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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
 
July: Red’s Timing
July 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 2001]

The late Jack (Jersey Red) Breit won exactly zero major pool tournaments. He did not live in New Jersey (although he was born in Newark in 1929), and what hairs he did retain as an adult were not red. How could a man about whom so little was correctly known achieve a top-50 list of the greatest cue games players of all time?

It’s because Jack Breit absolutely ruled the one avenue the game of pool would rather the masses never visited: high-stakes gambling. And he ascended at a time often considered to be the game’s artistic zenith, in the part of the country where it was played best by far. There were world-class competitors in all five boroughs; there were shortstops who would have cleaned clocks anywhere else but the east coast. Yet he dusted everybody, one of those rare performers who talked a good game first and then backed it up with an even better one. He ran the balls and his mouth simultaneously and constantly; getting the last ball in on him was as rare as getting in the last word.

But for a bit of jaywalking, Red might have been attacking a white ball against a green background in major league ballparks instead of poolrooms. Spotted playing hardball in a Police Athletic League in his late teens, he was drafted as a first baseman/pitcher by the New York Yankees and progressed all the way to their AAA farm team in Kansas City. Somehow or other, Red’s path crossed with that of a local streetcar one day, and the streetcar won. That great golden left arm would never be the same — although his pool-playing abilities were not impaired in the least. Not atypically, he said of the accident, “I was already makin’ good money playing pool anyway.”

His real pool passion was for the endlessly complex game called one-pocket, which he characterized as “chess and World War II tossed in together.” With little prodding, he would say, “And I am the Ayatollah of One-Holah, the greatest one-pocket player who ever lived.” That claim, seemingly outrageous hype on the surface, is actually quite close to the truth. The game was played almost exclusively on 5’ x 10’ tables on the east cost, for the same reason competitors regularly played 200 points of 14.1: Anything else was too easy. Yet Red would outplay and outlaw everybody, giving up seemingly impossible handicaps — including taking a back pocket instead of a corner one — and raising the bet higher and higher. He treated one-pocket not as a matter of shoot-balls-into-holes, but a highly strategic game that was meant to be played that way. Red’s shot-making was uncanny, his creativity even better, and his sense of ball speed so heightened that he could demolish part of a ball cluster while leaving the rest intact to smother the cue ball. It is impossible to stand any lower over the cue ball than he did; it is equally impossible to grip the cue any lower, as he often had a finger or two in contact with the bumper. He was both left-handed and extremely fast, and so it only took three or four shots to convince you that you were in the presence of greatness.

His mouth was quite a show in itself. There is no single sentence in the history of the English language that requires more than two words ending in “…ickier”; Red would regularly post six or eight or 10, and he was not discussing truckers. The man literally could not say, “Please pass the salt” without peppering the request with expletives. Yet the sweators still stood close by, six or eight deep, to watch and hear him. And they smoked; Lord, how they smoked. Red himself admitted that in many poolrooms during his heyday, you could not see the far wall. He was a smoker himself, until the late ’70s.

Only in tournament play did greatness elude him. There were few of them in his time to begin with, and what few there were vaingloriously strived for a squeaky-clean image just as promoters do today. Red was barred from a number of such meets, both for his hustler’s rep and his mouth, and he liked nothing about the ones that accepted him either. It is likely that he had had no use for neckwear since grade school graduation; the tournament officials did not want him smoking at the table; he could not yack it up, and of course he could not swear either. He had a number of runner-up finishes in the 9-ball and one-pocket divisions of the Jansco Brothers’ hustlers jamborees, and finished second in the 1970 U.S. Open to Luther Lassiter.

Despite being born into poverty at the height of the Depression, Red was extremely fortunate to have had his skills peak in the era they did. Back then the poolrooms were packed with compulsive gamblers with limited outlets for their obsession; the only casinos in America were in a sleepy desert town called Las Vegas; there were no off-track horse racing betting parlors; there was no sports or horse betting online, because there were no computers. With most east coast poolrooms staying open until 3 a.m. or later, the food chain beneath Red was about as rich as it could have been.

In lung cancer, Jack Breit finally found the one opponent besides that Kansas City streetcar that he could not beat. Ironically, he had quit smoking over 20 years before; his doctors told him it was probably all those years of secondary smoke in the rooms where he so loved to be kingpin that did him in. He died in Houston in 1997.

Whether the game has been played better since Breit is more complex a question than it seems. The 10-foot pool table is virtually extinct; so are the composition clay balls Red did his best playing with. But no one player has come close to the same combined mystique of champion player and nerveless gambler, and that may well be the true Jersey Red legacy.

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