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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
 
March: Weekends With Bill
March 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from September 2002]
Remember the pod people from the classic movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? They live on today in the form of three-cushion billiards players, especially when they’re trying to convert you from pool. The billiardists fix you with that serene if peculiar Hare Krishna-like smile that suggests the successful breaking of wind after politely holding it in for far too long, pat you on the shoulder, and intone, “You’ll feel better once you’re one of us.”

Of course, there’s always the question of just how long one gets to be one of them. In this country, the game continues its slow, sad trudge toward obsolescence. Its practitioners age unusually gracefully; one of its true immortals, the late Willie Hoppe, won world championships an astonishing 47 years apart. Yet nobody young seems to want to play billiards; the best players in America score on just about half their tries, and the average guy simply wants a higher rate of gratification than that.

In my own case, the no-pocket players have been trying to recruit me for decades. As I age, their point makes increasing sense, widening an already-wide chasm between logic and passion. I don’t question that billiards would be my best game by far if I approached it with the same fire I burn for pool; it may be anyway. But I just don’t care for it as much, so why bother? Billiards is like a nice lady with whom you spend a courteous and enjoyable first date but feel no sparks; you’re never going to be the guy, so why waste her time?

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t want the lady to find somebody else either and, in Chicago, she’s chosen the second-best player in the United States, the mercurial Bill Smith. Even players ranked among Europe’s top 10, thus the top 10 in the world, mention Smith admiringly as the only American competitor who plays all three balls; he has beaten every single ranked American in tournament competition except for perennial champion Sang Lee. It can be mesmerizing just to watch him practice.

Which is approximately all one will ever get to do with Smith. Although he has been with the same woman for over 11 years, and has a young daughter he adores, Smith rides pretty much alone in life, and that extends to his billiards. He will not have anything to do with any of the specially seeded, favorite-favoring tournaments, and neither is he interested in the so-called U.S. Championships, which freely invite international talent from the same countries that deny Americans entry into their meets. Nor is he attracted to the friendly action almost always available in his home room, Chris’s Billiards; there is no man alive who ever bet more at caroms than Bill Smith (he wagered a high-living $85,000 on a single doubles game once, which he and his partner won handily), thus a $20 stake holds little allure for him. And even if it did, he feels as though the entire room is rooting for him to lose.

The one opponent he will accept is the room’s pool player who never plays anyone else either, namely me. We have been buddies for over 40 years, during which time I have won exactly one game from him. Since I can’t possibly win, there is absolutely no pressure on me; instead, I make it my goal to score at least half the points he does.

Predictably, however, I spend considerable time in the chair on the billiards side of the room, just as I used to on the side with the pockets. It’s well worth it if Bill Smith is on his game; watching him, one is reminded of the great poet Coleridge’s assertion that “Simplicity is genius,” and that man has figured out few endeavors for himself more flowing and elegant than three-cushion billiards. Smith rarely hits the ball hard; even more rarely does he utilize any practice strokes. Thanks to his late mentor, the encyclopedic Ernie Presto, he sees shots no one else sees and knows systems few others know. Smith’s most gently stroked ball still magically maintains its sidespin past every single rail contacted; he feathers balls you’d expect him to power, and powers balls you’d expect him to feather, and scores, scores, scores with barely enough speed to reach the target, while the three balls line up like trained monkeys for yet more naturals.

Of late, though, life has handed me something of a last hurrah with the cue games. I’ve been into fitness for roughly two years less than I’ve been at pool, thus the legs and back are reasonably fit, and you’d think that I could pursue this obsession at or near the same level I’ve maintained since the Pleistocene Era until I become feeble. But there isn’t anything to explain this. Over the last few months, I’ve been permitted forays into the 80s and 90s at practice straight pool. And on the pocketless tables, over a period of five or six weeks, I averaged very near .750, finishing a dutiful second to Bill Smith in our games, at least a 50 percent leap from what I might ordinarily expect.

It’s exhilarating and downright alarming at the same time. Exactly how did I achieve these cheeky flirtations with excellence? Haven’t a clue. How long will it last? You might as well inquire as to how long I’ll last, which, in this cocktail hour of my life, gets silently asked, despite going unanswered, with ever-increasing frequency.

Championship status would probably be more fulfilling, but it was pre-ordained ages ago that that was just not meant to be. For that matter, romance would very likely be a better long-term companion too, but that’s not much more realistic than those championship fantasies. In the meantime, there are the well-played weekends with Bill Smith, not at all a bad way to watch the passing parade.

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