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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NOT surprisingly, the first thought I had, upon hearing of the death of pop-music superstar Michael Jackson, was that his 1982 video “Beat It” featured a poolroom. Now, this kind of take-off-the-blinders-already-George thinking is hardly new to me. Notwithstanding my degree in English, virtually all I can tell you about Shakespeare is that he furnished the world with its first written mention of billiards in “Anthony and Cleopatra.” (This impresses bona fide Shakespearean scholars mightily, until they discover that I had only that lone barrel to fire.) Ask me about politics and I will happily babble that we have had pool-playing American Presidents from the second one clear through today’s. If the topic is baseball, I’ll probably decide you should know we had a world pool champion who was the starting catcher for the 1908 Chicago Cubs, the last version of that team to win a World Series. All this one-dimensional knowledge seemed fascinating, at least to me, at the time. God only knows how many it’s bored to tears.
The thing about the Jackson video, though, is that I particularly remember what a scuzzy poolroom it was. It was definitely an old-school place; you could tell by the surroundings themselves, as well as by the fact that a caroms table was plainly in view. But it sure didn’t look like the kind of place you’d want to be. The video’s producers made no bones about the fact that the room’s inhabitants were not actors but regulars, and they didn’t look like the kind of people you’d want to be around either.
There’s no counting how many times pool and/or the rooms in which it’s played have been featured in videos (and, sadly, porn videos too). George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone” even had a cameo for the immortal Willie Mosconi, in his final and possibly most puzzling public appearance. But videos themselves were a relatively new phenomenon in the early ’80s, and while there was no actual pool playing in “Beat It,” few videos have downgraded the game quite the same way. The first time I saw it, my thought was, “Cheap shot. Southern California has plenty of perfectly nifty rooms; why couldn’t they have chosen one of those?” Eventually I allowed myself to see that the film’s producers didn’t owe any loyalty to pool; their debt was to the creative integrity of the song, whose clear message from the title on is obviously, “You’re not welcome here,” thus they had to strive for visual hostility. And you can hardly get any more hostile than with a menacing poolhall.
“Beat It,” then, pandered to the same stale perceptions that have been around at least since The Depression: gentlemen play billiards, bums play pool. The song’s point could not have been made nearly the same way on bowling lanes, a table-tennis parlor, or anywhere else. Today, on a near-weekly basis, TV’s crime and cop shows bring us scenes around a pool table featuring actors who barely understand which end of the cue to use. (The venerable “Law & Order” did give us a perfectly credible Jerry Orbach playing on-camera three times that I can think of in his 12 years with the show; years back, Peter Falk hit a few balls as “Columbo,” and, of course, there was Jackie Gleason. The list of actors who appear to play decent pool doesn’t get a whole lot longer than that.) And the most appalling aspect of that exposure is that the actors don’t need to be any good at the game; it will make its own statement anyway. Even television shows that flirted with true greatness, such as “The Sopranos,” fell into the same trap. Like the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter,” a pool table on film is an unmistakable, universal hint that evil is about to ensue.
What can we do about this? As far as I can tell, we can do absolutely nothing. Even in the rosiest of economies, people will think what they want to and will staunchly resist being proved wrong. “The Music Man,” which at least derided pool in a fun way, is set in the very early 20th century, yet the thinking behind it (if you can call it that) persists to this day. One wild-eyed Manhattan woman, outraged that three separate shootings had failed to close the room near where she lived (Tekk Billiards, in Greenwich Village), even wrote The New York Times to demand that poolrooms be banned across America! I can still recall the delicious joy I felt, watching my mother’s Adam’s-apple bob the first time I mentioned I had visited the local room. (My father, having spent considerable time in poolhalls and a decent player when younger, could not bond with his wife in this cause without verging on hypocrisy.) And I strongly suspect that all the young recreational players I see today, most often in couples, have had to get the same message past their own flinching parents: it’s a great, fun game; forget about where we have to go to play it.
Are dangerous rooms in rundown neighborhoods still a fact of life? Sure. Is good pool actually played in such rooms? Who would know? Chicago Billiards in Connecticut seems to enjoy its reputation as a rough-hewn players’ room, but as such, it’s a throwback. Mostly, today’s action players will frequent rooms not only where they can get down, but will be safe. The real Chicago has just two bona fide action rooms left; neither has a white customer base, but players of all descriptions are always welcome and there is never a speck of trouble. There was a time when even I would travel to the city’s south side alone, late at night, to find a game for stakes within reason. But the riots in Watts and Detroit, and the advent of street gangs, changed all that for good. When it comes to pool and poolrooms, nothing much has really changed before or since “Beat It”: stick to your own.