In billiards, as in any other sport, the ability to do the spectacular comes only after one has practiced and mastered the basic fundamentals of the game. What separates the good from the great is often more a matter of the time one has devoted to mastering the basics, than due to major differences in athletic ability.
Pool, in many ways, is like the game of golf, where professionals routinely strike unbelievable shots. Just as champion pool players routinely run racks, while beginners-- even those blessed with immense physical talents-- struggle to string together more than a few balls. And why? Why such disparity? How can something they make look so easy, so routine, be so damn difficult for the everyday player? The answer is simple: practice. Not on miraculous triple-bank trick shots, but on the basic fundamentals of the game.....
Stance, Grip, Bridge, Stroke.
The foundation upon which every player's game sputters, dies, or magnificently blossoms. Think of pool in the context of an equally skilled calling: the development of an aspiring concert pianist. Like a run of 200 balls, the most breathtaking melodies have emerged from the establishment of basic fundamentals.....Posture. Technique. Motor training and coordination. Decades of commitment. Musical absorption. Practicing the same scales in endless repetition, over and over again.
Thankfully, pool is not (quite) as demanding. Yet, becoming skilled in the basic fundamentals of pool is no less crucial than in any other highly skilled arena. People don't simply becomes champions overnight. Incredible feats in any sports are invariably the results of years of training. Granted, not every pool player aspires to be a champion. But most, if not all, would be greatly encouraged if their game showed continued improvement. God knows, practicing the basics--in anything--can be pretty damn boring. But once you become engrained, every aspect of your game--from applying English, to position play-- will be simplified. The fundamentals aren't merely prerequisites for improvements; they are the foundation upon which every player's game stands or falls. Without that foundation, even the world's greatest players would be little more that everyday strokers, struggling to set up their next shot.
The importance of a proper stance cannot be over-emphasized. When you have it, every aspect of your game becomes simplified. You are comfortable, relaxed, firm on your feet and, above all else--well-balanced. Without a correct stance, even the simplest stroke becomes a twisting and gnashing of unnecessary muscles. Your feet become unsteady, your center unbalanced, and your muscles strain to correct the imbalance, resulting in an imperfect stroke.
Obviously, stance is very important. If you expect the other mechanics of your game to operate smoothly, it is imperative to have proper balance at the table. The keys to a proper stance are balance and comfort. Since no two people have exactly the same body type or physique, a good stance is often a matter of personal preference. When watching top professionals, you'll see many differences in foot placement, degree of bend, and height of the head above the pool cue. All their stances, however, are built upon the same principal: to stroke smoothly, fluidly and evenly, stance must be comfortable and balanced.
While your stance can be certainly be an expression of your individuality, there are basic principles that must be adhered to. First, your feet should be spread wide enough, so that a nudge (from any angle) won't knock you off balance. Weight should be evenly distributed from one foot to the other.
You should be comfortable enough to bend your knees slightly, or lift out of your stance freely and easily. The position of your feet is equally important. With the exception of certain close-up or stretched over the table shots, both feet should be pointed in the same direction. Many aspects of stance will vary to a degree, even amoung professional players. Some say you should stand 10-12 inches from the table. Of course, this often varies with the nature of the shot, depending on where the cue ball is located. The important thing is to establish a consistent stance, one which will allow you to develop a consistent stroke. One balanced and comfortable, giving freedom of movement, allowing you to strike shots without pinching or stretching.
The same principles hold true for shots that require you to alter your stance. Whether you have to stretch across the able or squeeze close to the rail, balance is equally important. If your stance ever becomes unsteady when setting up for a shot--if you begin to tip or slip from your stance--pull off the shot and make adjustments. If you can not attain a balance, don't play a bad shot. Reconfigure your stance and try a practice stroke, or use the mechanical bridge.
The positioning of the head is another aspect of the stance that varies from player to player. Some players stand more erect than others, with their chin several feet above the shaft of the cue. Others bend so much, the hairs on the chin practically whistle against it. Most players fall between the two extremes. The important thing to considering the positioning of your head is how it enhances (or screws up) your aim. Many players feel that the lower they get the better they can see the cue ball in relation to the object ball. Others feel that getting to close makes it difficult to see the contact point of the object ball. A safe starting point is to start somewhere in the middle, with your chin about a foot from the shaft. From there, you can adjust slightly up or down, until you determine where you feel the most comfortable and effective.
