Here are a couple exercises that I suggest to my students for learning how to hide the cue ball in tough positions. But just as important is the question of when to play safe. I'll get to that in a moment.
The setup for both exercises is basically the same, and they're both concerned with using left or right English to send the cue ball to specific locations. For Exercise 1, start with the cue ball on the headstring and a diamond up on the short rail, and place the 7 ball barely a half-inch from the long rail, also on the headstring. The 8 and 9 balls are arranged by the first diamond to form a little pocket against the head rail.
Experiment with how much left English is required to send the cue ball off the 7 and the bottom rail and hide it behind the 8 and 9. Hitting the head rail will really help tuck it in there. For the initial position diagrammed, two tips of left English (see inset diagram) should send the cue ball off on a wide enough angle. As you shift the positions of the 8 and 9 balls higher up the rail, you won't need as much left-hand English.
One hint for executing the shot: It requires a softer hit than you think. My students always hit it at least five times too hard at first.
The point of the exercise is to burn these cue-ball paths into your mind, so you can get used to how the cue ball will behave with various degrees of English. That will help when the 8 and 9 are positioned along the top rail, and you have to think about the angle off the head rail required to reach those farther positions.
Exercise 2 is almost the mirror image of the first. Now we're aiming for a thinner cut - about an eighth-ball hit - with two half-tips of right English, i.e., a full tip. (I make the distinction because "full tip" means something different to some people.) The right English widens the angle enough to achieve the first position at the top of the foot rail. As you move the 8 and 9 balls farther down the rail, you'll require a steeper angle, and thus less right English.
As indicated in both of the diagrams, you can move the cue ball farther back to add an extra degree of difficulty and further explore the role of speed.
Master these exercises, and you'll have some powerful weapons in your bag. But you still have to know when to use them. I've seen some players pass up a straight-in shot and instead opt for an easy safety because they were too afraid of missing. And some players think they're Superman, and think they can make the most difficult shots when an easy safety would be the better play.
I've developed what I call "The Honesty Rule." You have to be honest with yourself, because no one knows your game better than you do. When I'm faced with a difficult shot, I ask myself, "How many times out of 10 am I likely to make this shot?" And then I figure out the best defensive play and ask, "What's the percentage on executing this safety?" If the percentages of the safety are higher than those for making the shot, I'm always going to go for the safety.
So, for example, if I'm left with a cross-side bank shot that I figure I can make 50 percent of the time, and a safety that I can pull off about 80 percent of the time, I'll play the safety.
Of course, there is a point at which you have to go for it, no matter how easy the safety. There is a value to staying at the table. One thing that I've always believed about this game is that one extra turn for your opponent can lead to your demise. I can't tell you how many times that I was on the verge of victory and played a flawless safe, only to watch them kick four or five rails and somehow manage to make the ball and run out on me.
I feel like I need to be able to sink a shot 60 to 70 percent of the time in order to take the risk. If there is an 80 percent chance of succeeding, I have to go for it. But the point here is for you to make your own "honesty rule" and decide the percentages that you'll follow. And then, stick to the plan, no matter what. The minute you doubt your choice, you hurt your chances of successfully executing the shot.
It's all about having an attitude. Once you make up your mind, you have to stick with it.
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