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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
 
February: Billiards in the Afternoon
February 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from January 1999]


They seem made for one another. Pool is essentially a game of the night, but its stately upper-crust cousin, billiards, was meant to be surrounded by silence and calm. And where and when better to create that forum than in a poolroom in the afternoon, where the disruptions to oneís focus are only slightly more numerous than in the public library?

Ever since high school, Iíve had occasion to be in the poolroom by day whether I had any business being there or not, and itís mostly the billiards players you can count on to be in attendance. At the pre-expansion version of Chicagoís Chrisís Billiards, the lights above the 3-cushion tables began glowing earlier than the afternoons, usually before 10 a.m. This was before the advent of European tables with heated slates. Chrisís faithful choose from among four ancient Brunswicks offering the peculiar playing combination of slow-and-long. You could come out of a dead corner and still reach damn near the first diamond in the opposite diagonal corner, if you could hit the ball that hard. Yet, so devoted was that 3-cushion crowd, at their posts seven mornings a week, that they virtually paid the roomís rent by themselves. If you were a pool player, and especially one who wished to play for money, it was a tight race to see whether youíd starve or die from boredom first in the afternoons. But if you wanted to play billiards, you could just put your name on the waiting list.

And Chrisís was only a larger-scale version of my first room, the beloved Morse Avenue Recreation Center, where $2 or $3 was already fairly stiff action when you could find anyone to play, which certainly wasnít in the afternoons. Not that that dissuaded me in the least; as an athlete (tennis), I was blessed with early dismissal from school practically year-round, thus was usually and needlessly in place by 2:45 daily to lurk for the usual suckers. But that early, there were only billiards players. The late Bill Romain, who would eventually place as high as third nationally, ruled the roost, largely because he would not play except for money and therefore avoided old Harry Lewis, who was actually 72 years young, had all his hair, needed no glasses, never hit the ball hard, knew immediately whether he had scored upon contact with the first object ball, and probably played a .90-plus to Romainís .85. You could learn something just about every time you played Harry Lewis, although you couldnít win a dime. You could learn from Romain, too, except the first lesson would be not to play him again. And as a gawky, know-it-all teenager, naturally I wanted no part of either proposition.

What was of interest to me was a whole flock of billiards players about Romainís age (then about 25) but who played several notches below his level and would still bet $1 or $2. Why were they available in the afternoons when most men were ensconced in offices? I donít know. I never asked. And my own wayward ways convinced me that Iím of the last people on the planet who should point fingers. Most of them claimed to be salesmen of something or other. I had very little idea of what I was doing, but as I was one of the better pool players in the room, I had no trouble cutting the first object ball thin, and that edge alone was enough to make me competitive with the semi-salesmen. ďI wish I had your eyes, George,Ē was a frequently sighed refrain, a telling statement of their skills since as a mid-teen I was probably already legally blind without my glasses. Most afternoons, I could score anywhere from $4 to $8 ó and working hard óand I thought I was experiencing a sneak preview of heaven.

At that blissful level of ignorance, you develop some paradigms of the game that really seem funny when you look back at them. For instance, I was absolutely convinced that there was no such thing as playing billiards well all day; the game simply allotted you so many billiards a day and no more, thus starting out hot was a mixed blessing because you were using up your quota early. Also, watching Romain, Harry Lewis and Classic League and Bowling Hall of Famer Alfy Cohn spin out more sixes and eights than a Vegas casino on Saturday night suggested to me that this was the gameís status quo; that was what you were supposed to do, so who could take any real joy in a profusion of puny ones and twos? All billiards scored against you by cue ball backup, no matter who authored them, are a matter of sheerest luck and nothing else. And any run of bad luck ó kiss-outs, misses by a quark, your opponentís kiss-ins ó came off as part of a nefarious conspiracy the game had somehow arranged for me.

But some of my views were at least partially accurate, too. My introduction to pool took place in an era when billiards was frequently offered right alongside it in most Chicago rooms I visited, and the billiardists I met in the afternoons back then were invariably a nicer class of guy than the pool players at night. The game itself, bereft of pockets, has no ďplopsĒ among its sounds; itís all polite taps and clicks, and as the day passes and your mind-chatter falls away, billiardsí serene cadence almost suggests a Bach fugue. A successful score is one-tap-and-two-clicks versus one-and-one; one-plus-two comes up nearly half the time amongst experts, and the majestic game articulates a rhythm all its own.

A lot of the major love songs (and blues, for that matter) rhapsodize about the night. Too bad those composers never uncovered billiards in the afternoon. Now thatís passion.

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