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An Essential Guide to Pocket Billiards

Posted by Pitbull Pool on 11/2/2015

"We play the game not to be perfect but because we love to compete."

-Rob, Professional Billiards Instructor Association

Pocket Billiards is not a game for the faint of heart. If you want to be good, you must be mentally agile and physically adept. And if you want to be really good you have to practice, practice, practice.

Choosing a Cue Stick

poolcue.pngYou can't play a game of pool to the best of your ability with just any cue stick. If you can't play with your lucky cue, then make sure you know what makes a good stick. First, look at the tip - is it short and stubby, mushroom-shaped, or smoothly rounded? Look for a hard tip that still has ample roundness. Next, you will want to make sure that the cue is straight. One way to figure this out is by rolling the cue on the pool table. If it wobbles a lot it's crooked and may not work very well.

Sometimes it will be difficult to find a cue stick that is both straight and has a good tip. Three-time national billiards champion, Max Eberle, says that it is more important to have a good tip than a straight stick. You decide what works for you.

Once you've chosen your stick make sure to chalk it, and chalk it correctly. Many people twist the chalk around the tip in a circular motion, but Eberle says this can turn out poorly once the chalk is worn down in the middle. Instead, swipe the chalk lightly on the tip and stamp the stick to get the excess chalk off the sides.

Body Mechanics

stance.jpgBefore you lean down and start acting like you know what you're doing, make sure your body is positioned correctly. Line your cue stick up next to the cue ball, holding the cue stick the same way you will hold it to shoot; back up or move forward until your arm is parallel to your thigh/hip. This is where your leg (the one next to the cue stick) will stay. Slide your other foot to the side or forward giving your body balance and a solid base (your feet should be about a shoulder's length apart) and getting into the shot position.

Once your feet are positioned, you will slide your bridge hand into position while keeping your eyes and cue stick aligned with your shot. (You may need to bend your knees to get your head closer to the cue stick.) Your bridge arm should be held straight out in front so you can look down the cue. Remember that for normal shots your cue should not be elevated.

The way you hold the cue stick is very important. You should grip the pool stick with your dominant hand, not a death grip, a firm, relaxed grip. (Never hold the cue with your fingertips.) You should also make sure that you're not holding the stick on the butt end; you need to have a balance point where your hand and body feel relaxed. Your non-dominant hand will be used as your bridge hand, in one of two ways: open or closed. (There are various ways to make each of these two bridges.) Remember to keep your cue stick chalked by brushing the chalk over the cue tip before each inning, and never take more than three to five practice strokes before taking your shot. Why stick between 3 and 5 practice strokes? Anything more than 5 will start affecting your confidence in the shot, below 3 and you may shoot too early.

The only things that you directly control in a pool game are your body and the cue stick, so you want to make sure both of them are properly aligned and stable. Your strokes should be smooth and flowing, not jerky. The cue stick should glide gently over your bridge hand.

If your game seems a little off, and you can't figure out what you're doing wrong, you may want to check your body stance. Are you standing in a comfortable, solid position? Are your arms angled right? Adjust yourself accordingly.

Practicing

chalk.jpgWhat does consistent, quality practice look like? Whether you're playing 9-ball, straight pool, one-pocket, or another form of pool, your practice should always have a structure and focus. If you've been playing pool for a while you probably already have a practice routine. For those of you who need some help structuring your practice, here are some ideas: For consistency in your game, you need to have consistent, quality practice and rock solid fundamentals. Basically, this means that you should spend a lot of time practicing solo and playing against other people. Practicing solo will help you isolate your weaknesses and improve upon them. And if you're really into improving your game, you'll play against people who are better than you so you can figure out what you're doing that works and what doesn't.

  • Check the length of your bridge - distance between your bridge hand and the cue ball - each time you get into your stance. Make sure you keep this length consistent for your shots.
  • Practice making softer strokes, allowing the object ball to roll lightly into the intended pocket.
  • Practice hitting the cue ball straight, along the vertical axis (the cue ball should go in the direction the cue stick is pointing). This kind of stroke won't be used for all shots, but it's an important fundamental.
  • When taking shots, keep your eye on the object ball, not the cue stick or cue ball. If your eyes are moving all over the table, you are more likely to miss your shot because your cue stick will move off target.
  • A really great technique to pocket balls easier is the ghost ball technique. With this technique you are trying to find the point of contact on the object ball. Once you've found this point you will set another object ball next to the target object ball's area of contact. You will then aim your cue ball at the new ball, lining it up so that the center of the cue ball will strike the center of the ghost ball. Once this is lined up, move the ghost ball and take your shot, aiming at the area where the ghost ball was. Your cue ball should hit the point of contact on your target, pocketing the ball.
  • A fun way to perfect your stance, is to try getting into it with your eyes closed. Once you feel like you are in your stance correctly, open your eyes to see how you did. You'll probably be a little off on something, so try closing your eyes again and correcting the stance.
  • Practice your mental targets. As you're taking the shot, erase all doubts from your mind; try fully believing that the shot you are about to make will be successful. The more you doubt, the more chance you have of messing up.

