Everything Else

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.

Everything Else

We’re bored, it’s August, and Cieslak and I finally have meaning in our lives again with the return of the EPL. So for those of you who are like minded and spend your weekend mornings blisteringly hungover and screaming at various men in shorts that you call “muppets” when you should be in bed, this is for you! Our team-by-team breakdown:

Arsenal: Once again, Arsene Wenger brings back essentially the same team except this time he added a shiny new French striker. I could have written that sentence in 1999, or 2006, or 2010, or 2014. They’ll be really good if they can get Alexis Sanchez to stay, which they should because he can really only go to PSG or Munich. And Munich aren’t going to pony up anytime soon, and I doubt he wants to go wax Neymar’s eyebrows for the rest of his useful career. But you know the drill here. Either they’ll start out on fire, everyone will get hurt in February, and they’ll wheeze to the end. Or everyone will get hurt in September, they’ll wheeze through the middle of the season, and then close with a flourish and probably win the FA Cup again just to provide excitement for next year so we can do this all over again. Either way, they’ll be bitching about Ozil’s effort when it gets cold. At least they can’t give up 17 goals to Munich in the Champions League again.

Likely Finish: Solidly Top Four, but nowhere near title-challenging.

Everything Else

It is somewhat apt, and a fair commentary on what the Chicago Bears have been for over two decades now, that a player who only reached two Pro Bowls (though that’s something of a crime) and only played six playoff games and one Super Bowl in 11 years with the team is so revered by the team and fans alike. But then Charles Tillman was always a little different than what had come before, and he certainly rose far above the sad levels his organization and team could achieve.

We were all introduced to Tillman in 2003, after months of annoying and scaring the living shit out of his teammates on defense by his very nature, by “that play” on Randy Moss in the end zone.

Even then, it was obvious Moss didn’t want any part of this nutcase, and that went on for many years after. This was simply larceny. After this steal, and that’s what it was, Tillman stood on the Bears bench and posed for pictures, which is the moment he became my all-time favorite Bear. A title I’m sure he’ll never lose.

Everything Else

It’s Friday, so that means we get to do whatever we want. And it’s surprising that I’ve never written about this before, as big of a part of my life as it was. But I strangely got the urge to see it all on the page a little bit ago, and now seems like the perfect time to do it. As a few of you know, before I started doing this I did stand-up comedy for six or seven years. I don’t say I WAS a stand-up, or that I worked as one, because I so rarely got paid for it. But whatever, semantics. It certainly shaped everything that came after it, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be doing this, or at least as well, if I hadn’t decided shortly after college to put every shred of dignity I had on the line.

Everything Else

Yep, that’s Dad.

Going to take a break from player reviews today for some more Friday goofiness. With Father’s Day this weekend, I thought I’d provide my father George a gift by sharing his writing with those of you who are interested. Though he was about as self-deprecating as a person as there could be, Dad was never shy about boasting about his writing. And neither am I.

I know a lot of you come here for the analysis or the music/Simpsons references or the creative swearing (and we’re proud of that), but some do come for the style and writing we use (which we still find strange but to each his or her own). My father George was the back-page columnist for Billiards Digest for over 30 years, and even though I’m obviously a little biased I think I can still safely say he was one of the best sportswriters I have ever read. You don’t have to know anything about pool or billiards to enjoy it, which I think is about the highest compliment you can pay. My brother (writer for CubsDen on ChicagoNow.com if you didn’t know) and I constantly reach for this standard, knowing full well we’ll never come into the same zip code as Dad.

The Digest has catalogued the last few years of his columns as well as his best work from his entire career, and you can get to that right here. However, there is one column that’s always been one of my favorites that isn’t on there, so I’m going to share it with you below.

Everything Else

Yep, that’s Dad.

Going to take a break from player reviews today for some more Friday goofiness. With Father’s Day this weekend, I thought I’d provide my father George a gift by sharing his writing with those of you who are interested. Though he was about as self-deprecating as a person as there could be, Dad was never shy about boasting about his writing. And neither am I.

I know a lot of you come here for the analysis or the music/Simpsons references or the creative swearing (and we’re proud of that), but some do come for the style and writing we use (which we still find strange but to each his or her own). My father George was the back-page columnist for Billiards Digest for over 30 years, and even though I’m obviously a little biased I think I can still safely say he was one of the best sportswriters I have ever read. You don’t have to know anything about pool or billiards to enjoy it, which I think is about the highest compliment you can pay. My brother (writer for CubsDen on ChicagoNow.com if you didn’t know) and I constantly reach for this standard, knowing full well we’ll never come into the same zip code as Dad.

The Digest has catalogued the last few years of his columns as well as his best work from his entire career, and you can get to that right here. However, there is one column that’s always been one of my favorites that isn’t on there, so I’m going to share it with you below.