Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
August: Swinging at Strikes
A FEW months back, I wrote a piece about the folly of selling my wife on pool via the pure beauty of Willie Mosconi's play in an exhibition match. Shortly thereafter, a reader suggested that I devote an entire column to that play, and exactly why it was different from that of his peers.
So you'd like to play the way he did? Well, as it happens, I can tell you how to do that. But given pool's complexity, what I set down here is not going to convert you into a champion, any more than the immortal (and frequently insufferable) Ted Williams' batting advice is going to turn you into major league baseball's next .350 hitter. All Williams ever said about his prowess, for the record, was, "Swing at strikes."
Mosconi was similarly stingy with playing tips. He did offer the equally worthless advice, "Don't miss," as his friend and frequent second banana Jimmy Caras did, and he also counseled novices to "always play with better players" and "practice the circle drill." All that would have disappointed the daylights out of me had I been the one asking for help, but that was pretty much as articulate as he ever got regarding instruction.
Where would you begin, then, if your mission were to emulate the all-time champion? You'd logically start with new cloth; as for the balls, you'd want them not just new but extremely highly polished. Mosconi's personal cue case also carried his personal set of balls. None of this is meant to denigrate the man's genius in any way; those are simply the playing conditions on which he insisted. (Tight pockets don't enter into this in any way whatsoever; the advent of Gold Crown tables slowed him down not one quark.)
Logically enough, this meant he never had to hit anything very hard, not even his break shots. Any number of today's top 14.1 players - which means the Europeans - favor drawing the cue ball all the way up to the head rail and back out again in breaking the balls open. In addition to horrifying the straight-pool purists in the gallery, this technique carries several pitfalls. There's the possibility of scratching in either of the top pockets, and then there's the near-certainty of creating mini-clusters along the three rails surrounding the rack area because the break shot was so drastically over-hit. Mosconi, by contrast, rarely drove more than six or seven balls out of the stack initially, and almost never opened the full pile with his first break.
Where his game began to deviate from the rest was in picking off the loose balls before attempting a secondary break shot. The vast majority of today's players go after the cluster(s) first, in an attempt to get all the balls open. But because Mosconi wasn't sending any balls all that far from where they were originally racked, and he was extremely confident in his position play, he would usually reduce the table to the still-clustered balls, an open shot with which to separate them, and an "insurance" ball that he'd have available to shoot no matter where the newly-separated balls went. Further, while he virtually never broke the balls hard enough to send an object ball past a side pocket, he had no compunctions about turning around and shooting balls into the two top pockets. And when he'd cut a ball, say, to his right, and take off to his left to meet the cue ball, it almost looked like they were dancing the tango.
As for the magic he'd create with his overall position sequences, I've already covered a lot of that. Mosconi would identify the four balls nearest the four corner pockets, and try to follow a route that connected those; there would always be balls on the table that could be categorized that way. The first exception to that pattern that he would permit himself was that he would strive to leave one ball, and only one, on the bottom rail until all the rest were open. (That way, in case a secondary break shot happened to leave his cue ball down there, he'd have welcome company.) Thus his cue ball seemed to be "circling" the remaining object balls, gradually closing in on his break shot for the next frame. Rarely did he play position for the ball next to the one he was calling; instead, he'd "leapfrog" to position for another shot two or three balls away, and the balls he had just passed over automatically became his ubiquitous insurance balls. The other deviation from his circular patterns was a diagonal path into the still-clustered balls, the move I privately labeled "Cutting Across Midtown." And he always preferred the side of the rack for his break shots - I honestly cannot remember ever seeing him send such a shot into a side pocket, as Ralph Greenleaf was said to choose - just as he preferred to go off the balls rather than through them, although he certainly had the stroke for the latter.
Because the champion rarely moved the balls very far in separating them, a great many of his runs seemed quite similar to one another - and, in fact, they were. His play was utterly predictable, and ironically that's a great part of what made it such fun to watch. Within 15 or 20 minutes of watching, you could call his next six shots. And you could take your girlfriend, or kid, or anyone else uninitiated to pool to a Mosconi exhibition, and make the semi-promise, "Tonight you're very likely going to see a guy make a hundred shots in a row." There has been no competitor since for whom the same claim could be made with anywhere near the same certainty.
What else do you need to be the next Willie Mosconi incarnation? You'll only require perfect vision (he never wore glasses), a slip-stroke, a remarkable touch, an even more remarkable visualizing ability, and a white-heat hatred of losing. And that's it! Go be Mosconi. And remember, swing at strikes.