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.
Best of Fels
July: Dippin' 'n' Slippin'
"The ball does not know what you have done to it," asserted this publication's own Hall-of-Fame writer Robert Byrne some years back, defending his firm stand that one stroke is all that's necessary to play any of the cue games. Byrne's wisdom, on the face of it, is unassailable; the cue ball's IQ is a matched set with its shape, and in fact, one is hard-pressed to think of any game or sport where the ball does have such insights. But that doesn't mean his point of view enjoys universal acceptance. Tim Miller ("The Monk"), one of America's premier instructors, has always taught four separate strokes, and the consensus among top pros today seems to be, "Intermediate players can probably get by with one stroke. But if you expect to become advanced at all, that's not going to be enough - or if it is, you're going to be working a lot harder than you have to."
Just about any tournament will demonstrate that highly skilled players do appear to have widely varying techniques in striking the cue ball. What those experts have in common, though, is that their cues are as level as possible and traveling in a perfectly straight line, to exactly the desired point, at the instant of cue-ball impact. That's a given; what's a lot more fun is to look at how they get there.
The nation's sports media regularly followed and reported on both pool and billiards, at the national championship level, until World War II, when virtually all tournament play was suspended. The lion's share of that journalism, though, had to do with results and, if enough space was available, the progress of any given game. The first real attention any sportswriter ever paid to an individual's playing style was probably the focus given to 1920s straight-pool champion Frank Taberski - specifically, how slowly he played. Taberski was actually a brilliant player who shared all that decade's titles with the far more famous Ralph Greenleaf, and he was damn near that good. But, like football's infamous Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels and baseball's all-time goat Fred Merkle, Taberski seems destined to be remembered for that lone negative.
But that reportage has to do with pace, not stroke production. Thus we have no records whatsoever as to who introduced the technique known as the slip-stroke, or what that player had to say about it. Golf can point to all-timers Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and, today, Tiger Woods as examples of stroking perfection. Baseball had Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Pool's counterpart would have to be the late Jimmy "Cowboy" Moore, another Hall of Famer. But we have no idea who might have preceded him, or from whom he might have learned that gorgeous swing, and Moore himself was no help whatsoever. "I never gave my stroke 30 seconds' conscious thought in my life," he always averred.
To oversimplify the technique, the slip-stroke involves the player's relocating his stroking hand to a point lower on the cue, between the last practice stroke and the actual delivery. Exactly why the player does that is considerably more elusive than that.
From one point of view, it appears to be a way of creating a backswing without moving the striking instrument, and you certainly can't do that in any other sporting endeavor known to man. Yet other experts claim that that is not why a player slip-strokes. One of the more intriguing explanations I've heard came from three-cushion and one-pocket author Eddie Robin: "It's a way for the player to re-capture the inner rhythm of his practice strokes and transfer it to his delivery." And that would indeed help explain why no player ever had to have the technique taught to him (or is willing to admit that he did).
But Moore was certainly wonderful to watch. Like Taberski, he will be remembered for that lone quirk far more than for any titles he might have won. Oddly, he had a Detroit boyhood buddy named Alton Whitlow (who would carry the moniker "Babyface" most of his adult life), who started playing pool at just about the same time and hit the cue ball the exact same way. (Moore was about as much of a cowboy as Garrison Keillor, and did not don boots, Stetson, and/or lariat tie until moving to New Mexico in his 50s.) Whitlow was both more low-key and lower-profile than his pal, and generally shunned tournaments to hustle. It was a lot of fun, though, to see him take on a mark in a bar, apply that humongous slip-stroke to one of the bar's inevitable shortened cues, and see his hand go wailing clear off the end of the cue. Whitlow had to claw just to keep the dismal little wand from hitting the floor.
The other affectation that often accompanies the slip-stroke is the peculiar habit of dipping the cue tip down past the cue ball's edge to where the base of the ball meets the cloth. The hand-eye coordination involved is remarkable, as these players brave a margin no larger than a quark in avoiding a foul, and yet they virtually never do; some say that seeing their ferrules reflected in the cue ball (assuming the balls are clean enough) is yet another way of standing up to the dreaded "mind chatter." Moore's fellow Hall of Fame members Willie Mosconi and Dallas West were both dippers, and so was all-time hustler "Brooklyn Jimmy" Cassas. "I lost count of all the students I had who had seen Willie or Dallas play, and wanted to do that," says the great teacher Jerry Briesath, "and I told them all the same thing: 'Yes, it's pretty, and it works for them, but leave it at that. You can't hit the cue ball down there, so why put your cue tip anywhere where you can't hit the ball?'"
What's more clear is that hardly any of today's prominent pros seem to hit the ball that way (with the notable exception of the wondrous Larry Nevel). Thus it's possible that the slip-stroke, like balkline billiards, the fist bridge, and rack aprons, was simply a figment of its era. I miss seeing it. Sometimes I wonder who else does.