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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: Scoring Early
March 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1994]

[Reprinted from February 1994]
I’ve had “A good pool player is a sign of a misspent youth” thrown at me ever since I misspent my youth. And whoever the source is (the remark is alternately credited to Samuel Butler, Mark Twain or Oliver Wendell Holmes), that gentleman was undoubtedly too caught up in his own wit to take a closer look at the youth in question and uncover some real heartbreak.

While the quote may be uncaring, it is by no means inaccurate. Virtually every top player today was phenomenally good phenomenally young; not only do teenagers have all the best of hand/eye coordination, they also have uncluttered memories, thus far fewer mental distractions for what is a deceptively mental endeavor. The sad catch is that too many of those skilled kids are not content merely to be outstanding at an innocuous game; what they are is all too content to turn their lives over to it.

“That $30, $40 a day looks awful tempting when you’re 15, 16 years old,” far more than one high school dropout has told me, the words and even the inflection virtually identical from one to the next, as though a mass brainwashing had taken place. The noteworthy thing about that philosophy is that the speakers were only occasionally coming from poverty. Most could easily have afforded to stay in school and go forward with their lives; thus it was not the money itself so much as the allure of somebody else’s money taken with relatively little effort. “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” said Fast Eddie Felson in the sequel to “The Hustler,” nine insightful words indeed.

Competition was so sparse in the room where I learned to play pool that I was to be reckoned with before I could even run a full rack. I won a few bucks on a near-daily basis from other kids who could well afford it and would probably have happily gone on losing it. But one day I beat some total non-player out of $15 or so playing rotation, and suddenly $3 or $4 no longer felt worth striving for. Thus, I was done playing with the guys with whom I was friendly, and teenagers being what they are, it was only a matter of some weeks before they ceased being friendly. In my era, dropping out of school was all but unheard of; and I wouldn’t have been tempted to anyway, as clean a thrill as that early score was. But, as the great player Allen Hopkins point out in the now-celebrated cover story on Ewa Laurance in The New York Times Sunday magazine, “Let’s face it; most of the men have had rough lives.” Jack “Jersey Red” Breit, born in Newark in the ultra-glum year 1929 and thus an instant authority on growing up poor, still clearly remembers his first score, in which he parlayed one thin dime into $70 (first a 50 cent triumph, playing nickel-a-game, soda on the side; on to a 25 cent ring game where he made $5; $15 more, at $5 a game from the last remaining ring player; then $50 at straight pool from the room owner — and he had to lie about his age to gain admittance in the first place). “I knew then I had no place to go but up,” he’s been quoted as saying; although he flirted with a major league baseball career before getting hurt.
I don’t claim for one instant that education would have been the salvation of many a pool bum, nor is it the end-all and be-all of social grace. There’s no shortage of holders of advanced college degrees who are also total dolts. But the game is so pervasive and maintaining one’s ability at it so fragile a process, that it’s just too easy to find time for nothing else. While no formal statistics are kept on this, they’d back me up if there were: The percentage of high school dropouts among male pro pool players is appalling. I know of at least three, and there are certainly more, who never finished grade school. You could dip your hand into a piranha bowl and still count professional pool’s college graduates on that same hand. The ’70s gave us modest cause celebre in Tom Jennings, a teacher of college math who, after going 0-8 in four previous BCA U.S. Open 14.1 Championships, erupted to win the whole shebang in 1976 and 1977. In an earlier era, there was Bill “Weanie Beanie” Staton, who went to the University of North Carolina. The women nearly always finish high school but have not been led by a collegian since the ’60s (Bowling Green’s San Lynn Merrick). Before that, you have to go clear back to Ruth McGinnis (Shippensburg State, Pa.). But the women don’t gamble like the men. Pore over the ranks of men who have turned their lives over to pool and the main culprit will just about invariably be that early score. Gambling remains one of the more passive efforts, in terms of gaining much in return for putting in little, that man has ever figured out for himself. Accordingly, there are louts to be found in every single form of it, even in the so-called “sport of kings,” horseracing. Pool would never have attained the bum rap we’ve all been laboring for 60 years to overcome if it hadn’t been inexorably intertwined with gambling.

That $15 or so I won in the early ’50s wouldn’t make up one-third of the ante for a respectable bet today. But I can still remember how that meager score felt; multiply that sum by two or three, in the hands of a kid who really needs the dough, and I can only imagine how powerful those feelings must be. Rather like the oceanic phenomenon known as undertow, I suppose. Which hadn’t been known to do anybody any good either.