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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
 
May: A Feast of Firsts
May 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 2003]
First steps, first words, first kiss, first run of 10 balls or more; whatever it is that counts to you in life, nothing is ever quite as magical as the first of anything. Look at all the attention we pay to Adam, when all he really did was eat an apple.

Of course, I wasn’t nearly that jaded the first time I ever saw Willie Mosconi. I was only 15, for one thing, and had been playing pool for just a few months. My real fascination back then was not necessarily the first of things, but the best. Ever since I had discovered harmonica genius Larry Adler at about age 11, I had been obsessed by the notion that any one person could be the best in the world at anything. A few months after seeing Mosconi, I would see Willie Hoppe too, but at that point I understood absolutely nothing about caroms expect for the shooter’s objective. When it came to pool, on the other hand, there were already a few broken cues testifying that I at least understood what a failed endeavor was.

At 15, I was too young by three full years to be in the great room Bensinger’s legally without an adult, but nobody there seemed to care about that in the least. (The one time or two that I was asked for a draft card, at ages 16 and 17, I told them that I was 23 and already out of the service, which seemed to make perfect sense to the geezers in charge.) The two buddies I went with were well underage too. The wisest among the three of us, which certainly was not I when it came to the cue games, understood that Mosconi’s opponent, one Joe Procita, was a competitor of true merit. He had placed as high as second in world play at both pool and caroms, and at one time held the all-time tournament high run record on a 5-by-10-foot table (182). This was no mere exhibition, but a bona fide world championship challenge match, the only such competition in which I ever saw Mosconi engage. Despite my buddy’s voluminous knowledge, I’m sorry to report that Mr. Procita left me, in my world class naivete, singularly unimpressed. He scored all of four balls in the match and left me with the snotty opinion that this was a toothless rummy whom even I could easily beat (and roughly 20 years later, I did exactly that in a tournament, although he was far, far over the hill by then).

Mosconi, by contrast, could not possibly have been more impressive. It wasn’t just that he ended the contest in two innings, when the longest run I had ever seen before was 14. Nor was it simply his pristine entrance into the tournament room. While I had never seen championship pool before, I had been to concerts, and Mosconi encountered his audience as any other virtuoso would, nodding genially but coolly as though the applause that greeted him was not only polite but just. The man, and the match, produced a rich smorgasbord of firsts, and the longer I think about it, the more such firsts I can recognize.

Starting at the beginning: Willie Mosconi was the first man I ever saw shoot pool in a suit. Later I would learn that he seldom appeared in anything else, except maybe his Brunswick blazer, and Time magazine, in writing of the very match I saw, loftily observed, “Mr. Mosconi looked like the banker, surrounded by characters out of a banker’s nightmare.” Mosconi was also a good-looking man, especially by pool standards, and while I was years away from resenting it in the least, there was that incredible milk-white hair.

It was the first time I had ever seen pool played in a darkened room (or a tournament room at all, for that matter.) The only other poolroom I had even been in was the one where I learned to play. Similarly, I had never seen new cloth on a table — whenever the owners of our local room would change the cloth, banks and schools would typically be closed the next day — or a new, polished set of balls. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mosconi insisted on both, usually providing his personal set of balls. And when it came to exhibition (not championship) play, he also insisted on easy competition so there would be no threat whatsoever to his long string of victories.

It was the first time I ever saw a player slip stroke, even though Mosconi’s was not all that pronounced — just a few inches — and I could not have begun to articulate what he was doing anyhow. Indeed, it would be over 40 years before I would even hear a reasonable explanation of why that phenomenon exists at all: to recapture the inner rhythm of the player’s practice strokes so it can be part of the actual delivery.

Naturally, it was the first time I saw anyone run more than one rack (for the record, Mosconi went 46, 104-and-out, sandwiched around Procita’s sad little 4). I had never seen a legitimate position pattern. I had never seen anyone that uncommonly graceful at the table. (Walter Tevis’ great line from “The Hustler” — “Look how he moves; like a dancer.” — is widely thought to have been inspired by Mosconi, not Minnesota Fats.) I had never seen the game played with genuine rhythm; when he sent the cue ball in one direction and took off in the other to address his next shot, it was as though he and the ball were dance partners.

Even with the man gone, and the game he so dominated not far behind him, that feast of firsts is still with me. The game, of course, being as infinite as she is, has firsts to offer almost every time you come to her. But they aren’t nearly as easy to find as they were on that wondrous afternoon back in the early ’50s. They may never be that easy to find again.

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