“Try to avoid pocketing the cue ball. In Just Showin’ Off, world-famous player Steve Mizerak was marveling that he’d actually read these words in a pool instruction book. I laughed, too.
However painfully obvious that statement may be, learning to practice this principle is an even more painful process. I was just watching the 2003 Mosconi Cup on ESPN Classic, pitting five of the USA’s best against Europe’s five best in 9 ball. I enjoy watching the best players in the world compete, whether live or on TV. In a very exciting game between Johnny “The Scorpion” Archer (USA) and “The Iceman” Mika Immonen (I think I spelled that right), Johnny had a jump shot to strike the 3 ball (located about the middle of the head string area) and send it in a combination to pocket the 8 ball (which sat in front of the corner pocket). Although I don’t like jumping, myself (I’d rather kick or masse), all of the top players are generally comfortable with jump shots. Some, Earl “The Pearl” Strickland for example, have even polished it to an art. The Scorpion made the shot, but after hitting the 3 ball exactly the way it needed to, the cue ball then scratched in the side pocket, giving the Iceman cue ball in-hand, and the game. Archer dropped his head as he watched the cue ball drop. He knew the game was lost.
Games, matches, momentum, and much prize money can so swiftly flip sides on a scratch. But, if the best players in the world can’t always keep the cue ball on the table, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m here to tell you… sometimes the white rock will fit in the pocket just as well as any of the other balls. Many years ago, Willie Mosconi established the world record for balls run in 14.1 Continuous (also commonly called “Straight Pool”) of 526 without missing, fouling, or scratching. The great cue master wrote several instructional books, and the common explanation he gave was “limit the amount of cue ball movement”. If you don’t absolutely have to send the cue ball to a rail, DON’T DO IT! If you don’t absolutely have to shoot hard, DON’T DO IT! If you don’t absolutely have to send the cue ball in to break a cluster of balls… well, I think you get it.
In the game of chess, I received a solid fundamental education from an excellent player. He told me that, while capturing the opponent’s king is the obvious end goal, if the intent of every move is an assault on the king, you will lose. He said the true object of winning at chess is to gain and maintain control of the four squares in the center of the board. This serves both offensively and defensively. You may be wondering why, in the middle of an article on pool, am I talking about chess? As the four-center-square principle is to chess, cue ball control is to pool. While the end goal may be to pocket balls, the means to victory is in making the “snowball” roll where you want it to go. Willie Mosconi didn’t set that world record by shooting a lot of hard shots. He was certainly able, if needed. But, he shot well over 500 easy shots!
For a straight pool player with less talent than Willie Mosconi possessed (which would include… well, everybody!), there is an advantage in non-rotational games. If you are out-of-line for your intended next shot, you can usually turn to what’s called a “b-ball”, or even a “c”. In other words, there’s usually some alternatives. However, in 9 ball and other rotational games, your next ball is pre-determined (if not pocketing, at least you know you need to be able to hit it!). A professional player who taught me a lot about the game in my youth (some rather expensive lessons, I might add!), Joe Kerr, told me that you should always practice rotational games. “It forces you to concentrate on position” he said. I watch players practicing 9 ball, and if they mess up on their position, they just move the cue ball. Since its their practice session, they are free to do something that does not prepare them fora real game situation if they want. When I practice 9 ball, I play it as if I’m really in a game situation. If I’m snookered, I try to make a legal shot. Like in golf, I play it where it lies.
And another tip Joe had given me about practice was to use a striped ball as the cue ball. This makes the spin and roll more visible for examination. Concentrate on what the cue ball is doing after the contact. Learning what various angles and spins will make it do, will prove priceless. So much said just about the white rock; and yet so much more could and probably be said.
Its all about POSITION! Bad pool players don’t care what the cue ball is going to do. They may be amazing shot-makers, and occasionally pull a few victories out of their- hat, but in the long run, they will not win. Novice players don’t know what the cue ball will do, so they are at it’s mercy. And it may be cruel sometimes! Smart players study the actions of the “pale problem-child” and learn. They become good players who can put together pretty respectable runs, and win more than they lose.
This is where I am. “I can handle anything but moderation” I’ve been heard to declare many times, as my excess delivers the consequences. I tend to use too much English, and either too much speed or not enough speed to get the cue ball to always obey me. And when I’m out-of-line (even a few inches) for my next shot, it begins a progression that will sometimes get me an eight-ball run in 9 ball. But I’ve gotten further and further from the smart way to play the table, until I’m stuck with a tough shot on the 9. I miss. I lose.
Here’s a major distinction between a “good” player and a really-good player. The really-good player will occasionally mess-up on their shape. But they recover immediately. They don’t go astray, over-compensate, and face progressively tougher shots. They get back in-line, and finish the run, and win. In my prime, about 25 years ago, I was probably in this rank. But my vision has suffered loss, and my mechanics (stance, stroke, etc.) are not as sound as they once were. But I am good friends with many “really-good” players, and enjoy competing with them. I’m never too old or experienced to learn. This, by the way, is another critical principle. Never stop learning. You will not improve your game unless you observe the best, and play people who are better than you are. A friend of mine runs a local pool hall in Tallmadge, Ohio. I would rank him in the upper-eshalons of “really-good”. I enjoy shooting with him. I expect to lose more than I win. But, if I apply myself, his level will bring out the best hidden deep within me.
Great players know what the cue ball will do. They master the white rock. They run racks because they play good position. And when their opponents leave them tough, they not only think about making a successful hit, they often then send the cue ball to a hiding place- returning safety for safety. That is awesome pool for watching!
My next installment in this series will be on mechanics.
published Sep 05, 2008 at: