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.
Best of Fels
February: Beauty and the Beast
The cue games have no event to offer more beautiful than a top-shelf three-cushion billiards tournament. The table cloth is almost always new, the balls well-polished, the contestants (at least the international ones) impeccable in their official playing vests. Everything is pristine. A good pool tournament, for the most part, features levels of play you can attain now and then yourself, just less consistently than the pros can. But a national-class billiards tournament, practically on an inning-by-inning basis, shows you skills and insights you would never have dreamed of.
And because the best heated caroms tables of today cost close to triple what a pool table does, it’s usually a highly sumptuous commercial room which installs them. Billiards’ most charming forum, after all, fully deserves charming surroundings. Which makes the United States Billiard Association’s decision to hold their International Open meet at Chris’s Billiards in Chicago last month a bit off-the-wall. Chris’s is, oh, let’s say “rustic.” It’s a pool hall of the old school: no bar, decent or better food, but the principal business is pool and billiards. The room is actually three adjoining rooms. When the caroms tables were located in the first back room, there was no problem erecting temporary bleachers where fans could behold bona fide world-class competition among the immortal Raymond Ceulemans and his near-peers Blomdahl, Jaspers, Sayginer and others, seated in comfort with the scores clearly visible. But the caroms tables are in the front now, which means virtually no spectator seating and no way to keep track of the score short of shading your eyes and squinting at the faraway overhead bead wires. It was pretty clearly an event for billiards lovers only.
On the other hand, Chris’s five carom tables (recently increased to seven) are very nearly the majority of tables available for commercial play in all Chicago. The room contributed generously to the prize fund and has always been extremely accommodating to players; its original, 1973 founder, Bob Weir, was a caroms player himself (the place has never been owned by anybody actually named Chris), and the room has catered to such competitors ever since. Besides, the spectators are accustomed to all this. Any given pool tournament will host some total strangers to the game, in the form of women towed by their boyfriends or kids chaperoned by parents. But a caroms tournament, for the most part, attracts players only, who applaud in finger-snaps and roll their eyes in brief horror when a scorekeeper, attempting to remove a chalk crumb from the table, moves a ball aside and marks its place with a mere wet fingertip. The game is played not only by, but for, people who know it.
And the 32-player field was high-caliber enough to satisfy any fan, seated, squinting, or otherwise. Pedro Piedrabuena, Hugo Patino and New York’s marvelous Sonny Cho have five national USBA titles between them (three for Piedrabuena). Illinois’ venerable George Ashby, a welcome sight after a lengthy sabbatical from tournament play, has eight such titles (although won under the auspices of two other players’ associations). And two of Ecuador’s finest players, Javier Teran and Luis Aveiga, were in the fold too, along with one of the game’s top female competitors, Colombia’s striking Mercedes Gonzalez. (Piedrabuena would eventually win, the Ecuadorans would finish second and third respectively, Patino fourth, Ashby fifth, Cho sixth, and Gonzalez tenth. And local favorite Paul Navarette, along with Indiana’s spectacular bank-pool star Mark Jarvis the only real pool players in the entire field, came in a highly creditable eighth.)
Ashby, in particular, has weathered some nasty kisses in his billiards game of life; he even jokes that his apparently healthy, ruddy complexion is nothing more than a reflection of his high blood pressure. But his is still the finest beard in all billiards, just the right balance of salt and pepper, every single hair perfectly groomed, and his game still one of the most imaginative. Short of artistic billiards competition, you will not see a player who enjoys getting his cue perpendicular more than George Ashby.
But the real star of the show, as it always is with billiards, was the game itself. “I hate this bleeping game,” player and co-tournament director George Theobald advised me cheerily during one of his early-round matches, “and I hate you for liking it.” But he had tongue firmly planted in cheek, and besides, how mad can I get at yet another competitor named George? On any one of the five tables in action, the odds were close to even money that the next inning would produce a shot you had never seen before. The factor of luck, in a top-class caroms match, is pretty much reduced to which side of the second object ball the cue ball scores upon. The best players go through entire games as bereft of kisses as though they were in a nunnery. Most of the time, they select shots offering no such dismal dangers. When that glum possibility does exist, they find the right combination of hit, spin and speed that will defeat it. Frequently they send their cue balls off the side of the first object ball precisely opposite to the side you had visualized, and yet they still score effortlessly. It’s the damnedest thing.
The game’s dilemma, especially in America, remains that almost nobody young seems to want to play it. In this field, just two competitors, Piedrabuena (who only begins to look his 33 years with the addition of a modest Van Dyke beard) and Gonzalez, are on the sunny side of 40, and both are native Latin Americans hailing from countries where the game holds near-equal footing with pool. But we do have resources like the USBA’s tireless secretary/treasurer Jim Shovak, who puts a juicy chunk of his own dough into his association’s tour without expecting any return except the promotion of their magnificent game; there is simply no way these tournaments can be profitable. This meet’s prize fund was a highly creditable $14,000-plus, and this year’s USBA tour was better than the 2007 version. Things could certainly be way worse.