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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
October: Bachelors
October 2020

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 2000]

I was studying the immortal author James Joyce around the time I first saw Joe Bachelor play pool, and the instant I was told his name, it seemed to me that the latter must surely have been named by the former. How much more perfectly named can a pool player be? He was then the counterman at Bensinger’s, from 4 in the afternoon until midnight, after which he would play alone until the room closed at 2 a.m. And although I learned that he had been married three times and had also been a song-and-dance man in vaudeville, it was all too clear that at this point in his life, he had no life except for pool.

But oh, that pool life. Though Bensinger’s had many 10-foot pool tables to choose from, Joe Bachelor always selected the same 9-footer. He played not with one of the room’s sets of balls, but his own, highly waxed. Instead of a house cue, he had a top-of-the-line Rambow (cost in that era, with two shafts: just under $30). And instead of a rack, he racked the balls with his hands, capturing the triangulated balls at the end rail, shoving them toward the foot spot and capturing them intact there. In my 40-plus years around pool, I’ve seen exactly two players who could do this, Bachelor and his buddy from New York’s famed McGirr’s, Harry Paul; you can imagine how striking it was seeing it done for the first time. Both men effected racks tight enough to make Sardo weep with evny — but how they even caught all 15 balls as they raced forward remains one of life’s deep mysteries for me. I’ve never even stopped the flight of all the balls, let alone rack them perfectly. It’s like that famous Emmett Kelly clown routine about trying to sweep up all the spotlights; something always gets away.

Joe Bachelor bothered with no warmup drills; he just set up a break shot with cue ball in hand after one of his impeccable manual racks and ran balls toward infinity. He was not quite as ostentatious a practice player as New York’s much-heralded Mike Eufemia, whose home room would book all bets that Eufemia would run 200 before the place closed, but neither was he that far behind. Joe was a virtual cinch to run 100; one night he was at 165 when the room announced, “No more racks,” and he simply gathered up all the balls and put them away without so much as a shrug. The only other player I had ever seen knock off a hundred, at that point in my life, was Mosconi. Joe Bachelor, who claimed that Mosconi spotted him only 20 points on 125 for the money at his (Bachelor’s) peak, was far more approachable, not that that’s much of a claim, and besides he was available to watch every single night. He ran racks without the cue ball ever touching a second object ball, sometimes without even going to a rail. I cut off dates early, and regularly got to bed late, just to dash downtown and watch him practice.

Why didn’t I take lessons from him? Because you can’t tell a teenager anything, and even more important, there were already regulars at Bensinger’s whom I could beat for money. Whatever I won from them could not possibly have been worth what I missed. I played with him a few times — more correctly, I racked for him a few times — and he passed along a few tips. But he was still the first of a great many players I’ve observed who attempt to teach with no real ability to articulate what they know, explaining a certain ball was the right shot because, “It just is!”

And that was not the only downside to his magnificent game. Needless to say, I was nowhere near stupid enough to gamble with him, nor would he have indulged me if I was. Joe Bachelor wouldn’t bet a dime; he wouldn’t even play for the table ticket. Split-time was the only competitive format he would accept. His claim about gambling with Mosconi notwithstanding, the unanimous word among men who knew Bachelor well was that he simply didn’t have the heart for competition, money or otherwise. I saw Joe Bachelor lose games of 14.1 to players who had losses to me, for Lord’s sakes. Bensinger’s was still infested with hustlers back then, and every time Bachelor or Harry Paul hand-racked their practice balls, you could hear the growls clear across the room; it sounded like feeding time at the lion house.

When Bensigner’s closed its downtown location, Joe Bachelor headed for San Francisco, where he found employment at the famous Palace Billiards and gave a few laconic lessons to eke out a living; he died in the early ’70s. Today, it is I who is left to feebly carry on his tradition. There are games at which I enjoy gambling, but 14.1 isn’t especially one of them; I spend most of my time practicing that. On a good night, I can produce runs anywhere from one-third to one-half of Bachelor’s. My name (much like my game) symbolizes nothing, although it is an anagram of “self,” and the Freudians can knock themselves out over that one. I have never worked in a poolroom; I have been married only once, and neither of those is likely to change. In my view, patterned position play begins at the point where you leave yourself safety valve shots on all your secondary break shots; and when I can make the rest of the universe fall away and slip into that relaxed netherworld where occasionally I can rub elbows with the greats for a span of 14 balls or so, I can see what Joe Bachelor was after.

I wonder if there’s a teenager who will begin to watch me someday. I wonder if he’ll be able to write.