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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: Pool At School
June 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from May 2003]
Of all the categories of pool stories to be told, few are higher in pure malarkey content — and the enormity of that claim cannot be overstated, given the subject — than the one whose tales begin, “So and so put himself through college playing pool.”

While rich fantasy certainly has its own place in our lives — how else would we procreate? — one does need to maintain at least occasional contact with the real world. And the simple realities of pool at college are these: a) While there certainly are some kids of rich parents there, not everyone is rich, and even those who are rarely have open checkbooks, especially for gambling; b) Of those kids who have disposable income and will gamble with it (and at this point, you’ve eliminated most of the student universe), virtually none have any interest in pool (cards, especially poker, would rank far higher); and c) Of those who will play pool for money, no one will bet much more than a few bucks, and none of them on a regular basis.

On the first weekend of my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, the only poolroom in town folded. On the second weekend, James Dean was killed. It is a fitting measure of my obsession with the game that I regard the first weekend as the greater tragedy by far. 20th Century Recreation had been the only place in all of Madison, except for the Student Union, to play pool back then. The billiard room at the Student Union closed at 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, which to this day I regard as a prime factor in my being able to finish school at all. And at any hour, it was no substitute whatsoever for my hometown poolroom. Through the last two years of high school, my entire social life revolved around reporting to that room immediately after school and after dinner. I tried to make the Student Union fit the same role, but it wasn’t even close.

There were some decent players around, though, and over my four college years we even had modest action. The last time I visited Madison and the Union, I noted a sign warning students that playing pool for money was an expellable offense. In my day, we used to play ring 9-ball, betting as high as 50 cents on the 5 and a buck on the 9 and kept score on the table markers; no money changed hands until we quit. Those willing to participate in the first place obviously had a rich love for the game. The Union tables were about as level as your average kitchen stove, sported gray cloth that gave the place the look of a morgue when empty, and were so close together that you had to site on the side rail of one table to shoot off the side rail of the next. But there were still far too many days when pool loomed far more attractive than class. Most of the Liberal Arts classes were taught in buildings that sat on the humongous Bascom Hill, at least two blocks long and steep enough that you got the dreaded burn in your calves no matter how used to it you thought you were. Running balls vs burning calves? Too much of the time, no contest.

The first player I was willing to admit I couldn’t beat was a crew-cut fellow named John Miller, who I later learned had won intercollegiate titles in 1937 and 1940. That may sound prehistoric now, but those dates were only 18 and 15 years, respectively, ahead of my freshman year, so Miller would have been nearly 40 when he beat me out of time and a dollar. I remember he played an extremely precise game without running many balls; 25 or 30 was a lot for him, but they were textbook runs with no shot much more than 18 inchces.

But mostly I won. There was a very nice guy from Kenosha, Wis., named Ed Hollander — a doctor still practicing today in Greensboro, N.C. — who used to hum and sing to himself while he played. For four years we all tried to get Ed to straighten his head in his stance; instead, he cocked it as though he had questions to ask the balls. And I had a fraternity brother who served as a fairly regular opponent until his girlfriend transferred to Wisconsin, whereupon I hardly ever saw him again. I played this guy 50-30. He was a brilliant student in accounting, whereas I was an atrocious one, and at one point I cashed in what he owed me from pool so he could doctor my books. I’d have never passed the course otherwise.

The best player I saw in my four years was Beloit’s Mike Van Vleck, a retired computer programmer who still spends part of the year in Madison, and also still takes part occasionally in regional three-cushion play. Mike was a few years older than I, having done the Army first, and had one of those funny “false start” strokes that piggybacks for the actual delivery right on top of the last practice stroke. Then there was the poetically named Virgil Lindsay (“Ole”) Pope, who represented the State of Wisconsin at least once in the U.S. Open 14.1 tournaments of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I spent four years as one of the top four or five players on campus, without ever being the best.

Decades after I was gone, the poolroom that first called itself “Rotten Rodney’s” opened exactly one half-block from my fraternity house. They needn’t know how grateful I still am that they weren’t around when I was. I’d never have finished school. No chance. None.

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