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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
 
May: The Naturals
May 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from May 1998]Oh, how we do hate them. They don’t have to practice; they don’t have to warm up; they don’t even have to play, for Lord’s sake, and they can still come to the table after weeks or months or even longer and be in dead punch by ball three. Why should they be so blessed? And what have we done, that it is them and not us?

You can weep and wail and gnash your teeth all you like, but the fact remains that the cue games come so easily to a fortunate few that it makes you wonder if those lucky souls truly belong to the human race. The late Rudolph Wanderone boasted of being able to run a rack by age 5; the vast majority of top players today were playing formidably at 12. Ralph Greenleaf, generally considered to be one of the two finest players of all time, had virtually no instruction or coaching as a boy, rarely practiced, and even brooked the indignity until his late teens, of hardly anyone’s paying any attention to his ungodly skills when he did play. Among professional players, one school of thought holds that the late Harold Worst may well have been the greatest natural of all, achieving championship status on his own at pool only because there was nothing doing for him at his first love, billiards. What’s far less arguable is this: virtually every cue games professional showed pro potential — at least, to the trained eye — within his or her first two years of play.

Naturals occur throughout all athletics, of course, but especially in individual sports where the athlete’s learning need not include teamwork. Golf’s immortal Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were both known for never having taken a lesson. In more or less the same era, tennis’ Richard (Pancho) Gonzales was a self-made man out of necessity; most of that sport’s up-and-comers were honing their craft at country clubs back then, and he was a high school dropout from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

Those sports, however, along with bowling, attract a far higher percentage of frequent-to-serious participation than the cue games do. If you accept the most current data available, we have a shade over 4 million people (roughly 1 in 10 of those who partake at all) who play pool 100 or more times a year, yet only relatively dozens of touring professionals. With all those coming to the game recreationally, then natural ability sprints way ahead of the field in no time. The late Joe Bachelor claimed he ran a full rack the very first time he played and was honored for the feat by a fight with his gawky friends, who thought he was hustling them. The two playing “Brooklyns,” Johnny and Jimmy, so effortlessly busted all their grade school peers that neither man even bothered with high school; one state away, wee 11-year-old Jersey Frankie was aggressively promoted as a bona fide road 9-ball player, rollouts and all, by no less than his own truant officer. Professional pool being the sometime thing that it is, that leaves room for all sorts of naturals you hear about but never figure to see. Tales issue forth, on a fairly regular basis, of the latest phenoms, from both big cities and backwoods burgs, who can be wakened from deep sleep and run many racks before they even reach for the mouthwash. Sometimes the legends bear the baggage of mendacity; for as long as we have known Efren Reyes, the rumor has persisted that there was some mere babe back in the Philippines who consistently ate Efren for breakfast, and that rumor has always been fully as false as it sounds. Back in the ’60s, hushed-with-awe reports circulated of a pill freak from Harlan County, Ky., who could give Ronnie Allen the 7 and 9, but most of the pool world was too wise for that one. “If he can do that, I can get him down for a mil in Vegas alone,” was one bored response.

Still, as we all so painfully know, the natural does indeed exist. After all, notwithstanding the game’s recent emphasis on quality and even certified instruction, there aren’t very many good teachers, and kids being what they have always been, most would rather just play than really study anyhow. In most cases, their tutelage will come one random tip at a time, now and then, and the rest of their development is up to them. Layoffs are no problem whatsoever; Danny DiLiberto, the late Joe Balsis, both Brooklyns and countless others have all been away from the game for years at a clip yet recaptured their near-peak games in a matter of hours.

Specifically, where do the naturals have their edge? Hand-eye coordination? Spatial relations? Past lives? My guess would be in the area kinesiologists refer to as muscle memory; the game simply never feels foreign to them. Those of us who have to work on every aspect of our games have all experienced how strange the cue, or even our mere playing stance, can feel after time away. And the reason for that is precisely what makes us any good to begin with, the ability to play by feel rather than analysis or reason. For most of us, those feelings can get just as rusty as unused muscles, and we forget. For the gifted, there is little to forget because little was ever consciously learned to begin with. Regrettably, while I have taken care to name players here whom I know to be good guys, natural pool players often demonstrate the potential to be real jerks; they have had things so easy that arrogance can be difficult to resist.

Most of the time, the people investing all that envy in the pool naturals actually have considerably more going for them when it comes to the real world. How come that compensation seems so woefully inadequate?

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