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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
 
August: Bar Hustling Etiquette
August 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from January 2000]

It’s a touchy business. Without losers, of course, there would be no winners; but bar pool losers rarely see themselves in the same noble light. Some may even be given to fits of pique and deal their conquerors stern lessons in manners. Here, then, are some fundamentals of bar hustling etiquette that may help make this a happier, healthier world for all concerned.

Don’t Win. Unfailingly, the finest single peacemaking tactic known to mankind. Just look at all we’ve done for Japan and Germany after they both dogged it in World War II. You may not be repatriated beyond your wildest dreams of avarice in quite the same way when you lose, but when you next appear in that same bar, you can be sure of a reception just short of General MacArthur’s or The Beatles’. This technique, however, can be financially draining in the long run; utilize it discreetly.

Coin-on-the-Rail Technique. It is generally agreed that shark attacks occur not simply because the beasts are hungry, but because they see the object of their attention as a kind of territorial challenge. Similarly, your quarter on the rail does more than merely claim your turn at the table; it’s a potential invasion of turf, and as such should be as reticent as possible. Do not make the quarter disappear or reappear in your fingers before setting it down; do not spin it as the Jewish do with their dreidels during Chanukah season. George Raft-like flips are also frowned upon, as is snapping the coin down like a hot-dogging card dealer. Practice moderation in coin technique as well as in your life, and things will come your way. It may take another millennium, but just as surely as the ballplayers in “Field of Dreams,” they will come.

Small Talk. Communality among bar-box players generally begins — and ends — at the bar, not the table. Next time you have some surly hillbilly stuck a few thou, refrain from comment upon the local ballclub, the weather, the terrible stress Bill Gates must be under these days, or international politics. Even the more bland topics — the humidity in the bar, the flatness of the beer, the health of your opponent’s wife — carry a measure of risk. Most gauche of all are any observations upon your own winning luck (“Golly gee, I just can’t seem to do anything wrong!”). Unless, that is, you’re weary of the same old hairdo and are looking to wear something new, such as 20 ounces or so of hard rock maple.

Wardrobe. Business schools teach that one valuable if subtle step in getting ahead is to dress pretty much like your boss does. In like fashion, sartorial splendor in the bar of your choice should be shunned. Stained t-shirts seem to be de rigeur, and today’s fad of much-ventilated jeans apparently owes heavily to tavern trends. Floppy Hawaiian shirts are a dead giveaway, and truck driver overalls have been a hustling cliché for close to 30 years now. The idea is to look like you just stepped in from the highway, not from the pages of GQ.

Stakes-posting. As we know from Tennyson (or was it Emily Dickinson?), “Money on wood makes gambling good.” Relieving a burly construction worker of his wages on payday, while a bar full of his buddies look on, can be dicey. Thus, stakes money for the final game is a must, and this carries its own modest list of dos and don’ts. If you are willing to play game after game without exchange of funds ‘til season’s end, then I know of at least 34,856 taverns where they will send cabs out to fetch you (but may or may not pay your way home). Your opponent may suggest that his pal hold the money; this is not unlike the proverbial send the fox to guard the hen house. By far the best place for the stakes is in a link of the table’s light fixture chain. But security for this tactic requires your ongoing presence at all times, and as you are in a tavern to begin with, and expected to drink as your opponent does, this can require a bladder of near-titanium capacity.

Drinking. A logical adjunct to the latter aspects of the previous point. While fantasies of drunken suckers are nearly as common among money pool players as fantasies about teenaged girls in wet bathing suits, the reality is that you simply will not be able to play pool (in good health) in bars unless you drink as you play, or at least create the impression of the same. Many a nearby potted plant has endured abuse as players sneakily send alcohol its way instead of down their own greedy gullets. Some enterprising hustlers have even smuggled in apple juice and attempted to pass it off as beer. Best bet: Slip the bartender something to keep you supplied in Perrier, which you can then pass off as vodka and soda.

Sportsmanship. Perhaps the most conflagrational area in all bar-table pool. If you can find a straight cue with both tip and ferrule, try to leave all that intact. Certain phrases which make for lovely manners elsewhere, such as “Nice try,” are well out of place here, especially when your opponent, having already displayed Cro-Magnon tendencies in his personality, hangs up game ball for you. Contrariwise, avoid being critical: “That was pure puke,” may represent more candor than is useful to your cause. Self-congratulations are not highly recommended, and any giggling over your victory is a distinct breach. Remember the immortal Kipling couplet: “…if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…” I don’t know that I’d quote it to a disgruntled opponent, but I do remember it.

Observe your bar-hustling etiquette carefully, and you shall dwell in the house of the Lord — even if totally busted out — forever and ever. Amen.

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