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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
October: The Cop and I
October 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 1991]

I was raised in the kind of neighborhood that, sadly, has become all too rare in urban centers. You could send your kid out to play, fully confident that he/she would happily return home in fine health; there were no drugs and hardly any crime; what few gangs did exist were more properly called “clubs,’ and what very little fighting they did was done with fists.

All this meant that my neighborhood was a dream assignment for policemen, who had virtually no enemies except for ongoing boredom. So when the cop entered my first poolroom that day, we all assumed it was because he had nothing better to do. He could easily have turned up lots of underage illegals — Chicago law required a minimum age of 18 to be in a billiard room — but he really didn’t look like he gave a damn about that. This was a middle-aged officer tending toward plumpness. Maybe he was motivated by nothing more than boredom. No one knew quite what to make of it; no one considered that he might have merely felt like playing some pool. “Fels,” said one of my fellow smartasses, of whom there were many. “Go hustle that guy.” Obediently I swaggered forth, to the extend that a 140-pounder can swagger; my cue and I looked like a matched set back then. With less than a year’s experience around pool, I was not nearly sophisticated enough for the elitist challenge of, “Whachoo wanna do?”, but I held my own. I loftily lifted my pointy chin to indicate to the officer that it was indeed he I was favoring with attention, and smirked, “Shoot a game?”

“Yeah,” the cop said, “and he even seemed somewhat pleased. “I’d like to play.” At age 15½, I simply could not muster the stones to gamble; but my buddies didn’t have to know that. We made our terms in hushed tones that, from across the room, must have suggested either stakes or conspiracy or maybe both: 25 points of straight pool, loser pays the time. I could see all the grins sprouting all along the wall, and that was ample fulfillment for me. So I turned my attention to the business at hand.

It was obvious after an inning or two that I could have spotted the cop 15 points or more out of the 25 with no problem. But before I could embarrass him, somewhere within my quagmire of adolescent agonies there was a tiny peep of maturity that murmured, “You wouldn’t like it much if he did that to you.” Thus, instead of waxing the officer, as I easily could have, I carried him, and even gave him a few elementary pointers. He managed 17 or 18 by the time I got my 25; a grateful house, awash in visions of their license floating off to Never-Never Land, picked up the tab, for the first and only time in anyone’s memory.

Was a star born that day, under my Solomonic tutelage? Certainly not; this was the real world. The cop shot off an open thumb, and corresponded to what most of us think of as the average non-player. He could sink a ball or two now and then, maybe three in a row on a good day. With my help, he ran a six. Who among us has forgotten what it felt like the first time we did that? The next day — and this simply defies explanation — I was not at the poolroom. The Red Cross was immediately alerted, to avert further crisis. The nation’s flags dropped to half-staff.

Fast Georgie Fels missed a day at the poolroom. On the following day, I was back in place; the nation heaved a sigh of relief. One of my fellow smart-asses said, “The cop came back yesterday, Fels. He was looking for you. He wanted to play again.”

I waited for that policeman until I was half an hour late for dinner, thus incurring the worst of all punishments: a chewing out from my mother. And nobody ever saw that cop again. Now let’s consider this opus while imagining, for the sake of discussion, that I was employed by the poolroom. On the customer’s first visit, I did my job to the nines: I greeted him more or less appropriately; I provided suitable competition; I encouraged his enthusiasm and heightened his interest with helpful instruction.

On his second visit I did nothing.

He never came back for a third time.

All new-era poolroom owners, who have built your establishments in full expectation that the magic of this grand game alone — without your nurturing it somehow — is going to create standing-room-only business, at $10-plus per hour, should now have a much better understanding of why your tables are laying fallow. With all due apologies to Kevin Costner, if all you do is build it, they won’t come — not when the game is pool and you want them to come regularly. There’s a distinct limit on how long beginners will be willing to (1) miscue, (2) scratch, (3) miss the object ball, (4) miss easy shots, (5) laugh at one another’s mishaps…and then they will be all too happy to leave your fine new tables for dancing, drinking or TV. The ultimate joy of pool is in seeing object balls drop as planned; there are no substitutes for that. Help them to do that with any kind of consistency and you’re on the way to making them regulars; leave them to their own foibles and you’ve probably lost them. It’s your place, your investment, your livelihood; obviously, it’s up to you.

Whatever you spent for this issue is now fully justified.

Wise up fast.