Billiards Basics: Play Pool Like Minnesota Fats

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 11, 2010 · 16 comments

in Manly Skills

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from James Bringman.

“I got a hunch it’s me from here on in. One ball, corner pocket. I mean, that ever happen to you? You know, all of a sudden you feel like you can’t miss? ‘Cause I dreamed about this game, fat man. I dreamed about this game every night on the road. Five ball. You know, this is my table, man. I own it.” – Fast Eddie

You’ve just finished watching The Hustler and all the high stakes action has got you pumped to hit your local pool hall to move the rock with the best of them. Problem being you haven’t touched the felt since your college rec room days and need to get some oil back in that stroke and make the cue an extension of your arm. Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling so you can strike up the next local tournament league play or maybe just hustle a few bucks from some of the suckers in the joint.

Choosing Your Cue

Getting back into most sports often requires purchasing a few basic necessities, and buying your own cue is a great way to keep you motivated towards the game. But, if you’re short on funds or are somewhat hesitant about spending money on something that may end up just gathering dust, the house cue is for you.

House Cue

As the name implies, house cues are provided by the pool hall and can be found hanging up in the racks on the wall for your choosing. Most house cues, unfortunately, are extremely abused and damaged in more ways than one, so when searching for a cue, try to inspect a few areas of the stick to ensure you get the best shot possible.

  • Check the tip for wear. The more leather the better. Try to find one with at least ¼ inch of leather to it. Avoid ones worn down to the nub.
  • Place the cue on an empty table and roll it from one rail towards another while inspecting how warped the shaft is (and trust me, they’re all warped so go with the lesser of evils).
  • A heavier stick helps steady your hand and keep your stroke controlled. It helps with beginners and bigger guys. Some cues will be marked with the weight in ounces, so shoot for around 20 oz. if you can, or just pick a few out and go by feel.

Maybe you have some cash that’s really burning a hole in your pocket or you’re thinking about joining a league and can’t settle with an ordinary house cue. This is the time to purchase a personal cue.

Personal Cue

Now here is where you’ll find the most trouble, picking out a cue that will bring your game up a notch but you don’t know where to start and the price ranges are staggering. Remember, the most important thing is getting a cue you feel comfortable with. Always make sure the weight and the stroke feel good to you and test it out on a table if you can, or check for a return policy in case it doesn’t work out.

  • For beginner players looking for a decent stick, stay in the price range of $50-$175. Intermediate players around $300. And if you’re an advanced player, get whatever you want, you’re good enough.
  • Few things evoke manliness like threading together a two-piece wood cue. Stay away from aluminum and composites, if possible. Standard length is usually 57 inches long but the pros swear by 58 inches.
  • Be sure that the fit between the pieces is tight and secure when fully threaded. Also, a nice evenly rounded leather tip will give you a good strike on the ball.
  • Designs are more a matter of personal taste. Irish linen wrap? No wrap at all? Pearl inlays? Hardwood inlays? The options are nearly limitless. Get something that catches your eye and you would like to be seen playing with (when asked on several occasions how much my cue was, other players have been shocked to find out it was only $100).
  • Cues with at least a 1-year warranty against warping or breaking are a plus.
  • A few brands to look for are Cuetec, Players, McDermott, and Predator. (Note: Sneaky Pete’s are well-made two-piece cues that are meant to look like standard house cues. Pick up one of these and start your pool hustling career faster than you can spell M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A F-A-T-S.)

Case

If your new cue didn’t come with one, get one. Enough said.

Custom Cue

If you spend several thousands of dollars on a custom cue, hang it up on the wall in your billiards room, and admire its beauty, that’s all it’s really good for. Accidents happen sometimes in pool halls and damaging a piece of wood that expensive isn’t worth the trouble. Or worse, it gets stolen.

Perfecting Your Game

It takes balls to be a good pool player.

The new cue stick is packed in its case and carried over your shoulder as you strut into the dimly lit room ready to run a few sets. But you don’t have a table at home, and your game is a little rusty. Here are three things to remember when practicing your technique.

Position

  • Positioning your body in-line with the ball is key to making a good shot. So step back, visualize the angle, and then approach the table with your cue at hip level, making a directing line from cue ball to object ball.
  • Keep your eye on the ball.
  • Lower yourself to the table, like you’re staring straight down the eye of the cue ball.

Bridge

Your bridge hand should take one of two forms: The Open-Handed Bridge and the Closed Bridge.

