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
"Every time a promoter insists on calling his tournament the 'World Championship,' pool's credibility takes a giant step backwards. The problem is that promoters, hoping to secure the support of local sponsors and the local public, feel that they will have more success if they announce a 'World Championship.' The utter confusion and lack of credibility are dragging the sport down."
If that sounds to you like a World Pool-Billiard Association protestation over Dragon Promotions' recent 14.1 meet in New Jersey, you're about 25 years late. The source was actually none other than our own publisher, Mike Panozzo, in our second issue of 1984, when he was still a broth of a boy barely three years out of Marquette University's journalism school. And he clearly had a point. In the first three months of that year, pool saw no less than three so-called "World Championships"; virtually any room owner who could put together a 12-man rapid-fire competition had a clear mandate to call it whatever he wished. "Next year," cracked the late player/promoter Richie Florence, "I'm running the 'Intergalactic Championship.' I've invited several players from Pluto. Believe me, they're strong players and a definite threat to take home the cheese."
It seems fair to stipulate that I have no quarrel whatsoever with the WPA. In fact, except for at-large board member Fran Crimi, I don't even know any of their members personally (but that splendid lady, for me, carries enough credibility for the entire Association). And one of their very reasons for being is to prevent the pool world from re-entering the '80s, when there were so many "world champions" that there might as well have been none. The Association will grant their sanction only to those tournaments that meet their standards, starting with the prize fund, and will not acknowledge the winners of meets which do not.
But this is one of those conflicts where I believe both sides have a valid point to make. Of course pool should have a governing body, if for no better reason than that every other sport known to man which holds world-championship events - even chess - has one. Obviously we don't want a politics-laden mess such as exists in the Philippines right now, where the association in power has stated unabashedly that it does not need the world's best players and doesn't care if they compete or not. But the WPA has been above reproach for as long as it has existed.
Did their pronouncements hurt this year's tournament? Consider that ultra-worthy competitors such as perennial challenger Ralf Souquet, the three top players from the Netherlands (including former champion Niels Feijen), and perhaps the most intriguing player of all, Austria's Jasmin Ouschan, all put their loyalty to the Association above the 2009 meet. And as they were not the only defectors, the field was limited to 48 players rather than the customary 64. Since sanction was withheld, whether or not the tournament and its results go into the record books depends largely on who is doing the publishing.
But Dragon Promotions' standpoint is worthy too. Straight pool is the only form of the game even to hold a World Championship, sanctioned or otherwise, so far in 2009 (the scheduled events in 8-ball and 9-ball were canceled because of the economy; 10-ball was just announced). In fact, it's the only form of pool in which records are even kept! (Oddly, even if 9-ball records were archived, Hall of Famer Earl Strickland's celebrated 11-rack "million-dollar" run - eventually settled for a fraction - would still not have stood alone, as he was only the second player to accomplish that. Texas' Bob Vanover, then known as "the world's best working-stiff player," managed the same feat in a tournament years before and won not one extra penny for his efforts.) The reason straight pool is not TV-friendly is not necessarily that fans won't watch; it's that the game cannot really be scheduled, because of its tendency to slow down. Money players aren't partial to it because the game takes too long. Thus the falloff of 14.1 popularity in America, and the domination of European players because (a) they're not concerned with television, and (b) with the possible exception of Feijen, they're not much interested in playing for stakes either. But pool cannot afford to lose its finest game - one-pocket cannot be considered for that honor, because it exists, as 9-ball does, basically as a gambling medium - and that game should have a wholly believable World Champion.
I frankly think Dragon Promotions honcho Charlie Williams, his company and Predator deserve a standing ovation for sticking to their guns. Dragon Promotions turns a modest profit with its tournaments in Asia, but takes an annual bath (and a cold one, at that) on its New Jersey meet. Still, even with some of the very players Williams' tournament has helped most turning their backs on him, he feels that straight pool's worth to the game overall outweighs the glum financial results. (Ironically, this magazine's Bob Jewett asserted that if he had only been asked, he would have been a major sponsor - but would have insisted on conditions that the tournament, so far, has been unable to meet, especially referees and scorekeepers for every match and not just for the semifinals and final.) I'm admittedly not crazy about the tournament's not providing those officials, but money is tight and qualified referees are not easy to find. As for a World Championship's being held in a commercial billiard room instead of a stately hotel, I could probably live with that. Hotels clearly add precious dignity and comfort to the event, but they're also pricey and can require as much as two years' advance notice. And Comet Billiards, and owner Bill Haley (any long-standing rock music fan has to love that name), has given back to the game all along and is an eminently worthy host.
In short, my opinion is that pool can afford this tournament and its flaws far more comfortably than it could afford to be without a credible 14.1 world champion. Sanctioned or otherwise.