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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
November: Vive La Femme
November 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from April 1992]

Years before I ever began writing about pool, the staple of tournament play was straight pool, and the Billiard Congress of America U.S. Open was played annually in Chicago. Early in the 1972 meet, I clearly remember trying to watch the fine Brooklyn player Frank McGown practice one day. In his competitive prime, McGown was among the best pattern players extant, and well worth watching. But that day, watching and learning from McGown took far more effort than normal on my part because one table over, a player was running eights and tens now and then with much more joy than McGown could muster in an eon of play.

I clocked that player’s progress carefully for the next four years, finally working up the nerve to dash off a letter. The player in question was feminine in gender, and in every other possible way; other men might have chosen to break the ice by flexing their muscles or inquiring into her zodiac sign, but while I had both ample muscles and modest astrological knowledge to fall back on, I chose instead to show off by writing. Thus, one of the dearest friendships of my existence was born, with Michigan’s callipygian Palmer Byrd, and I probably never wrote a more significant letter in my life.

At that point, Byrd was something of the Gloria Steinem of women’s pool; along with her coeditor at the National Billiard News, Larry Miller, and fellow player Madelon Whitlow, her energies were going not into her game but into the founding of today’s Women’s Professional Billiard Association (initially tabbed the Women’s Professional Billiard Alliance). It was uphill, emotional work that I saw take her from laughter to tears and many points in between, and it was a long time before our friendship finally took on a priority above that quest. But along the way, she encouraged me not only to write for her publication, but to write “Mastering Pool” myself, with no coauthors, and I have been deeply indebted to the WPBA ever since.

What nifty ladies! You cannot name another sport on the planet where the female competitors are so clearly playing for the love of the game and little else; although progress has been made over the years, they still toil for an absurdly tiny fraction of what the men are paid, and semifinalists barely break even. Most are married; of them most have families to tend to. And still, they spread themselves even thinner to accommodate practice, travel and competition, almost universally gracious to one another, friendly to outsiders, engaging to talk to and be with. The playing disparity between men and women may be greater than in any other sport, and yet pool’s men could learn handsomely from the women.

It’s been conjectured often enough that just as Dr. James Naismith never envisioned his maverick invention called basketball being played above the rim one day, the inventors of pool probably never foresaw players remaining at the table long enough to pocket consecutive hundreds of balls. In that sense, women’s pool is somewhat akin to women’s basketball or seniors’ tennis: the game the way it was meant to be played. Routs are rare in women’s tournament play; the longest recorded run in straight pool is in the 50s, and perhaps four or five racks in 9-ball. But there are ample and equitable compensations for the absence of heavy artillery: The women play at a relaxed pace, void in anger, treating the balls gently, almost as if apologetic for disturbing them. There is little gambling, no swearing, no vitriol in any form, and once again the all-too-elusive concepts of “game” and “play” are wholesomely restored to pool.

When I was a collegian, I dated a young woman who went on to become a reasonably celebrated feminist, and decades before the issue ever became topical, she taught me this: When you call a woman a woman, you’re stating biological fact; when you call a woman a lady, you’re merely expressing a state of mind. Even applying that stringent standard, today’s female pool players are all worthy of the appellation “ladies.”

Most of the thinkers over on the male side agree that a women’s division automatically improves any tournament it happens to grace, and when you press them further, they admit that having women around basically means the potential for genuine conversation. It’s not necessarily a matter of educational level; it’s just that the women are more prepared to admit the existence of an entire universe outside the world of pool. There are no stories culminating in the dreary punchline, “I ran out,” when one sits down with women poolists, nor confidences of spots and suckers. Instead you can talk about relationships, casual or close; the arts; the world; life. That disparity in play between pool’s males and females doesn’t have to do with anatomical construction of the forearm, killer instincts, or anything of the kind. It owes considerably more to women’s being too strong emotionally to turn their lives over to a mere game.

In fact, serious pool does not seem to do well at all in putting men and women together. There are few married couples in the game’s top ranks. Even more rare is the phenomenon of pool-playing fathers inspiring their daughters. Former pro JoAnn Mason Parker is one of the few descendants of tournament-pool stock.

Today’s professional women players are at once the best-playing and best looking that the game has ever known. Even with Palmer Byrd gone to an MBA, a family and a career, the game is happily deep in head-turners: Ewa, Robin, Vicki, Loree Jon…the lovely list goes on and on. And it doesn’t matter what their last names or long runs are. I’m in love with practically every one of them.