This is my contribution to Volume 29 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. Make sure to check out all the other articles in this month’s issue, also on this blog.

Straight Pool Tips

I’ve been mostly playing (and practicing) straight pool lately, probably about 80 percent of the time, and I’ve come across a few things that I think warrant mentioning. The first few have to do with equipment, the rack and the bridge, specifically. The second group are tips on choices to make during the game, and the last few are about some practice ideas to work skills particularly useful in 14.1.

3 Equipment Tips

I learned this first tip from Hal Schaeffer, a friend in my straight pool league. I had left a behind the rack break ball a little too close to the rack and was about to spot it up table, when Hal showed me that if you rack the balls against the bottom of the rack, instead of against the top, you can gain up to an inch of extra clearance for the break ball. Racks have extra space at the bottom to make them easy to remove without brushing the balls, and though the amount varies depending on the rack, it’s usually significant. The following two photos will hopefully make this clear.

Straight Pool Tips
Standard Racking
Back Racking
Back Racking

Another equipment tip has to do with using a bridge to get to a cue ball that’s tucked up close to a large cluster of balls in the middle of the table. Using two stacked bridges is what’s usually tried, but sometime you just can’t get high enough. I tried to jury-rig something, and since it worked for me perhaps it will work for you.

After laying a bridge on the table in its necessary position, grasp the bridge about 8 inches from the butt end with your bridge hand. Rotate the hand so that the pinkie finger is in contact with the cloth and the thumb is up (like making a fist but holding the stick) and tilt the stick so the butt end touches the table and the bridge end goes high up in the air. The further toward the butt end of the bridge you hold it, the steeper the slope of the bridge and the higher up the bridge will go, much higher than can be attained with two stacked bridges.

I was easily able to reach a cue ball otherwise inaccessible to me. The downside of this approach is that you have to be very steady with your cue as you stroke it, or the bridge end of the bridge cue will move up and down slightly, but enough to be a problem. A few extra warm up strokes helped me solve that problem and I’ve used the technique a few times since. It’s very handy. If you have to hit the cue ball hard, I think the aforementioned bridge instability will be too difficult to overcome. I hope these two photos clarify my instructions.

Straight Pool Tips
High Bridging
Straight Pool Tips
High Bridging

My last equipment tip is also about using a bridge, though in the more standard way. Lay the butt end on the table if at all possible, and put your normal bridge hand on it, holding it down. Do not hold the butt end of the bridge in the air. If you need to stack two bridges, get the two butt ends side by side, both on the table, and hold them both down. Don’t stack the butt ends, they’re harder to hold still that way.

3 Playing Tips

Pick a Break Ball (BB) and Key Ball (KB) early in each rack, and try to clear out the other balls without either bumping them or having to shoot them. A lot of beginners and intermediates to this game concentrate on just clearing off all the balls of the rack, and leave only poor or impossible break shots most of the time. It’s true that if you can clear the table most of the time, you’ll beat a lot of players who can’t do it as efficiently as you. But you’re missing an opportunity to play the game as it’s meant to be played, going through multiple racks. You’re needlessly limiting your ability. You do not need to plan how to get to the Key Ball and Break Ball until late in the rack, say with 4 or 5 balls left, but make it a point to leave good KBs and BBs to at least give yourself a chance.

When breaking a cluster, finesse is more important than force. Hitting the right spot on the cluster, with the right cuing on the ball at the right speed is the goal. Hitting too hard has multiple negative repercussions. First, the harder you stroke, the worse your accuracy becomes. Second, too much power will send balls to a rail and right back together, frustrating you no end. Every situation is different, of course, but a little draw with a medium stroke is frequently a good approach, getting the cue ball out of the way but not far away.

When you see a dead ball in the rack, don’t salivate and fire away; relax a moment and check it out thoroughly, asking yourself a few questions first. Which ball should you contact with the cue ball and where. A dead ball may not be so dead you can hit it anywhere, and you may not be able to hit it in the right spot. What will the other balls do? One of the most frustrating things is spotting a dead ball, shooting it, watching it roll directly toward the hole and then seeing it bumped out of the way by another ball crossing its path. And finally, where do you want the cue ball to go? Many people get so excited to pocket a ball out of the rack, especially a tricky one, that they forget to position the cue ball for their next shot and wind up with nothing to shoot. Don’t let these mini-tragedies ruin some of the most satisfying moments in the game.

3 Practice Tips Using One Suggestion

Rolando Aravena, the House Pro at Strokers Palm Harbor where I play, suggested this idea to me and I highly recommend it. Use two full racks of balls strewn randomly on the table, only one cue ball, and run out. The congestion is much like the early phases of a rack. I like to concentrate on moving the cue ball with precision, both direction and distance wise. On every shot I have a target and I’m paying careful attention to how my results compare to my plan. Did I go too far or not far enough? Too much to the right or left? If I’m not very close I’ll try it again. Maybe it’s my expectations that were off, not my execution.

My first tip using 30 Balls is to use other balls as the targets, trying to bump them a designated amount. These skills, hitting the target ball in the right place and hitting it with the right force, will enable you to create break balls or key balls where none currently exist, as well as to break clusters in a controlled fashion.

My second tip is to shoot only combinations, caroms and billiards. These kinds of shots can really get you out of a jam. They are somewhat harder than regular shots, but with a little practice and knowledge of which ones you can make and which you can’t, they can keep runs going when you think you safed yourself, and start them when your opponent thinks he has locked you up. There’s nothing that takes the air out of an opponent’s sails more quickly than pocketing a ball using a combo, carom or billiard after he thinks he’s left you safe. He’ll be doubting himself the rest of the match. The extra balls will make for many more opportunities than you normally see, but if it isn’t enough, you might want to start off with 20 balls in half the table to create even more.

My last tip with the 30 ball approach is to practice patterns. One way is to clear sections of the table at a time. In the beginning, divide the table lengthwise into three parts, the bottom 3 diamonds, the middle two, and the top three. Each section has only 2 pockets and all balls in that section must go into one of them. You cannot shoot any ball in section 2 until section 1 is empty. The cue ball may move into another section to get shape on a ball. As you get better you can cut the sections in half, creating 6 sections, each with one pocket.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips, but even more I hope you’ve found them useful. I know they have and are continuing to help me improve my straight pool game. Don’t forget to check out the other PoolSynergy Articles.