Pool Table Playing Tips
for beginners, or those wishing a new look
These tips are either for beginners at pool or for those wishing a new look at it, taking it more seriously. Even though I have played pool for 40 years, I now ask myself if I really did. I most likely "pushed balls around the table and sometimes got lucky". While it was a lot of fun, the results seemed very random. Taking a more serious look, I am finding a number of things that I was doing wrong and could do better. Now I wish to share what I am finding. Of course, a good pool player may find this information too limited. For those who are more experienced, you may find the following link helpful: http://www.easypooltutor.com. I have. For those wishing to start off at the beginning, I would suggest reading the below and then trying the "easy pool tutor" web site.
Some terms and definitions are located at the end of this article. Here, the term "object ball" is the ball that you wish to go into a pocket using a cue ball to hit it there.
Many of us who just grabbed a cue stick and starting shooting always assumed that we shoot straight. But do we? If one does not shoot straight then spending a lot of time aiming and setting up a shot will be lost since we are really not shooting in that direction anyway. Some things to look for:
pool grip - Right handed pool players usually shoot with their right hand and hence "grip" or "guide" with their left. In this case we are referring to the grip or guide hand which for right handed players is the left hand, or the right hand for left handed players. Look at the grip you are using. It must be loose enough to ensure the cue stick can move through it. However, it must also be tight enough to ensure the cue stick can only go one direction. Practice a few cue stick strokes through your grip and ensure that the cue stick is not wandering and going different ways through your grip.
arm movement - I have heard some say that one should only move the hand and lower arm and not the upper arm. But in any case, arm movement certainly influences shooting straight. Put an object on the table such as a drink coaster or a piece of paper about the same size. Try to shoot the cue stick right over it straight as you would in a shot. See if the cue stick goes straight by watching its image over the object. If it does not, adjust your arm movement to where it is both comfortable and the cue stick is going straight. Some suggest practicing shooting the cue stick into the neck of a bottle. I find a rectangular object under the cue stick head is good enough for me to see. How will you know when you start shooting straight? Shots across the table with a lot of "green" (felt) in the path of the shot will be made more. One must shoot straight (or be lucky) to make a long shot across the table. Practice and re-checking your stroke from time to time is worth while.
what to watch when shooting (and miscues) - The pros may say something different here since pool shooting is more automatic for them. But for a person who is like a beginner like me it matters a lot what I watch. If I am shooting a short distance and shooting lightly, then I watch the cue ball and the spot on the ball I am targeting at the same time - usually from as level to the table surface as I can get. However, if I am shooting very fast and breaking, I find much more chance of miscuing. I therefore set up the shot lining up the cue stick, cue ball and point on the rack to hit. However, right before making contact, I concentrate on only the cue ball and cue stick alone. This seems to prevent miscues on breaks - at least for me.
Better Aiming - Taking Your Time
This one I also find very important. To be simplistic, playing serious pool means taking it seriously - on every shot. I find that if I think I am just having fun that I want to aim quickly and just be done with it and shoot. To be sure, one can sometimes aim quick and adjust the difference from hitting the object ball straight or sending it to the right or left. However, pool often requires much more accuracy than that. Often a general direction is just not good enough to sink the object ball.
We need to locate the exact point on the object ball where it needs to be hit. One can even go behind the object ball directly with a cue stick and look for where the exact right place to sink it would be. It is of course good if that spot is near the ball number since then you might have a reference such as "center of the number" or "left circle edge of the number" or the "white area between the circle and the left number" or something like that. But if not, you basically need to keep your eye on the exact point. Then if you shoot the cue ball at that exact point, and try to ensure that you shoot straight and follow through you will have a better chance at the shot. Yes, this does require concentration. If your concentration breaks and you are no longer sure of the point on the object ball to hit, one should line it up again before you shoot to prevent a wasted shot.
Shooting the center of the cue ball at the target point on the object ball works best for straight ahead shots. See "angle shots" below.
