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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
May: Tall Tales
May 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 1995]

Clean-lookin’ pool player, ain’t he?”

Such were the very first words I ever heard spoken about the redoubtable Albert Lamoreaux, much more commonly known as Tall Al, and they were certainly true, at least the first two. Despite the moniker, his height was unremarkable — a shade under 6’1” — but he could not have weighed more than 140, thus looked much taller; and since his herky-jerky game was utterly without rhythm, he seemed almost ungainly around the table, at least until you took note of balls regularly falling into holes. Al didn’t look much like a pool player, but, as the Beatles repeatedly said of Paulie’s grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night,” he was clearly a very clean man.

The only really noteworthy facet of Al’s pool was that he almost never lost. He was capable of running three or four racks in either 14.1 or 9-ball, or eight in one-hole, and in Chicago circles that qualified him as a bona fide shortstop. The games he made with lesser players were invariably fair, and he rarely bet more than $10 a game. Al seemed to win 99 percent of the time, testimony not so much to his skill at the game as his skill at survival. He had a ninth-grade education and in the 40-odd years I knew him, he worked not one day. Yet he always got the rent paid, was never out of action and, of course, was always clean.

Tall Al, in fact, was quite good company, especially in a money room like Bensinger’s once was. Since he never played sociably, his games were always good for a sweat; in the absence of pool action, he was extremely knowledgeable about pro sports, especially baseball, therefore was good conversation too. I used to call him “Corporal,” in observance of his active duty in Korea, and he took the ribbing well, considering he did not hold that lofty rank long before the Army took it away from him for something or other. “I had my own jeep driver once,” he would recall. “And on the boat back I saw a lot of the guys I had gone over with, and the rank they make, and I was ashamed of myself.” Not that he ever lost his perspective; his other favorite reminiscence was, “Everybody sailed home with their mustering-out pay. Coulda won forty, fifty thousand in those crap games. I didn’t. But I coulda.”

And that represented maybe three month’s-worth of speech for Al, whose typical reaction to anything said to him was three nods and a “Yeah.” Chicago’s ultra-expressive Freddy Bentivegna, who grew up watching Al play pool from afar as I did and went on to become the tall man’s best friend, remembers, “I brought Al home for dinner every night for eight weeks in a row once, and he never made a peep. You talk about your Clean Plate Club; Al went down to the last morsel every time.”

Tall Al’s real passion was the racetrack. He was a damn good handicapper and he had an even easier time finding backers for that than he did at pool. While he was almost obsessively secret about his results, there wasn’t much doubt that he won and lost many tens of thousands of dollars over the years. He claimed to have been an exercise boy when he was younger and his seriousness and love were indisputable. In that regard, he was quite like pool’s legendary Brooklyn Jimmy, with whom he was fast friends for a lot of years; pool was no more than a means to an end. Al admired almost everything about Jimmy. At one time, Jimmy owned the largest hunting and fishing resort in all of super-affluent Bucks County, Pa., and one of the first chums he invited to take in all the trappings of his success was Al. It was not easy to picture Al, who spent virtually all his adult life breathing in the smoke of poolrooms and racetracks and his own Camels, in the midst of all that clean air and good living, but he raved about both Jimmy and the experience tirelessly.

Yet it was completely unlikely that Al every aspired to those kinds of holdings for himself; he was unusually quiet and modest about every single thing he did and surviving at a decent comfort level was goal enough. He used to get a kick out of my telling him about the outfit he was wearing the first time I ever saw him play; brown plaid pants, a pistachio-green half-sleeve shirt and the ubiquitous white hanky flapping out of a back pocket. “If you say,” he’d shrug, shaking his head and grinning. His memory was clearer on the opponent, a dotty old plodder everybody called Hy Pockets, against whom he played one-pocket regularly on Friday nights. Hy was fairly formidable, allowing that he sent every available ball, often all 15, to the back end of the table just as early in the game as possible; and since I had seen him play long before I ever saw Tall Al, the first time I ever saw their Friday encounter I automatically made Al the underdog. “Let’s watch this guy,” I remember saying naively to my equally underaged buddy. “He looks fresh.” Al got a big charge out of that story too. “Maybe I was,” he’d allow.

When all those years of too many packs of Camels a day finally caught up with Al, it was Freddy that took him in, not only housing and feeding and caring for him, but transporting him back and forth to Chicago’s wretched Veteran’s Administration Hospital, which was all that was available to Al. What remained of the local pool scene never quite seemed the same without him. Freddy swore that horseracing, about which Al taught him a great deal, felt precisely the same way. I made it my business to notify Brooklyn Jimmy, who had fallen on hard times of his own, that Al was finally gone; somehow, I thought he’d want to know.

If I never learned anything else from Tall Al, I know now what a lousy idea it is to take people you like for granted.