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
March: Model Trains
I DON’T KNOW if this was the case in your era, but in mine, when you got your first set of model trains for Christmas, your father and all your “uncles” — whether actual relatives or just friends whom you had to call that — swooped down and commandeered your wonderful trains for themselves. “No, don’t touch that,” they advised urgently as your fascinated fingers reached out for the transformer or, God forbid, the engine. “You’ll get hurt.” And on and on they would play with your new trains, all the while bearing the smiles of the recently lobotomized.
Pool has always been a similar perception for me: a kids’ game where the adults have all the real fun. (Actually, the game was invented centuries ago for royalty, not kids, as an adaptation of lawn croquet. But how old were you when you learned to play? 30?) This year’s Derby City Classic blurred the lines between the two considerably, notwithstanding that these days, just about everybody is a “kid” to me. There were more youngsters under 18 playing for fairly serious dough than ever before. Some bluenoses might find this lamentable, but I do not. Pool is what pool is, especially at the DCC, which is specifically structured to allow anyone to do anything legal that he or she cares to. If the highly visible cops who patrolled inside the hotel nightly had no problem with their gambling, why should anyone else?
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the ’08 DCC by far anyway was Jay Helfert’s innovation, The One-Pocket Challenge: players ponying up $50 each for five tries at breaking and running as many balls into a single corner pocket as possible, with cumulative score.
Among the world’s finest 1-P players, only the immortal Efren Reyes failed to compete. (He is said to be having health problems, and does himself no favors in that regard by going around toothless. As he approaches his mid-50s, he cannot be expected to improve. But don’t write him off just yet.) The roll call included names such as Joyner, Parica, Pagulayan, Hopkins, Deuel, Frost, and Schmidt — all players with whom you would avoid serious action as though it were the plague. And yet the seemingly innocuous format brought most of them to their knees.
First there was the matter of how to break the balls. Simply blasting them open á la rotation or 8-ball won’t work; you want to minimize the number of object balls that pass the side-pocket line, and you’d also like to get some balls orientated to your pocket of choice. Allen Hopkins utilized a soft break with outside (rather than the customary inside) English, delivering the cue ball to the center of the table with the balls partially open. Scott Frost used (and taught Mika Immonen) a breaking technique with low-outside spin that brings the cue ball off the side rail on a path roughly parallel to the short rail. Unlike Hopkins’ choice, this break puts the cue ball smack in the middle of congestion, only with more balls open. Hit it at exactly the right speed — that’s a must — and you have an easy entrée to your run. Over-hit or under-hit it by just a skooch, and suddenly you’re a miner trapped in a cave-in.
And almost as much fun as watching the event played was watching the players. Unless a player practices this very drill — and some players do regularly — this is a new thinking process, and I’ve always found it fascinating to see an expert suddenly stumped. While animosity does surface now and then between 9-ball players, that rarely takes place among one-pocket competitors. This is the deepest-thinking of all the cue games, and it frequently attracts a different class of guy. Just about every one of the game’s finest players had a dandy time razzing his peers and enjoying their discomfiture (or cheering them on, as the case may have been). “No! No!” Corey Deuel shouted gleefully, as Alex Pagulayan tried some hopeless flier after tying himself up six ways to breakfast. “You should have taken a foul!” (Pagulayan would have his day in the regular 1-P competition anyway, coming from 0-7 down in the hill game against none other than Reyes and running out from behind the string! The DVD of this match, and Freddy Bentivegna’s new and peerless instructional set “Banking With The Beard,” are the must-sees of ’08.)
“Playing the ghost” at straight pool is obviously far less of an aberration; the very structure of that game not only accommodates but encourages long runs. But in conventional one-pocket, games are lost far more often than they’re won. In most racks, competitors test offense gingerly, like a lake in the early spring, with at least one eye open to shutting the opponent out in case of a miss. When one or another competitor gets the balls open, 1-P does then become a matter of 14.1 skills, thus it was not illogical to think that a straight-pool expert such as Schmidt or Immonen might just snap this off. And indeed, those two men led the way into the finals; when Immonen posted a score just two balls beyond Schmidt’s, the latter smiled cheerfully and shrugged, “No biggie,” simultaneously flipping the bird high and proudly. The finals themselves produced a surprise winner in former U.S. Open 9-ball champ Gabe Owen, who averaged an astonishing 12 balls per try in his final round. Like Pagulayan’s incredible runout against Reyes — in my 50-plus years around the game, I’ve seen a behind-the-string runout exactly one other time, by Reyes against the luckless Bentivegna — Owen’s feat is analogous to a pro golfer breaking 60. It happens now and then; just take care not to seat yourself on a hot stove until you see it again.
Checking out of the hotel, I caught a glimpse of Ohio’s talented, and free-spirited, Eric Durbin, making a good-natured feint at chasing a squirrel in the parking lot. “You won’t get ’im!” I called out, and Durbin turned, smiling delightedly, a man and a boy at the same time. And in that regard, when it comes to pool, he’s a metaphor for all of us.