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
December: Dan & Jerry
IN POOL, and just about every other sport, a good player does not automatically guarantee a good teacher, and the reverse is equally true. So much more is required of a good teacher: patience, knowledge, enthusiasm, the ability to get along with others. None of those qualities figure to enter the picture when all a good player really wants is to know how much his next opponent will bet.
Thus it was unusually refreshing to see Dan DiLiberto and Jerry Briesath - fine players both - offer a dual teaching seminar at Chris's Billiards in Chicago last month. DiLiberto, of course, is one of pool's best competitors ever; his accomplishment of winning prestigious titles in all four of the game's major disciplines in parts of four different decades will probably never be matched. And Briesath's teaching achievements are on a par with Dan's playing ones. He has developed hundred-ball runners virtually from scratch; his Pool School in Madison, Wis., was one of the most sought-after pool teaching venues in America for well over 20 years, and enabled him to put two kids through college with their own cars. (Immodestly, a contributor to that conspicuous success was the little ad I wrote for his school, back in the mid-80s, that ran for over 20 years. I carried that sucker around in my own professional portfolio for a generation, presenting it as "possibly the most successful 1/6th-page ad of all time.")
Dan's most visible student success has to be new world 14.1 champion Stephan Cohen of France, with whom he has worked on two continents. But he's also directly responsible for the late Mike Carella of Miami, a former intercollegiate championship finalist whom Hall of Fame player Allen Hopkins called "the toughest opponent I ever faced." A longtime friend of Carella's parents, Dan taught the mercurial youngster from Square One, quitting in frustration countless times, lured back again by parental pleas of "Danny, please. You're his idol. He won't eat. He can't sleep. You have to teach him again." And so he did.
And yet each of these master teachers has his instructional specialty. Jerry's services are generally more in demand from the intermediate level on down; Dan's usually attract intermediates or better, more interested in how the game is played than how to strike the cue ball optimally. This particular seminar attracted a crowd more in need of Jerry's help, so Dan was off to the side, available to amplify any given point his partner made if the student was ready for it.
Some of the students were familiar faces. Diminutive Pat Hays, Chicago's last official "policewoman," a granny, and still at the helm of America's longest-standing women's league at Chris's and a pool-basics instructor herself, helped publicize the event as well as benefit from it. And Hays is a fresh debutante at cotillion next to her pal, the venerable Shirley Weathers, well north of 80 (except a gentleman never asks), whose game has slipped not one iota.
Both men are a year or two older than I am (if you can believe that); I was actually still in college the first time I ever heard of Jerry Briesath. And both specialized in 14.1 and 9-ball as young men, although DiLiberto would later become best known for betting high and playing one-pocket, two endeavors Briesath never really got into. Dan was the more creative of the two players. With the possible exception of another Hall of Famer, Ray Martin, it's possible that no pool player has ever been better at finding "hidden" shots in the stack. He teaches that to a certain extent these days, but mostly he instructs students as to which shot to play and why.
As a young newlywed, Briesath left a dreary clerical job with a Milwaukee utility to buy a poolroom in nearby Madison that was taking in every bit of $40 a day when he arrived. First he refurbished all the tables, and then he began responding to the plaintive requests of, "Mister? Can you teach us to play pool?" Not long after, his Pool School was born in that room, and his income and life were ready for a whole new level.
He teaches with an incredible, boyish enthusiasm, and seemingly beams with joy most of the time. On this day, he was showing students a basic, "bisect-the-angle" 2-to-1 system involving the rail diamonds to learn kicking. As Jerry's players retreated to their tables to apply their new knowledge, grinning for all the world like kids with new toys on Christmas morning, Dan lurked nearby with more sophisticated addenda.
"Why does the ratio change inside the first diamond, Dan?" I asked. (It's 3-to-1 then.)
"Because you're going into the rail more directly and less diagonally," he explained. "That's not steel inside the rail, it's rubber, and it gives. The more directly you go into it, the more it 'spits' the ball back and shortens the rebound angle. Watch." And he set up two balls frozen in tandem, one against the long rail at the first diamond, the other pointing roughly at the diagonally opposite first diamond on the short rail. "This is a dead bank."
"Because the first ball goes into the rail, which absorbs it and spits it back shorter, and that changes everything." Now 73 years old and blind in one eye, the master player slammed a cue ball into the first object ball, and the second scurried home as though it were late for supper. "Gotta look for those."
Each man could have had a lot better year; Jerry's has even included losing a wife, and nobody has to tell me anything about that. At this point, Jerry needs the activity and Dan needs the income that pool teaching can provide. We were three old-friend coots, all hopelessly in love with pool, getting together late in the year, late in our lives. Things were almost perfect.