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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: Chicanery
October 2021

By George Fels
[Reprinted from July 2000]

O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” — Sir Walter Scott

From the time he gets his first magic set at whatever precocious age, any magician worth his salt will gloat, “The hand is faster than the eye.” (Three-card Monte dealers espouse the same philosophy, but don’t talk it around nearly as much.) Throw in a beer or two (or 12), and the mind is faster, too. And so, with hustling all but extinct in poolrooms, it is bar pool that has given rise to a whole new generation of sleight-of-hand artists.

Actually, bar box players prey on such a fertile bunch of chumps that you wonder why they need tricks at all. But nothing is quite so sweet as a sure thing, over a highly probable one, and without looking very hard, you can uncover a spectacular smorgasbord of edges.

One of the funnier foolers I’ve come across evolved in a perfectly natural way, rather than via the many contrivances that bookmark hustling lore. The late Alton (Babyface) Whitlow, Detroit’s best player over many decades, was a boyhood pal of the legendary Jimmy Moore, and utilized the exact same humongous slip stroke. When ‘Face would stalk the bars and take up one of those shorter cues, his backswing would take his hand all the way off the butt; the cue would hit the floor with no cue ball contact whatsoever; and the customer in question would be led to think, “Hell, raise the bet. This guy is not even gonna hit the cue ball, much less anything else.” And some time after that, the sucker would hit the door, his movements made considerably easier by a considerably lightened pocket.

But bar pool being what it is, it takes a pretty intrepid hustler to go into a spot alone. In David McCumber’s fine book “Playing off the Rail,” the author and his player, Tony Annigoni, encountered the threat of violence nearly everywhere they went, despite their only visiting places where they had every right to expect propriety. The bar box gambler can’t always be that discriminating, thus a substantial percentage of bar pool hustling is brought off by partners, which not only provides some added beef, but raises the scamming options dramatically.

The most common ruses all had their roots in poolrooms, at least as long ago as The Depression and quite possibly far longer than that. One of the most common two-man ploys is simply for the two partners to square off against one another, regardless of skill level, while portraying drunken friends (as in the opening scene of the great “The Hustler”), acquaintances, or total strangers. A mismatch will arise, stimulating a lot of side bets action, and then the pair will throw the match against the direction of the heaviest bets. This has to be done artfully; shotmaking is no big thing on a bar table, and a subterfuge that consists of nothing more than deliberately missed shots is likely to bring about a hairstyling by Dufferin.

The two players will then split the proceeds in secrecy, of course, and indeed the only threat to this grand scheme is greed: One of the partners may be tempted to beat the other out of his share. If he’s smart, the greedy partner will do his cleaning up at another locale.

Variations on the same theme are many-splendored, though all the variations have their roots in pool halls just as the original does. The partners may enter the place an hour or more apart, giving the first an opportunity either to take a dive or clean everybody’s clock. The second then comes along and reverses roles with the first, catching earlier opponents and side bettors in the switches. Sometimes the partners will take on a common opponent in this fashion; whether the first con artist first builds up the guppy’s hopes or dashes them (by dumping or winning, respectively) matters not one whit because the second partner can only bring him to tears.

Devious, however, does not always originate with the visitors. There’s no question that money players have been badly beaten, and worse, when they find themselves the wrong opponent or in the wrong bar. Gloomily, some of the worst bloodbath bars also attract some of the highest-stakes action. (Hell, if you’re gonna take a risk, you might as well really take a risk.) So, the smart hustler will enter the arena with extra fortification. Cannonball Kienowski, Portchester Mickey, Pancho Furio, Freddy Bentivegna and others used to arm themselves with the company of one John “Sugar Shack” Novak, a rock-ribbed ex-paratrooper with a 5-by-10 heart for any kind of combat. One night Freddy and Sugar, and a third player-partner, wound up in an East L.A. bar that looked like a painting by Dante. The habitués were nuthouse refugees and bikers with nine-inch scars traversing their many tattoos, and as the visiting trio began to win, their hosts dished out the crap good and thick: “No hit,” misquoted bets, sharking, whatever dirty and threatening tricks came to mind. Sugar Shack finally halted the action and bypassed all the bluster and bravado that usually serves as a prologue to mayhem; instead, he sounded more like a scoutmaster reminding young cub scouts that the pack follows Akela. “Now wait a minute, fellas,” Sugar said quietly and patiently. “We’ve got confusion here. This guy’s with me, and we came to gamble. If we lose, we’re gonna pay off and leave. But if we win, we are leaving with your money. So, do not bet more than you can afford to lose because you are not getting the money back. Is everybody clear on that? If anyone is still confused, let’s straighten that out right now.”

The Messrs. Nuthouse and Scarface all studied their shoe tops in silence, and the score was completed.

Talk about magic!

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