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
I DECIDED to spend a lot of my birthday, last July, perusing a first-rate 9-ball tournament at my home room, Chris’s Billiards. It wasn’t that I was harboring any morbid thoughts about last chances or anything like that; for better or worse, I enjoy outlandishly robust health from the neck down. And since I can already boast of a pulse, brain activity and dry pants, I really can’t ask for much more at this advanced age. It was more a matter of seeing some competitors I rarely if ever see, getting it on in a game that’s rarely played seriously (outside tournaments) in my hometown. Chicago is a one-pocket town and has been for decades, with banks a strong second, and at that you’ll see far more of either game played for real at Red Shoes, roughly 20 miles south. If you enjoy watching good players, and few enjoy that more than I do, chances are you’ll be watching a caroms match at Chris’s, and one between guys who play each other all the time.
This event, nicely run by the aptly named Mike Brunswick and Illinois’ two-time national amateur champion Tina Larsen, had a quirk or two. Acknowledged “pros” (e.g. Filipino Santos Sambajon Jr., Canada’s John Morra, local powerhouse Ike Runnels, and a few others) raced to 9. The other men went to 7 (6 on the losers’ side), and all women got a game on the wire from all the men. For a one-day meet that paid its winner $800 including the Calcutta, its 38-player field produced some pool of astonishing quality.
Morra was particularly scary. He’s 21, but appears to be approaching his first shave; unlike many young guns, he plays to a deliberate yet still rhythmic pace, rarely hits anything other than the break very hard, and displays all the emotion of a desert tortoise. At those rare junctures where he did leave himself on the wrong side of a ball, he invariably improvised the simplest possible solution. His victory here surprised no one who watched the first few racks of his first match; he is in that rarified strata of 9-ballers whose position play is so tight that they appear to be lucking into one road-map layout after another. The top Filipinos, of course, have achieved this too, as have a handful of Europeans; among Americans, Earl Strickland and Johnny Archer were at that level when younger, and Shane Van Boening appears to be closest to it now.
But the first 9-baller I ever heard draw that kind of lofty praise was far lower-profile, and by design. That would be New York’s late Mike Carpinello, better known to insiders as Mickey from Port Chester. Part of the reason Mickey had no reputation much beyond the East Coast is that, like any number of top guns of his era, he had virtually no regard for pool except to enable another, far more clandestine lifestyle. But he booked no losers, playing the most beautiful 9-ball anyone could remember. Even if it took a reasonably hard shot to get himself in line, he had nothing more challenging than two feet away thereafter. “Mickey,” asked his pal Freddy “The Beard” Bentivegna years ago, whilst stuffing his pockets with his share of yet another successful road trip, “Can you even play? I never see ya doin’ anything I couldn’t do in my first two weeks at pool. No bleep, now: are you any good?”
Mickey’s era was shortly after the Johnston City (Illinois) tournaments began. Among those far better-known players, the acknowledged top of the 9-ball food chain was Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter; from the early through mid-’60s, he won virtually every significant crown in sight. And what made his 9-ball dominance even more remarkable was that players of his and Mickey’s day played a far more complex, difficult version of the game, with pushouts available at any time in the rack. But Lassiter never played that kind of tight-line position; instead, he was constantly bailing himself out with his otherworldly shotmaking and banking. (He was hardly into bank pool at all, odd for a Southerner. But 9-ball only requires three basic categories of banks, and nobody was deadlier at those.) Yet he was all but unbeatable, both in tournaments and what meager action he could scrape together. No wonder nobody could tell how good Mickey from Port Chester really was. No one had ever seen anything like him.
It was enjoyable watching Chicago’s players do well here too. Gil Hernandez, who owns a tournament win over John Schmidt and was fresh from a national team championship with Runnels’ Chicago Hustlin’ bunch in Vegas, finished a strong runner-up. Sambajon, who looks like he belongs on somebody’s charm bracelet, was upset by local Eddie Banderas, a doppelganger for baseball colossus Albert Pujols. And Runnels, a consistent sort with a particular gift for finessing the speed of multiple object balls, lost by an eyelash to Hernandez. But everybody here was clearly secondary to Morra. I couldn’t tell you where he stands in the Canadian hierarchy, but I can certainly tell you he’s one to watch.
I got home with a few minutes of my birthday left, and discovered that I had more greetings — all online — than I had ever had in my life, total. I’m a technological Neanderthal who didn’t even become computer-literate until the mid-’90s, but I enjoy the Internet’s best billiards chat rooms now and then. Between those and all the new pool buddies I have from Facebook, there were probably close to 50 people who remembered. Now I share that birthday with some interesting celebs; the list includes our own Jay Helfert, Nelson Mandela, and my personal favorite, Dion (DiMucci), one-time ruler of The Belmonts. But this year, I shared it with some world-class play of the game I love, and some four dozen friends. No doubt there are loads less joyous ways to launch one’s eighth decade.