn’t enough, the shorts surely would; and if all that were to fail somehow, that hairdo just couldn’t miss.”

Of course, Stroud was far from the first to get into role-playing as part of sucker recruitment, although he may have delved the furthest into the nerd imagery, and well before his time at that; Stroud at that stage might well have served as role model for Burger King’s ill-fated Herb. No, Bill Stroud was decades too late to be a true pioneer in pool thespianism. Hustlers were disguising their true identities — as well as their playing speeds — back in the glory days of the ’20s and quite possibly further back than that. Their chicanery was one of the early factors in the formulation of the game’s bum-rappers.

In its most shameless form, pool disguises went all the way to Masked Marvel players, who were still seen scores of years later. How they kept their identities secret, with such visible clues as cues, builds and styles of play in full prominence, may have been their most mysterious aspect of all. Their usual pitch was the carny-like, “$--- to any man who can best the Masked Marvel!” But some of those pear-shaped Zorros were upfront about their hustling, too. In the once-popular novel Cry Tough, a reference to such a player was made in a fairly well written straight pool scene. That novel was written in the early ’50s, but set in the postwar ’40s.

“Tugboat” Whaley acquired that moniker via his ongoing masquerade as a retired tugboat captain; in truth, it was doubted he could find the Hudson River. Luther Lassiter’s early playing wardrobe was comprised of bib overalls, broad-brimmed straw farmer’s hat and a left over straw strand on which to suck. “The Millionaire and his Chauffeur” was a scam that worked often and well all the way through the Depression. A world-class player/hustler from the ’20s and ’30s was called “The Major”; the only time in his life he had been seen truly snapping to attention was when the bartender bellowed, “Last Call!” And possibly the most horrific of all, that period gave us a male player who for years successfully passed himself off as a woman.

In short, there were few lengths to which the truly enterprising hustler would not go to disarm the incautious. With the advent of bar tables in the early ’60s, a whole new category of playing casualwear enjoyed meteoric sales, especially in the Midwest: truck driver overalls. “Cornbread Red” wore them, adding an open-thumb bridge for fuller effect, but he was a bona fide national cult legend by then and could have been excused for seeking a new identity like a tattletale federal witness. What was more ironic was that the new breed of bar hustlers — local shortstops who could not possibly have been known mere blocks away from their usual haunts — donned them as well, hoping to deceive a level of suckers who were already so naturally dumb that they’d probably have bought into the Emperor’s New Cloths.

Tall Al, a quiet, long-term fixture on Chicago’s limited pool panorama, invested in the overalls, too, choosing the stylish forest green. Tall Al (the same height as me, 6’ 1”, but 60 pounds lighter) may have indeed seemed tall in his truck driver costume, but it required a giant leap of faith to otherwise identify him as having much to do with the transportation industry. To balance his lack of bulk, Al went around with his buddy, another nice guy deservedly named Fat Jerry, also in overalls, usually gray or khaki. Jerry’s girth lent badly needed credibility to their roles, but overall the two men looked less like drive-and-helper than an oversized but neatly clad number 10.

The thing is, what is it about truck driver overalls, or any other disguise, that gains a guppy’s confidence? Do they proclaim, “Behold, I am salt of the earth as you are, and therefore cannot possibly know anything about pool?” How? Why? And what is it that a pool player is supposed to look like that ambitious schemers work so hard to avoid?

In the early days of the mind-numbing philosophy called existentialism, there was a deceptively sophisticated gag: There was this guy. He wore a mask every day of his life. One day he took it off and robbed a bank. They’ll never catch him.

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