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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
 
March: Hy and Gregg
March 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from March 1999]


Highpockets” was all I ever heard him called, although I also understood that his real name was Hy. Thus, saying “Hi” to him with a straight face became a real exercise in self-control. Yet, it somehow seemed easier if you thought you were saying, “Hi, High…” and not “Hi, Hy,” to say nothing of “Hey, High…” if you decided to address him at all, which was unlikely. After all, the only really predictable response was something that sounded like, “Wah,” and why go out of your way for one of those?

God, he was old. In the last downtown incarnation of Bensinger’s, which at one time actually housed billiards and pool on separate floors, old goats lined the walls. Few ever spend as much as $2 at any given time, or even on any given day, week, month or era; most just watched the games and reminisced with whatever spirit they could muster, which wasn’t much — and even they said of Hy, “He’s a very old man.” When last seen, in the mid- to late ’60s, Hy was thought to be close to 90, but that didn’t have a lot of credibility because that’s about where the estimates were when I first saw him play in the early ’50s.

For any age, Hy played a very deceptive game, hardly bent forward from the waist at all, nursing a ghastly cigar or what remained of one, and shooting off an open thumb. His only game was 5 by 10 one-pocket, and if he ever bet more than $2 at it, you can be sure he did not exceed $3. Naturally, he shot to pocket no balls whatsoever except cinches or freebies, and in fact was the very embodiment of everything that makes you wrinkle your nose when you think of old men playing pool: ultra-crafty and slow, slow, slow. Yet there was a great deal to be learned from watching Hy, as his mistakes were rare, and he invariably erred on the side of conservatism. The first time I ever saw Hy in action, he was playing Joe Procita, who at the time was still one of the best six or eight in the world. With 8-6 and the break, Hy gave Joe fits. “I never seed such a player!” cue-brandishing Joe bellowed dramatically if ungrammatically, as Hy patiently nudged the balls toward the nonbusiness end of the table, bunching them up uselessly but colorfully, much like a baboon’s behind during mating season.

When Bensinger’s relocated a few miles north in the early ’60s, a lot of the old gents disappeared. Hy was still around, though, as was one of his redoubtable $2 opponents, Gregory “Carolina” Stevens. No one ever thought to ask the latter which of the Carolinas he was indebted to for his moniker; among the Bensinger’s crowd, there may well have been those who did not know that such a choice even existed. Besides, he claimed to have lived all over the country, and he very much bore traits of a true southern gentleman, tipping his hat to women, drawling gently and thoughtfully. Carolina’s trade was what used to be called “pantry man” in commercial kitchen jargon, which means he made salads in fine restaurants as a young man and, with the passing of the years, in short-order grills and such. He was only occasionally able to work, the villain being arthritis, which twisted his neck around to the extent that seemed to approach 200 degrees. He and Hy made for quite a match, and unless you were a real student of the game — and I was in my first year or two at it back then — sweating their match was about as scintillating as a six-pack of Nytol.

Actually, now that I think about it, you could have diced up the side bets every bit as ingeniously as they do with the Super Bowl, if anyone could have stayed awake long enough to check out the results. The over/under on how many innings it took before the object balls were headed the wrong way? Three such innings would have made for a suspenseful sweat bet. Over/under on how long an individual game might go? One hour would be a fair proposition, but no one would have given you much of a price. Over/under on how many times per game the incoming player would face a layout of all object balls behind the headstring? Off the boards; that was the majority of the game. You could safely bet the mortgage they would break even.

I only played Hy once, a classic encounter between the canny old codger and the dumb, over-eager shot-maker, except that this time the shot-maker won. As yet I had no concept of the game whatsoever except to fire at the edge of any ball I saw; one or two such wild-eyed shots went in, and I ran out a few games for a prestigious $6 score. Hy didn’t know how to defend against that, and when his customary “Hey! Hey! Hey!” commands to the cue ball metamorphosed into “Wah! Wah! Wah!”, then the ultimate in eternally damning pronouncements, “Ptooooeeeyyy!”, I could tell that his patience had been sorely tested and the session had not long to live. On the other hand, I summoned up all the Job-like patience I could muster and played Carolina any number of times. Away from Hy, Carolina might occasionally go as high as $5, and I never failed to make him cackle out loud with delight by intoning dignifiedly, in my very best cornpone, “Ladies an’ gemmuns, fo’ yo’ dinin’ pleashuh, Mistuh Gregoreh Stevens, in th’ pantrreh!”

Carolina outlasted Highpockets by more than a decade, not altogether a kindness since his unfortunate condition advanced to the point where it could make you wince to watch him walk. I would suppose he’s gone now; the last time I saw him, I had my then-young son with me, and Mr. Gregory Stevens, with my grudging approval, gave my son a quarter. What a nice old guy. I hope he went somewhere that he could find his friend Hy. The two of them could play ‘til eternity. Which was exactly what it seemed like they were doing when they were here.

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