This article is part of Volume 18 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the April 2011 edition of PoolSynergy over at A Journey Into Billiards.

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I like playing all of the popular pool games, 8, 9 and 10 Ball, One Pocket and Straight Pool, but I prefer Straight Pool to all others by a wide margin. I find it taxes all my skills while rewarding creativity and execution more than the others. One Pocket would be a strong competitor for my favorite if it weren’t so heavily biased toward defense. Maybe when I improve enough to run a lot more ball in 1P I’ll change my mind, but I’m not holding my breath.

For those of you not familiar with the game, each player tries to pocket as many balls as he can, in any order but always in a called pocket, earning one point for each one. Games are played to a predetermined number of points, with differing targets for each player providing easy to manage handicapping. The one thing that sets Straight Pool (also called 14.1) apart from all other games is the provision to continue play through multiple racks for one game.

When only one object ball is left on the table, the other 14 balls are racked with the head ball missing, and play continues. It’s the player’s task to leave the last OB and the cue ball in positions that enable the OB to be pocketed and the rack to be struck with the cue ball, breaking out balls from the big cluster and enabling another shot and continuation of the run.

The game saw its greatest popularity in the golden era of pool, which diminished greatly as television became popular and people’s attention span shortened. This was accompanied by the continued rise in popularity of 9 Ball. Straight is experiencing a comeback of sorts lately, with more tournaments and more top players playing the game, but it is very unlikely to ever rival its former popularity.

In a rack of 9 ball, once the balls have been broken, if 10 pros looked at the table, nearly all of them would run the rack the same way. In 14.1, it’s unlikely than any 2 would plan the same sequence. This freedom to play the game your way, to emphasize your skills, I find very rewarding.

Watching a match between skilled players, a novice might be fooled into thinking “This game is boring, it’s just one easy shot after another”. The cue ball control required to do this, however, is anything but easy, and that assumes you know enough to plot a good sequence through the balls which facilitates the aforesaid position play. It’s true that with a lot more balls to shoot at, you can often recover from a position blunder, but with more clusters to break and the break shot to plan for, it’s much more challenging than it first appears.

The freedom to shoot any ball at any time causes many who are new to the game into thinking it is too easy for them. If you can run a rack of 8 or 9 Ball, with their constraints on what you can shoot and when, it should be a snap to run rack in Straight Pool, right? No, the truth is quite a bit different. The table is much more congested than in 9 Ball, and because there’s no smash break, the balls stay much closer together, at least in the early part of the rack. Breaking clusters, and picking off balls in not quite clusters is a big part of the game, coming up multiple times in almost every rack. You’ll need pinpoint position and speed control to do it effectively, and that assumes you know where to hit the cluster for maximum effect.

Then there’s the requirement to break open each subsequent rack off the last shot of the previous rack. The planning and execution required for this can be prodigious. Missing position on the last ball, AKA the break ball, will likely end the run. Thus, planning for a key ball, as the ball to pocket immediately prior to the break ball, is very important, because it enables you to get excellent position on the break ball with a high degree of reliability.

Negotiating your way through a rack, and never hitting the break ball or key ball is no walk in the park. But if there aren’t balls in good positions for these two functions already, you’ll have to manufacture one or both by moving balls, or ending your run.

Safety play can be very tough in 14.1, because your opponent can shoot any ball on the table. When a rack is new its easy enough to hide behind, but each player is trying to break out balls while simultaneously hiding the cue ball to make it tougher to return a safety. Very quickly there are multiple open balls to avoid. Creativity is very helpful here, as is very precise speed and trajectory control of the cue ball and any object ball you move.

You’ll probably find yourself shooting over balls and using awkward bridges in very congested parts of the table far more often than in other games, but learning to play these shots well and with confidence enhances your self esteem at the table, and makes you a better overall player.

Because of the heavy congestion in the foot end of the table, the ability to make combinations, billiards, caroms and rail first shots are skills that are rewarded much more often in SP than in other games. Using throw to make balls that don’t look like they’ll go also comes up surprisingly often, especially when your position skills aren’t quite pinpoint.

Probably the most satisfying shot, for beginners through intermediates at least, is finding a dead ball in a densely congested pack, and firing it in while breaking up the remainder of the pack. Extensive knowledge of all the specialty skills contribute to your being able to see these shots, and to knowing how to shoot them. I never tire of shooting these satisfying shots, and as I’ve gotten better and more patient at the game, I am even able to delay gratification and shoot them at the most opportune moments rather than right away.

I enjoy the longer stints at the table, which can help in getting into the zone. and I also like the challenge of working to improve my high run. If you haven’t given Straight Pool a serious examination, I urge you to go for it. The rewards are well worth the effort. For guides to approaching the game, I recommend Ray Martin’s 99 Critical Shots in Pool, along with Phil Capelle’s Play Your Best Straight Pool.