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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
August: Watching Her Go
August 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1995]

Quitting at the top is fine if you’re a B-movie or Michael Jordan. Much more often, we cling dearly and sadly to what we love even when things have reached the downhill slide, occasionally at avalanche speed.

Nowhere is that more true than in pool, where competitors quite well-grounded in reality everywhere else in their lives cling to a vainglorious notion that they alone are immune to the tweak of time, in the manner of the late Bette Davis’ monstrous “Baby Jane.” Most of the time, the game is merciful and eases her players down gently; sometimes, unfortunately, she hurls them off the peak of Mt. McKinley. Either way, it’s a rare player who’s willing to admit he/she’s perceived the difference, if indeed that difference has been perceived at all.

Of course, even the subtle slips of one’s game can serve the purpose of blood in the water at a shipwreck. Often, a skilled observer can pick up a missing nuance far faster than the player can; and any number of eye-opening scores have been made over games based not on what is, but what was. This, then, would be the “litany” concept of game-making: “But you beat Lefty Dugan like a drum. You run eights and nines and hundreds. You used to play me 17 to three.” The fading player thus sees his full competitive dossier and his ego being erected at the same time, right up until he goes off like a landmine field under a square dance.

What goes first? Some say the legs, but legs are outlandishly strong to begin with. So, the legs only figure to be a factor in long session play. Given the American male’s genius for abusing his own body, the back seems at least as vulnerable a muscle group as the legs in letting one’s cue game of choice drift off to sea. After all, an overweight condition produces a belly, and the back has to work that much harder to support its worthless brother-in-law of a belly. After working that glum little double shift all day, the back may well show up for pool in some disarray. If it squawks, the player’s stance will probably be altered to accommodate it; that changes the player’s balance, and all the other dominoes begin to topple. Nevertheless, bad-back specialists can be formidable foes; many of them have a masochistic streak and use their pain to drive their focus, while still others have perfected the genteel art of groaning in agony just as you have completed your backswing.

In my own case, the body is miraculously still firm, while the brain in charge of it pleasantly turns to porridge. There are observers who have attested that I haven’t been the same player since I quit busting cues, and that was over 20 years ago. Apparently, that was how my competitive drive was clocked back then, and that is indeed when I logged my all-time high run. Of course, I never attained any dizzying heights from which to fall. I’ve won matches from regional players but was never good enough to play consistently among them. I’m aware of having been a somewhat better shotmaker than I am today, but I think the real difference is in my willingness to try shots rather than my ability to make them. And if my shooting eye was indeed keener when I was younger, I didn’t know nearly as much, which feels like a fair tradeoff.

Thus, the only aspect of my game left to examine is the computer between my ears, as I suspect is the case with more players than one might guess. It’s not that my faculties are imperiled — they had very little chance to begin with — but the same processes that work directly to my advantage as a writer are foursquare in my way as a player and, as I age, are increasingly stubborn about yielding their right of way. It’s an unusual strain of what some players call “Analysis Paralysis”; it doesn’t slow my overall pace much, but there’s more mental interference on individual shots, and all that excess baggage is a bit much to carry. Maybe a few dozen synapses out of hundreds of millions are garbling what should be familiar messages; a few inches of more or less cue ball travel get away; a few more or less cue ball revolutions are sensed. I need to be clear to play anywhere near my potential, and what I am instead is more cluttered.

The game is therefore coming to me not from a base of “I love you,” but one of “I still love you, but…” For better or worse, I’ve never had any other mistress; on the flip side of that, no one else has ever toyed with me the same way. I dare not plead with her, “How can you do this to me after so many years of undying devotion?” I fear her response will be, in her fearsome, frosty fickleness, “Hey, shit happens!” Where my pool game once evoked silent yet exuberant love songs, it now recalls Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” from back in my long-run, cue-busting days. And what turns up missing today is rarely major; I run practice 30s and 35s instead of 40s or 50s, hit my peak (such that it is) in two hours instead of 90 minutes. It’s not unlike a relationship in which your mate has stopped squeezing your hand for no reason as he/she passes you by. Older lovers tend to accept these things more philosophically.

Maybe the hardest part of watching your game get away is that the game itself is such an expert tease and doesn’t at all mind emitting false signals that things between the two of you are just dandy. I ran a 94 at home a few months ago, my best in four-plus years, and I thought I heard whisperings of full reconciliation. What I’ve mostly heard from her since, however, are murmured variations on the poignant theme, “In your ear, Bozo. Too many birthdays.”

In pool, as in life, the older we get, the better we used to be.