But let's say you've been doing a ton of solo practice, and you feel like something is still off, but you're not quite sure what it is. That's what billiard instructors are for! An instructor will give you tips on your technique and will help you improve your playing skills.

If you decide to hire an instructor, the most important thing is to play how you normally would, so the instructor can give you helpful feedback and guidance. Don't try to impress him/her.

Some Fundamentals

cueball2.pngIf you're serious about your pool game then I highly recommend you schedule a session or two with an experienced, qualified instructor. These sessions could help move you from an mediocre player to a serious player.

Perfect your stance. Make sure you are balanced, comfortable, and focused. Your stance is critical to optimum performance.

Avoid a death grip or loose grip on the cue stick. Your grip should be an extension of your stance, relaxed and steady. Similarly, your bridge should be stable and straight. If you use a closed hand bridge, make sure your finger isn't gripping the cue stick too tightly. Your stick should be able to move back and forth without difficulty.

Keep your eyes and your stance focused as you prepare to make your shot. Make sure your elbow doesn't move or drop when your arm moves forward. The only part of your body that should move when you take your shot is your lower arm and hand. The rest of your body should be completely still. In addition, you should be using steady, consistent speed. Don't overdo your shot.

When aiming and taking shots, there are a couple of things you can do. Practice a consistent pre-shot routine. Your shot sighting should always be purposeful and consistent.

Mike, of Snooker Games, says that after 45 years of studying the game, the most important thing you can do to improve your consistency is to "stay down on the shot until the cue-ball has struck the object-ball (or the cushion)." It all depends on keeping your body still for good cue-action.

Many players like to get the easiest shots off the table first, but experts say that you should get rid of problem shots as soon as possible. Once problems are eliminated, the rest of the game should be easier. Another basic rule, that most people who've played pool know, is to not disturb other object balls - stay on target.

Dr. Dave Alciatore says, "the most important fundamental of pool is consistent and accurate head alignment. If your eyes are not in the right place over the cue, your aim will be off and the cue-ball will not head int he direction you think - even with a perfect stroke." For more information about this, see Dr. Dave's vision center resource page.

Basic Shots

billiards.jpgAs previously mentioned, when taking a shot, your grip should be relaxed and your cue stick should be level (unless you're making a special shot or the cue ball is too close to another object ball).

Draw Shot

When the cue ball stops briefly as it hits the object ball and then rolls back toward the player. This is a really fun shot to see, but it is very difficult to master. In order to make this shot, the cue stick must hit the cue ball below center, this will give the ball a back spin. This back spin should continue as it slides toward the object ball; this is the difficult part of the shot, as the friction from the table will slow the back spin down. A slightly stronger stroke is required for this shot.

Stop Shot

The stop shot is also fun to see because the cue ball will stop upon contact with the object ball. If the cue ball is relatively close to the object ball, this shot will be performed by hitting the center of the cue ball with a medium stroke. The farther away the cue ball is from the object ball the lower you will need to hit the cue ball, but not low enough to make a draw shot. How does this shot work? Basically, the cue ball must slide across the table without any spin so that it will not continue spinning when it makes contact with the object ball.

Follow Shot

The follow shot is the most common of pool shots; the cue ball follows the object ball after making contact. To make this shot, the tip of your cue stick will need to hit the cue ball slightly above center. The cue ball will slow down upon contact but should continue rolling forward.

Cut Shots (AKA Angle Shots)

Angles between 0 and 45 degrees are relatively easy, requiring a soft to medium stroke. However, you should still practice these types of shots so you will have confidence in your game play.

Angles between 45 and 75 degrees are more difficult as they require a stronger stroke, especially if the object ball is far from the cue ball.

Between 75 and 90 degrees, your shots will be nearly impossible. Tons of things can go wrong in this type of shot between aim, positioning, and speed control. Avoid these angle shots if you can.

Bank Shot

A bank shot is a shot that where the cue ball is aimed at the cushion in a way that the cue ball will bounce off and hit the object ball into a pocket. This requires considerable skill and precision. I recommend practicing this one at various angles.

Types of Pocket Billiards

nine-ball.jpgNine-ball

Nine-ball is a version of pocket billiards that uses only the balls one through nine and the cue ball. It is the dominant professional billiards game played at the moment, but this is subject to change. The player at the table must make legal contact with the lowest numbered ball on the table or it is a foul. In order to win the game, a player must legally pocket the nine ball, clearing the table.

For more information on this billiard game, visit World Pool-Billiard Association.

