Remember the pod people in the classic movie ďInvasion of the Body SnatchersĒ? They live in the form of three-cushion billiard players, especially when theyíre trying to convert you from pool. The billiardist fix you with that serene if peculiar Hare Krishna-like smile that suggests the successful breaking of wind after politely after holding it in for far too long , pat you on the shoulder or wrist and intone, ďyouíll feel better, once youíre one of us.Ē

Of course, thereís always the question of just how long one gets to be one of them. In this country the game continues its slow, sad trudge toward obsolescence. Its practitioners age unusually gracefully; Willie Hoppe, won world championships an astounding 47 years apart. Yet nobody young seems to want to play billiards; the best players in America score on just about half their tries, and the average guy simply want a higher rate of gratification than that.

In my own case the no-pocket players have been trying to recruit me for decades. As I age, their point makes increasing sense, widening an already-wide chasm between logic and passion. I donít question that billiards would be my best game by far if I approached it with the same fire I burn for pool; it may be anyway. But, I just donít care for it as much, so why bother? Billiards is like a nice lady with whom you spend a courteous and enjoyable first date but feel no sparks: youíre never going to be the guy, so why waste her time?

But that doesnít mean you donít want the lady to find someone else either, and in Chicago, sheís chosen the second- best player in the United States, the mercurial Bill Smith. Even players ranked amongst Europeís top 10, thus the top 10 in the World, mention Smith admiringly as the only player who plays all three balls; he has beaten every single ranked American in tournament competition except for perennial champion Sang Lee. It can be mesmerizing just to watch him practice.
Which is approximately all one will get to do with Smith. Although he has been with the same women for over 11 years, and has a young daughter he adores, Smith rides pretty much alone in life, and that extends to his billiards. He will not have anything to do any of the specially seeded, favorite- favoring tournaments such as those proposed by Carom Corner, and neither is he interested in the so-called U.S. Championships which freely invite international talent from the same countries that deny Americans entry to their meets. Nor is he attracted to the friendly action almost always available in his home room Chrisís Billiards; there is no man alive who ever bet more at caroms than Bill Smith (he wagered a high-living $85,000.00on a single doubles game once, which he and his partner won handily), thus a $20 stake holds little allure for him, and even if it did, he feels as though the entire room is rooting against him to lose.

The one opponent he will accept is the roomís pool player who never plays anyone else either, namely me. We have been buddies for over 40 years, during which time I have won exactly one game from him. Since I canít possibly win, there is absolutely no pressure on me to; I make it my goal to score at least half the points he does. If he completes a 25 point game in 20 innings, or at 1.25- and thatís not better than average for him, at least not at Chrisís- then I need to proceed at .625 to get my triumphant 13, at least a 33% jump from my normal speed.

Predictably, however, I spend considerable time in the chair on the billiard side of the room, just as I used to on the side with pockets. Itís well worth it, if Bill Smith is on his game; watching him, one is reminded of the great poet Colcridgeís assertion that ďSimplicity is genius,Ē and that man has figured out few endeavors for himself more flowing and elegant than three-cushion billiards. Smith rarely hits the balls hard; even more rarely does he utilize any practice strokes. Thanks to his late mentor, the encyclopedic Ernie Presto, he sees shots no one else sees and knows systems few others know. Smithís most gently stroked ball still magically maintains its sidespin past every single rail contacted; he feathers balls you expect him to power, and powers balls you expect him to feather, and scores, scores, scores, with barely enough speed to reach the target, while the three balls line up like trained monkeys for yet more naturals.

Of late though, life has handed me something of a last hurrah with the cue games. Iíve been into fitness roughly for the past two years less than Iíve been at pool, thus the legs and back are still reasonably fit, and you think I could pursue this obsession, at or near the same level Iíve
maintained since the Pleistocene Era, until I become feeble. But there isnít anything to explain this. Over the last few months, Iíve been permitted forays into the 80ís and even 90ís at practice 14.1. And on the pocket less tables, over a period of five or six weeks, I averaged very near .75 finishing a dutiful second to Bill Smith in our games, at least a 50% leap from what I might ordinarily expect.
Itís exhilarating and downright alarming at the same time. Exactly how did I achieve these cheeky flirtations with excellence? Havenít a clue. How long will it last? You might as well inquire as to how long Iíll last, which, in this cocktail hour of my life, gets silently asked, despite going unanswered, with ever-increasing frequency.

Championship status would be probably more fulfilling, but it was pre-ordained ages ago that was just not meant to be. For that matter, romance would very likely be a better long-term companion too, but thatís not much more realistic than those championship fantasies. In the meantime, there are the well played weekends with Bill Smith, not all a bad way to watch the passing parade.

Billiards Digest-September 2002
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