Knowing how to work the cue ball from one end of the table to the other, or back and forth, won’t be enough to carry you through challenging match play. By learning to think ahead, you can quickly develop a more well-rounded game in the area of position play.
After learning some fundamental position and pattern play, it’s time to spruce things up with some mental tricks that you can employ in any pool game you play. Keeping these in the back of your mind as you plan your runs will allow you to visualize easier position plays and will aid you in mapping your table situation.
Thinking backward is planning ahead in reverse, and it is an ideal strategy for games such as 8-Ball and 9-Ball because you begin with the game-winning ball and work backward from there. In 8-Ball, you’ll decide the best place to be to pocket the game ball, then you’ll decide which ball will get you there the easiest, then which ball will get you to that one, and so on through the rack. In 9-Ball, it’s even easier. Where must you be on the 8-ball to get to the 9-ball? Where must you be on the 7-ball to get to that spot on the 8-ball? By thinking back from the desired end of your game, you can often see potential problems more easily and adjust your plan from the beginning.
Here’s an example: You break a rack of 9-Ball, pocket two balls, and have a clear shot on the 1-ball with an easy track to the 2-ball. But looking first at the 9-ball, and then the 8-ball, you discover a potential problem getting from the 7-ball to the 8-ball, or perhaps a 5-6 cluster. If you run those first few easy balls, you might not have a way to continue, leaving just a few balls for your opponent! Once you’ve made a backward map of your table, you’ll know better how to proceed with a well-planned run to avoid the trouble—or with a more timely safety if the trouble is insurmountable.
Shrink the Table
There are times when mapping the table will seem overwhelming, especially when you are playing on unfamiliar equipment or bigger tables. But no matter what size table you practice on, by visualizing the table stopping 6 inches (15.2 cm) in from each cushion, you can effectively “shrink” the size of the playing area and open up your position play options. This benefits your game in more ways than one. Besides the psychological advantage, using this strategy will help you to keep your cue ball off the rail unless you fully intend to put it there (to shoot a long stop shot along the rail, for example). Playing position from the rail always limits your options because you’ll be forced to shoot high on the cue ball. Center ball, stop shots, and draw shots are nearly impossible with the cue ball resting against the cushion. Hint: If your cue ball lands on or near the cushions often, you’ll know immediately that your speed control needs some work.
No matter how proficient your table-mapping skills are, sometimes you just won’t be sure where to head next. No worries, it happens to all players, especially in long sessions (when fatigue sets in) or on particularly stubborn layouts. The best way to eliminate the doubt is to head for the center of the table. Whenever you’re in trouble, think you’re in trouble, or just plain don’t know what to do next, the best place to have your cue ball arrive is at or near the center of the table. From the center, you’ll usually have more avenues available from the cue ball to other object balls, and it’s generally an easy place to get to from most other places on the table. This also gives you an automatic destination to fall back on when you’re confused.
From the center of the table, you’ll naturally have a shorter shot. With the cue ball in the center of the table, your next shot will never be more than a half table’s length away, making it simpler to see and hit your next object ball. Being closer to the ball means you will probably be able to assume your normal stance and use your normal bridge. It also enables you to avoid the problems already discussed regarding getting stuck too close to a cushion.
Learning to maneuver your cue ball to the table’s center is also a fantastic way to practice. Try shooting every shot with the intention of having your cue ball arrive back in the middle of the table. This exercise demands excellent cue ball control and will reward you with increased position play skills.
Don’t Get Sideswiped
Naturally, if the layout of the table is such that the side pocket is an easy route to the next shot, you should use the side pocket. But if you have other options, there are good table-mapping reasons why the corner pockets are more favorable than side pockets. First, the corner pocket has a larger target area. The rail arm extending from a corner pocket is about one and a half times the length of the rail arm extending from a side pocket. In addition, the angle at which the rail arm is extended from a corner pocket is more open, allowing it to be approached from many different positions on the table. The side pocket opening, even though it’s actually larger than the opening for a corner pocket, narrows considerably at sharper angles of approach. When the target is generous, you have more angle choices; you can choose to aim at any part of the pocket that is available to you. This provides different angles and assists your positioning strategy (cheating the pocket). The closer the object ball is to the pocket, the more choices you have. In fact, when the ball is close enough, you can change a cut to the left into a cut to the right or go straight into a rail first!
Second, you are limited in a side pocket cut by the direction that the cue ball can take. If you have a left cut into the side pocket, the cue ball is going to the right half of the table whether you use center ball, draw, or follow. In a corner pocket, however, the simple choice of draw or follow can move the cue ball in opposite directions.
Let Your Opponent Take the Risks
Patience in your pool game doesn’t just apply to learning; it applies to nearly every game you play. Think of yourself as a hunter, with the rack as your prey. Stealth may be required as you wait for the right moment to pounce. We’ve said it before, and we’ll repeat it often: When no clear shot presents itself, it’s time to plan for a later attack. That means it’s time to play safe.