There is a tendency on easy shots to say "I know how to do this" and then shoot fast without lining up or shooting straight. That is how we miss the easy ones. In a similar sport, many golfers - even the pros - make the same errors on easy shots by not treating them with enough respect.
There is a tendency on hard shots to say "I cannot make this shot, so let me just shoot and get to an easy shot". Of course if we do that on hard shots, we never get practice on making the tough ones. Yes, it is almost like work - but hopefully fun work. One must take their time to have a good chance at the shot and also to improve. When you begin to make the hard shots, you start to convince yourself that it is possible and will automatically try more on them the next time.
One example of this "hard shot avoidance" is a desire from some of us to "break as second time" if there are no easy shots around. While that might work for some, I have never found that a good option. Most of the time since the balls are not tightly packed, the "second break" does little good. It also seems that if a ball goes in a pocket that it often can be the cue ball itself. So, not much gain to trade for a wasted shot. I do believe that trying for a difficult shot either around the pack or in an open spot in that pack has a much better chance of success. Trying a difficult shot and trying hard seems to beat a random shot almost every time. One exception to this might be in combining a shot. If you are good enough to sink a ball and also use spin to get the cue ball to break up a group of balls, then it might be quite worth it. Note that in at least one pool game that when shooting the last object ball on the table, that the other 14 balls are racked. The pool player can then sink the 15th ball and "break" at the same time. This is similar thinking.
"Measure Twice, Cut Once"
Carpenters sometimes use the expression "measure twice, cut once" to emphasize that planning can save a lot of grief and extra work later. They set a good example to follow. After you have lined the object ball up in your sites and are ready to shoot and are watching the cue ball and the object ball, ask yourself "if what you are seeing makes sense" a second time. For example, if you know the object ball must go to the right somewhat and yet what you are seeing is a direct line up of the cue ball and the object ball - then you know something is wrong. Time to line up the shot again from the beginning.
Angle shots - that is - hitting the object ball with the cue ball on an angle, start out much the same as a straight-ahead shot. The first step always is to find the spot on the object ball where if it is hit there, it will go into the desired pocket. That much stays the same. What does change on an angle shot is that the center of the cue ball is not necessary the point on the cue ball that will strike the object ball first.
Consider two extremes. The first - a head on shot - where the cue ball, object ball and pocket are lined up - is the easiest to understand. In this case it is the center of the cue ball that must strike the right target spot on the object ball to drive the object ball into the pocket. Now, let us consider the other extreme. Let us consider the maximum angle shot that the object ball could be hit with. This is one that will make the object ball go almost at a right angle (almost perpendicular, almost 90 degrees) when hit by the cue ball. Now in this case, notice that it will be the very side edge of the cue ball that must strike the right spot on the object ball. So on an angle shot, the part of the cue ball that will strike the object ball will be somewhere between its center and its outer edge that is closest to the object ball direction. One must approximate where the point of contact will be on the cue ball that will hit the object ball. For example, if the angle desired is about half way between a straight ahead shot and the maximum right angle shot, we could say that we want the object ball to be hit at 45 degrees. 45 degrees is a geometry expression. But think of it as an in-between angle shot. In this case, the part of the cue ball that needs to strike the object ball would be about halfway between the center of the cue ball and the edge of the cue ball facing the desired direction of the object ball.
Actually in this 45 degree case, it would be slightly more than halfway to the edge of the cue ball. For Geometry students (others may not like this section) the distance on the cue ball between the center and the edge will actually be the "sine" of the angle. Hence the amount of "cut" or position of the cue ball hitting the object ball will be even a little bit more than one might think. If the amount of desired angle is 0, then the sine of 0 is 0. That means that there is no angle nor adjustment and therefore simply hit the object ball with the center of the cue ball. For a 45 degree angle, the sine of 45 degrees is about 0.7. So that means the spot of the cue ball to hit the object ball is 70% of the way from the center of the cue ball to the edge of the cue ball - as you look at the cue ball behind it. My apologies again, to all who do not like geometry.
