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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: Fathers
April 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from May 2001]

I am roughly half a foot taller than my father was, and he was close to that much taller than his father. Thus, my grandfather, at about 5’ 1”, would not have seemed to be much of a prospect for the cue games. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that he not only played billiards but had been his club champion at it for many years. And if you think I was surprised at that, you should have seen my reaction when my father informed me that a good percentage of his youth had been spent in poolrooms too.

That information was particularly refreshing in contrast to the reaction of my mother, who very nearly fibrillated the first time I ever announced I had been to the local pool hall. And sure enough, within a few weeks, both my grandfather and father had dropped in to see me there. They played a rack or two together, they each pocketed balls as least as well as I did back then, and no doubt my jaw dropped open far enough, watching the two of them, to trap most of the mosquitoes in the Northwoods, except this was Chicago at Christmastime.

Later, my grandfather would take me to the club where he once reigned, Chicago’s Covenant Club. He was in his early 80s by then, but that was barely enough to make him even one of the club’s older members. That club is permanently etched in my memory for (1) its nearly-fossilized clientele, (2) its offering both a pool and a billiard table, and (3) the excellence of its creamed spinach, a necessary staple in a universe where few denizens had their own teeth anymore. He took me to see a 3-cushion exhibition between the famous Joe Procita (who fit right in, having even fewer teeth than most of the members) and a man named Jesse Jacobs, a pretty fair club player who at one time held the dubious distinction of having lost the most lopsided game in championship 3-cuhion billiards history (50-3 to Willie Hoppe in the mid-’30s). Jacobs won, in a close, well-played 50-point match, and afterwards Procita did some trick shots which included “juggling” all 15 object balls around the table. I was younger than anyone else there by at least 50 years. But it was magical.

Of course, I was already hopelessly in love with pool by then, even though I knew next to nothing about either one. And when that love began to manifest itself, what should have been a wonderful lasting bond between my father and me all to sadly turned out to be a wedge instead.

Actually, I thought it was funny the first time I caught myself forming the orthodox tripod bridge around my dinner fork. My father was bemused, and my mother once again nearly fibrillated. From there, it was not a great leap to pool diagrams. Pa did not think much of Chicago’s public school system, and that would lead to his familiar chip-on-the-shoulder question, “So, what did you learn today, Genius?” And I would respond with pool diagrams, with which he was singularly unimpressed.

He was pretty heavily into academics — he had a Masters’ degree in journalism himself from Northwestern — and before I reached high school, regularly beseeched me to take Latin when I chose Spanish instead as a freshman, largely because I was told it was by far the easiest of all the “romance” languages. But physics was a third-year option; that was when I discovered pool and billiards too, and finally my father made the mistake of insinuating physics into my new obsession.

“You’d play better pool if you knew physics,” he advised with finality, much in the manner of playing a trump card.

“So, you mean to tell me,” I responded, “that Pittsburgh Joe, or whoever, with a clothesline holding up his pants and an IQ in the high teens, is an advanced student in physics too?”

As I recall, he threatened me with military school over that one, although since I was already a high school junior that threat was rapidly losing its teeth; my mother, as usual, nearly fibrillated. When her pulse was more normal, she grew fond of chirping Corinthians at me: “When I became a man, I put aside childish ways.”

My father, meanwhile, continued with his single most atrocious habit, one for which I cannot honestly say I have yet forgiven him even though he’s 23 years gone: comparisons to the sons of other men he knew. The sons were total strangers to him, and often, making these tales even more galling, he barely knew their fathers either. But night after night, he would rave over some stalwart member of the National Honor Society who was aiming at pre-med or pre-law, Phi Beta Kappa, and 3-to-5 odds for sainthood. And one night I cured him of that, once and for all.

“Since I obviously can’t compete with him at anything else,” I said, “I’ll play him some straight pool. Anything he wants to bet.”

“That’s your claim? That you can beat him at pool?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I’m sure he doesn’t know the first thing about gambling or pool,” my father muttered. “Not the first. I’d bet on that.”

“And I’d bet,” I replied, with alarming calm, “that he’s never heard the first comparison to anybody else’s son. Not the first. And when you lose that one, which you will, and you come around looking for double-or-nothing, I’ll also bet that if you hadn’t been so goddam busy reveling in the accomplishments of the sons of strangers, I might have won an award or two for you by now myself. And as it is, you can tell your friends that I’m the best pool player in my crowd. That’s all you’re ever gonna get. I’ll see to it.” Which, for better or worse, I did.

Today I have two sons of my own. Each plays pool well enough recreationally; neither has any real interest in serious play. And that suits me just fine.

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