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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One of THE first routines that stamped the then-young Bob Newhart as a stand-up comic genius was a dialogue between a smartass game manufacturer and Abner Doubleday, the inventor of baseball. The businessman gave Doubleday an extremely hard time as to how his game's rules came to be constituted. (The cackle Newhart breaks into as he intones, "Wh ... wh what's a 'ball,' Mr. Doubleday?" is still with me after 40-plus years.) And yet baseball has nothing on the cue games when it comes to creative invention.
No one knows quite how front-to-back one-pocket and rail-first three-cushion billiards originally came to be. One-pocket, as chronicled by our peerless historian Michael Shamos in the June 2002 issue, is way older than you'd think it is, and was not even invented in America. Until 1967, the Billiard Congress of America resisted including conventional one-pocket in its rulebook, as the game existed as a gambling medium only. You won't find front-to-back in anybody's rulebook.
Few will argue that the game seemed to begin with the late Jack "Jersey Red" Breit, which is not to say that he personally created it. Maybe Red became acquainted with the form at the black poolroom near the home of his youth in Newark, N.J. There was absolutely no dispute that, at his peak in the 1950s and '60s, he was unbeatable at one-pocket, especially on the 5-by-10-foot tables of that era. Possibly he volunteered to take a back pocket when no more competition could be found for him in the game's orthodox form.
Front-to-back works like this: Player A takes a back corner pocket, diagonally opposite to the front pocket of Player B. A would customarily receive a handicap of half the game plus the break (8 to 4, 10 to 5, 12 to 6, etc.). The break is a one-rail kick behind the stack, which seeks to stick the cue ball back there while loosened balls come up-table. From that point on, the game is played pretty much as if the table had been turned sideways. In regular one-pocket, each player battles to land object balls on his half of the table, divided the long way. In front-to-back, the table is divided the short way instead, and any object ball passing the side-pockets line, no matter where it stops, must be considered a threat by Player B. And either competitor can leave his opponent long merely by keeping the cue ball in his own half.
But when Red played front-to-back, he was so creative and aggressive playing a back pocket that it was he who wound up giving handicaps to his front-pocket opponents. His only real competition at the game was a man named Bob "The Destroyer" Myers, probably the second-best regular one-hole player in New York City. Myers drew his moniker not from any propensity toward violence, but from his constricting style of play. He didn't just leave you behind object balls nearest your pocket; he left you frozen on those balls, and usually on the worst possible edge of them. It took all your skill just to get out of his traps, let alone create any threats of your own, and that can be quite enervating on an inning-by-inning basis. Red was the only player Myers could not beat. While Myers' visualization abilities and creativity were probably even more heightened than Breit's, Red's edge in shot-making and banking made him the better player. In that era, however, with the broad, broad spectrum of both top players and their suckers/customers, Myers was able to give out many handicaps that Red could not. The matches most worth seeing, though, were not those between player and sucker, but rather those matching up two real players. "That's where the last two years of my high-school education went," recalls one-pocket and three-cushion author Eddie Robin, a New York native. "Up at 711, watching those guys play front-to-back."
Rail-first three-cushion billiards cannot even be traced to a single competitor. The great Chicago room Bensinger's, in its last downtown incarnation, had a single floor devoted to caroms. It seems odd, in this day and age, to speak of a single room housing 40-plus billiard tables, but Bensinger's did. Of the city's top three-cushion competitors, I would estimate perhaps a dozen were familiar with rail-first; most considered it billiards' response to bank pool. In either game, the player who scores successfully on the opening break continues to shoot but receives no score for the break shot. All billiards must be scored by sending the cue ball to at least one rail before it contacts either object ball. You could watch two good three-cushion players compete for close to a week without seeing any attempt at an "umbrella shot" (two rails/ball/rail/second ball); they're absolutely commonplace in rail-first. Leaving the three balls in the table's center, with decent intervals between them, yields juicy options in conventional billiards; in rail-first, that's just what you'd want to leave. Because of the game's difficulty, it was common to play just 5 points, sometimes 10.
I haven't seen either front-to-back or rail-first played since the '60s, and the last time I did, it was the same competitor trying both: Robin, back in his road-player days. He did not get significant action in either form, and broke about even with the local players who were willing to dabble with him.
Chess hustlers in New York's Washington Square Park and elsewhere play blitz (move in 10 seconds or less or forfeit the game). Very good gin-rummy players compete at concentration gin, in which you see your hand at the deal but play it face down thereafter. Those games came to be because their proponents had become too good at the orthodox forms and had run out of action. No doubt that's how front-to-back and rail-first were originally hatched too.
But I frankly doubt you'll see either one again. Even conventional 3-C is fighting for its life in this country; as for front-to-back, one-pocket action is still fairly widespread, but, thanks in good measure to casinos and computers, the range of customers is vastly diluted. The two games were initially created for the best of the best. And time has seen to it that there just aren't that many bests anymore.