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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
 
June: Sneaking up
June 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from March 2000]


Just think of all the wretched things that young kids do to one another. Two approach a third; one kneels in back of him, while the other comes up in front and pushes the third over his buddy. (This move has been legalized in the NBA as a “pick.”) There’s the silent treatment, of course. And then there’s the atrocity called “Ditch ’im.” You remember it? Four or five cherubs are walking down the street. On a prearranged signal, the three or four ditchers dash off to an agreed-upon meeting place, leaving the ditchee alone in tears and lining his shrink’s couch well into the next millennium.

Do you think “Ditch ’im” can’t take place in pool?

There was a nice old guy who struggled with his feeble pool game all his days. He’s still around. Everybody likes him. Let’s call him Benjy. If a bunch of guys were leaving the poolroom for some all-night place, Benjy would call his wife first to ask if he could go too; sometimes he would beg. He was just that kind of fellow.

It was rare that Benjy would bet more than $2, but he still booked a winner every 14th Michaelmas. The pressures of pool bore down upon him even in practice, to the point where his alleged stroke was reduced to a pathetic wrist-flick.

Naturally, he sought out help. Some were sincere and pointed out correctly that Benjy’s problem was a mental disconnect between the time he aimed and his actual delivery. As is often the case in pool, some were less kind, offering such solutions as advancing the leg on his shooting side in his stance. Benjy looked something akin to a sprinter in mid-flight; unfortunately, at 5 feet 6 inches or so, he still weighed about a deuce, and balancing all that heft on the wrong leg was a feat he could only occasionally master. Many a time Benjy would politely ask his opponent for help in regaining his feet and, after great tugs and groans, he would finally be restored for more off-balance, futile twitches at the cue ball. One teacher, annoyed at Benjy’s lack of progress, actually suggested a one-legged stance, like a kung-fu master fighting crane style, but Benjy was too sharp for him and switched teachers.

Finally, all the libertine teachers threw up their hands and gave up on Benjy, playing their own version of “Ditch ’im.” No one would give him any more lessons. Desperate, Benjy sought out the only national-class player around, a man who normally regarded him the way India’s ruling caste regards the untouchables.

“Can you help me?” Benjy pleaded, sounding oddly like the late Lou Costello.

“Sure,” said the charlatan, enjoying his new role as guru. “I’ve been watching you play for years, Benjy, and I know exactly what the problem is. And I know how to fix it.”

“And?” Benjy squealed excitedly, practically overdosing on anticipation.

“Fifty hogs first,” said the player, who himself was a devout disciple of the bottom line. Benjy paid eagerly.

“Sneak up on the ball,” he was told.

“Sneak up on the ball?”

“Sneak up on the ball. You stand there dying over every shot, you’re communicating all your nervousness and lack of confidence to that cue ball, the way things are now. If it doesn’t know you’re going to shoot it, it will behave more the way you want it to.”

Benjy practiced his new technique diligently. It took quite some getting used to on the part of the regulars in Benjy’s favorite room, as he would plan and measure his shots from four to five tables away. Benjy was careful not to make direct eye contact with the cue ball as he stalked, because that might tip off the shot. Then he would scurry back to his table, demonstrably taking his customary waddle to a new gear, as he completed his attack. A few balls went in now and then, more or less the way they always had, but Benjy was supremely happy.

The first time Benjy took his new tactics into combat, it was a $3 9-ball game in a bar. Sure enough, his opponent left a tough 9, and Benjy retreated to the door. He tipped his omnipresent hat over one eye, for a tubby but cool Sinatra look; he glanced out of the corner of his other eye at the shot, like a man trying to look up a woman’s skirt without being too obvious. “Excuse me,” he said courteously to sweators and patrons alike, menacing his table covertly from a distance of 30 feet.

His bemused opponent asked, “Might I inquire as to exactly what is transpiring before me here?” (Or somewhat more coarse words to that effect.)

“Be patient,” Benjy called out above the bar’s din. “I’m sneaking up on it.”

“How’s that again?”

“I’m sneaking up on my shot,” Benjy shouted in explanation, closing to within 20 feet, pardoning himself gallantly as he bumped into someone emerging from the crapper. “Shouldn’t be long now.”

Four minutes later, Benjy charged the table with a rich primal sob and, with no practice strokes, twitched the 9 into diamond 1 ½, thence off four rails, a cue ball kiss and into an unsuspecting side pocket.

“Sweet Jesus!” the opponent observed, depositing three one-dollar bills in blind panic upon the table and hurtling himself through the door, never to be seen again.

“Isn’t that always the way?” Benjy protested to anyone who cared to hear. “I work my fingers to the bone getting my game together, I finally turn the corner, and the opposition runs like thieves in the night. I may have to give up pool hustling altogether now.”

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