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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
December: Geezerball
December 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 1997]

The aging spectators stretch their creaky limbs and groan in the delicious agony in the sparsely populated bleachers. And the main reason this is considered no great breach of etiquette is that the pool players they behold, especially the ones in the seated position, are doing the same thing. Welcome to the Magical Mystery Tour of Steve Mizerak Senior Events, described by one enchanted patron as “the best idea Steve’s had since he decided to play pool.”

While major tournaments are held periodically in the Chicagoland area, I can’t remember the last time I attended every single day of one. Although the hippie generation redefined the word “mellow” for decades to come, there remain some of us who remember what it originally meant, and what a blessed marriage it is with pool. The only perceptible falloff of play among the seniors is that you will see very few jacked-up, end-rail-to-end-rail showstoppers — not that the players are incapable, but simply that they have become too patient to even consider such a thing. Your trade-off, in exchange for those highlight-reel shots, will take the form of near-total player accessibility, no attitudes, no temperaments, hardly any matters of ego at all, and a superbly run meet where players and followers are in a tight photo finish to see who has more fun.

Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of 50-and-over pool is to see just how the competitors regard their own playing misdeeds. The atmosphere surrounding a seniors’ tournament is very different; although all combatants would welcome the highly respectable $6,000 top award, or even something lesser, hardly any is dependent on that, and the resultant relaxation can be felt all over the room. Not only are the players receptive to a good-natured heckle now and then, but usually the most high-strung tantrum to be found is a single mid-air, two-handed shake of a cue. A good 80 percent of the time, players react to their misses or position gaffes with a head shake and an ironic grin, as though to say, “Look what you went and did now, you old doofus you!”

The seniors’ top echelon, of course, can play with anybody. Larry Hubbart, Danny DiLiberto, Billy Incardona and others are renowned for booking few losers in unsanctioned competition; the latter two, besides possessing perhaps the only flat bellies in the field, have beaten Efren Reyes. Yet to the last man, all participants express relief at being away from players where three or four balls automatically fall on the break and players knock out five and six racks as though they were mere stretching exercises and coming back to the game more as it was meant to be played. The break box is a great equalizer for the seniors; on some of the slower tables, the break ceases to be much of a weapon and even turns into something of an iron boot. There is generally far more defensive play to be seen than in the professional mainstream, and 9-ball defense is captivating when you’re not used to watching it. One reason for that is that the seniors, between their experience at reading the angles and their total calm at facing the challenge, rarely miss their kicks. It’s not uncommon at all to see the player who is hooked respond with a kick that buries his opponent even deeper.

The only concession to age to be found anywhere, in fact, is that some of the players’ mannerisms are definite throwbacks to another era. Claude Bernatchez, a perennial Canadian winner, keeps his personal cube of chalk in his pocket the entire match as though it were the Hope Diamond, an idiosyncrasy I haven’t seen since the ’50s. Genial Milwaukeean George Pawelski, whose 28-year layoff from pool makes the late Joe Balsis’ 17 years away seem like a weekend retreat, combines a near-perfect part in his hair with a classic, sweeping, side-wheeling stroke for a look that suggests he arrived at the tournament through time travel. And nobody captures that old-time religion better than the fabled Larry “Boston Shorty” Johnson, who, with his every-present stogie and porkpie hat, recalls the great old song, “Small fry, struttin’ by the poolroom…”

The players’ low-keyedness doesn’t mean their personalities have melted away. Hubbart, as serene as Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” whether the score is hill-hill or 1-10 against him, made an interesting contrast with the chatty DiLiberto, who at one point explained to the crowd that his successful bank shot “rolled off,” and also fashioned the tournament finest expletive. Consoled after his hill-hill match with Hubbart, lost when he failed to score on the break in the climactic game, Danny opined, “Awww, borscht!”

Nice touches are the order of the day here. Tournament director Scott Smith is the best in America, and perhaps beyond, at what he does; although the player dress code calls only for collared shirts and slacks, he is tuxedoed for the last two days, providing illuminating player profiles, calling spectators’ special attention to hill-hill matches, and unfailingly asking for their applause for the vanquished. Discipline and grit are in attendance, too; Canadian Paul Thornley, winner of the new tour’s sixth event, endures a heartbreaking hill-hill loss to Incardona in which he led, 9-4, gets thoroughly drilled by DiLiberto in his debut on the one-loss side and promptly takes out a table and practices for four solid hours.

The Steve Mizerak Seniors Events tour is one of the best feet pool has put forward in many, many moons. It’s nothing more than incidental that one qualifies to play by having been born in 1947 or earlier. Everyone I saw there was utterly ageless.