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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
November: Pete and Tom
November 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1998]

Perhaps the single toughest aspect of being serious about your pool playing is that one day youíre going to have to admit you wonít be getting any better. Most of us will go to considerable lengths to keep that dreaded admission at bay, starting with tens of thousands of sweet, sweet dreams about just how good we are going to be. As kids, we rarely even think of ourselves as mortal; we expect to live forever. As budding poolists, we expect our games to grow until the day we become feeble; to confess that we have peaked is to concede that we are too old to improve, and nobody even wants to think that.

The only way to make peace with that gloomy realization is to understand that the real task at hand is to keep from slipping back In determining your own flair for self-honesty (or self-deception) about your pool growth, there is probably no better gut check than the first few times your kid asks if he can play with you. If the game has you in its control instead of the other way around, the little boy within you will still be sounding off loudly, announcing he doesnít care to share the table just yet. But if you tell your kid no the first three or four times he asks, he probably wonít ever ask again. So, there you are, with two terribly powerful impulses tearing you in opposite directions as though they were mustangs in reins. Is there any way to remain whole?

Unfortunately, yes. Itís a handy 13-word cop-out, almost unanimously resorted to by thousands of fathers over the years who were too self-centered or immature to set their own wants aside for a relative few minutes: ďRack the balls and watch what I do. Then Iíll let you play.Ē

Thus, did Pete Spencer address each of his first three sons, a few years apart, and within a week or so, each son in turn silently and respectfully told his dad exactly what he could do with his rack and balls. Pete was a handsome Chicago ad sales exec, that rare career man who could maintain his pool game despite full-time employment outside of it, and through the mid-í60s, when straight pool was still the tournament staple, he was one of the top 10 or 12 in town, a four-to-five rack runner, which was enough to make him a bona fide regional class tournament player. He had an odd way of settling into his shooting stance, a simultaneous side-to-side wiggling of the feet and spreading of the legs that suggested that he was about to begin the Charleston; add to that his distinguished appearance and businessmanís wardrobe, and he barely looked as if he belonged in the poolroom at all until he began to play. Outside the tournaments, he played no strangers, and rarely bet more than $5 with the opponents he did choose.

Pete was in his mid-fifties when his fourth son, Tom, then 11, asked if he could play, as each of his brothers had. But this time was different. Peteís precise 50- and 60-ball runs were becoming a bit further spaced, subtly wearing their way down to the 40s and 50s. He noticed that he was spending more time practicing at home and less time competing in the poolrooms, and his tournament finishes were closer to middle-of-the-pack than final eight. The anxiety over sharing table time with a beginner didnít shriek at him as hideously has it had with his other sons. And most of all, Tommy said, ďSure, Dad. Iíll rack the balls.Ē

So, Tommy racked and watched patiently for the requisite weeks, without whining or pestering his father for shots. When he was finally handed the cue, he did exactly as he was told. The emotional armor that Pete had built up around his own pool game began to crumble, one small chunk at a time, and he relinquished the table to his youngest son for longer and longer periods, although he continued to play the tourneys. Pete and Tom worked hard together for four years; Tom was allowed to try city tournament play for the first time at age 15, and he won a few games in the round-robin format. Christmas vacation that year, he and a buddy launched their first poolroom tour, looking for $1 9-ball action, maybe $2 if they were holding.

By his late teens, Tom was one of the Midwestís star players. His game seemed utterly without fear. He played the quintessential power game, slugging balls home from anywhere, all in the same rhythm and at the same speed. He beat Dallas West twice in the latterís home room; he notched a tournament win over Irving Crane. For the first few years of Tomís ascent, Pete was still competing too, but more and more of his energy was going into emotional support for his son. Unlike his father, Tom would play anyone for anything; also, unlike his father, he surrendered his existence to the game with virtually no resistance.

Pool has been Tomís principal trade for two-thirds of his life until recently. Pete is close to 90 now, nearly blind, and understandably not the same man since open-heart surgery within the last year. The full-time care he requires would be hopelessly unaffordable if it came from outside, so Tom lives in his fatherís house and spends most of his time seeing to Pete. Itís the closing of a full but imperfect circle; the father turned his pool life over to his son and the son turned his life over to pool, and then back to his father, as though something had been lost in translation.

Tom Spencer gives pool lessons occasionally, but seldom gambles, plays sociably, or even practices. He is 45, although his face belies that ó he has his fatherís looks ó and his fearless game appears not to have changed at all; he just won a weekend tournament over most of Chicagoís top players. But his hairline has receded to the same widowís peak Pete had; there will be no sons to ask if they can play too. And somehow he senses he will not be getting any better.