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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
 
December: Honor
December 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 2004]
Had you seen them, that Sunday morning in midtown Manhattan, they would have looked like any other three kids on their way to the Central Park lagoon to enjoy the rowboats. But at least one of them, Frankie, almost 12, was most certainly not like other kids, and now he said, “I hear pool balls.”

Mattie and Art, 11 and 9, respectively, had the identical thought. “Frankie, you love pool so much, you’re always hearing pool balls.” And they shared a laugh.

“Excuse me, young fellas,” interrupted a tall, scar-faced black man. “Youngblood there is right. There’s a poolroom right up there. You can’t see it because it doesn’t have windows, but it’s up there on the third floor.” The boys had no way of knowing that their new tour guide was pointing to one of the most legendary pool halls in America.

There was a time when the room was called Paddy’s, but the combination of an ownership change and its street address, modified its name to simply “711.” That would be 711 Seventh Ave., at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 47th Street. By any name, the room hosted most of the world’s best players. And whenever nationally known road players were out East, they naturally gravitated to 711 too. If there weren’t any pretenders to the throne around, there was certainly no shortage of fools. And when the sucker traffic lagged, “steerers” went into the streets to recruit.

That’s how the black man with the three boys made his living. He called himself Joe Louis, usually adding, “just like the fighter, but I’m just a gentle giant, a softie at heart.” Actually, he was a seasoned, professional con man. Between Joe and his fellow steerers, all the hustlers at many levels, and the bona fide champion players, nobody walked into 711 and walked out with the cash. Nobody.

“Come on, Youngblood,” Joe said. “Join me for a sociable game upstairs. You three will be my guests.”

All three boys agreed with Joe’s sociological wisdom, and the four of them repaired to the poolroom. Joe bought Cokes for the boys and got the pool balls. “Here, Youngblood,” he said to Frankie. “You get some practice, and I’ll be right back.” Even 711 was quiet on that late Sunday morning, but the one regular Joe was eager to see was there in the back, deeply engrossed in The Daily Racing Form. Joe sought counsel and backing of one Brooklyn Jimmy, the galaxy’s nonpareil hustler, who booked losers about as often as the Harlem Globetrotters did.

“I need some money to play, Jimmy,” pleaded Joe Louis. “I got three kids I just pulled in off the street.”

“Here is my case $35,” Jimmy sighed. “Post time is 90 minutes, so I need it back in an hour, Joe. And I expect consideration.”

Joe Louis returned to the table. “Ready to play some sociable 9-ball? We’ll play $3 a game. Fair enough?”

The boys huddled. “What do you think?” Art said. “We have $12. That’s four games. If we lose, we can’t go to Central Park.”

“Joe Louis might be a great fighter,” opined Frankie airily. “But I don’t think he can beat me on the pool table.”

Art said, “Rack ’em up, Mr. Louis.”

Frankie won the flip for break. Then he won $34 of Jimmy’s $35 — three games at $3 per, five more games at $5. Joe Louis borrowed another $150 from the houseman, made Frankie change tables twice, and lost that money too. He never won a rack. Frankie drilled balls into some of America’s most diabolical pockets as though he were aiming at subway tunnels. What Joe could not have known was that he was playing a far more accomplished hustler than himself. At 11, “Jersey Frankie” Fillerino had already been a road 9-ball player, complete with rollouts knowledge (they were legal at any point in the game back then), for close to a year. His primary backer was none other than his truant officer, one Jersey City Augie, who would pluck him straight out of class — Catholic school yet — for action. What concerned Joe more that the moment, though, was that he had to confess this loss to Brooklyn Jimmy. “I’ll get the money back though, Jimmy. I’ll take him up on the roof and take it away from him.”

“Let us review,” Jimmy said, folding away his Form. “First and foremost, you are a moron. I will accept no protest on this. I have been studying this Form for three hours. I have determined nine cold winners and I have just $35 to fire at them. You lose that to a kid a good four or five years away from his first shave. And now, your latest noble concept is to recoup your loses — none of which were your money, may I add — by strong-arming the kid. Well, I’ll tell you what you are going to do, and that is absolutely nothin’. You will take this loss like a man. If you set one foot in that stairwell when the kid leaves, I will personally throw you off the roof. Are we clear?”

Joe limped away in shame; Frankie replaced him. “I heard what you said, Mister. I’m sorry I won your racetrack money. How much did you give Mr. Louis?”

“About $35.”

“Well, here. I want you to have it back. Go to the track.”

“Well, that’s mighty nice of you, kid. But I gotta do the right thing too. There’s $50 here. I only lost $35.”

“Take the $50, Mister. Thirty-five dollars is no kind of ammo to fire at nine cold winners.”

Jimmy marveled at how the kid thought and talked like someone three times his age; he did not know that was because Frankie had spent very little time around other children. Truant officer Jersey City Augie had seen to that.

Forty-five or so years later, Frankie and Jimmy are still the best of friends, although neither man has played pool in decades.

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