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Pool School

By Mark Ottoson


Photo of 9 ball rack I had my first lesson today. This is the follow up. This will probably bore the big guns so you are forewarned.

Tim White is a BCA certified Instructor and received his certification in '97. He opened The Billiard Sanctuary January of this year and it is located in West Dover, VT (located at Andirons Lodge at Mt Snow. We started with me being videotaped. I was shooting a basic straight in shot from one side into the side pocket. The camera was set up so that it was to my right side (I am right handed). He had me shoot a stop, short draw, longer draw, short follow and longer follow. The idea here was to see what was going on from tip to the back of my backstroke (the cue butt) and the rest of my body.

After shooting these shots I then took a written pretest and we discussed basic fundamentals. We then went back to the video to dissect and grade three phases of my mechanics. The first was the set. That point when you are down and the tip is just short of the CB. The second phase was the pause. This was the end point of the backstroke. The third phase was the finish--that part after the CB has been struck and the ball is long gone and the tip has stopped.

Things which I needed to work on --Stance-- he wants me to open up more. Head --lower would be better-- spreading my legs more and opening up cut the distance of my head to the stick in half. Pause-- I need a longer and more consistent pause at the end of my backstroke. Finish-- this was the most noticeable item and the part that needs the most work. I need to emphasize pulling my grip hand all the way to my rib cage/chest--essentially pulling with my biceps until the elbow will not allow the forearm to go any further. If the elbow remains still this in turn drives the tip toward or onto the cloth.

This concluded the first session.

I was happy so decided to go with the entire course. 12-14 hours at home depending on progress for $550 (this included the first session). Seemed reasonable to me. We went onto session 2 which consisted of eye patterns. Essentially this consisted of focusing on the CB at the set point, shifting focus to the OB as you take a warm up back stroke, shifting the focus back to the CB as you take the warm up forward stroke, repeating this until ready to pull the trigger then there were three options. From the set point transfer the focus to the OB, transfer focus to the OB during the backstroke, or transfer focus to OB at the pause (end of the backstroke). I seem to prefer transferring my focus to the OB at the set before I start my backstroke for the shot.

The next and final session today was ball address (Hello Ball!!--gotta love the Honeymooners). I guess this could also be the same as approach. The biggest thing I need to change here is to bring the cue down with my bridge in the same plane as the shot line. If you ever watch Allison Fischer she does this in a very pronounced fashion. I had seen it but never thought much about it. If you can imagine the shot line between CB and OB and then turn that line into a vertical plane the cue and bridge should come down that vertical plane. From there you should be lined up and only need minor fidgeting to get comfortable. If you aren't comfortable or the line looks off get back up and start over.
Get back up.

That was it for today. It took about 4 hours. We covered 6 sessions out of the 14. We will have 2 more get togethers which will cover the mental side, the break, aim and focus, speed control, the stop shot, and science and physics.

Neither of us had anything on the front burner so Tim hung around and shot nine ball with me for another 4 hours. That was a real treat. I'm a big believer that a picture is worth a thousand words. Tim practices what he preaches and one thing he does that seems like an advanced technique is he uses a slip stroke. When the grip hand stops at the finish the cue slides forward in his grip an inch or two. This seems to promote a consistent grip(no clenching) and I am sure it enhances cueball action.

Follow up to a question about the slip stroke.

The slip in the stroke occurs during the finish--after the cue ball contact. As the grip hand reaches it's stopping point (the tip is 1-2 inches beyond CB contact), the cue continues forward a bit slipping in the grip hand until the thickening butt catches in the grip. The idea is that you can maintain a relaxed but consistent grip without clenching. The cue butt gets wider as you move toward the end away from the joint and the wider butt is catching in the grip hand. He did not recommend I get hung up on trying to accomplish a slip stroke but he did pick up on the fact that my grip was fairly relaxed and said it was something I may want to incorporate someday. The slip stroke will also most likely enhance cue ball action.

We spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the pendulum of a perfect stroke. We carried this a step further and compared it to a catapult motion. Instead of slinging plague infected cows over the wall in an overhead manner we have inverted the catapult and are slinging(propel was the exact word) a pool cue. With the elbow in a fixed position, the triceps muscle(no other muscles) draws the catapult (grip hand and forearm) back slowly. At this point a pause was recommended to make a distinct effort to transition. This transition allows you to focus on relaxing the triceps and contracting the biceps only. The biceps should contract until the elbow joint will not close any further(i.e. hand by the rib cage). At this point you freeze for the count of 4 and analyze position. Elbow fully closed, hand against or near rib cage, tip of the cue straight through the spot where the cue ball was. It should be about 2 inches beyond the spot where the cue ball was resting. It should also be lower than when you addressed the ball and in most cases touching the cloth.
This last part relates to what was described as the sweet spot. It is a 4-6" area which encompasses the cue ball. Approx. 2" in front of the cue ball, the cue ball, and approx. 2" beyond the cue ball. This is the sweet spot. This is the apex of the arc in golf and baseball. In this area is where the action of the cue tip is critical. One of the biggies was level. Avoid getting jacked up when able. The figure Tim quoted was for every 5 degrees you jack up you lose 10% of your accuracy. This goes back to the elbow. It's position will set the cue level.

As I practice the myriad of things he gave me a point of emphasis, a phrase that can be repeated and told me not get concerned about the table. Let me clarify. The phrase is set-pause-finish-freeze. The set is the address and within this you can set and reset. This is equivalent to warm up strokes. As you do your warm up strokes you also incorporate eye patterns. Eyes on the CB at address (cue tip just short of the CB) and eyes on the object ball during the backstroke. Then as the warm up stroke comes forward the eyes come back to the cue ball. You can do this 2 or three times. Don't move your head--just your eyes. When you are comfortable and ready to take the shot, you decide when you want to move your eyes to the object ball. They are called patterns 1, 2,and 3. Pattern 1 moves the eyes to the OB before the backstroke starts. Pattern 2 moves the eyes to the OB during the backstroke, pattern 3 moves the eyes to the object ball at the pause during the transition from backstroke to forward stroke. This is purely a function of comfort and how quickly your eyes can refocus to the OB. I am somewhere between 1 and 2. I thought I liked 1 but I am finding that 2 matches the set and reset rhythm and also forces me to make a distinct pause to move my eyes to the OB and refocus.

The end of the stroke is the finish and the freeze is to stay down for 4 seconds and look at where everything is. Everything is the cue, the tip, the bridge, my grip hand, my elbow, my head, my eyes (do not follow the ball into the hole). He also had me shooting shots from the start of the backstroke on through with my head turned so that I could see what my grip hand was doing. He also blindfolded me with a piece of paper prior to the stroke to prove to me that the address/line up is what was critical to putting the ball in the hole. It was also to get me to concentrate on what the catapult (grip arm) was doing. It is the same thing as when Tom Cruise in the Color of Money lines up a shot and turns to talk while he drills the ball. In my case about every third or fourth shot I turn and focus on my catapult and making sure I finish. I try to focus on the catapult on all the shots. The idea is to incorporate the muscle memory so I can later focus on the table. It feels great when you make a table length shot and the only reason you know you made it is the sound of the ball striking the bottom of the pocket.

Today was my second session with Tim White (a BCA certified instructor) and we continued where we left off. We started the session by going over any questions I had about stroke mechanics and things I had noticed peculiar to my stroke. I had written down several questions that came up as the practice sessions progressed since our last get together. If I had not written them down I would have forgotten.

The sections we covered were Chalks's up, Major Choke Syndromes, Centergistics, and half of Speed Control.

Chalk's Up dealt with the brain part of this crazy sport. How to control the skullful of mush to the best of our ability. It had many parallels to "The Inner Game of Tennis". We divided the brain into left and right. The left side is the thinking side. It analyzes. It has the logic. It has the language and the words. It has the math. It deals with sequence. It is the thinker. On the other side, the right side of the brain, you have the picture side. It hears music. It sees pictures. It is our imagination. It sees forms and patterns. It sets our body rhythm. It visualizes.

