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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
June: Two Kids
June 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from September 2001]

As a high school freshman, I was a year younger than everybody else. Thus, in order to escape the gothic horror known as dating, which was well out of the question anyway, I committed to gambling good and early. Nickel/dime poker was the staple of my social life at age 13, and as I progressed through school, so did the stakes. I added pool (or more correctly, pool added me) in my junior year. And by the time I was a senior I carried an aura just this side of Sky Masterson of “Guys and Dolls” fame. I had even invented a simple-minded poker game that was named for me. And the ultimate compliment paid to my lifestyle, and that of my buddies, was that there was a crowd of younger kids, freshmen and sophomores as we were seniors, that was imitating us in every way possible.

One day I caught one of them, a nice kid named Jeff, at straight pool — that and pill pool were all I played then — and waxed him with ease; I wasn’t that good, but he was worse, and he and his friends were all hindered by their awe of us to begin with. The stakes were no doubt $1 plus the time, but the loss must have weighed more heavily than that upon him, because he went deep with this question as he handed over the buck:

“George, what do you want to do with your life?”

Since that is not normally the question one expects to hear immediately on the heels of a pool game, I was caught somewhat off guard, but still barked out the same knee jerk reflex response I gave everyone: “I want to be a writer.” At the time, I had absolutely no idea what that really meant, but I knew it sounded nice. If I had any focus at all, which I doubt, I anticipated writing novels and especially short stories; that was my favorite form of reading.

“Wow,” he said. “You can make a living doing that?”

“I hope so. What about you? What do you want to do?”

How many 14-year-olds are ready for that one? At least he was honest about it. “All I care about right now,” he said, “is going to the poolroom.”

It might have seemed funny then, but it made colossal sense later on, looking back. We were all social Quasimodos, even if we did walk upright without ringing any bells, and the poolroom was our sanctuary. For me, the datelessness and my failure to make the school basketball team melted away there and I was actually something of a social hub, even if nothing revolved around me except gambling. For him, the pool hall was the forum from where he and his crowd could impersonate me and mine best; they played pool for money and formed their own card games, although jousted for lower stakes at both. It was like seeing our own lives replayed in seven-second delay.

One of the popular songs of the day was the love theme from a snappy little Debbie Reynolds movie called “Susan Slept Here”: So, this is the kingdom of heaven; So, this is the sweet promised land… The song is about love, but it might as well have been written for the Morse Avenue Recreation Center. If you were confused or lonely or just horny, you didn’t have to show any of that at the P.H.; all you had to do was put on a bright shiny front and strut your stuff, and acceptance was just about automatic. For a great many teens in turmoil, that grubby little eight-land, 10-table place was where their emotional lives peaked. I often wonder if I was one of them.

Once I graduated, of course, I rarely saw those younger kids again except during breaks home from college; shortly after I graduated from college, the poolroom closed, and I never saw any of them again.

After the Army and a few years of nondescript editorial-type jobs, during which time I poured far more energy into pool than into any full-time employment, I got into the advertising business and stayed there. And it was a full 13 years later before the notion of writing about pool even dawned on me. Not quite two years after joining this magazine, in the throes of agony over my full-time job and its infuriating strata of approval by committees, I wrote a column called “The P.H.” about my first room. It didn’t sound like anything I had ever written before; all the passion that the ad biz refused to allow me to pour into my job was right there on the page. That passion continued to flow over the years; I got my money from advertising by my fulfillment from my books and this column. Then last spring I got hurt and couldn’t get my column out. For the first time in my near-21 years here, I had to ask for a re-run, and I chose “The P.H.” because that had been the first inkling I ever had that I could do something nobody else could.

And not long after that, I heard from Jeff the deep-questioned freshman, only now it was Dr. Jeff Garfield of Clearwater, Fla. Forty-two years after the fact, he had read how somebody else had seen his first poolroom. Now he had a doctorate in clinical psychology, plus a decade or so as an options trader; his row had not always been all that easy to hoe, but he had finally made it to comfortable retirement. He plays pool in Ray Martin’s home at least five days a week, mostly in the afternoon. There are always at least a dozen prospective opponents, for any game, on hand; he can find a race-to-five for a dollar, or he can bet high if that is his whim. Jeff has done well and has a loving wife and family, but playing pool is still a high point of his life.

As for me, now that I’m at long last available for six to eight hours of pool a day, I never do that. I’m not especially comfortable with poolrooms in the afternoon; in Chicago, they’re mostly empty, and besides they remind me of unemployment, of which the advertising business merrily serves up plenty. What I do, among other things, is write, well, these short stories.

So, both our prophecies were right.