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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
 
November: The Day Shift
November 2022

By George Fels
[Reprinted from November 2002]

On a Friday not long ago, I found myself in the idyllic tourist town of Lake George, N.Y. (It sounds chauvinistic, I know, but it wasn’t the town’s name that attracted me; it was its 25-mile proximity to Saratoga and all the magical wonders that spa holds. Had paying tribute to myself been my real quest, I’d have journeyed instead to Fairhope, Ala., just across the bay from Mobile, which actually boasts an intersection of George Street and Fels Avenue. But we’re getting off track.) You know by now how I feel regarding the marriage of early Friday evenings and pool, so I sought out a room called Lake George Billiards to hit a few balls.

To say the room is unpretentious is to say that Bill Gates is financially comfortable — just eight pocket-drop Schmidts, a few candy bars and a jukebox. I had most of the other room patrons by, oh, 50 years, give or take. But as genial room owner Bill Smith, a retired high school teacher and football coach, pointed out, they’re easily the staple of his business. In that part of the state, poolrooms that do not serve liquor are open to all ages. The kids usually play in groups of at least three or four, and they’re there daily the year around. So far, Lake George Billiards didn’t sound all that different from a good many other small-town rooms. But this was summertime; it’s what takes place there in winter that caught my interest.

“We have action all afternoon here in the wintertime,” Mr. Smith explained. “A lot of guys up here have seasonal jobs: construction, blacktop, work like that. They have winters off and work in the summertime. There are some good local players, and sometimes the players come up from Albany, too. They go at it most of the afternoon. Then the money players leave when the kids come in.”

Now, I have been in a few poolrooms in my time, and I’ve never really heard anything quite like Mr. Smith’s accounting of his room business. “It’s usually the kids who leave when the money players come in,” I observed. “Your room seems to be operating backwards.”

“Well, we’re not talking real high stakes,” Mr. Smith said. “Just typical poolroom action. But they don’t seem to want to be around the kids.”

Indeed, a few personal cues were visible in the small rack behind the counter, and if the rest of those Schmidt tables played as well as the one I rented, they’re certainly good enough for money play. But it was the comings and goings of the patrons that had my interest because I already had personal experience with that phenomenon.

I was discharged from the Army in the middle of the summer. That meant that both the June college grads and the undergrads had a crack at the job market before I got home, and the pickings were mighty lean. I split the days of that summer between the Wrigley Field bleachers and the famous downtown poolroom, Bensinger’s. From roughly 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., the room crackled with white-collar 3-cushion business. At one time, Bensinger’s had an entire floor devoted to carom play. But even after they consolidated their two floors into one, there were still at least a dozen billiard tables, and unless you were a regular, you could forget about getting one at lunchtime. So, there were games to sweat, and I could glance at the want ads and made a few desultory calls too.

There was also a young African-American named Calvin in the room at the same time of day, but he didn’t care a fig for billiards. At the top of Chicago’s pool food chain back then was Johnny “Cannonball” Chapman, who, like Calvin, was both black and left-handed. There wa absolutely no doubt that Calvin aspired to succeed him. Some of the old coots who hung out at Bensinger’s used to greet Calvin as “Young Lefty.” Call Calvin that and he would immediately straighten up and begin to strut in a manner that would have made Mick Jagger shriek with envy.

Calvin told me that he had quit high school with a year to go and lived with his mother. He had no interest other than pool and bragged about scores ranging up to $60. He wasn’t that much better a player than I was. Although I couldn’t stay with him at 9-ball, he didn’t understand either 8-ball or straight pool very well, and we played a few times with very little money changing hands either way.

One day I grew weary of seeing my own bum-hood reflected in my eyes that way and performed what you’d have to call a Christian act on Calvin’s behalf. “Listen, Calvin,” I said, “Why don’t you make your mom happy, finish your senior year, and come down here after school? You have my solemn oath that there’s absolutely nothing doing here at pool until at least four o’clock. You won’t miss a thing.”

“You might be right,” Calvin admitted. “Ain’t no games.”

Calvin’s early afternoon appearances ceased almost at once. The next time I saw him at night, he told me that he had indeed gone back to school. I ran into him off and on until the following summer. When I next encountered him four years later, Calvin was dressed in a three-piece suit. He told me he had graduated. Through the school he had met and Air Force recruiter whom he trusted, agreed to a four-year hitch, learned accounting, and held a job in that regard for a respected Chicago manufacturer. His pool game was way off, of course, but by then we both realized that that was hardly what really mattered.

This was back in the early ’60s, and I have no idea what became of Calvin. It’s certainly highly unlikely that I could do any more for him than I already had. But it does help explain why I have such a clear picture of what time money pool players report for work. Except, of course, in Lake George.

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