Top Tips for Becoming a Better Pool Player
For the purposes of this article, I am referring to the English 8 Ball Pool 'old' rules. Although they are no longer used at professional levels, they are still in frequent use within pool leagues and in pubs and bars. For the most part, these tips will benefit novices playing either old or new rules—there are just a couple of instances where the tips will not work with the new rules.
Additionally, as this article is based on my own experience of playing pool both for fun and in leagues as a member of various teams over a number of years, I have used reds and yellows for the balls, as opposed to spots and stripes because these are in more frequent use in the United Kingdom.
The game is played on a rectangular 6-pocket table with 15 balls plus a cue ball, which consists of two different sets of 7-coloured balls. Usually red replaces stripes (9–15), yellow replace solid (1–7) and a black (also known as the 8 ball). Balls in the two coloured groups are known as object balls.
The player or team pocketing all their group of object balls in any order, and then legally pocketing the 8 ball, wins the game.
You can find a complete list of the 'old' rules here.
Note: These tips will be most useful for those players who are currently playing at the amateur level (as opposed to professional), or who are fairly new to the game and simply want some tips to raise the standard of their game in order to begin winning frames on a regular basis.
Choose your cue carefully, even if only using a pub cue. Check the tip is not loose or worn down unevenly. Lay the cue on the pool table and roll it across the table.
If the cue is straight—which is what you want—it will roll smoothly. If it is bent or warped, it will quickly be obvious by the way the tip appears to move up and down as the cue rolls. If you prefer a heavier cue over a lighter one (or vice versa), then narrow down your final choices by weighing them off against each other, holding one in each hand.
If the shaft of the cue is highly varnished, it may become 'sticky' when you play. So carry a fine grade piece of sandpaper with you at all times to sand down the shaft and remove the varnish. (Rubbing some chalk onto the area at the base of your thumb and index finger can reduce any potential sticking of the cue.)
Holding the Cue
The way each player holds a cue varies considerably. But in my own experience, I find the most successful method is to treat the shaft of the cue like the sight of a gun. In other words, when you are lining up your shot have the shaft of the cue virtually (or even actually) nestling on the bottom of your chin, so you are looking right down the length of the cue.
Too often, I see novice players virtually standing straight or bolt upright when taking their shot, and then wondering why they miss the pot they were aiming for. Watch how snooker players take a shot and copy their body position. Keep the cue as horizontal as possible. It is not at all unusual to see players holding the butt end of the cue at a much higher level than the tip. This can cause problems with accuracy, power behind the shot and tearing the cloth on the table with the cue tip.
It is also very important how you support the front end of the cue as you take your shot. Again, a common mistake—I am sad to say I see most often in lady players—is to rest the hand flat on the table and slide the cue over the thumb and index finger whilst these are still tightly pressed together. The ideal position is to spread your fingers and form your hand into a very slightly raised 'cage' on the table. Lift your thumb slightly into the air, and use the side of the thumb as the rest for your cue to slide across. (See illustrations.)
This may be a personal preference to some degree, but I have to say few players I have ever met either in pool or snooker like to use blue chalk for their cue. Green chalk is far more popular it would appear, possibly because it stays on better. Although most pubs and bars seem to provide blue chalk on the table, most players bring their own green chalk and use it instead. For the few pence it costs to buy a cube of green chalk, I highly recommend you always carry some with you in case there is none available at the venue when you arrive.
Remember to chalk your cue before every shot, making sure the chalk moves and not the cue as you apply it. It is incredibly frustrating to take a shot and hear that annoying 'click' as the cue tip slips off the ball, commonly known as a miscue. This can muck up your intended shot completely or even give two shots away to your opponent if it results in a foul. This can be easily avoided by remembering to use your chalk constantly.
It's not something I am personally very fond of, but when I have to I try to use a heavy cue with a large tip—as opposed to my personal cue which is light with a 9mm tip—I always place the cue ball just to the right of the of the D. Keeping the cue as horizontal as possible, I then take a few warm-up backward and forward movements of the cue across my left hand, before hitting as hard as I can on the centre of the cue ball, whilst aiming at the top, central and therefore nearest coloured ball in the rack.
Usually, if I am lucky, this pays off and I pot a ball or two. At the very least, I split the pack and rarely put the white (cue ball) in off the break. Given the choice, I tend to let my opponent break though, my thoughts being to 'let them make a mistake first' or at least leave me with the choice of colours hopefully.
Note: This is very different to the standard snooker 'D' break, where you aim to hit a red on one of the furthest corners of the triangle and then come off cushions in order to bring the white back up the table into the 'D' area.
Assess the Balls on the Table
Before you go rushing in to your next shot, always walk right around the table at least once. Look at the position of the balls on the table. If you can, try to think which ball is the best to go for based on the following shots you plan to take (or what you are likely to leave for your opponent if your shot goes wrong).
In other words, as a novice, try to be thinking at least two or three shots ahead. This will enable you to plan the speed you hit the cue ball and whereabouts on the ball you strike it, especially if you are planning to pot several balls in a row.
If you have any doubts as to if you can 'see' the object ball you plan to hit, then crouch down until you are at eye level with the table, and look at the line of your shot from the white (cue) ball through to the object ball. If you can't see the object ball, either choose another or plan an alternative way of striking that ball, e.g. off a cushion or by deliberately colliding with another of your balls first.
