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
November: Soft Stuff
MAYBE IT’S because it was one of the first things I ever noticed about pool. But I’ve never gotten over the fascination with object balls that barely tumble over the lip of the pocket, with their very last smidgen of kinetic energy. When you stop to think about it, it’s as close as you can come to creating slow motion in sports without a camera.
Realistically, the only times you’ll see this (in other than lucky shots) is in one-pocket; situations will come up there wherein a highly skilled shooter needs to dribble the object ball in so he can park the cue ball someplace dandy for him but horrific for the opponent. But back in the ’50s, when I began playing, there were any number of 14.1 players — the game was still highly popular then — who utilized that technique even when they didn’t have to. The first such player I ever saw was in my first room, the late Charlie Kimmel, who approached genius with his manual dexterity outside pool. He was the official scorekeeper for the Professional Golf Association in the pre-electronics era, tending giant scoreboards in an elegant, Olde English hand; in the off-season, he’d do calligraphy and wedding invitations. But he was a fine, fine caroms and pool player too (he claimed he had played 50-or-no-count in his day), and on many of his pool shots with the old clay balls, you could actually detect the object ball’s trembling on the pocket precipice, like a kid at the edge of the high diving board for the first time, before it fell.
After I had been playing pool for about a month, I decided to take a trip to the wondrous downtown room Bensinger’s (where I was 2-1/2 years too young to be legally) with a few buddies. There I saw Angus MacDonald, whom I would later learn was one of the game’s bona fide great unknowns. I had virtually no concept of what he was doing, as he was playing one-pocket and there was hardly anyone in my first room who even knew what that game was. How is an utter pool novice supposed to understand the spectacle of grown men shooting balls away from pockets? But in that total ignorance, I could still tell, “This guy is not playing the same game as anyone else here.” He was a soft-roller too, with the touch of a heart surgeon; game after game, he would pocket all eight balls that way, shooting mostly with an open-thumb bridge. Complementing that, MacDonald was extremely dignified, especially for a drunken tubercular bum. Whether his education ever exceeded the School of Hard Knocks is unknown, but to hear him speak, you’d have sworn he came out of Cambridge or Oxford. Once I saw him stack bridges in tandem to get to the cue ball over an object ball — it was the first time I had ever seen that, too — and he did so cleanly, although his shot was unsuccessful. “You made a hell of a shot, to get out of there without fouling,” crowed one of the ancient spectators.
“Yes,” crooned MacDonald ironically, sounding for all the world like Boris Karloff, “wasn’t it a beauty?”
The older poolroom veterans whom I later asked about MacDonald swore in unanimity that he played 14.1 the same way, and that I could not begin to imagine how good he was in his prime. He did ask me to play once (a true reincarnation of “Godzilla Meets Bambi”), and although I politely declined, I’ve been kicking myself ever since — and it’s been over 50 years — for not asking him for lessons instead, although I have no clue how he might have responded. MacDonald did finally earn a footnote in the second of Eddie Robin’s remarkable one-pocket books; to this day, as far as I know, Robin and I are the only two writers who ever published a single comma about him.
Among the Johnston City hustlers’ crowd of the ’60s, the best slow-ball specialist was undoubtedly Hall of Famer Larry (“Boston Shorty”) Johnson, who not coincidentally was the finest tournament one-pocket player ever. Shorty’s touch was so redoubtable that he was one of the few players of his era willing to simply lag the cue ball for money. On the caroms table, his shots would score yet barely move the second object ball two ball widths. At pool, he made object balls re-enact “The Perils of Pauline,” with true melodrama as to whether the ball would actually make it home or not.
Now there are plenty of pool competitors, well known or otherwise, who slam balls home as an intimidation factor, especially in 9-ball, and it indeed works. Among Shorty Johnson’s peers, nobody tortured game balls worse than Billy Joe (“Cornbread Red”) Burge, who seemed to be trying to tear the rail off at the same time. You could put Cornbread on a snooker table, where he was at his absolute best, even with pockets so tight that ordinary hangers were no cinches, and he’d still be at warp speed. And his competition, more often than not, would go to pieces.
And yet the soft stuff, it seems to me, is just as scary. Extreme speed can signal panic as efficiently as it can communicate confidence. Hitting the balls hard and accurately, as you might suppose, is not easy to do. Correctly executed, under-hitting the ball is comparatively quite easy, lets you “feel” the ball on your cue tip way better, improves your touch at all speeds, and announces to your opponent, “This is how easy the game is for me, and how easily I’m going to beat you.”
It could be it’s today’s faster cloth; it could be the evolution from clay balls to plastic ones. But soft-rolled shots are a rarity in pool today. Next time you practice, try seeing how gently you can pocket a rack’s worth of balls. I bet you’ll be delighted with your next match.