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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September: Red Hits Town
The late, famous pool hustler Jack "Jersey Red" Breit made his first Chicago appearance in the north-side version of Bensinger's on a miserable Saturday morning in November. The only two people in the poolroom who knew who he was were he and I. My knowledge came about not because I knew anything about road money players - I had been playing pool for just about 10 years at that point, yet I knew virtually nothing about that - but because I had read about him. I had stumbled onto the brilliant Dale Shaw article, "Anatomy of a Pool Hustler," in a "Best American Sports Writing" anthology of the early '60s, and then I managed to dig up the actual back issue of the ancient men's magazine Argosy where it first appeared. The article included some photos, thus I knew what he looked like, and that he smiled close-mouthed because he was self-conscious about his teeth (he would eventually have them fixed in Texas). As $10 was a huge bet by Chicago standards back then, he was probably the first high-stakes pool player I had ever laid eyes on. I had my usual practice table, he was at the sandwich bar, and I kept one eye on him as I went through my customary lackluster play to see how the great ones operate.
Red first landed a regular called Reno, a housepainter when he could find the work but a man who made most of his living from pool. He rattled in a few practice shots while Reno fetched a cue; I had the distinct impression he was testing the toughness of the pockets, which at Bensinger's was nonexistent. I suppose you could have called Reno a "hustler" in the most generous interpretation of that term, yet his shortcomings as a player were hard to overlook; I beat him damn near 90 percent of the time I played him, for Lord's sake. On the other hand, he had an incredible roster of customers (read "suckers") who came in exclusively to play him, would lose up to $20 without fail, and would not even remotely consider playing anyone else. Reno took his winnings home to his wife and got his two sons into city colleges, but he had no taste whatsoever for tough action. While he would ask strangers to play, a run of four or five balls and a demonstrated ability to draw the cue ball would usually discourage him greatly. Red kept him on the hook by stalling shamelessly and "riding the 9" at every single opportunity. Reno contributed $17 or $18 and then withdrew, without the vaguest idea as to who had just beaten him. He just thought he had run into someone who could play a little; no, thanks.
I was through with my practice by then, and had taken up Red's seat at the sandwich bar. I asked the counterman for a coffee - which I don't drink - and specified that he put it in a glass; from that article, I knew that was how Red drank his. Red looked up to see me studying him bemusedly. "Shoot a game?" he asked innocently.
"Have a coffee," I said, indicating the glass. "On me."
Red grinned. "Gotta be from Noo Yawk!" he suggested.
"Never been there," I said, which was true at the time. "But I'm a friend of Dale Shaw's."
He did an interesting doubletake in recognition. "You cool it," he advised. But we did get to talking; he told me he had never been to Chicago before, was staying at a nearby YMCA (that was where he originally learned to play, in Newark), and expressed surprise that the city had no downtown poolroom. Decades later, we would actually become pretty friendly; he wasn't a bad guy at all. And I steered him toward his second Chicago game.
Lenny Haines was a legitimate shortstop ("I'll play anybody I don't know for $10 or less" was his basic credo) and, ironically, originally from Camden, N.J., not far at all from Red's stomping grounds. He was not only a far better player than Reno, but, not coincidentally, he was much smarter. Red would not be able to stall this time. After losing a handful of games of $3 9-ball, Lenny proposed his long suit, one-pocket, even though Red had told him 9-ball was all he played. One-hole was actually Red's best game, of course, and it was fascinating to see him put on a grudging act in agreeing first to play, then in upping the stakes from $5 to $10 a game. I had no doubt that the two men vaguely recognized one another from the East Coast. You could see each competitor staring at his opponent in his shooting stance, scrunching up his nose, trying to remember where their lives had intersected. Red won, of course, but he had no cakewalk in either of the two games played. There must have been half a dozen innings where he could be seen nodding, in slow assent: "This guy knows what he's doing."
So Red was ahead $50-plus in maybe three hours of non-work. Playing pool full-time had never appealed to me; not only did I lack the ability, but the lifestyle would not have interested me in the least. Yet I clearly remember thinking, "So that's how easy it is, when you know you'll win every time you go to the post."
I remember the date, too, not that that's much of a feat: Nov. 23, 1963. JFK was not yet dead 24 hours; the bedbug suspect in custody still had another day to live. The nation was still in shock. Many of the retail businesses surrounding Bensinger's were closed in tribute. We old coots who were around for that weekend of horror are frequently asked, "Where were you and what were you doing when Kennedy (and/or Oswald) was shot?" Yet my most vivid memories are of the day in between, especially since Red, Reno and Lenny are now all gone too. Which proves, if anything, that the events which shape history don't necessarily re-shape our priorities.