Choosing Your Shot
Novices are frequently tempted to always go for the obvious pots, e.g. the ball hanging over the pocket. Unless you are confident that there are enough pots you can follow this one with to put you way ahead of your opponent or even clear up, then leave your ball over the pocket to 'cover' it. By covering the pocket with your ball you are preventing your opponent from potting one of their balls into this pocket. If they accidentally do pot your ball during the game you will at least gain two shots from the penalty they receive as a result. In an ideal game you will end up with all your balls either over or near the pockets and can then clear up, (although the frame rarely pans out exactly like this in practice).
The game plan that works best for me (and many other players), is to play a safety game until you are confident you can clear up, or at least have gained two shots from your opponent in order to give you a better chance of clearing extra balls until you run out of shots, and then you can play a further 'safety' shot, or snooker them by placing the cue ball in a position where the opponent cannot 'see' any of their own colours and will have to play off one or more cushions in order to hit one of their colours and not give you two shots. Naturally you want them to give you two shots so the advantage is in your favour. What I am trying to say here is that the 'slowly slowly catchy monkey' approach is best unless you are a naturally fantastic and confident potter.
This is advice that mostly only works in the English 8 Ball Pool Old Rules because in new rules you can't simply roll the cue ball up behind one of your own colours so it just touches and snookers your opponent on their own ball. In new rules this would be a foul based on the fact no ball hit a cushion during the shot.
How Hard to Hit the Cue Ball
A frequent mistake I see on the pool table is the player whacking the ball far harder than the shot requires. If you don't know where the cue ball is going to end up, you put yourself in a dangerous position. Only use as much power as you need for the shot you are taking. Otherwise, the white ball may end up in the pocket, may hit an opponent's ball and pot that too or you could put the black down halfway through the frame and lose the match as a result.
One of the most annoying things I see are players who are already 'on' the black go for the pot, wallop it in at full pace (apparently because they think it looks flashy) and then the white ball merrily bowls its way into another pocket, losing them the frame. More often than not, a gentler touch would still have potted the black. Although the 'pizazz', cheers and adulation from other players or onlookers might not have been as exciting, the frame would have at least been safely won and 'in the bag'.
Only Use the Amount of Force You Need
Remember, only use as much power as you absolutely need to, unless you want to bring the white back up the table for your next shot, e.g. screw back, side, top, etc.
Don't 'Hit and Hope'
Many novice players have a bad habit wherein when they have no other obvious shot is available, they go down the 'hit and hope' route. Basically, they whack any ball of their own colour as hard as they can and simply hope the result is a good one for them.
Unfortunately, this is very risky and not an advisable course of action. The far better choice would be to play a safety shot, such as a snooker, or at least a shot that reduces the chances of your opponent getting a chance to clear the table on their next visit.
Use the Cross Rest
If you encounter a shot you are struggling to reach for, use the rest. This is far more likely to be successful than you teetering precariously on your tip toes and attempting to make a good contact with the cue ball.
The rest is not that difficult to use, as long as you remember it is only replacing your thumb as the support for the front end of your cue. Treat the rest as a spare arm. Place it in the desired position on the table, and leave the butt end laying on the baize (cloth) whilst you hold it in place with your left hand (assuming you are a right-handed pool player). With your other hand, carefully place your cue in the 'cross' on the end of the rest. Adjust the direction of the rest with your left hand, line up your shot and take it as normal.
When you do use the rest, remember to quickly lift it vertically from the pool table after you have taken the shot. This will ensure you do not find another ball on the table makes contact with it after the cue ball is in motion, nor will you inadvertently hit another ball with it as you remove it from the baize.
Watch Your Opponent
This won't change your game, but it might increase the number of games you win. Whilst you might be like me, honest, and therefore admit if you accidentally touch a ball with your hand when lining up your shot—thus giving away two shots to your opponent—they might not always be so honest. And if you aren't using a referee, then it is down to you to point out or remind your opponent they have fouled and claim your shots.
Most players will at least have the good grace to agree they fouled and give you the two shots, even if they claim not to have realised they did it. Remember, even if their T-shirt or their long hair touches a ball, they have fouled and should give you two shots. I knew one girl who was quite large breasted, and, sadly for her, giving away two shots happened to her quite frequently as a result. It seemed a bit unfair really . . . but that's the rules.
On the Black
Assuming you get as far as the black ball and it isn't an easy pot (e.g. it is sitting on the cushion), then don't think: 'What the hell, I'll give it a wallop, as it might just go in a pocket by accident'. This is such a risky strategy that it is crazy.
The most likely result is that it won't go into a pocket and you will leave it over a pocket where your opponent will quickly take advantage and clear his remaining balls and then put down the black. The safer option is to leave the black on the cushion where the onus is then on the other player to 'make a mistake' when they attempt to pot it later on.
With a bit of luck, they might end up giving you two shots. In which case, you have two attempts on the black and will most likely pot it and take the frame.
My Experience Playing Pool
I hope these tips will prove useful to those of you looking to improve your game. They are based on my 25 years of playing English Pool (with a bit of snooker thrown in along the way).
I used to play pool for a pub in Kent where the landlord had previously played for the England Pool Team. Whilst I could never hope to compete with this man who I frequently saw win pool matches for large amounts of money—often simply using a broom handle one-handed to prove a point—he certainly gave many of us 'regulars' great advice and tips on how to improve our standards of pool playing.
I would love to say I can still play as well today as I did then (some 15 years later). But not having the time to practice as much as I used to, my game is not at the high standard I used to achieve. Luckily, the same tips still apply. And I know if I devoted some months of practice to this sport, I would be able to return to the previous form I used to achieve on a daily basis. Meanwhile, I now play for a Guernsey Pool Team and love every minute of it. Plus, it is a great night out, and we all enjoy the social aspect of this weekly winter event.