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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: Backer! Backer! Gas!
March 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from September 1998]

Sing, ho, for the open highway,” Groucho Marx once bellowed merrily. And while the call of the open road has indeed long been considered one of the most noble and courageous quests upon which a daring young man could embark, as Marx Brothers peer W.C. Fields has pointed out, “The highways are fraught with marauders.”

Let us examine the saga of two road pool players of my acquaintance whose anonymity will be honored herein, although that is better than either deserves. Henceforth, these two will be referred to as Thing One and Thing Two.

Thing One relocated to Vegas from the Midwest, and not long after, helped move Thing Two out there as well. Allowing his chum sufficient time to make his new bed, he then escorted the lean-and-hungry stallion to a restaurant owner known to be a suckeur du jour for hustlers passing through. The mark was a tad short of cash, but that was instantly compensated for by a nearby sweator who threw in with him, so Thing Two was in action promptly, playing one-handed to the guppy’s two.

The handicap did not seem to be a problem: Thing Two jumped out in front right away. But he was fussy and petulant, too, and told his steerer/partner that something did not feel right. To begin with, he did not care for keeping track on the wire instead of paying off after each game.

The mark and his partner finally paid off on demand; stuck several thousand, the restauranteur asked if he might continue the match against a check, and as he was an established businessman, our heroes, flushed with victory, decided to accommodate him. And they won again.

Thing Two was proved prophetic within a day or two when the check was determined to be worth slightly less than toilet tissue. They still had their original cash winnings, but both men prided themselves on being good, conservative, close-to-the-vest gamblers and did not particularly relish being stung. There seemed no ready way to push for collection on bad paper; its maker was nowhere to be found, either in poolroom or at his business. But they did have the good fortune to run into the backer again, and Thing One decided upon the ploy of empathy.

“Listen,” he admonished reproachfully, “Thing Two here is on the run from The Outfit. He don’t pay off some very important money from sports bets, he gets fitted for cement overshoes. And your guy goes and writes us a bum stiff. What kinda way is that to do business?”

“I’m sorry he did that,” the backer admitted. “Your buddy here plays the greatest pool I ever saw. You guys deserve the money you won. If I had it, I’d pay you off myself.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘If you had it?’ Isn’t that your Cadillac out front? Don’t you think that’s worth more than your guy owes us? You know where to find him. Why don’t you go sell him your car, pay us, and then we can all go make some money on the road with what’s left over?”

The backer seemed to think that was a dandy idea; human nature, every now and again, is simply inexplicable. He returned with the money the two Things were owed plus a fine surplus of a few thousand. Since his car was gone, they took Thing One’s and pointed it towards an action room in Phoenix. Thing Two, upon arrival, was too tired to play; the backer, eager for action, was instead convinced to lend moral and financial succor to Ronnie Allen in a classic one-pocket showdown against Jack Cooney. That match ended in a standoff. The backer lay awake giggling to himself until sunrise. He had seen some of the finest one-hole that man can produce; his choice from among those two titans had certainly not been wrong; and a juicy score lay waiting on the morrow.

Except on the morrow, Ronnie Allen mysteriously could not drop a grape into the Grand Canyon and blew the cheese in under two hours. The puzzled but undaunted backer withdrew to phone Vegas to drum up another bankroll. That done, the threesome was steered to a nearby bar, whereby they encountered a notorious and plump dump artist named Mexican Johnny, whom the two Things had known almost since puberty. Thing Two used his fatigue copout once again, and Thing One, seeing the backer crestfallen at being denied a chance to get even, leaped into the breach. “Fine, then, I’ll play the guy,” he declared, and was promptly annihilated.

“God,” the backer moaned. “If that’s the best we can do, I’m just as well off playing the man myself.” And, so he did, with most predictable result.

After Things One and Two said their private goodbyes to Mexican Johnny, the three drove home. The backer, his riches reduced to a few abjectly lonely twenties, dozed fitfully in the back seat. Just before dawn, Thing One pulled into a gas station. “Whaddya doin’?” grumbled Thing Two.

“We need gas.”

“Bleep that. That’s the backer’s job.”

“Two,” implored One, his voice soaked in predawn fatigue and temporary guilt. “We’ve busted him outta three separate bankrolls, plus his car. We’re the only ones here got any real money left. So, I pay for the gas; so, what?”

“You go on the road, the backer buys gas,” Two ruled, for he truly felt his code was a stern but fair one. And that is how the backer, who had actually seen Thing Two play just once, which was when he was in with the guy that Two beat, came to be awakened abruptly by his new idol’s elbow in his rib cage and the succinct communication point-blank into his ear at jet-airliner decibels, “Backer! Backer! Gas!”

Think twice before singing out for the open highway. It can be noble. But can also be Marx Brothers silly.