Despite the many variations in pool stance, there is basic principles virtually all the greatest players agree upon. First and foremost, of course, is balance. Without a balanced stance, none of the other mechanics will merge into a unified whole. Feet should be spread to a comfortable level, with weight evenly distributed. They should also be planted firmly on every shot (even when stretching or using the mechanical bridge). The distance one stands from the table should always allow for a free-flowing stroke. Front arm should be extended and straight (or nearly straight), with the bridge hand planted firmly on the table. The chin should be aligned, directly over the cue. Posture (amount of bend) should be comfortable and based on effectiveness--on the effect it has on consistently producing a smooth, even stroke. Whether standing nearly erect, bending profusely, or assuming a stance in between, the back arm should flow freely in a pendulum stroke, keeping the cue stick level. Finding the stance that fits one's game is often a matter of trial and error.
For beginners, the simplest way is often to try a basic stance, then modify it through practice and play. begin by standing erect, one foot from the table, facing the direction of your shot. With your weight evenly distributed, turn both feet slightly to the right (for right-handed players), and bend slightly at the waist, to a comfortable position. Your feet should be 6-8 inches apart. Your chin should be directly over your cue. This stance will allow your right arm to swing freely and your left arm to be extended as straight as possible. Your left knee will be bent a bit more that your right, and your body will be free to move slightly forward with the stroke.
The proper grip of a pool cue is not as obvious as it may seem. it is not a matter of merely grasping it somewhere on the butt end, and tightening the grip to maximize impact. If anything, the proper grip is one of delicacy and "lightness." Choking the cue with a muscle-man's grip will destroy touch, control and accuracy, and the very ability to shoot fluidly and straight. The key to using the proper grip is simple: cradle gently, relax and let your stroke flow freely. An effective pool stroke is hardly a matter of brute strength, but a product of smooth, controlled motion. The "where" and "how" of your grip on a pool cue are equally important. Where you grip the cue will affect stance and balance, and your ability to stroke freely and smoothly. How you grip your cue will affect every aspect of shot-making: touch, follow-through, accuracy and control.
Perhaps the easiest way to determine where to grip your cue is to begin by locating the cue's balance point. This point on a cue (like the middle of the teeter-totter) on which the cue can be balanced by a single finger. After locating the balance point, slide your grip 3-6 inches down the butt end (the thicker end) of the cue. This should serve as a starting point to which you can alter with practice, until you find the exact point most comfortable with you.
The more you play, the more you'll realize that where you grip your cue will often be determined by the nature of the shot. Certain shots, by necessity, will require you to move your grip hand either up or down the butt, in order to stroke the cue ball effectively. On shots close to the rail, for example, when bridging close to the cue ball, you'll often be forced to move your grip hand further up the cue (towards the tip), in order to stroke the ball cleanly. On shots requiring a longer bridge (i.e., shots forcing you to stretch out into the middle of the table), your grip will be close to the butt end of the cue.
On any shot, the position of your grip hand can be checked by a simple procedure. When setting up for a shot, take a few practice strokes, stopping the cue tip at the edge of the cue ball. Think of your stroking arm as a pendulum, your grip hand as the bottom-most point swinging through. Upon impact with the cue ball, your arm (from elbow to the wrist) should be perpendicular to the floor, your grip hand pointed straight down, at the bottom of the pendulum.
The key to a fluid stroke is to grip the cue firmly--yet lightly--with the thumb and first three fingers. (many pros say only the first two fingers are needed; that the ring finger and pinkie should be doing little more than resting along the side of the butt.) Your grip should be firm enough to provide both power and control, yet light enough to allow for the delicate wrist action needed for a fluid stroke. Whatever shot you're faced with--one requiring power or finesse--always grip your cue the same way!
Stranglehold grips destroy everything sacred in a winning pool stroke: a fluid backswing, follow through, and free-flowing movement. You can produce all the cue force ever needed in pool with a relaxed finger grip and a pendulum stroke. The term "grip," in itself, is somewhat misleading. In the game of pool, the proper grip is hardly a firm handshake. It is more a caressing--gentle, yet firm--the loving grasp of a child's hand. Not involving the entire hand, like the squeezing of a baseball bat. But a controlled, rock-a-bye cradle, involving only the thumb and first two or three fingers (which ever is most comfortable to you).