How best to line up and approximate this angle shot? It is best to get down as close to the table surface as possible, and then view the point of the object ball that needs to be hit, and also approximate the spot of the cue ball that would hit the object ball at this angle and line them up.
Another approach to lining up for an angle shot is to again first find the target spot on the object ball that would send it to the pocket. Then imagine a straight line back of the object ball in line with the pocket and visualize the spot one-half ball width in back of the object ball still in line with the pocket. If you can visualize this spot, this spot is the spot to aim for with the center of the cue ball. This is another approach. This approach works since this is the location that the cue ball must end up in to make the shot. Use the approach that works best for your visualization.
A Common Angle Shot Problem
If you are trying to hit the object ball on an angle, and instead it goes mostly straight ahead, one of the possibilities is that you may have lined up the center of the cue ball with the point on the object ball that needs to be hit. Since that is not likely the point of the cue ball that will hit the object ball first, the object ball will go more straight ahead than on the desired angle. If this happens to you, try to practice different angle shots estimating where on the cue ball to line up the spot on the object ball.
Going Too Far on Angle Shots
Now that you know that on angle shots, it is not the center of the cue ball hitting the spot on the object ball, it is of course possible to over-compensate and have too much angle. You will see this if you are cutting the ball too hard and it slices and has an even larger angle then desired. Sometimes a little bit of compensation goes a long way - particularly on long shots across the table. For long shots, a little bit of angle of course can translate into a large change of direction - so a little may go a long way. Practice. Try to ensure that you have a plan for each shot - on how to line up the cue ball with the object ball. Then remember your strategy. After your shot, try to notice if you had cut the ball too hard or if it was the opposite and had not enough angle. And then that information may help you estimate better on your next shots.
A fun practice and one that you might learn from is to not play pool at all but just set up practice shots. An easy one is just to set up perhaps 4 object balls near you, and then practice hitting them into the same pocket - by hitting them directly with the cue stick and not using a cue ball. First a close corner pocket. Then a side pocket. Then a pocket across the table. And then try bank shots by hitting the object ball directly. This practice will help show you if you are shooting straight with your cue stick - which is very important - and will also show you where the target location is for object balls both for straight shots and bank shots.
After this, one can practice using a cue ball along with an object ball. Try angle shots and approximating the right angle for the cue ball to hit the object ball. Try shots where the cue ball is against the rail (not easy) or "in traffic" (around other balls). Try several of the setups that can cause you difficulty in the game. Have you seen the movie "Color of Money" with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise as pool hustlers? A good movie. Note that Paul Newman - who plays "Fast Eddie" - practices some basic shots when he wants to improve quickly and does not just play the normal games of pool to improve.
English, Spin, and Draw
Putting "English" on the cue ball or spin can be a great tool. The pros do it for many reasons, including leaving the cue ball in the right spot for the next shot. But even if you are a beginner, there are two cases of "English" or "spin" that can be very helpful.
Head-On Scratch Shots - If the cue ball and the object ball are lined up directly with a pocket at first it might look like a great shot. However, that shot is ruined if the cue ball follows the object ball into the pocket. For these shots if you hit the cue ball just a little lower than mid point on the cue ball (about one cue tip downward) you can put spin on the cue ball that should stop it from following the other ball into the pocket. This shot is a good one to practice. If one hits the cue ball too low, one might "miscue" and miss hitting the cue ball solidly at all. If one hits the cue ball too high, they might in fact put top spin on the cue ball sending it into the pocket behind the object ball.
Object Ball on Rail - if the object ball is on or close to a rail, sending it into a pocket ahead of it may be improved with a little spin that gets it to "hug the rail". If you hit the cue ball a little to the side where the rail is - then when the cue ball hits the object ball it should transfer the spin. The spin of the cue ball will be "away from the cushion." However when the spin transfers to the object ball, it will reverse and be "to the cushion". That should help the object ball hug the rail and find its way into the pocket. Of course the tough part of this shot goes beyond getting the right spin. One must also ensure that the cue ball connects with the object ball at exactly the right spot to make the shot happen. Some practice on this is again a good idea.