The title Chalk's Up is a key to switch between the two. Essentially the idea is that when you first look at the table you are seeing the table and looking for patterns, visualizing etc. You are using right brain. You then approach the table and pick up the chalk. This act is the key to switch from visualizing to thinking. When the Chalk's Up we can switch from the right side to the left side of the brain and analyze. This is done outside of the ball address zone which is an area of about 3' all around the table. This is the time to chalk. Listen to the chalk. This allows you to discard the other distractions. It allows you to focus. You are now trying to go out at least 3 balls and you are analyzing for speed, spin and angle. When you are done you make your decision and accept the decision 100%. This is key. You can now set down the chalk and that is your trigger to go from the left brain and back to right brain. We are now back to visualizing. See the shot. Hear the shot. Smell the shot. Feel the shot. You can now address the ball. If you get down and you can't answer yes to the following questions then get back up and start over. 1. Am I comfortable? 2. Is this where I want my tip? 3. Am I in line with this shot? If the answer to all three is yes then shoot.

To sum it up, after your opponent shoots or at the start you are outside the address zone. You look at the table and you visualize. You step into the address zone to retrieve the chalk and back right out of it. You are now outside the address zone again and the Chalk's Up--in your hand. You can now analyze. Consider speed, spin, and angle for 3 balls out(you can walk around the table while you do this but stay outside the address zone). Make your decision and accept it 100%. Set the chalk down and back out of the address zone. Now the chalk is down so you shift back to visualize. See, hear, feel, smell the shot in your mind. You can now address the ball and if everything says  "yes",  then shoot. Visualize, analyze, visualize, address, set pause,finish, freeze.

The next section was Choke syndromes. It covered when it happens, what causes it, and how to alleviate it. The situations where it happens were listed in order with the most common first. They are:

  1. last ball
  2. key ball
  3. great shot
  4. bad shape
  5. ball in hand
  6. attempting a break out
  7. combination
  8. "Lucky Guy"
They are fairly self explanatory except "Lucky Guy" This is where you make a slop shot and the comment "lucky shot" or something of that sort. Basically a shark. The reason for the list was to raise my awareness where it happens. Causes include changing your routine or adrenaline rush or both. The way to avoid is to see the potential and deal with it. If you feel the racing pulse in one of those situations that is the adrenaline. Try some deep breathing or take a drink of cool water. Either will calm you. Sticking to your normal pre-shot routine will also allow you to focus. Even if the shot is a duck, always treat it like a big shot.   Always go through the Chalk's up routine and decide where the cue ball will end up. This will allow you to refocus on the task at hand.

If you can get in the habit of going through the preshot routine, use the chalk's up switch (visualize, analyze, visualize), address, set, pause, finish, freeze then you can over time develop a rhythm. By developing this rhythm you increase your ability to enter and stay in the zone (dead stroke).

The next section was centergistics. It involves finding the center of the cue ball. Easier said than done. The key here is that the center of the ball is the core. The absolute middle of the ball. You can think you are aiming at the center of the ball but if the cue is not level you are probably not. Also, if your eyes are not properly aligned over the cue you are probably off center. The biggie here is when you are thinking center ball hit think about hitting the core of the ball. That pin point that is surrounded equally by ball on all sides. Being able to hit that center ball right on is imperative to good CB control.

Some neat observations. Beginners (that's me) tend to hit the balls and look at our targets like goal posts. We try to get between the posts. These posts are often the boundaries of the pockets. The experts shoot to a point. They focus much sharper and they shoot at the center point. Try this. Place the cue ball on the foot spot and place a coin on the second diamond with the edge of it near the edge of the rail so you are shooting straight across the table at the coin. The coin will jump off the table if you aimed properly. Now move the coin a spot up the table so you now have a slight angle. Do this all the way up the table. The normal tendency is to hit short. This is due to the fact that the aim point and contact point are separating. This drill is to give you a better reference for the edge of the ball as the angles change.

The drill for checking your ability to hit exact center ball is to set a stripe ball with the stripe vertical and parallel to the rail. Take your normal shot and the stripe should remain stable until the cloth begins to grip. It should not start out with forward or reverse spin.

