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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.

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Best of Fels
July: On Doing Nothing
July 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from August 1987]

When you have nothing to do, there are few better places to do it than in a poolroom. And that’s been part of the game’s charm and albatross at the same time for decades. The poolroom is where you go to kill time; those who kill too much time there are ultimately part of what’s killing pool. Ever since the Depression, billiard rooms have been trying to overcome an image of a haven for loafers, and that’s no mean feat when you consider just how accurate that image is.

And in this era, with the number of commercial rooms in the U.S. dipping, most savvy room owners agree that a billiard room begins to deteriorate the first day it lets somebody in who has no immediate intention of spending anything. Some smart establishments take precautions, forcing patronage, an efficient but tiny sandbag against the ever-onsurging tide of bums.

Now, this is no puritan diatribe; I will declare unabashedly that one of the great joys of the pool cosmos has to offer is the warmth of just hanging out. It would be hypocritical of me to offer otherwise; I have too much time invested in letting the balm of Bensinger’s soak the toxins of unemployment and other malaises from my bosom. Whatever else it was, Bensinger’s was dark and cool most of the time, exactly what you’d want when you were going there to spend time with company selected by you with no petty grievances or politics whatsoever. And you’d go there for a good wallow in the subtle art of doing nothing — except for being recognized and accepted, by however small a circle — and come out feeling better.

And the more enterprising among us put their nothing-doing to even better use. When Bensinger’s was still a healthy room in downtown Chicago, its format was for players to turn on the table lights themselves, which would activate a calculator at the front desk. A free spirit named Lenny “Gus” Speropolous haunted the place, and half the time he spent there must have gone toward trying to thwart the system. He played so many practice racks without turning on the lights — thus mooching free table time — he came to be known as Lights Out Gus. He’d run a rack or two, then the aged porter or table maid would totter forth wearily to rerack the balls; he or she would leave, and Gus would play another free inning or two of night baseball, extending the little slo-mo Armageddon once again. It was a modest collection of contrasts: generation vs. generation in billiard room etiquette, young vs. old, black vs. white, upstart vs. the establishment, and Lights Out Gus almost always won.

And the real gamesmen around poolrooms can parlay their nothing-doing into more or less immediate profits. The Hall of Fame example of this genre has to be Don Willis’ completing a billiard on a second ball 30 or 40 feet from the table, on the floor. (According to legend, Willis took down the cheese one night at New York’s fabled 711 by sending his cue ball across the room, out the door, down two flights of stairs, under a steam radiator and next to a hallway trash bin before completing the billiard.) What’s worth noting here, beyond the feat itself, is that Willis got hardly any action anyplace save for masochists and fools, and thus had plenty of time to sit around doing nothing expect studying the low spots in the floor.

The laying of hands upon the cue ball also seems to be a frequent pastime of poolroom nothing-doers; and this compulsive fondling of balls in the midst of inactivity only proves once again how the game imitates life. Eddie Robin was a holy terror at bowling the cue ball around the table, and he even had a choice of propositions to offer, much in the manner of asking you to decide between death by firing squad or lethal injection. His best, I thought, involved hurling the thing off three rails, into a closed rack, and betting that he could make the next-to-the-corner ball in the opposite corner pocket within 19 such tosses. He also excelled at flipping the cue ball cross-corner the long way on a snooker table, and he even defeated the legendary Eddie Taylor at that once at the same 711. Robin used his hand, Taylor used a cue and still couldn’t win.

But most of the nothing doing rises to less noble heights, the nothing-doers quite content to sweat a game or two or 20, waiting for action, the passing of a mood, recognition and acceptance, sometimes just the oasis of a little light conversation. There was a nice old guy named Reno who was a habitué of Bensinger’s and other rooms from the early ’60s until his death a few years ago, a hustler of the old school who played one-handed and with a mop handle if need be; and he put in his 60-70 hours per week picking his spots judiciously when it came to cheap action, never practicing and mostly and expertly doing nothing. But Reno had a good sense of humor and stories to tell, knew all about betting sports reasonably well, and thus was always good for some non-depth talk, a rare and previous gift. And more than once I went to Bensinger’s with a conscious sense of security that for a connection with life there would always be at least a rap with Reno, and I was far from the only one who did. Sometimes you find your niche and peak at the table, sometimes away from it, and Reno found his somewhere in between. As seldom as we played, I swear my room isn’t the same without him.

Cervantes once said, “Sloth never arrived at the attainment of a good wish,” but he didn’t know poolrooms (his idea of tough action was a lance vs. windmill, even up), and so probably never learned the exquisite euphoria of sloth well done.

That’s his loss.