  • An open-handed bridge is when you cup your hand on the table and place the shaft of the cue stick in the groove between your thumb and index finger. This is typically used for easier shots that don’t need any fancy spin or “English” placed on the cue ball.
  • A closed bridge is when you touch your thumb to your middle finger, place the cue across those two fingers just above the thumb knuckle, and wrap the index finger over, creating a neat and stable bridge for more accented shots.
  • Try to position your bridge hand 6-8 inches from the cue ball. The closer you are, the less room for error in your stroke
  • Continue to keep your eye on the ball.

Stroke

This is generally the hardest skill to develop, but with a lot of practice, and I mean hours upon hours of practice, you’ll be playing the long ball day in and day out with perfect accuracy.

  • With the cue stick still hovering around your hip, be sure your back hand grips the butt of the stick, about 1-2 inches from the end, with just your thumb and index finger (add the middle finger if you need a little more muscle behind the shot).
  • Aim dead center and bring the tip of the cue within an inch of the cue ball. Pull your stroke back slowly, and steadily bring it forward within an inch of the ball again. Keep your body and shoulders still; your back arm should only be moving at the hinge of your elbow.
  • Do this as many times as it takes until you feel comfortable taking the shot; with your eye still on the cue ball and the object ball in sight, make sure to feel out the cue and work on a steady and straight stroke all the way through.
  • When you’re ready to strike the ball, follow through with the shot. You want to stroke it, not poke it. Good house tables have fast playing felt so you never really need to hammer the ball. Don’t sacrifice accuracy for the sake of power. Practice shooting the ball as soft as you can to get an idea of how the table rolls.
  • And finally, after you take the shot, stay low to the table. Do not stand up immediately. Wait until the cue ball makes contact with the object ball and sinks into the pocket and then rise from your lowered position and step back from the table.

Like everything manly that is worth doing, a lot practice will improve your game. Pool halls are one of the few places where a man can escape in solitude and run a few racks to relieve a tough day at the office or invite the boys out for a few games, drinks, and possibly some gentlemanly wagers. Remember, good players usually don’t want to be beat, so be wary of the sharks and hustlers that try to give you some advice; it’s usually bogus and is an attempt to lure you into a “friendly” game that ends with you making several trips to the ATM. And, who knows? All of this newfound knowledge might earn you a manly new nickname at the tables like Fast Eddie, St. Louie Louie, Minnesota Fats, Toupee Jay, or Boston Shorty.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JG October 11, 2010 at 11:35 pm

A nice video demo would be compliment the text (though any search on YouTube brings hundreds of demos). A good add to the manliness at AOM. Thank you.

2 BG October 11, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I’ve always loved playing pool, me and an old friend of mine used to play in the youth center at a church we went to. Of course the cues were abused and often didn’t have any tips at all. However If I had bothered to look up this information back then, I think I would’ve pulled out a few more wins. Great advice! Thanks for the info.

3 Robbo October 12, 2010 at 12:47 am

Thanks for the tips on stance and position, I think it will help my game a lot. What I’d like more information on however is how to work the angles on the balls you want to pocket i.e. where on the ball should the cue hit if I want it to go into a certain pocket. That seems to be the part of the game I struggle most with.

4 Adventure-Some Matthew October 12, 2010 at 8:09 am

Oh, how I miss a good game of pool. When younger, I spent many hours with Dad at the pool hall shooting around. If only I had kept up the practice!

There is some great advice in this post, now I just have to find somewhere to put it into practice.

5 Trojanhorse October 12, 2010 at 10:10 am

Nice to see pool mentioned on here, it’s a great game and one that you can play practically your whole life.

On choosing a house cue – the MOST IMPORTANT thing by far is not the straightness, or the weight, but the tip’s curvature. You want it to have the radius of a quarter, not to be flat. And you want it to be slightly roughed up so that it holds chalk, not to be shiny like a leather mirror. If you’re going somewhere with crappy cues, bring a tip shaper (purchased for a few bucks at any good pool hall) or a bit of medium grit sandpaper, and dress your own tip. You’ll be amazed what a difference this makes.

To avoid some common beginner pitfalls – chalk the tip before EVERY shot. Make it a habit. I keep a chalk in my bridge-hand pocket, and reach in and grab it while I’m sizing up my shot. Finally, when you do apply the chalk, don’t just drill the cue into it. Brush it on, and look at the tip to make sure you’ve covered it completely.

Robert Byrne is a guru of billiards, and I highly recommend his books for anyone looking to get started or improve their game. http://www.amazon.com/Byrnes-Standard-Book-Pool-Billiards/dp/0156005549

Happy shooting!

6 Byron Cobb October 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I routinely train and evaluate pilots for a major cargo airline and this notebook will enhance my note taking… And further an awesome interface with professional pilots.