When the cue is gripped properly, it should not touch the palm of your hand. The space between the palm and the cue should increase slightly on your backswing. On the follow-through, your palm should come down on your cue--without squeezing the cue any tighter. Your grip should be light at all times, from the begging of the backswing to the end of the follow-through. Applying extra force only tightens the muscles and resists the fluid motion of the pendulum stroke. Which, in the final analysis, truly controls all. A smooth, fluid stroke is the key to all pool success. It provides accuracy, control and consistency--and all the brute force your game will ever need.
The difference between a good and an average pool player can often be traced to their respective hand bridges. When it comes to accuracy, nothing is more important than the firmness and steadiness of a player's bridge. Accuracy is a product of many factors: a relaxed balanced stance; a smooth level stroke; proper cue grip; controlled backswing and follow-through.....And, above all else, the guidance of the cue. Like a bullet through a barrel, the path of a cue is guided through the channel of the bridge hand. An effective bridge ensures stability, fluid movement of the cue, and all but determines the accuracy of the shot.
Bridges are simply guides to keep the cue on its proper course. In many ways, a billiard-cue bridge is much like a roadway bridge: a firm support structure, built to streamline a cue's travel, designed to make passage more precise and efficient. Like a roadway bridge, a billiard bridge should have a solid foundation, with the bridge hand firmly planted on the table or rail. In most cases, your bridge should allow you are to use a level stroke. In every case, your cue should move easily and smoothly--regardless of the shot or type of bridge being used. Your stroke should never be compromised by a choked or sticky bridge. Your cue should glide fluidly, without pulling against the flesh, through the channel formed by the thumb and forefinger.
There are two basic types of bridges: an open and a closed bridge. Each can be modified, according to the demands of a given shot, by altering the configuration of the fingers. The open bridge is generally recommended for beginners. (This has become a debated point among professional players. Many say that an open bridge is fine for beginners; that it's easy to use and makes learning the game easier. Others argue that the closed bridge should be used from the beginning. That the sooner it's mastered, the sooner even a beginner will see dramatic improvement in his or her game.
Both sides agree that when it comes to consistency, control--and, above all, accuracy--the closed bridge is far more superior. We at Pool Player believe that old habits, in any sport, often die hard. That every player should be encouraged to learn the most beneficial techniques, the first time he picks up a cue. That in the long run, every aspect of your game will be rewarded. Your stroke will be truer, your confidence higher, and your overall game will be far more polished, the sooner you master the Standard Closed Bridge.)
CLOSED or STANDARD CLOSED BRIDGE
The closed bridge is used by virtually every professional player. It allows superior control of the cue, which leads to better control of the cue ball. Any shot that requires something extra to be exerted on the cue ball (i.e., draw, follow, speed, etc.) is best served by a closed bridge. Many books offer pages of text on the exact placement of the fingers for a proper closed bridge. We believe an illustration and brief instructions will suffice. The more you play, the more you'll see variations of this bridge being used by different players. Play and practice will determine the exact bridge configuration most comfortable and effective for you.
Perhaps the easiest way to form a closed bridge is to begin by making a fist with your bridge hand. Extend your arm and lay your fist on the table, palm down, 8-10 inches from the cue ball. Open your thumb and index finger and place the cue shaft on the thumb. To form the cue channel, loop your index finger around the cue. Complete the channel by connecting the fingertip to the thumb (much as if you were making an "OK" sign). With the heel of your hand on the table, spread the last three fingers and place them as widely as possible, without strain. This will serve as an additional base support, ensuring a smooth, balanced stroke.
To complete the bridge, your hand will turn slightly inward at the wrist. If your hand is arched properly, the fleshy part of your thumb will no longer be touching the table. If your fingers are spread properly, the cue shaft will be above the middle of your third finger. A good channel will allow for fluid movement of the cue. Too snug of a channel will result in a pulling of the flesh; too loose, in a loss of control. Like many aspects of the game, the configuration of a bridge often varies from player to player. Some set up closer to the ball. Some spread their bridge fingers wider. Some variations are due to the simple fact that everyone's hand are different. While the bridge you adopt should be comfortable and effective for you, it should be built on the tried-and-true principals: a firm, solid foundation, allowing for balances, level stroke; and a channel providing maximum comfort and free-flowing movement of the cue stick.
