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
February: Pre-Practice Practice
I MET the great John Schmidt in his native southern California, and before he was known anywhere else. He had a fairly high-stakes 9-ball match lined up for later that night, and one of the things that struck me about his warm-up routine was how hard it was. Schmidt would actually begin with some jacked-up, corner-to-corner straight-ins, the object ball in the dead center of the table, the kind of shot I'd say 95 percent of all players could make maybe 5 percent of the time.
Before his match, and after he made about half those long-shot tries, I asked him, "What about beginning your warm-up shots with something easier? In fact, why not try shots easy enough that your pocketing expectations are 100%? Don't you think that would be better reinforcement mentally, before you go on to these really hard shots?"
"You might be right about that," John Schmidt allowed graciously. "It's just that I want to know if those long shots ever come up - and they will - I'll be ready for them."
He went on to lose that night, which proves absolutely nothing, but I remain convinced that beginning your pool night easily, maybe even laughably so, is a pretty fair idea.
And I can tell you precisely where I came by that notion: watching Ohio State's Robin Freeman, one of the Big Ten's finest shooting guards ever, warm up, a bit over 55 years ago. Freeman, barely 5'10", would begin immediately in front of the hoop and shoot a standing-still, backboard-free layup. Then he'd back up a stride and do the same thing, then another stride and shot, then another, till he reached the free-throw line. Not until he'd sunk five consecutive free throws would he begin practicing game-quality outside shots. A ghastly accident with an axe took Freeman out of the game, but I've still never forgotten that warm-up routine.
A lot of golfers warm up by trying to drive the ball into the next time zone, but smart golfers will tell you that the putting green makes much more sense as pre-round practice goes. Those same proponents suggest that you begin with a putt of, say, three inches, then six, then 12, and so on to about six feet. But their concept is exactly the same as Freeman's was: get in touch with all the feelings of scoring.
The immortal Willie Mosconi's only known advice for pool practice was, "Practice the circle drill." Clearly this is a self-explanatory drill for improving your draw stroke. Mosconi did not advocate any specific circumference for the circle, so it can be any size you choose; you can make the drill even more advanced by taking the balls off in rotation, or first all the stripes and then all the solids, etc.
I'm also a deep believer in what Mosconi's fellow Hall of Fame player, Jim Rempe, calls "The Drill From Hell", although maybe not to the same extent Rempe is. In this drill, you roll the balls out loose, no two touching, nothing especially close to a rail, and then you try to run them without ever sending the cue ball to a rail. The drill will teach you volumes about ball speed, position play, and especially "pinch" shots (those which are not quite straight-in, but need to be played with spin as though they were). What makes Rempe's teaching approach to this drill so unique is that he strongly suggests you not play, or even watch, any other form of pool for two solid weeks. Just that drill, two hours a day, and you are likely to emerge having skipped a plateau or two. I can't think of a time in my life when I could have mustered that near-parochial discipline, but I sure wish I had.
For something considerably wider-ranging than that, two of my colleagues here at BD, Dave Alciatore and Bob Jewett, have just produced the "Video Encyclopedia of Pool Practice", the most comprehensive collection of practice drills ever published. Here are five DVDs comprising 175 drills and challenges in 30 different categories of instruction, virtually everything you need to elevate your game. Contact either columnist for details.
My pool playing these days is confined almost totally to 14.1 practice - a grandiose, free-floating sort of drill in itself - so what I do first qualifies as pre-practice practice, not unlike taking a nap shortly before bed. But I start with a line of balls across the table the short way, anywhere from five to all fifteen, set exactly halfway between the cue ball and the pocket of choice (I use diamonds 2-1/2 and 5 for this, but something either shorter or longer will obviously still work.) Then I try to execute perfect stop shots, involving a complete cue-ball kill, no wiggle, no sidespin. Next, I spot an object ball, place the cue ball maybe 18 inches away in a straight line with the corner pocket, and take maybe five tries at replacing that spotted object ball with the cue ball (in other words, one ball-diameter's worth of follow). Third, spot an object ball, line up a straight shot again, and see how many times you can draw the cue ball exactly straight back so you have the identical shot to what you began with. (My personal best at this is 32 straight times, which came from such an otherworldly zone that my previous record was exactly half of that.) At this point, I've practiced stop, follow and draw, which is pretty much all of pool. And now I'm ready to practice my straight-pool game.
I don't always feel like completing those drills first, but I find that if I do, my subsequent play will be better nearly all the time or, at the very least, it will take me considerably longer to hit my stride (if I ever do) without them. So it's not always the last ball that goes in which counts most. Sometimes it's the first.