7 Campy October 12, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I would have thought, unless I missed it, you would have discussed a proper rack.

8 Edge of David October 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

So many nuances to picking a cue I never considered. I still to this day can not beat my 60 yr old dad at pool.

9 Karl October 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Any tips on how to line up those angled shots? The straight ones seem simple enough, but when I find it a lot harder when I need to bounce the cue ball off the edge or shoot shots at angels. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

10 Dave October 13, 2010 at 3:26 am

From my experience, shooting at angles just takes practice. Lots. As for “bank shots” off the edge, it depends a bit on where you are playing. In a real pool hall with good tables, you can get a reliable bank shot. If you’re playing in a bar, I would normally do what I can to avoid making a bank shot because the edges can be old or damaged, and what you get for a rebound is unreliable.

Using spin to adjust your bank shots is another thing that takes practice, but it also is tricky to rely on unless you know the table is decent quality.

11 Rob October 18, 2010 at 12:01 am

Angles are pretty simple once you learn one aiming trick: Imagine where the cueball needs to end up just as it strikes the object ball in order to put it in the pocket. It will need to be in a straight line between itself and the pocket running straight through the object ball. If you’re just practicing, its very helpful just to take another ball and place it next to the one you’re aiming at with both balls lined up straight towards the pocket your shooting for. This exercise will make it a lot easier to visualize where you need to aim.

As for bank shots, even on a good table the angles aren’t always the same. It depends on how hard you shoot. The harder the ball hits the rail, the less of an angle it will come back off of it. This can be especially helpful to know and use when you have a bank shot that would otherwise end up double kissing the cue ball if shot at normal speed. Just try hitting some bank shots at varying speeds and you’ll see what I mean.

Robert Byrne’s book on learning the game is great for all kinds of tips and techniques if you want to take your game to the next level.

Hope this helps.

12 Viktor T October 18, 2010 at 4:17 am

I just wanted to say that I tried out two of your suggestions tonight, which has been a few weeks since I have played a game of pool. The two suggestions I tried were holding the stick close to the end, about an inch or two away, with the thumb and index finger, and keeping my eye about on level with the cue ball. I could get quite as low as level with the ball and the table, but I got a lot lower than I usually. These two improved my game immensely. I was usually fairly average at pool; I could make some tricky shots to impress, but I was so wildly inconsistent that I was never a good player, but man just those two suggestions at once improved my game so much. I still have trouble in places, so I cannot say I am all that good or done practicing, but at least now I have an idea for what I want in terms of consistency and how it can be achievable.

Great article!

13 Gary T October 18, 2010 at 6:18 am

These pointers are fairly boilerplate, and mostly come with simple common sense; sure they are some the first things you need to know, but mostly useless for someone who has been at it for a while.
What is the true core of being a good pool player is the intuitive eye that tells the player what angle a target ball will take off at given a glancing strike from the cue ball.
This is something that cannot be learned from a book or words alone, much like being a good bowler, it has to be rehearsed and practiced until one’s spatio-visual map of what type of cueball strike results in what type of angled rebound.
Once you have that down, you have 90% of the game mastered. Some never get it down, because it is something that on the level of athletic talent, which some people simply don’t have.

14 Larry October 25, 2010 at 12:25 am

Good tips in the article. But a couple of points need more emphasis. First, there’s no such thing as ‘too much chalk’. Chalk up before every shot. Use the time you spend chalking up to get your thoughts together and analyze the shot. It’s a very casual way to take the necessary time to figure out what you’re going to do with your shot.

Second, make sure that you always carry either a tip shaper with you, or carry a piece of sandpaper in your wallet. If you’re playing ‘off the wall’ you’ll find that the tips are generally crap. If you don’t shape the tip, you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage. Because your opponent, if he’s a serious player, will definitely be putting the optimum shape on his tip. If you’re really serious about your game, buy a good stick and forget about playing off the wall.

15 Teri March 10, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Ok. So I’m a woman and I visited and read about manliness, does this make me part man? LOL! Sorry, couldn’t help it. Was Googling on where to find a sewing pattern (a little more womanly there) for a pool cue carrying case and came across this. More and more women are playing billiards, I, myself, have been playing since my teens (now nearing the dreaded 50). Great tips in this article, but have found that a truly good player can play well and win most, if not all, games on any table with any stick (minus the sticks without tips of course). I have won against countless men who have come in with their own custom sticks using only the barroom (or pool hall) sticks.

16 Matt Graham July 29, 2013 at 10:04 am

Thanks Art Of Manliness. Just bought a table, and have been struggling to make progress. After reading this, I’ll give it a renewed effort.

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