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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
 
January: Checks and Balances
January 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 2000]

The cue games are known to have been in America since the early 18th century, when colonial legistator William Byrd II of Virginia was forthcoming enough to pen in his secret diary of July 30, 1710, that he had made love to his wife and add, “…the flourish was performed on the billiard table.” And indeed, pool and billiards have been, well, romanced in the Washington/Baltimore/Virginia area ever since. The one-pocket whiz who calls himself Strawberry, and whose honest-to-goodness real name is Mel Brooks, comes from there; so did Eddie Kelly, the finest all-around player of the late ’60s, and so did Bill “Weanie Beanie” Staton, probably the very first hustler know to sport a college education, career and family all at the same time.

The game, however, has fared considerably less well at the hands of the bureaucrats.

A billiard table was first installed in the presidential mansion in 1790, and George Washington himself played. And while the American president from 1992-2000 has redefined the concept of leisure time, there’s a table at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today. These facts are a far cry from the brouhaha that ensued in 1825 when President John Quincy Adams had a pool table installed.

Adams was already something of an oddity, achieving victory over Andrew Jackson only when he persuaded losing candidate Henry Clay to toss him his 37 electoral votes in exchange for an appointment as secretary of state. The already-steaming Jackson supporters, however, very nearly went into orbit when Adams’ son, John Adams II, reported a list of furnishings purchased for the White House from a $14,000 congressional appropriation, which included a pool table and accessories for under $105. (Table, $50; cloth and work, $43.44; billiard balls, $6; and to a man named Littlejohn for cues, $5.) It was not the money that Jackson supporters made their cause celebre, but the fact that Adams expected Congress to pay for it. The ensuing furor raged for a good six months and included this remarkable satire in the Richmond Enquirer:

Ye lovers of billiards! And Adams men true! We’ve come from the city with news —

You may play with the great or the little John Q.

They’ve plenty of Littlejohn’s cues.


The thing goes on for six — count ’em, six —stanzas, but you get the idea. Eventually, it was reported that President Adams had borne all the billiard table expenses out of his own pockets, the Jacksonians sour-graped, “Aw, sure, now,” and the outcry died down to a minor campaign issue in the 1828 election, which Jackson also lost.

The next arm in American democracy’s system of checks and balances is judicial, and the cue games have been losers in the eyes of our Supreme Court ever since the Titanic went down. Ruling in a 1912 taxation case titled Murphy v California, the nation’s highest court wrote, “That the keeping of a billiard hall has a harmful tendency is a fact requiring no proof … idleness and other evils result from the maintenance of a resort where it is the business of one to stimulate others to play beyond which is proper for legitimate recreation.” When the court takes notice of a fact, no evidence may be presented against such fact, any more than you can argue that an apple is really an orange. Murphy has never been overruled; anyone who wished to ban the cue games, for whatever loony reason, could cite this case as support at any time. This is not to be dismissed as antiquated nonsense that reflected the mood of the times; as recently as 1991, a Federal Court of Appeals as much as pronounced that billiards does not enhance a day’s recreational aspects, that billiards is more disruptive to a community than bowling, and also that people drink more while playing pool than while bowling.

And that brings us to Congress, which has been spared having to deal with the games or their being played; the practical effect of Murphy was to cede that right to the states. And the state legislatures have come up with some statutes that would be dandy fodder for late-night hosts. In Alaska, for example, it is illegal to run an employment agency in conjunction with a billiard room; one somehow doubts that Alaskan courts were backlogged with offenders of that one before the legislation was passed. In Michigan, it’s a crime to refuse a blind person admission to a billiard room if that person is accompanied by a guide dog. In 1894, a Missouri court wrote that “keepers of billiard tables are not recognized by the state as exercising a useful occupation, so they are subject to police regulation.” Georgia actually lists pool games, including at least three that nobody seems to have ever heard of, which are outlawed altogether, and at one time banned the sale of anything in a poolroom. These statutes aren’t always funny; in a number of states, billiard rooms are not protected from searches and inspection as commercial businesses and private citizens are. And in Minnesota, a town board may revoke a billiard room license for just about any reason it deems fit. The most stringently regulated aspects of billiards are licenses (especially in major cities) and restrictions on gambling and alcohol, but taxation, hours, age limits for patrons and employees, and civil rights are all covered too.

What does the future hold for cue games in Washington? Well, Al Gore is a native Tennessean, which is encouraging on its face. But since he claims to have invented the internet, it’s hard to see how he could find time for pool. Bush is a Texan, also encouraging, but has already proved that he will claim almost anything. So, vote Libertarian; their entire platform is letting us do exactly as we please.

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