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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
 
July: Old School
July 2019

By George Fels


When you stop to think about it, pool could have avoided close to 90 percent of its bum rap if only room proprietors of bygone eras had simply enforced a code of “No Loitering.”

While it’s popular to romanticize the pool hustler as a throwback to knights and gunslingers of yore, the more pragmatic fact is that he and a healthy percentage of his ilk were nothing more than bums who, first and foremost, needed dry roofs over their heads. And it wasn’t just a humanitarian matter of housing the homeless; most of those proprietors knew their customers by name, were loath to turn anyone away on any basis, and indeed understood that ultimately good players were also good for business. Sure, they scored off shmoes, but there were plenty of said shmoes and, despite what you occasionally hear, individual suckers rarely lost much in any given session. If a hustler scored decently, chances are it was off an opponent who could defend himself at the tables. And when the best players were done, there was usually a mini-stampede to get to the tables around them, on the part of spectators who suddenly and magically felt like playing themselves.

But allowing a room’s regulars to just hang out without playing, eating or drinking permitted the hustlers not only to lurk in waiting for their favorite customers, but to hone their craft as well. How else could the late Don Willis possibly have predicted a ball’s path along the poolroom floor, with good money on the line, if he hadn’t had ample time to study that floor? Practice time back then was cheap, although it was a very rare (and dumb) hustler who would flash his true skill in practice. Besides, many rooms left the racked balls on the tables and simply turned on the lights for paying customers; this afforded the hustlers the opportunity to post-mortemize previous games and moves, teach their proteges new tips, and conduct teeny little seminars that would surely have eclipsed any published instructional material known to man had they only been willing to share with a broader audience. Some were more brazen than that, and actually ran balls on the sneak and for free before the room got around to shooing them away and reracking the balls. Bensinger’s had an oddball who specialized in that; although his real name was Lenny, few people knew that and simply called him “Gus” because of his Greek heritage. Gus waged a daily war with Bensinger’s table porters that was reminiscent of buzzards sneaking a peck off a tiger’s kill. The birds advance only when the tiger walks off. Gus picked at Bensinger’s tables the same way, confident that there would be no tiger attack, only a very old black woman or man to sigh, walk slowly over to the table and rerack the balls even as Gus was sinking them, and meander away wordlessly. Gus played so much “night baseball” pool in this manner that he became knowns as “Lights Out Gus.”

I told my best friend Jack Gunne about Lights Out Gus once and he found the entire scene — white vs. black, old vs. young, quick vs. slow, monied bum vs. poor working stiff — so intriguing that he awoke his unfortunate wife at 2:30 the following morning with his cackling in bed.

“What in God’s name could possibly be so funny at this hour?” she groaned. “Lights Out Gus,” was all Jack could manage between wheezes.

In fact, Bensinger’s, despite its downtown Chicago location, did very little recreational walk-in business except for occasional servicemen. The carom players were in place every single day and probably came close to paying the rent themselves; they almost never bet anything and therefore more or less qualify as “recreationals.” Almost everybody who played pool there, however, could play pool.

And then there were those who did nothing at all, men who, in the popular parlance of the time, would “come in to get warm in the winter and take a pee in the summer.” Before Bensinger’s left downtown Chicago for good in the early ’60s, the city had not one but three Skid Row sections, all within hailing distance of the poolroom. The room semi-sternly drew the line at sleeping; the porter was always sent to rouse the bums, with a plea along the lines of, “Gimme a break.” But otherwise they could populate the room for months at a time without spending one dime.

I was barely 15 and a half (more than two years too few to be in the room legally) with maybe three months of playing experience when I thoughtfully selected one of those creatures as my first opponent. His pants were barely hanging on, but thankfully they stood that test. I had no real thought of beating him; I just wanted to see what it was like. We settled on the lordly sum of a quarter on the 5 and a half on the 9. He beat me out of about $2 and ran like a thief in the night, saying with practiced anxiety that he “had to go.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, already somewhat wise beyond my years in odd and mostly useless ways. “I can see you’re late for the board meeting at DuPont.”

Today, just about every major American city still has at least one known poolroom where an unknown can walk in off the street and get into a money game. Chicago has two. Happily, each is a clean and safe place with both recreational and serious play. Neither room has a bar, and regulars are allowed to hang out with no harm done.