While the closed bridge can be used in about 90% of your shots, there are certain shots (i.e, shots close to the rail, shooting over an object ball) in which an open bridge is far more effective. Stretch shots are best served by the Five-Finger Open Bridge. the Open Rail Bridge, V-Bridge, and Over-A-Ball Bridge are extensions of this bridge, designed to meet the demands of particular shots. Each of these bridges should be practiced and mastered, to complement your over all game.
Five-Finger Open Bridge
The Five-Finger Open Bridge is relatively easy to form. (Practicing basic shots with this bridge may make it easier to become comfortable with stretch shots, as well as the other three bridges.) Begin with putting your hand flat (palm down) on the table. Extend your fingers and raise your knuckles, to form a mini hand "tent." Nestle your thumb next to the knuckle on your index finger, without raising your thumb to high. Be sure to keep the heel of your hand on the table, to ensure stability and support. Spread the remaining four fingers. The channel for the cue will be in the rounded "V" formed by the raising of the thumb. Be sure that the index finger does not face the cue ball (and, of course, using a level stroke), the height of the channel should be roughly half that of the cue ball (about 1-1/1 inches off the table). This bridge should be used any time you're forced to stretch so far across the table, that you can't form a closed bridge without strain.
Open Rail Bridge
This is the most effective bridge when the cue ball is frozen to, or less than three inches off the rail. In this bridge, the hand should be flattened, with the heel of the hand slightly raised. To ensure greater control, spread your thumb out, so the cue drops between the thumb and index finger, to give the cue stick a more effective guide. Because you are stroking the very top of the cue ball, the way you stroke the ball is as important as the position of your hands. To maximize control, take short, deliberate practice strokes. Your emphasis should be on the forward motion of the shot, so try to minimize backswing. Try to hit the ball dead center. Make sure your cue does not raise up off your bridge hand at any time. On shots slightly further from the rail (2-3 inches). it's sometimes helpful to use the edge of the cushion to further guide the shot.
The V-Bridge should be used when the cue ball is slightly further (3-5 inches) from the rail. With this bridge, the rail is extensively in the guidance of the cue, forming a channel with the index and the middle fingers. To form a V-Bridge, lay your cue stick on the rail of the table. Tuck your thumb beneath your palm and form the channel by looping your index finger over the cue. Your cue should be able to guide smoothly along the rail, through the channel formed on the left by the thumb and middle finger; (by the index finger for right-handed players). Keep your remaining fingers flat on the rail, and keep your back swing level.
This is probably the most uncomfortable and difficult bridge to master. The over-a-ball bridge is basically an extension of the open bridge, with the base fingers standing on "tiptoes." It is used when the cue must be elevated; when you need to shoot over an object ball, in order to strike the cue ball. To form an effective bridge (and maximize cue control), it is vital to form a steady and stable base of support. Don't attempt a shot until your finger base is solid and balanced. Forming an effective "V" with the thumb and top knuckle of the index finger, is also imperative for an accurate stroke. Arch your wrist by extending all four fingers to the table. Form a "V" by extending your thumb upward. To prevent tapping the object ball (a foul), don't bring the cue into the bridge until it is stable and fully formed. Elevate the butt to the necessary height and take several short practice strokes. the cue will slide along the "V" and over the obstructing ball, with your elevation of the butt end of the cue.
The "Ladies' Aid." The "crutch." The mechanical bridge. The object of score and ridicule. When, in truth, the mechanical bridge is a very useful instrument. Using it is not a sign of "effeminate" weakness, but intelligence, self-assuredness and playing to win. If a shot is beyond your reach with any of the aforementioned bridges, the mechanical bridge should be used. It's simple purpose is to provide cue support and guidance, on shots too far to reach with your arms. Using it prevents you from committing a foul (at least one foot must be in contact with the floor when the tip of the cue contacts the cue ball). It also prevents you from overextending your body and arms, and shooting from an awkward, unbalanced stance. When ever possible, the handle of the mechanical bridge should be held against the table. This provides a far more stable base of support than holding it upright in the hand.
