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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: Two We Forgot
November 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from March 2003]
We probably did not need Baltimore’s loony native son, Edgar Allan Poe, to remind us in his short story, “The Purloined Letter,” that often the most obvious solutions to tough questions are right under our noses. As partial proof, our own BCA Hall of Fame, throughout its relatively brief and highly selective history, has consistently overlooked two perfectly logical candidates.

The late Bennie Allen, of Kansas City, Mo., remains the only pool player in history to have won as many as three world championships without being inducted. He’s also the only male player ever to have won national titles in both pool and snooker. And his national snooker championship came at age 60, making him the only player other than the immortal Willie Hoppe to become a national champ as a sexagenarian.

Why would the Hall snub such credentials? Did Allen smell bad? No, it’s more likely the reason was that anyone hearing his name normally responds, “Benny who?” As a professional pool player Benny Allen seemed forever doomed to be upstaged. Besides the laurels listed above, he won world championships an astonishing 35 years apart (again, topped only be Hoppe, who won championships 47 years apart). Yet he was not even necessarily the best pool player in his own immediate circle; that claim would have been contested by his business partner, Johnny Kling, the 1910 world champion who also claimed the rarity of dual-sport world championships, having caught for the 1908 Chicago Cubs. Allen did not even get top billing in the Kansas City billiard room he owned with Kling, although he was entitled to it alphabetically.

At age 18, Allen finished a creditable sixth in his first national tournament. This was in 1908, two years before the invention of 14.1 straight pool. His star rose like a comet once the far more artful new game was in place. In 1913, he challenged and defeated the great Alfredo D’Oro, preventing him from retiring his championship trophy (as was the right of any champion who defended his title successfully against all challengers for a calendar year.) Allen went on to remain national pockets champion from 1913 to 1915. He was one of the best-liked players of his era, easily the baldest, and until his death in 1953 was widely known as a friendly man who would teach for free everyone from beginners to young road players.

In short, Bennie Allen probably never attained Hall of Fame status because he has no one to speak for him. From his era, we’ve managed to remember Greenleaf, D’Oro and the dawdling Frank Taberski, but not Allen. The man was simply too low-key and low-profile.

Contemporarily, the overlooking of caroms’ Allen Gilbert is even more puzzling. Here is a man who has won eleven — eleven! — national championships. Is the institution’s title not Billiards Congress of America Hall of Fame? Yet before the peerless Raymond Ceulemans was inducted in 2001, it had been 33 years since competitors who played only caroms had been named. (Larry “Boston Shorty” Johnson, the 1999 honoree, won several caroms crowns but was far less accomplished at the game than Gilbert, and far better known for his pool playing.)

(Speaking of Ceulemans, the only reason I ever heard for his taking so long to achieve Hall of Fame recognition was, “It’s the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame and they want to recognize Americans first.” Without arguing the merits of that particular claim, if it’s true, then how did Ceulemans get elected at all? How did Efren Reyes get on the recent ballot? What will we do about Korean/American Sang Lee, who has already won more national titles than Gilbert and is still active?)

Gilbert’s three-cushion career began at age 14. He was already a terror at pool, but one day all the pool tables were busy or being recovered. The billiards table, however, was open, and the room owner set up the game’s opening break shot and told him, “You’ll like this.” Gilbert scored the very first billiard he ever tried, and never looked back. By the time he was 20, no one in America could beat him.

Gilbert’s credentials are well beyond reproach. In many of the years he won, the field was largely him and then everyone else. He was the only American player consistently invited to fill out the field of European championship tournaments. But his last national crown was over 25 years ago, in 1977. Only regional tournaments were held from 1981 through 1988, when he last won. While no longer active in the game, the personable lefty continues to serve the industry in a cue case business. And he’s certainly American; serving with the U.S. Army in Korea, he was so badly hurt that to this day he carries enough plates and pins around in his body to do R2D2 proud.

Now, there is no question from this corner that every member of the BCA Hall of Fame deserves to be there. Yet two members have a single national or world crown apiece (the eminently deserving Lou Butera and Cisero Murphy), and some of the unsuccessful noninmees in recent years have been, more or less, out there. The case for Allen and Gilbert would seem to be rock-solid — except that they seem to have no one but me to toot their horns. I’m not accusing anyone of politics, rash judgment, or anything else. All I’m saying is that I don’t understand how or why these two totally deserving men could be continually bypassed. That’s all.

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