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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
 
April: Schwarzenegger With Cue
April 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 1998]


I don’t mean that literally; I rather doubt Arnold or any of his chums can play pool much if at all. The reference instead deals with how a guy can come out of a sport that, at the time he emerged, was downright repulsive to most women to say nothing of a lot of men, and still become a mega-star despite a total void in any particular talent…and what professional pool might learn from that, especially the men’s game.

For all the clichéd knocks pool takes, I never heard it called “disgusting.” I never heard its practitioners called “grotesque” or “freaks.” But bodybuilding and its athletes were frequently labeled as such, back in the mid-’70s when Arnold was discovered. Yet that sport today has a far better TV schedule, in both instructional and competition programming, than pool has, despite a universe of participants (20 million) not even half the size of ours. Why should that be?

Arnold was a dominant champion; at the time he was uncovered by the masses, he had not been beaten in six years, and that is one story angle the media will buy into with very few questions asked. They will gladly forgive a bathless pedophile like Bill Tilden; a woman-abusing thug like Mike Tyson; even a complete looney-tune like Bobby Fischer, as long has he kicks universal ass. Pool, at least on the male side, has not had a comparable tale to tell since the Mosconi era. In the ’80s, when Jean Balukas ruled women’s play so completely that she took to competing with the men, the media were so enthralled that she got the lion’s share of all pool coverage.

As long as 9-ball remains the professionals’ game of choice, however, it’s virtually certain that there will be no dominant champion, given the luck factor and the remarkable depth of talent. That’s healthy in many ways; a media standpoint, however, is not among them.

Arnold was not only the best by far at his game, but he was also by far the most charismatic, a confluence that was nonexistent in sports then and exists almost nowhere else today, except for a fellow named Jordan who has done reasonably well with it. Remember, Schwarzenegger was not unearthed in one of those nine-digit blockbusters, but rather in a relatively low-budget documentary that almost nobody saw in first run except for the media. And what they were happy to find, when they came around for a closer look, was excellent English despite its being his second language; perfect eye contact; a nifty sense of both humor and himself; rich, dimensional insights into his sport; volunteered responses to questions well beyond what he was originally asked.

Thus, it’s fair to say that bodybuilding, though buoyed by the momentum of America’s fitness ethic in the ’70s, ascended largely because its champion did. No other athlete in that sport has captured a smidgen of mass celebrity.

In that regard, it’s worth noting that the media were just about totally uninterested in what specifically made Arnold better than his competition, just as they have rarely explored the professional pool player disparities between the genders. This is, or should be, compelling evidence that players who continue to expect acclaim merely for running the balls are in the throes of an idea that they might as well abandon right here and now.

Running balls is simply what the mass audience you court expects you to do, just as they expect their bodybuilders to be spectacularly built, their golfers to par the hole, their bowlers to strike. Don’t assume that the masses’ total knowledge of the intricacies of advanced pool is any more than: “This guy will sink all the balls on the table and the other guy will never get to shoot again.”

I wouldn’t be opposed in the least to professional pool’s taking off just because it was hitched to the coattails of a media darling, as bodybuilding did. But I wouldn’t want to guess who that might be, either. It need not necessarily be the best player. Remember TV’s fascination with tennis’ whacky Jensen brothers, who on their greatest day were ranked 62nd in the world?

And the sad thing is, it wouldn’t take much to captivate the media. The idiocies that have been heaped on bodybuilding for decades all but melted away with the discovery of just one nice guy. And while our game’s monster stigma is still around, reinforced on a near-weekly basis by TV and the movies, anybody who simply rose above that stigma would distinguish himself almost at once. Unfortunately, like most monsters, ours will feed on just about anything handy.

If, as a professional pool player, you smoke, drink, gamble publicly and/or to excess, you’re taking part in activities that millions of Americans legally enjoy. But in your case, it feeds the stereotype.

If you flub your grammar in an interview or on a video, that’s no big deal; we all do, now and then, and we’re always understood anyway. But in your case, it feeds the stereotype.

Some of you appear to be deeply into your third trimester, and this, too, feeds the stereotype.

Suppose pool got an audition in the eyes of the masses, whether through a vibrant documentary, one of Zeus’ mighty bolts from Mt. Olympus, or whatever. How many of you would be comfortable in the Schwarzenegger role? It’s not terribly difficult to isolate those who wouldn’t. Pinpointing one who would is quite something else again.

Think about it. Too many among you are long, long overdue to begin seeing yourself as others do.

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