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Friday Foofaraw: Father’s Day

It’s become something of a tradition around here, but if any of you are new I’ll give you the short story. I am not the only writer in the Fels family, but I am certainly the worst. My father George takes the crown, and you could give me another 100 years and I’ll never get in his ballpark. Dad was the back-page columnist for Billiard’s Digest for over 30 years, and on Fathers’ Day weekend I like to share some of my favorite works of his. Today, I present “When Jack Played Mizerak,” a hilarious story of the time Dad’s best friend got to play one of the world’s best pool players at the time, Steve Mizerak. Enjoy, and Happy Fathers’ Day to all. 

And yes, that is my father as the picture. Now you know. 

When Jack Played Mizerak

By George Fels
[Reprinted from February 1994]

Hey, Jack. You wanna play Mizerak?”

As either of my late parents would shriek in bitterness if they were able, I was a speech major in school and therefore attuned to how something is said as well as to what. And there was something I heard in my best friend’s obscenely proud “Yeah!” that gave me unrest.

The setting, in the early ’70s, was innocent enough: Open a commercial billiard rooms with Brunswick tables and among the perks was an exhibition by one of their advisory staff as part of your grand opening. At the time, that staff included Steve Mizerak, and while it’s sheer conjecture as to when the great player’s game might have peaked, the rolls weren’t exactly going against him back then. Four consecutive U.S. Open straight pool crowns, two World Championships not long after that, plus newfound television advertising stardom. Big Miz had Big Mo. Jack Gunne sounded all too eager to thwart that momentum and I leaped into the breach to lend what I must have thought was assistance.

“Now I hope you understand, Jack,” I tried, “that there’s a sort of protocol to this. The challenger is expected to play wide open — no defense — so that the champion can show what he can do; and the champion is expected to give the challenger some turns at the table, so he can do some scoring too. The theory is that the challenger can’t win anyhow, so they might as well put on a good show. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”

“Bleep that,” Jack Gunne reflected thoughtfully. “I’m playin’ t’ win!” “No, ox,” I said with miraculous patience, born of utter despair. “There is no winning. It’s 150 points and he can run out. You can’t. It’s just that simple. He can take it easy on you, or he can pulverize you.” Now Jack had two favorite sextets of words. One was, “I can’t play; I’m too upset.” And the other was, “I don’t want to hear it.” On this occasion, he chose the latter. While it is well beneath me to propose such a stereotype as all Irish are stubborn, I can assert with certainty that this one was, who made up for a great many who are not.

But it would be just as easy to judge him by his competitive streak, which was at least a kissing cousin to his stubbornness. Win or lose — usually lose — Jack was still ready to play every day without fail. His theory was that pool was the only aspect of his life where bad luck evinced itself at all, so it might as well be exorcised. And his luck at pool was genuinely horrible, almost as if predestined. He was easily capable of running 30 or 40 balls, but it was much more like him to luck into a way not to run the balls and jovially broadcast his misfortune to everyone else. Opportunities got away from Jack, who played pool very much as he lived, which frequently seems to be the case.

On the night of the exhibition, however, he was the champion of uncharacteristic conservativism. And when he ducked his cue ball behind the stack after sinking the match’s first six balls, with other shots still available, I distinctly heard one of the several hundred spectators mutter, “Aw, Jesus.” Mizerak gave Jack a studied stony stare but returned the safety in silence. Jack proceeded to take all the pace out of the match. Run a few, duck; return a duck; duck again. Brought to the table all too often merely to roll out of safeties and back into them, Mizerak was showing his lower teeth within the match’s first four racks, no sanguine sign. By the eighth rack, he was talking to himself, even more ominous.

However, just as it is said that the elephant schleps through the jungle but gets where he’s going all the same, the game did make grudging progress. Down 90-60 or thereabouts, Jack was still within that attainable 30-ball run when, to add a bit of local color, he maneuvered the Mighty Miz into the game’s ultimate humiliation, three consecutive scratches. Mizerak and the 3 ball were the same shade of red. He rebroke the full rack of balls; Jack disdained safety play for once and vaingloriously slammed an object ball into the rail, breaking open many others.

Having watched his worthy adversary flush billiards exhibition decorum down the tubes long since, Mizerak was not about to restore any. Speaking directly to Jack but clearly meant to be heard by one and all, Mizerak orated grandly, “Well, you can just siddown now!”

True to character, Jack remained standing through the first 45 or so of the inevitable 75-and-out, as though he were in his regular lunch hour sessions with me; and Mizerak made it a point to make eye contact after every one of those balls. “Six!” Plop. Stare. “Thirteen!” Plop. Stare. And he began to swagger and call his next shot position while the balls were still rolling; his A-game moves. “I can’t play anyway,” Jack confided to me at one point, enlarging his customary utterance by one word. “I’m too upset.”

Finally, he melted back into the chair for the run’s last 30 balls, and circulation returned to the audience’s collective buns. The next day, the Chicago Tribune primly reported that “Steve Mizerak, Perth Amboy, N.J., defeated Jack Gunne of Chicago, 150-58, in a pocket billiards exhibition.” Jack had the clipping laminated and mounted in a professionally drawn caricature of himself; his “thought bubble” read, “Brutal. Just brutal.”

Jack’s gone now, dead at 46; it’s probably only Mizerak and I who remember the game, and maybe not even that many. What I remember most was thinking just how much of you ultimately shows up in your pool game, whether you plan it that way or not; and how watching Jack lose like that was probably the hardest thing our friendship would ever ask me to do. Until I lost him too. As things turned out, his luck wasn’t that terrific outside pool either.

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