Straight Pool

straightpool.jpgStraight pool is also known as 14.1 continuous or 14.1. It was the dominant competition billiards sport, until nine-ball (a faster billiards game) took over. During game play, the player at the table can shoot at any object ball in an attempt to gain points. The number of points a player must reach to win is determined before the game starts. Generally, in professional competition, a player must reach 125 points. During a player's turn, s/he must call the object ball they intend to hit as well as the pocket in which they intend to sink the ball.

For more information on this billiard game, visit World Pool-Billiard Association.

Eight-ball

Eight-ball is the most commonly played game in the United States, so it's probably the billiards version you've played. It is played with a full rack of 15 numbered ballas and the cue ball. Each player must claim a suit (striped and solid: US, red and yellow: UK). Players must sink all balls in their suit before sinking the eight-ball to win the game.

For more information on this billiard game, visit World Pool-Billiard Association.

One Pocket

One pocket is a very difficult, strategic game that many professional players can make a lot of money on. The game requires two players, and each player is assigned a pocket on the table. This pocket is the only one he can use to legally sink balls during game play. To win the game, one of the players must sink the majority of his balls (8) before the other player. One pocket calls for much more defensive strategy than offensive strategy.

For more information on this billiard game, visit OnePocket.org.

snooker.jpgSnooker

Snooker is a little bit different than other pocket billiard games. It is played with a cue ball and 22 snooker balls (slightly smaller than regular pool balls). The balls have different colors, each color worth a certain amount of points. There are 15 red balls and 6 additional balls of various colors: yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black. The red balls are racked, and the other balls are placed in marked positions around the table. Players win a "frame" by earning more points than his/her opponent. A match is won when a predetermined number of frames are won.

For more information on snooker, visit SnookerUSA.

three-ball.jpgThree-ball

Three-ball is an interesting billiards game that is played with only three balls and can have more than two players. Each player must sink all three balls during his turn, the person to do so with the least amount of shots wins the game.

Bank Pool

Bank pool has risen in popularity in recent years and can be played in one of two ways, with a full rack or with nine balls (often called nine-ball bank). The object of the game is to bank five balls (in 9-ball) or 8 balls (in full rack). All legal shots, must be bank shots.

For more information on this billiard game, visit OnePocket.org.

Competing

While practice is a great way to work on your game and establish solid fundamentals, competing is also very important (even if you don't feel ready). Earlier, I mentioned establishing mental targets, another way to think of this is mental toughness. According to Melinda, of Pool Journey, the only way to truly establish mental toughness is to compete in as many tournaments as you can. How do tournaments help solidify your mental toughness? Tournaments are full of distractions and noise, not to mention your own nervousness and embarrassment. The more you participate in tournaments, the more chances you will have to steady your breathing and shut out distractions. You'll make mistakes, but with patience and dedication, you will be able to learn from those mistakes and continue to improve your game.

Improving Your Game (Additional Advice from the Experts)

You may be wondering what the secret to going pro is, and I'm here to tell you there isn't one! That should be good news, right? Let's see what the experts have to say about skills to master.

Allan, of Billiard Gods, says there are two parts to pool, the physical and the mental, and both parts have a specific skill that you should master. Physically, a skilled billiards player, will have "the ability to apply the cue tip to the cue ball with a precise speed and spin." Mentally, a skilled player will be be able "to accurately predict the future." Check out his book, Cue Ball Control Sheets for tips on mastering your cue ball control.

Rob, of Professional Billiards Instructor Association, takes a different approach. He doesn't believe that any skill in billiards can truly be mastered because "when you look at various professionals, they all have different strengths and weaknesses." That should be encouraging to any of you interested in breaking into the professional world of billiards. If you love to compete, you'll find a way to do it.

Terry, of Terry Griffiths Snooker, believes there are two essential skills which every billiards player must master in order to play well: their technique and temperament. Not always simple to master, but always worth the effort.

Dr. Dave Alciatore, of Dr. Dave Billiards Instructional Products and Billiards and Pool Principles, Techniques, Resources says the most important factor in improving is having fun. That's why the word "FUN" is in "FUNdamentals." The mental side of the game is also important (per fundaMENTALs); so when playing, try to stay focused and really concentrate when aiming a shot. Also, learn from your mistakes, try to stay positive, and work hard to improve your knowledge and understanding of our wonderful sport by reading books, watching videos, and working with qualified and experienced instructors.

Glossary

bridge - the hand placement that guides the shaft-end of the cue stick during play

closed hand -

cushion - the cloth-covered rubber that borders the inside corners and edges of the table, forming the perimeter of the table.

frame - one snooker game.

match - the course of play

inning - a player's turn at the table

open hand -

If there are other terms or phrases you don't know, check out Dr. Dave's vast online pool and billiards glossary.