When forced to hold the bridge upright because of intervening object balls, be sure your grip is steady, your stance is balanced, and your stroke is fluid and smooth. The bridge should be placed approximately 8-10 inches from the cue ball. (As you become more accomplished, you can adjust this. For shots that require minimal action on the cue ball, a short bridge is best. A longer bridge allows for a longer stroke and more action). Stand more erect then you normally would. Keep the butt of your cue about chest high. Bridge your cue in the appropriate slot. (Most mechanical bridges have five slots--three on the top, and one on each side. A higher slot should be used to produce "follow;" a lower slot to produce "draw." grip your cue at the end with your thumb and first two fingers. A nice, easy stroke should be all you need. Use a short backswing, and follow through on the shot as you normally would. For shots requiring you to shoot over a ball, turn the bridge on it's side. This will nearly double the height of the bridge, allowing you to shoot over the obstructing ball by using a slot on the side.
As important as your bridge, grip, and stance are, your game will ultimately be determined by the quality of your stroke. A winning pool stroke should be straight, smooth, fluid and consistent. (Much like golf, pool is not a game of muscle. A 16 year old girl with a picture perfect swing, can drive a golf ball further and more accurately, than a 200 pound he-man with a crappy swing.) In many ways, pool is most exacting game of all. A winning game is a product of touch, precision, consistency, composure and, above all, form and technique. The proper grip, bridge and stance are indeed important....but only as they merge into a cohesive whole, to achieve the ultimate goal. In the final analysis, stroke controls all. Your game will rise and fall on how the pieces come together, to produce a fluid, surefire stroke.
Effective stroking is surprisingly simple. Granted, certain shots make for awkward bridges and stances, but the majority of shots require very simple strokes. In either case, basic principles should always apply. Stroking the cue ball should always be natural and unforced. The action of the wrist, elbow and shoulder should be free and easy. Stance, of course, should be balanced. Your eyes should be directly over the line of the cue and cue ball. The natural motion of your arm swinging forward will produce more than enough force to propel the ball.
When stroking, don't keep the cue stick too close, or too far from your body. Your back arm should remain at a distance, where it can dangle straight down without touching. On your backswing, take the cue back as far as you can, without pulling the tip completely out of the bridge. The Proper grip will allow you to keep the cue straight on your backswing. Never grip too tightly, or try to "muscle" the ball. let the cue stick do all the work for you. Always allow yourself a few practice strokes before hitting the ball. It's a good practice to take the same number of practice strokes on every shot. Repetition (even on something seemingly as trivial as practice strokes) will only help in attaining consistency. Three or four practice strokes are generally enough. These warm-up strokes will help "groove" you not only for the shot, but for a smooth and controlled follow-through.
Your backswing is merely the initial movement of the pendulum, the natural swinging back of the forearm. The cue motion will be partly in the wrist and partly in the elbow. This is not to say, however, that you should exert force with either. Your arm and wrist should remain relaxed throughout the entire stroke. the pendulum action and the weigh of the cue will exert all the force you need. The pendulum action makes shot making virtually automatic. Once you've mastered the closed bridge and the pendulum stroke, you should be able, after your practice strokes, to shut your eyes and execute the shot! Of course, the pendulum doesn't end upon contact with the cue ball. Without follow-through, the entire motion gets thrown out of whack, resulting in an absolute loss of control. A pool stroke, much like a golf swing, is as reliant on the follow-through as anything that precedes it. (Imagine the control a golfer would have, if he brought his club to a screeching halt, the second he made contact with the ball.)
Like the backswing, the follow-through should be fluid and smooth. Stroking the cue ball is basically a "throwing" motion. A good throwing motion is a product of a slow backswing and a smooth acceleration through the ball. Just as a golfer swings through the ball, a pool player must stroke through the cue ball. The cue should increase in speed until contact with the cue ball, and then come to a natural stop. Don't lift your bridge hand from the table until you have finished your follow-through. (The only time you'll lift it fast is when you play a draw shot, to get out of the way of the returning cue ball.) Keep your head down all the way through your follow-through. Always stroke straight through the cue ball, even when applying English. There is no prescribed distance for the perfect follow-through. While most pros follow-through 10-12 inches, your follow-through should be the natural extension of a fluid, pendulum stroke.