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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It's a VERY nice game," said the immortal pool champion Willie Mosconi, speaking of three-cushion billiards, "but the balls just roll around all day as if they had no place to go."
Homeless or otherwise, the billiard balls of America are desperate for company these days. (Mosconi, by the way, had a long run of 13 and was excellent at the game despite that arch overview, as were his contemporaries Ralph Greenleaf and Irving Crane.) The lion's share of American commercial billiard rooms - many of which advertise "Billiards" rather than "Pool," which is a bit like curling your little finger as you chug a beer - do not even offer carom tables. International players win just about all our national championships, and if it were even possible to seed the top 10 American billiards players, they would still be so anonymous that their listing could practically be interchanged with the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
I grew up watching good billiards. The best player in my first room, the late Bill Romain, finished third nationally in 1970, and when the great Bensinger's was still located in downtown Chicago, there was an entire floor of 30-plus tables for billiards which drew experts only. Of course, all those players, including Romain, are gone now; the only competitor from that era who remains around is the wonderful Joe Diaz, approaching his mid-80s and still a semi-regular player at Chris's Billiards. Nobody young seems to want to play the game in this country; it's way too hard, and, as Mosconi suggested, you don't get the gratification of watching a ball disappear. And yet there are few billiard-room pleasures that can match the elegant satisfaction in watching two good caroms players match up.
When I began writing this column, I promised myself that I was not going to bore people by writing about my own pool game unless it was for comedic effect, which was about what my game was worth most of those years. Now and then I would break that promise on special occasions, such as sharing with you my last triple-digit run, my deep (some would say "psychotic") dedication to 14.1 practice, stuff like that. But at this point, I have a shocking confession to declare: I do not love pool to the extent that I enjoy playing it poorly. And yet, with my 223rd birthday approaching rapidly, I cannot expect to improve.
The quest of my pool practice used to be a 50-ball run. While I can still occasionally achieve that, I can't with the same regularity I used to, thanks to the aforementioned birthday accumulation, arthritis, and slowly ebbing focus. The goal is now to run two racks multiple times, and I can accomplish that about as frequently as I used to run 50. Rather than dumping me outright, my life's passion is letting me down gently. And billiards - which I still play as well as I ever did - is looking better and better.
To be specific, I probably average somewhere around .5, good enough that I don't embarrass anyone but not quite good enough for tournaments - in other words, just about where I was at pool. For just about as long as I've been hacking away at both games, I've had players, including experts, telling me that caroms should be my game of choice. I might have been a tournament-level player, but my own determination was that I would have had to quit pool in order to achieve that, and that simply was not a sacrifice I was prepared to make.
And I can't now, either. Still, more and more often, I find myself soloing on the no-pocket tables. Chris's has always had a superb field of caroms players; every level of play from split-time to expensive action is available on a near-daily basis. Gambling at either of the cue games ceased to be interesting to me some years ago, and sociable competition is far, far easier to attract on the caroms side of the room. But mostly, I like to play alone.
As long as I've been around, billiards players have always insisted that the skill involved in scoring a single point at three-cushion is the equivalent of that needed to run 13 balls at pool. I have no idea how that equation was first struck, but, along with the deathless "Bums play pool, gentlemen play billiards" that's been around since the Depression, and the latter game's magnificent claim, "The ultimate in man's control over a ball," it makes a pretty good case that the game belongs on some kind of pedestal.
Thus I suppose I've put it on one. Maybe I can't run 50 balls at the drop of a hat anymore (as though I ever could), but I can still run four billiards, or the stated equivalent of a 50-ball run. Having spent most of my cue-games life at the pool table, I'm extremely comfortable cutting the first object ball thin with inside English, and many of the shots on which I score could be described that way. I still miss many shots by a quark - I just love when your cue approaches, and leaves, closely enough that you can detect its reflection in the object ball - and I will never understand how you can send a cue ball and object ball in opposite directions, at different speeds, angles and spins, and still have them violently collide seconds later for a kiss-out. But I'm still good at the game, and that makes up for a multitude of sins.
Pop-up toys for infants have documented that when something drops out of sight, the infant gets great pleasure, and I've long suspected that's what is really going on psychologically at pool, no matter the age of the combatants. The satisfaction of scoring a billiard, while undeniable, is an entirely different specie of joy, a successful run an entirely different feeling of mastery.
It's really not unlike watching a soulmate slip away at the same time you're given a chance to court an even more beautiful woman. (I've accomplished the first half of that, too.) You get only one soulmate per existence, and no other thrill will ever be the same. On the other hand, it's not bad at all to be reminded that you're still alive.