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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: Discipline
June 2024

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 2004]
The balls cluck quietly like happy hens as I push them toward their destinations, in yet another warm-up drill. Pool is half my social life now (the other half being my beagle), thus must be prepared for properly. When I finish my drills, I then practice. To some, this may appear comparable to taking a nap just before bed, but Iím in that happy station where the opinions of others just donít count much anymore. I canít play my best or anywhere near it without my ritual, and playing well means far too much to me to even think of eliminating it. Anal-retentive that I am, I even begin with the balls in numerical order.

The complete ceremony comprises four drills. First, finesse follow (shoot a spotted ball straight in and replace the object balls with the cue ball on the spot). Next, finesse draw (shoot a spotted ball straight in and draw perfectly straight back; repeat as many times as possible without sending the cue ball to a rail). Third, a stop shot exercise. Then I roll the 15 balls out on the table loose and try to run the table without contacting a second object ball. When all thatís done, and not before, I start my straight-pool practice, which goes anywhere from three to six hours. And I rarely take an opponent anymore ó except in billiards, which happens to be my best game and which I never play alone. Iím an only child; accordingly, I want all the shots, including those immediately after misses. I donít want any rule telling me which ball I have to shoot, or in what pocket I must shoot it; I want all the balls and pockets. This is my world, and welcome to it.

In case my ďBilliards Workbook,Ē a mammoth to me on practice drills, didnít make the point, pool practice can be ó and, in fact, should be ó as individualized as you can make it. Most of the worldís best 9-ball players put in long practice hours at every single phase of their game, including kicks and jump shots. Earl Strickland goes for at least three hours daily and has stated that if he misses a single day, he feels the loss for the next three. John Schmidt, after toning his 9-ball skills, will not quit for the day until heís run 200 balls in straight pool. The immortal Efren Reyes, on the other hand, has never been seen practicing anything except the first pool game he ever learned, call shot rotation.

For sheer pool discipline, though, itíd be awfully tough to top the late Irving Crane. Not only did Mr. Crane practice daily for hours, but he played himself safe for 30 minutes a day. Of course, playing yourself safe for 30 minutes at a crack is my idea of flagellation with a reasonably coarse sandpaper, but that, among oh so many other reasons, is part of why I donít play like the late Irving Crane.

At Chrisís Billiards, where I play regularly, the predominant money game of choice is one-pocket, and any number of the roomís top players practice that game alone on end, playing against themselves, complete with moves, safeties and traps. My own one-pocket and straight pool are roughly the same level of mediocrity, but I just canít play one-hole solitaire; I simply donít have the patience for it and wind up taking flyers toward either pocket, which defeats the whole purpose. Straight pool is something else entirely for me; the game neatly complements the dinosaur I have become. Still, no other cue game can get you into the ďzoneĒ and keep you there longer, and that is the real quest. The wretched tyke still within me sends up a tiny shpritz of anxiety with each tough leave, the same dosage of demonic rage with each miss. He can get to be a real handful with any significant buildup of either spritz, an off-key lead singer with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of voices inside my head.

The general idea is to practice until I run 50 or more; I donít keep actual track, but I would estimate that I reach the goal anywhere between 33 and 50 percent of the time. Within that framework, though, my real hope is to slip into perfection for a time. Nothing greedy, mind you. It might not last more than a rack, and it could be even less, but with any luck, an interval will pop up where shot selection and sequence are as good as anyone could make them. Every so often, Iíll find a really remarkable hidden shot in the stack, or even make something phenomenally hard; incredible how much easier that is when thereís no opponent waiting to take over your table, but that doesnít make it any less satisfying.

And the game has gifted me with a trio of 100-plus runs over the last 14 months. The first three such runs of my life, by contrast, spanned 32 years. So that has become my Holy Grail, or lost chord, or whatever else one deems worth eternally searching for. Most of the time, I re-rack immediately upon missing and plunge right back in. Some admire my diligence, some find it boring beyond belief, but thatís not my primary focus. Iím in a race, not with the roomís closing time, and not with my nightly fatigue level. Iím hitting the ball better than I ever have ó but Iím now 66, and the race is with a much heavier-duty opponent. With one more patient sigh, I herd the balls back into the triangle, to be rebroken, bellowed at, pleaded with, sung to. Maybe the next frame will be perfect, no second object ball run into, no rails for the cue ball to visit; more likely not, but who really knows? With any given ball, I could slip into the long-quested-for trance, masterfully reduce the unknown to the familiar, and, for a few seconds, play alongside the greats. I might succeed. I might fail. But the next rack is always the rebirth of chance.

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