But you sure wouldn’t call them “old school.” And even though most such rooms — Ames, McGirr’s, Julians, 711, Alinger’s, Detroit Rec, Palace and on and on — were little more than toilet bowls in their last days, in a semi-perverted way I still miss them.

The poolroom was run by an expressionless but pleasant little civilian named Harold, and fully 20 years after I left the Army, I heard he was still running the same room and had barely even aged. Harold presided from about 1:00 in the afternoon (oh, all right, 1300 hours) until 9:00 or so at night; most of the companies on post had lights-out of 9:30 or earlier. On Saturday night, he got to stay open a bit later, and naturally it was only on the weekends that he did any real business.

I was at Ft. Leonard Wood for basic training and on our first night, when we had finally been processed and collected and shown how to make a bed and asked if there were any questions before we were allowed at long last to hit those beds, my inquiry about a post poolroom came trippingly off my tongue.

“Whaddyou care about a poolroom, dud?” the sergeant snarled. “You’ll be a grandfather ‘fore you get any free time!”

“Sarge,” I croaked, stifling a sob, “I gotta know.”

“In that case,” said the noncommissioned officer, with true Christian magnanimity, “Yes, there is.”

So, I made it my business to seek out that poolroom well before I had anybody’s permission. For the third time during our eight-week cycle, I had drawn the mind-numbing duty of barracks orderly; it got you out of the day’s training and called upon you to greet officers entering the barracks for inspection and otherwise protect those barracks from those that might rob and pillage. The catch was, when you were in a basic-training company, you were surrounded by other basic-training companies, all of whom were gone during the same parts of the day, so there wasn’t anybody around for miles who was even a mild threat to rob and/or pillage, whatever that is. The barracks orderly assignment simply left you alone in a deserted barracks, your principal responsibility being to keep madness at bay.

Apparently, I failed in that responsibility, at least temporarily, because I cut out in the mid-afternoon, caught a post cab and asked for the poolroom. What a sense of release I felt walking into that place, greeted by two morgue-like rows of unused tables, the first real look at civilian life I had had in five weeks. There was not a soul in the universe who knew or cared where I was, no one to call me gratuitous names or give me mindless orders. Just me and pool and billiards (and, of course, Harold). Figuring I had about 90 minutes, counting travel, before my platoon mates came trudging back, I split my practice time between the two games, as though to gorge myself on recreation and store all that fun inside me as reserve energy for the cold, hard world of soldiering. I hadn’t hit a ball in over a month and played like it; the cue felt totally unfamiliar. I barely recognized the colors of the various balls. But I was an outlaw, and a successful one, having escaped time and confines and authority and, for a while, myself. Seldom if ever in the six years or so I had been playing the cue games had I enjoyed them more.

After I miraculously graduated basic training, I was assigned to a motor pool, where I quickly advised my next unfortunate sergeant that I was utterly helpless in things mechanical, and that it was in his best interest to keep me just as far as humanly possible from any and all vehicles. He immediately told me to take the whole day, every day, off, but stay out of trouble. And so, I had all my afternoons free for Harold’s. For company, I had, of course, Harold, and then mostly cooks, who were easy to spot, both for their Pillsbury doughboy physiques and their one-day-on-one-day-off routines, officers’ personal drivers with an hour or two to kill and, occasionally, another pure goof-off or two such as I. (It was from the latter group, needless to say, that the best pool players came.)

Thus, I had, in effect, put the entire rest of the world on hold decades before the same concept ever occurred to Ma Bell. The service had already shut my left brain down; all you had to do was zip your mouth and do exactly what you were told, and your right brain was free to drift off to wherever it pleased. I had temporarily shucked every last shred of identity for a few hours a day, all the while thinking, “Now this is Motor Pool the way it should be.” My time left in the Army dwindled to months and then weeks and then days. I had absolutely no idea of what I would do next with my life when that batch of time began, nor when it ended. I was at utter peace, the lazy afternoon games of that post poolroom the only connection with a previous life that I sought to maintain at all.

I’ve gone on to embrace the world on more realistic terms, but the pool is still firmly in place, only slightly less hypnotic than ever. Today, my existence blessedly complicated by career and family and love, I think back now and then to the time when the only aspect of my life that differentiated one day from the next was the quality of that afternoon’s pool. Sometimes I miss those days, sometimes not. I’ve changed. The Army has changed. The world has changed. But somehow I doubt Harold’s changed much.

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