The next section was speed control. The first thing we did is Tim had me shoot at my favorite, most comfortable speed about 1 tip above center on the vertical axis. I did this several times. The end position was then my "stroke speed". For me on my 9' with Simonis 860 it was foot spot to head rail back to foot rail and out to the second diamond. Most people are somewhere between the second and 4th diamond. We then set up the 2 ball at this spot and called my stroke speed 2 (foot spot to head rail to foot rail and back out to the second diamond). We then set up the other numbered balls at every other diamond. The 1 ball on the foot rail, the 3 ball at the side pocket, the 4 ball on the head string, the 5 ball on the head rail then down the other side we put the six ball on the head string, the 7 ball on the center pocket and so on to the 9 ball. Shooting from the foot spot the 1-5 balls are on the right side along the rail and the 6-9 are on the left side along the rail. Then we practiced shooting down the middle of the table with eyes closed trying to stop at a predesignated number all the time hitting with hardness relative to my stroke speed(2). I would also hit for a number and then before I could open my eyes I had to tell him where the ball stopped. The entire process here is geared to get you to shoot at or near you comfortable stroke speed and make adjustments off it.

Next session we will be covering how to shoot 90% of our shots at your stroke speed and also how to shoot at a speed less than 1.

The next session we will finish speed control. Then we will cover aim and focus, the stop shot, science and physics, and the break.

I had my third lesson on May 18th and the following is a synopsis of what we covered. We had left off the last lesson halfway through speed control. We had established my stroke speed and that was my centergistic (basis for comparison) for all speeds. After establishing my stroke speed we then established a scale of speeds which were more or less than my stroke speed. The next part of speed control was "finesse" speed. These are speeds which essentially require a shorter stroke which is controlled through the use of a shorter bridge. The shorter the bridge the softer the finesse stroke. We then went into covering a stroke called the short finish. Under BCA rules if you have 2 balls which are not frozen you can strike the cue ball and have a double hit on the tip and not be a foul as long as the tip of the cue does not enter the path of the object ball (can not go beyond the point of the nearest edge of the OB as it rests before the shot). This requires the short finish.

The objective of the short finish is to still have the same end point (same finish point) in the stroke as on a normal stroke but not allow the cue tip to go into the path of the OB as it rests before the shot. You are going to set the finish. You do this by getting down in your set with the grip hand already in the finish position and line up the tip of to the side of the CB with the tip short of the OB. You can then draw the tip back while staying in the set position, slide your bridge hand to align the tip with the CB, and now you are ready for your warm up strokes and the shot. You should be able to follow through to your normal finish position without going beyond the leading edge of the OB. The key here is to protect yourself from entering the path of the OB, allow for a double hit with no foul, and still take your stroke to the normal finish point in your stroke. I find that I tend to want to elevate the butt unless I think about it. This is not necessary unless there are obstructions.

The next item we covered under speed control was the "Roll and Pick". This is a technique which allows you to stay down on a shot without interfering with the CB. The standard drill is the straight draw with the CB coming back at the cue. After the stroke you stay in your finish position and rock your bridge onto the outside of your bridge hand which elevates the cue and allows the CB to roll under the cue. The entire time you stay in the finish position. You can use any variation of the roll which is necessary -- the key here is to stay down in your finish position and get the cue out of the way. The pick and roll is something which should be "thought about" during the chalks up phase before you approach the address zone. You will also find that you can develop a bit of a rhythm on this maneuver so that it is smooth and effective.

The next subject was Aim and Focus. Tim started by lining up two balls frozen and lined up for a corner pocket. He had me stand in one position at an angle to the line of the balls and he asked me where the balls were lined up in the pocket. He would move his finger to a point on the shelf of the pocket until I said yes. He would then have me move to another angle without moving the balls. We went through the same thing. We did this three times and every time the line of the balls looked a little different. The point of the exercise was to show me how the line of the balls seems to change depending on where the shooter stands. I thought it was fascinating if not somewhat humbling. I think all beginners struggle with the aim issue. I know I do. We talked about ghost ball theory and there was nothing real new there. For the beginners out there realize that given a constant position of the OB relative to a pocket the contact point is the same (assuming we want the OB to go in the same spot in the pocket) regardless of where the cue ball is on the table. He then gave me an exercise where you set up 4 balls on the same line to the pocket(same contact point) with each one progressively farther from the pocket. Shoot the 4 balls in the pocket starting with the ball closest to the pocket. Use a hole reinforcer to mark the CB position and when you feel good about that position use a different CB position but the same line for the OBs. The other variation is after getting comfortable with that line of OBs and their contact point (which is the same on all) then change the line of the OBs. Needless to say you could do this forever and this is where the word 'work' comes into practice. Like all the old heads here say -- You just have to sink thousands of balls. There are no shortcuts but this drill will give you some direction and will help you focus on striking the contact point from various areas on the table. The other idea is when you find a shot you have trouble with mark the spots and shoot it over and over again. One neat thing to remember is that all shots are straight shots (aside from the masses/curves). Once you find the contact point it is a straight shot.