Some will find bank shots easier than others and may see the angles better. But if the pool table cushions are good, physics tells us that the angle the ball hits it will be the same size as the angle it reflects off in the other direction. ("Angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection"). Beginners may find it easier to try and determine the right angle and then the right place the object ball must hit the cushion by using a cue stick. If one uses a cue stick held over the table with one end at the pocket you are aiming for and the other end at the cushion you need to hit, you might be able to visualize where the object ball needs to hit to make the same angle. Then when you see that spot, then you can determine the spot on the object ball that you need to hit with the cue ball. Again, this takes much practice. But after you sink a few bank shots, you will prove to yourself that it can be done. Pros of course do not use cue sticks to visualize the shot. They are good enough to use the "diamond" or "circle" markers on the pool table rails and visually line up the shot in their mind.
Note that any spin on the cue ball - right side or left side, or upper (follow) or lower (draw) spin can influence bank shots. Only use spin on bank shots if you are sure that that is what you want to do.
Setting up the Next Shot
Yes, the pros often look several shots ahead. I would not add this complexity until one masters the above. However, using "spin" (or "English" if you prefer that word) on the cue ball and how hard you hit the cue ball could help set up for the next shot. But as always in sports - one must complete the current action right before the next one counts.
What if you are not a pro and looking ahead is new for you? I find that most of the time that when I can run a number of balls in a row, they are near each other. Therefore shooting accuracy to keep the run going, taking time in accurate aiming, and follow through of the cue are most important and the shot does not need to be forceful at all. Of course adding this with just a little wisdom about which ball to go for next and where the cue ball would best line up are helpful. So for us new people, often gentle, accurate shooting, taking time on aiming and a little thought can go a long way.
Shooting Hard? or Shooting Softer With Follow Through?
I find that for most shots, at least for a beginner like me, shooting softer but with follow through and trying for accuracy is much better than shooting hard. Shooting softer can be a help for us - it might give us more chance for shooting straight since we are moving the cue stick less hard, and it may also help set us up better for the next shot. By a better set up for the next shot I mean that often most of the balls are on the same side of the table. Shooting softer often tends to keep the cue ball near another interesting shot - even if we did not plan it.
The only two times I tend to shoot hard are for breaks, or secondarily when the cue ball is on the wrong side of the table for the next shot. In this second case, a classic example of when shooting hard is good is when you are shooting a object ball dead ahead into the pocket (possible scratch shot) and you also want the cue ball on the other side of the table when done. Then hitting the cue ball low - to create a "draw" back to you, and hard should sink the object ball if you have aimed correctly and send the cue ball nearer your next shot.
Pool Table Quality
The most important attribute of a good quality table is in what it does not do. It should not have inadequacies that cause the player to have to do extra work to compensate for it. So a good table is one that offers no surprises and that the balls roll straight and the cushions are live such that bank shots are as expected as well as other table attributes.
Buying a Personal Pool Cue
The best argument I have heard for owning a personal pool cue is consistency. If one owns their own cue and carries it to pool games, they will not have to worry about different weight cues that also act differently. It is one less item to worry about as one tries to improve. As with pool tables, some of the cost of a cue is in its basic quality and some of the cost is in its pleasing design. A good store should be able to advise on both.
I do find a few mental changes when taking pool more seriously. The "fun" changes. No longer does one feel the same when they make or miss shots, since one can now guess why. So, alas, one leaves the world of "hey, whatever happens its okay and this is just fun". After a bit, there becomes an expectation that you should be able to make some shots. And yes, there may be a frustration when you miss an easy shot and know that you should have spent more time aiming. But it is not all bad. Now some of the enjoyment comes in watching yourself get better, even making shots that you thought were previously well beyond your skill level. Basically one is turning pool from a pastime into a real sport. How do I feel about this? It is definitely a different feeling, but actually more fun and I find myself being even more drawn to my next game. Hope that you enjoy the game also.
Terms Used Here
Most people likely know these terms or can guess my usage, but here are some I've used: