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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
September: To the Pros
September 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1992]

The real problem with pool-as-life’s-work is that it was never meant to be.

Its inventors, whoever they were, and its pioneers could not possibly have foreseen suckers in sufficient depth, for one thing. And Greed and Sloth and their five fellow deadly sins indeed precede pool, the game was conceived in an era when the word “game” invariably hung out with other happy juicy ones like “play” and “fun.” Most of the time, cash sends the last two packing. Look in any billiard room from Chelsea to Bellflower and all points in between, and the only players who don’t seem to be enjoying the magnificent game in the least will always be those who play it — if “play” is indeed the right word — for a living.

Thus, joie de vivre was not exactly abundant at the recent International Classic 8-ball and 9-ball tournaments in St. Charles, Ill. Closer to the truth was just how hard it was to find anybody having any fun. The mammoth tandem events lurched down the pavement of good intentions shouldering a burden of too large a field, too long a time, too far from anyplace else, not one syllable in the Chicago media and zilch at the box office.

Ah, pro pool. More television appearances, more tournaments, bigger purses than ever, and still only a relative handful can grind out a living. The mass media aren’t interested in us much at all; we aren’t news. Last year somebody told the Chicago Tribune, “Wait ’til 1:30 in the morning. That’s when the real action starts.” And this year the Tribune didn’t send anybody, and neither did anybody else, as though to say, “Nothing new out there. Just a bunch of pool hustlers hustling each other.”

Why should this be? Pool is still probably the most difficult game man has ever figured out for himself; no other diversion on earth combines concept and execution quite the same way. (My otherwise healthy respect for chess ends with the observation that the game can be, and frequently is, played by mail and by the blind, sometimes both. Pool doesn’t work especially well in either of those media.) Why, then, isn’t more accorded to, arguably, history’s best players of man’s toughest game?

Our top players’ talent for their art certainly exceeds, say, Danielle Steel’s talent for writing. It certainly exceeds Arnold Schwarzenegger’s talent for acting. It certainly exceeds Madonna’s talent for singing, if you can call it that.

Yet America can’t wait to foist tens of millions of dollars on those individuals, while professional pool just limps along.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but who promised you justice? Is it logical? It is, once you recognize that this great country is entertainment-addicted, and those three performers are consummate entertainers. All that tournament pool players do, in the main, is run the balls.

And they’ve steadfastly refused to learn that that’s not enough, simply because that’s what an unknowing public expects them to do. Loyal audiences are drawn to an entertainment by what the attraction unexpectedly brings to the party. We expect Steel to create great characters and plot, using complete sentences. We expect Schwarzenegger to memorize his lines. We expect Madonna to be able to carry a tune, and sometimes she does. But we part with our good money to watch them go outside those lines.

If you don’t see the relevance of those examples, consider the howling success of Paul Gerni. On a competitive basis, Paul Gerni would have all he could handle and them some with me. Yet Gerni out-earns hundred-ball runners because instead of investing thousands of hours into honing his game, he invested them in perfecting his niche. Gerni took trick shot exhibitions further uptown than anybody else, specializing in a radiant burst of eloquence, poise, charm, showmanship and urban savoir faire.

“But I can’t be that,” today’s typical professional says, not incorrectly. “That’s not me, and even if it were, it would take away from my focus. I have to focus to win.”

Valid enough. But somebody’s going to have to storm that Maginot line if you expect to wage any assault on the public’s consciousness. As long as 9-ball remains the pros’ game of choice, it’s virtually certain that there will be no dominant champion. And while that’s healthy in several ways, it precludes the pro game from ever wooing the public with a concept that never failed in any other sport, including pool. The opportunity that remains, hovering precariously in the dominant-champion void, is that of a charismatic-player-as-figurehead.

Schwarzenegger was both, making him even more rare. He single-handedly elevated the mass perception of his sport from a back-alley gym collection of preening oiled beach bums to a legitimate sport that attracts 20 million-plus participants and generates gobs of television time.

But male pooldom has neither a dominant star nor a charismatic one and can’t or won’t acknowledge that your players’ success at the table depends heavily upon who and what you are away from it. You want recognition, but clam up horribly before mikes and cameras; you want athletes’ stature, but hardly any of you carry yourselves that way and far too many of you are overweight; you want credit for upgrading the game’s image, but too many of you are the same friend to the English language that Dr. Mengele was to the Jews.

That you and I exist on vastly different levels of playing skill does not make what I have to say any less true. I know something about that audience you seek to attract; listen to me. Or if not to me, to someone else. You’re long overdue to start listening to somebody besides yourselves.