A couple other items from this section were the importance of being able to find the center of the back of the pocket(which varies depending on the angle) and to focus on that point when visualizing the shot. Beginners natural tendency is to focus on the edges of the balls and the edges of the pocket. We look at them like goal posts whereas the shooters laser in on a point--thus the uncanny accuracy. We also went over the penny drill. Set a penny on the edge of the rail so the penny's edge is even with the edge of the rail (not hanging over). Do this at each diamond. Shoot the cue ball from the foot spot and go all the way around the table. The penny if you hit it correct will jump back and off the table. The angle changes as you go around the table and the aim and contact points separate as the angle increases. If the penny dribbles onto the rail or the table bed you missed. It should jump well off the table onto the floor. The normal tendency for beginners is to hit short--not separating the aim point and the contact point enough. My kids love this drill.

The next section we covered was titled The Most Important Shot. It is the stop shot. It is another centergistic (basis for comparison--frame of reference). As you strike slightly below center, the CB starts with backspin, then skids, then has top spin. The objective with the stop shot is to strike the object ball during the skid phase. Two items determine where this skid zone is--tip position and speed (assuming the cloth is constant). I was strongly encouraged to work towards using tip position when able and to work towards using my stroke speed as often as possible.
We talked about how spin reacts to the table. Vertical spin reacts with the table bed and horizontal spin reacts with the rails. If you use both at the same time whitey can real do some funny things. Tim hit some shots with a lot of spin combinations and a ton of spin and he had me nearly on the floor in laughter. I got the biggest kick out of the CB action he was able to get. We talked about how the CB stops on contact with the OB and then reacts to the cloth if there is spin on the ball. We went into some drills. One is to change tip position with constant speed to vary the length of the stop shot and the other is to use a constant tip position but change speed. The best solution when you play is to strive to shoot 90% of your shots with your stroke speed. You thereby eliminate one of the three shot variables (angle, speed, and spin).

We also set up another drill. Take 8 balls and set up a tunnel to a side pocket with the winning ball (8 or 9) in the center of the tunnel. You then set up an object ball straight out from the tunnel and shoot a straight shot from corner to corner with the objective to leave the CB with a stop shot so you have a shot down the tunnel. Set the CB at varying distances from the OB so you have to vary either tip position or speed to get the ball to stop. We are simply trying to get used to contacting the OB while the CB is sliding. Tim also showed me the stun and run which was essentially a full face shot with a ton of follow. The CB stop in it's tracks and wasn't sure what to do then took off like it was on fire. He had me laughing again.

Our next section was Science and Physics. This section revolved around the tangent line and also went into throw and deflection (squirt). Tim started by freezing 2 balls and sliding a business card between them at the point where the two balls made contact. The card was perpendicular to the line of centers of the 2 balls. The line the card made is what we were interested in. Meet The Tangent Line. Understanding the tangent line was the second most important shot in pool behind the stop shot. The tangent line is the centergistic for angle. The CB will always follow the tangent line--initially. If the CB has no follow or draw at impact (stop shot) then it will stay on the tangent line. If there is follow, the CB will start on the tangent line and as the spin grabs the cloth it will bend forward off the tangent line. Draw will do the opposite. If you hit the OB full face with no angle and no follow of draw with will sit on the tangent line. One minor but important point is that the leading edge of the CB will follow the tangent line. This is an important detail if you need pin point position or line.

Every shot consists of 3 elements which are considered in the Chalk's Up zone--Angle, Speed, and Spin. Each has it's centergistic. Angle=tangent line, Speed = stroke speed, Spin= center ball (the cue ball core). Tim recommended I attempt to work towards using only angle first, followed by speed second and spin last. In other words, strive for tangent line play with stroke speed and no spin. Change the speed when necessary and add spin last. Simpler the better.

We then went over some applications of the tangent line in dealing with shape, caroms, kisses, break outs, and multiple tangent line shots. The key was to recognize the line and how the CB reacts on it based on where the CB contacts in relation to a stop shot (during the slide).

