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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The same hands that could never really spiral a football nor dunk a basketball can hold just four pool balls each. Thus my first pass at racking the balls creates rows of five and three; my stunted hands then criss-cross like a three-card monte dealer’s as they bring up the remaining six balls to complete the rows of four, three and two. Another rack of straight pool is ready for me. How many times can I have done this now? A million? No, not a million racks, although there’s very little question that I’ve pocketed a million balls. After 50 years of play, one need average only about four racks a day to total a million balls; I passed the 50-year mark five years ago, and the daily four-rack barrier fell before my relentless onslaught as timidly as shampoo before water.
Years before the great Tony Bennett even saw San Francisco, let alone donated any body parts prematurely there, he recorded a truly fine ballad called “Solitaire.” It would take a real trivia buff to remember this one; as a single, it was on the flip side of the far more popular “Blue Velvet.” But as rock music was not even yet on the scene, those were two of the best torch songs of their era. And as they were released right around the time that pool came calling for me — and one of the first aspects of the game with which I fell hopelessly in love was that it was the quintessential loner’s pastime — “Solitaire,” which was way ahead of its time in terms of melody and chord changes, has been with me ever since.
“Since you’re gone, I spend each lonely night
Dealin’ out the cards from left to right;
And the Queen of Hearts is there to remind me
That I’m all alone just playin’ Solitaire…”
These days, I rarely compete at pool except for my once-weekly appearances at a 14.1 league in the fine Red Shoes Billiards room on the other side of town. I spend the lion’s share of my time practicing straight pool alone, and I even need a warm-up routine to be any good at that. (When it comes to three-cushion billiards, I prefer an opponent and am fully ready to play as soon as I can screw my cue together; I have absolutely no explanation for that, although it’s probably worth noting that pool and billiards are played to two entirely different rhythms.)
As a practice player, I’m pretty much an anachronism now, although I’ve seen many different types of the specie. “The Hustler,” as a novel, both began and ended with such a player, devoting every last smidgen of his practice time to a single long bank shot. I must admit that I’ve never seen anybody devote an entire session to just one shot; a few different shots, maybe, but never just one. Years ago, when the famous room Bensinger’s was still in downtown Chicago, there was a nice old guy in an honest-to-goodness derby hat who practiced nothing but Boston Pool (two balls in tandem in front of every pocket with the last three in a row at center table; run the table in nine strokes or less). He never played anything else and wouldn’t even remotely consider sharing his table. When Bensinger’s moved to the north side of town, the neighborhood punks who infested the new room drove him away in a day or two and nobody ever saw him again.
There were some pretty famous players who had practice quirks, too. The immortal Irving Crane used to devote 30 minutes of his daily practice to playing himself safe. Even though I’m the author of those last 18 words — and I’ve written them before — I still have trouble believing them. I get pissed when any given break shot doesn’t reward me with open shots, and that’s just one stroke of the cue. Here’s a guy who spent half an hour skimming the rack, burying the cue ball or leaving it on the far end rail, and returning his own safeties. I tried Crane’s technique exactly once and found that my fanny was squirming most uncomfortably after three safes; but he was Irving Crane, and I most certainly was not. Little wonder that all of Crane’s contemporaries, including Willie Mosconi, to whom Crane was second banana for just about all his career, admitted that Crane was easily the best defensive player.
In Queens, N.Y., the late, brilliant Gene Nagy would sometimes practice his 9-ball break, and nothing else, for hours on end. This was decades before Charley Bond came up with his ingenious Break-Rak device, which eliminates all the tedium of Nagy’s endeavor. Gene would simply break, re-gather and re-rack the balls, and re-break them, time and time again. He was reliably reported, after one such session, to have smashed his Balabushka cue to smithereens and burst into uncontrollable sobbing. One can only wonder just how stressful his break-practice drill must have been.
And then there’s Efren Reyes, who considers a practice session complete only after he has run 10 consecutive racks of call-shot rotation. Ten straight racks! Reyes’ demands of himself are suggestive of the weightlifter who doesn’t consider his workout to be over until he bench-presses 8,000 pounds.
But my favorite practice player these days is undoubtedly Chicago’s Joe Diaz, now roughly 85. At the billiards table, Joe mostly practices and scores on shots that he sets up, rather than what the table gives him. He addresses his cue ball so gently that he almost seems apologetic about disturbing it at all; his shot scores so softly that the ultimate object ball barely moves a ball’s width. But, like me, Joe is way deep inside his own head. There are no mindless wars, no civic corruption, no office politics there. Just a beautiful, endlessly complex game, and utter peace.
And watching Joe, I’m reminded that Tony Bennett’s lyricist didn’t have it altogether right. Put the right spin on it — feeble pun intended — and you can enjoy some of the most fulfilling moments of your life being all alone, just playin’ Solitaire.