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
THEY'VE PROVED this many times over with infants: with any toy where something drops out of sight - Whack-a-mole, for instance - the baby gets tremendous gratification. As most of us are small children in overgrown mode, I've always suspected there was a lot of that going on with pool. The only real difference between adults and the games we play vs. babies and theirs is that somewhere along the line, we learn to rein in our joy.
One of the many things to love about the annual BCA Trade Expo is the opportunity to watch star players work with kids. Of course the focus is almost always on stroke production, but here and there the pros will make a minute adjustment in the pupil's stance or bridge or grip, and almost immediately a ball will disappear. The student's eyes widen and his (or her) jaw begins to drop, as s/he realizes the magic that something just happened which never happened before. From the crib, we're told not to cry. But when did we ever learn to hold happiness in?
All those suppressed pleasures were on prominent display last week as Charlie Williams brought his Predator Pro Pool School to town, both for exhibitions and teaching. World-class players Francisco Bustamante and Mika Immonen complete his teaching triumvirate. Their workshops typically take a weekend to complete, carry an announced syllabus, and charge a tuition fee many times what Chicago pool students have traditionally been willing to pay. Yet they drew ten or so students, male and female, just about the perfect size for three teachers as the class rotates every few hours. And it's hard to imagine any better - or better-received - cue-games instruction.
"Advanced players are actually the ones who need the most help," Williams explains, "because they've had longer to build bad habits." But none of the Predator School's students this weekend could be typified that way; some might charitably be called intermediates. All seemed to have a little extra motivation, one of the telltale signs of good teaching.
Williams and Immonen speak perfect English; Bustamante does not, but his flaws are not worth being snobbish over as he has no trouble expressing himself clearly. The first two men seem a tad stoic in their otherwise superb teaching approaches. They teach and do all the right things, especially when it comes to psychological reinforcement, but the same dryness that makes their senses of humor such a joy also seems to inhibit their emotions, and neither man smiles a whole bunch. But Bustamante has enough contagious enthusiasm for all three. His students appeared to be mesmerized, not only by the fun he's clearly having but the famous serpentine stroke and the fact that he never misses a demonstration shot. Yet the real pleasure is in watching his students progress. Francisco teaches two of his students a tip for cutting a ball thin along a rail, nearly the length of the table. (It wouldn't be fair to the school to repeat it here.) An affable lefty named Steve promptly sinks the shot fifteen or twenty times in a row. Maybe he thought no one was watching, but I was. First the corners of his mouth began to twitch. Then he began to bite his lips. And finally, he allowed himself a look around to see if anyone else was watching his newest success. I decided he had earned a modest tribute. "Better slow down, Chief," I called out. " You're gonna lose all your customers!"
Steve walked over with the same lip-biting grin. "See, I always knew some guys had a secret for that shot. They didn't shoot any better than I did; they just had that secret and I didn't. So now Francisco's unlocked it for me, and I've got it too." And he swaggered away in delight, his money already well-spent.
Not all the Predator Pro School's results are quite that dramatic. The program allots generous time for working with individual problems as well as for structured classes and drills. One young man asked for help with long straight-in shots. Bustamante set up such a shot, running diagonally to the student's left, then watched glumly as the student missed by a good half-diamond to the left, at least twenty consecutive times. "Don't snap your wrist," the teacher advised. "That's why the ball is pulling left." And yet the young man simply could not adjust, and kept missing the exact same shot the exact same way.
Bustamante briefly turned his attention to another table. Were I the teacher, I might have flirted with the shooter's stance - plant yourself better, stretch your lead shoulder, et al - but that's obviously not my place here. On the 21st or 22nd try, the student stumbled onto a solution: just take a little speed off. His wrist didn't twist this time; his delivery was more relaxed; the object ball split the wickets. But it's like trying to pick up mercury with a butter knife; just like that, the elusive secret hovered and then flitted away as suddenly as it appeared; the poor shooter fired fifteen more misses, all on the same side. None are so blind as those who will not see.
Cue-games teaching, unlike the game itself, has seldom been healthier. Books are better, clinics are more complete, teachers more dedicated. This magazine's "Dr. Dave" Alciatore generously shares his engineering wisdom both in these pages and online, in our Web site's chat room. Wisconsin's Frank "Sailor" Stellman is still going strong in his 80s. Freddy Bentivegna's new DVD "Banking With The Beard - The Movie" is stellar stuff, and nicely complements that marketing dynasty's burgeoning portfolio. John Schmidt and Danny Harriman have become instant 14.1 gurus, with self-narrated DVDs of runs as long as 280. You can even be taught how to rack (and how not to).
So take a lesson someplace. You should take away far more than you put in. And don't forget to smile when you do.