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
July: Running Your Age
I RAN my age twice in three nights the other weekend (i.e., I ran more balls than I am years old), yet my point is not braggadocio but pure statistical anomaly. After all, it's hardly as though the feat hasn't been attained before. Skilled golfers talk, or lie, about "shooting their age" all the time, except that any given golfer's skills frequently coincide with his storytelling acumen.
Closer to home, the late Hall of Fame pool player Jimmy Moore was running balls well into the eighties at a point when he was, well, well into the 80s himself; "Only thing that's slipped," he told me around the time of his induction, "is I can't stand up to the table as long as I used to." Another departed straight-pool aficionado, "Brooklyn Johnny" Ervolino, more than quintupled the feat when, at 66, he notched a 334-ball run during a well-attended exhibition with Long Island star player Phil McCurdy. And the immortal Willie Mosconi, at almost exactly the same age as Ervolino, is reliably reported to have run 42 racks, broken the 43rd perfectly (that's 589, if you're keeping score at home), then thrown his cue on the table with a lofty, "Let's get some dinner. See, it's no big deal to run 600 balls."
But obviously, those men had greatness all their playing days on which to fall back when they were older. As a lifetime ham-'n'-egger, I have no such surplus. Most straight-pool players tend to be older men (when they can in fact be found); generally, as the birthdays accumulate, the pool game erodes. It can be a simple matter of eyesight, although that happens less often than you might think; it can be about focus, touch or temperament too, but the downhill side is a strikingly complex matter for a game played in just 40-1/2 square feet. In my own case, I flatter myself that I'm in the cocktail hour of life, but what's closer to the truth is that the glasses and cheese saucers are being gathered for the dishwasher. And yet I'm playing some of the best pool of my life.
If I had a ready explanation, I imagine it would be highly marketable. But I don't, so it's not. My life is largely down to what I do for this magazine, my college teaching, fitness and pool playing, thus the quality of the latter is easily a potential day-maker (or downer, I suppose, but let's not go there). It's an extremely comfortable retirement without being a sumptuous one, and it's probably worth noting that both long runs took place an hour or two after a good solid afternoon nap. I'm playing with an extremely clear head, uncluttered by the intricacies of family, career, marriage or even dating. Does that explain this fleeting rush of success? I doubt it.
There's an ancient gag about a rabbi who plays a solo round of golf on Yom Kippur, his religion's most solemn holiday, and God punishes him by allowing him a hole-in-one with nobody around to see (or believe) it. I play the lion's share of my pool alone, too, so my joys are largely private no matter what God thinks. But of course, when you "play the ghost," especially at straight pool, you'll do some outrageous things to keep a practice run going that you would not even remotely consider in actual competition unless you were in the throes of psychosis. You need not apologize for, nor explain, your madness to anyone, but when one of those loony fliers falls to rescue your run from deep coma, there's a feeling little short of mightiness. So you didn't beat the best player in the room with that shot, and you didn't win any money with it. So what? Your opponent was the game itself; that wretchedly tough opponent stuck you in the tightest jackpot it could, and you still came roaring through like Whirlaway.
In the first of my two runs, a successful break shot left me stuck on the side of the stack; I selected a table-length kick at a combination shot near the long rail, with the object balls a good foot apart. I didn't just split the hole with the damn thing; I did so at the perfect speed, with the first object ball contacted sitting perfectly for next-three-balls position. I doubt Bill Gates has enough money to lay against a dime that I could make that shot again. But there I was, aglow with the magical notion, "There's not a man in the history of this game who could have done that any better."
But most of all, what's really entailed in playing this well this late in life - at least for me - is an extremely heightened sense of speed (or the lack thereof) for both cue ball and object balls, along with a comfort zone the size of Ohio. I'm feeling the cue ball at the tip of my cue better than ever; beyond that, I can sense its spin off the rails, and even its contact with the object balls (and yes, full hits on straight shots do "feel" different than cut shots), the way top bowlers claim they can feel their ball against the falling pins. And there's a much better instinct for minimal force, and just how softly a lot of pool shots can be accomplished both for pocketing and position.
And maybe the best aspect of all that magic is what I take home with me. I know better than to feel heroic in any way; the accomplishments of a senior citizen playing pool alone are, in perspective, not exactly the stuff of legends. It's more a feeling of calm and patience. Is that picture on the wall hanging crookedly again? I'll straighten it. Do my cue's shafts need polishing? No, but I'll do it anyway. Does the dog dawdle on his walk? I'll wait. God's in his heaven and all's right with the world; the geezer ran his age. Again.