One game we played as practice for the tangent line was reverse 8 ball. Break the rack and now you hit a stripe or solid but it has to carom off the cue ball and into the pocket. A good game to practice tangent line recognition and a good way to make your quarters last longer on those coin operated pay tables. Here is a hint. If your opponent fouls and you get ball in hand set the cue ball near a pocket and start running your object balls off the CB and into the pocket. Tim enlightened me to this tactic and I beat him with it. It's a fun game and cue ball control takes on a whole new meaning. So do combinations and rail shots. Don't tell the strangers around watching you what you are doing and they will start telling you how you are screwing up.

We then went into contact and english induced throw. We also covered the gearing effect. The way I understood the difference is these are things which happen to the OB but the CB still rides the tangent line. If you want to get forward or aft of the tangent line then you need follow or draw after contact. We looked at how to throw a frozen object ball (hit off the line of centers of the balls softly). We looked at how to pinch a center ball out of a three ball frozen combination using the gear effect with side english. The final point of the science and physics is if you understand the tangent line and how it relates to spin, speed, and angle then the shots available are only limited by one's imagination.

The last thing we covered under science and physics was deflection (squirt). It's been beat to death here so I won't even go into it. It is there, it is a factor any time you get off the vertical axis. The farther you get off the axis or the harder you hit the shot, or the longer the shot, the more you have to compensate. Tim's biggest hint here was to always shoot with the same stick. Get used to it. Your body will correct naturally after it has seen the deflection thousands of times. Every time you change sticks, you confuse your body's natural ability to compensate. He was quite adamant about not changing cues.

The final section of the lessons was the break. Tim has written a good article on this subject and it may be published in Pool and Billiard next month. He was not sure but had apparently submitted it. My workbook has the article and it is quite interesting. The objective is to transfer maximum energy to the rack. You do this by getting maximum cue ball speed but also by getting a full face hit on the 1 (in nine ball). Tim found that I tended to hit to the left of the 1 so I have to aim 1/3 ball to the right of the 1 and I usually hit it dead on. My breaks were being graded based on speed, CB control(you want center table), 1 ball control, and balls pocketed. My speed improved from 14 to 19mph and with the aim adjustment I started getting better control of the CB. I found that if I tightened up and started to get more speed my accuracy suffered. Sacrificing a little speed for a full face hit on the 1 is an important trade off because a little off on the one and you lose a lot of the energy transfer.

He also stressed as level a cue as possible and striking the CB at the zenith of the arc which is the bottom of the pendulum of the stroke which is also the point of maximum velocity. It is the sweet spot. Aim to strike the CB slightly below center.

My stance is more upright, my toes are pointed forward, my head is still, and try to relax. Your bridge arm should be approaching a 90 degree bend at the set, your bridge should be a couple inches longer than what you normally shoot with, take 3 or 4 long slow practice strokes and on the shot pause at the transfer and focus on you aim point. The key here is to be relaxed and controlled but to allow your body to snap your arm forward to generate maximum speed. Inhaling on the backstroke and exhaling on the forward stroke also helps. I have found that it took me a bit to get over the fear of hitting the ball so hard while focusing on the one ball. You have to trust your body on this. If you set up correctly the cue will take care of hitting the CB. It feels real good when it starts working.

Some pro stats. The women average 16-18 mph on their breaks and the men average 24-28. 1 in 33 breaks result in the 9 being made on the break. Tim and I got together for about 14 hours of 9 ball last week (2 different days) and we never made a 9 on the break. We played well over 80 racks. Go figure. That's about it. We played a bunch and covered many things which came up. I am grateful for that opportunity and it gave Tim a chance to critique me on some bad habits that had crept in. Such things as not staying down in the freeze long enough, not pausing on my backstroke, I had developed movement in my wrist which the pause solved, and a few other things. I also had a chance to listen to him verbalize his thought process during a couple of his runs. Truly fascinating. He couldn't talk fast enough for his thought process and I tried to follow it all.

That's about it. The entire process was a wonderful experience. I would recommend the same to anyone out there who is starting out and wants to improve their understanding of what is happening in this game. You'll learn a lot about yourself and you might even make a new friend.