The Bare Naked Truth: What Worked And What Didn’t

No corporate sponsors, no dependents, and no financial strings attached.  That’s me.  Since I’m not beholden to any external influences, I can afford to tell the bare naked truth about my pool experiences – what’s worked for me and what hasn’t.  Returning visitors to this blog know that I established this blog to document my journey (and hold myself accountable) as I strived to improve my game.  If you are a first time visitor, be warned that you are about to receive an honest no holds barred review of my pool life.  So buckle your seatbelts, keep your kids safely off the streets, and get ready for a rare glimpse into my private pool life.

This article is part of the 23rd edition of PoolSynergy, hosted by PoolSynergy founder John Biddle.  This month John asked the PoolSynergy writers to tell the world what has worked or not worked for us personally.  Before I get started, I’ll present this public service announcement:  Please keep in mind these are just my personal experiences, and since all players have different skills and different needs, your experiences will almost certainly vary from mine.  With that said, let’s get started.

The following nine items have had a positive influence on my development as a pool player and/or have helped to greatly improve my game:

  1. The APA Pool League – Why not start at the beginning?  Yes, I grew up with a pool table in my house, but no one in my family actually knew how to play.  I developed many bad habits in my youth that plagued me for years.  When I got to college, I saw the game played correctly for the first time in my life, and quickly joined an APA pool league so I could learn more.  The APA provided a structure for me to practice and play on a consistent basis, allowed me to experience a little success, and kept my interest in the game alive for many years.  If not for the APA, I would not be playing pool today.
  2. Books (the early years) – Immediately after I started playing in the APA and losing my first two or three matches, I decided to start studying the game to improve my performance.  There weren’t that many books on the market (careful – I’m about to date myself!) and the concept of the internet had not yet formed in anyone’s mind over at DARPA.  The only books I could find on the subject were Ray Martin’s 99 Critical Shots in Pool and Robert Byrne’s Standard Book of Pool and Billiards.  In my pool infancy I remember reading Byrne’s book and thinking, “Why the hell would anyone want to play pool on a pool table that didn’t have any pockets?”  I still laugh when I think about that.  These two books were critical to me because they laid down a foundation of knowledge from which I could later grow.
  3. Books (the later years) – In subsequent years I expanded my pool education and added many more titles to my collection, but the tomes that really stand out in addition to the books by Martin and Byrne include The Pro Book and The Advanced Pro Book by Bob Henning, Phillip Capelle’s entire series of books: Play your best Pool, Play your best (insert game here: 8 ball, 9 ball, Straight Pool, etc.), and most recently I’ve added two fantastic quasi-rare One Pocket books written by Eddie Robin titled Winning One Pocket and Shots, Moves, and Strategies.  All of these books have added greatly to my pool education and have also provided a structure to help guide me in my improvement journey.
  4. 1 on 1 personal instruction – If I had to pick one item as being the most impactful element in my entire pool journey, it would be this.  The small amount of time and money I’ve invested in personal instruction has paid for itself hundreds of times over.  No matter how many times you read a book or watch a DVD, until you get out there and do it yourself… and do it correctly with instant feedback… you will hit a wall and not improve further.  Most touring pros today, when asked how they got so good, tell stories of how someone took them under their wing when they were first starting out.  I never had this benefit as a young player, but in the last couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with some very talented and knowledgeable folks in the industry.  The time and money I spent on personal instruction was well worth it.  I want to thank the following people who have each contributed personally to my improvement as a player:  Chris Lynch in New York City, Bob and Linda Radford in Rockford, Illinois, Samm Vidal Claramunt in the Boulder, Colorado area, and Bob Jewett in the San Francisco Bay area.
  5. Video Recording – This item scores a very close second to personal instruction.  I was introduced to video recording when I visited Bob and Linda Radford at Cue-U about two years ago.  During two days of one on one instruction, they recorded me on several occasions as I shot a predetermined set of drills.  When we sat down together to watch the video and review my technique, I was flabbergasted!  Up to that point I thought my mechanics were pretty solid (after all, I’d been playing for many years!).  Holy cow!  My mechanics were terrible!  With the visual feedback and personal instruction Bob and Linda provided, they were able to quickly identify and cut out several bad habits that were holding me back.  They also made several adjustments to my mechanics and warned me that my ‘new improved mechanics’ would feel unnatural at first.  Diligence would be required to avoid falling back into my old habits.  I didn’t have a personal mentor, so how did I hold myself accountable?  VIDEO!  When I returned home from my travels, I bought a video camera and took it with me to the pool hall every day for many months.  This was the tool is used to ensure I didn’t give up my gains.  I recorded myself and studied my tapes and made corrections until my ‘new mechanics’ became second nature.
  6. Solitary Practice – I’ve written about the importance of solitary practice many times before, but it bears repeating.  Identify the most glaring deficiency in your game and work on it by yourself with no distractions.  Set up the same shots or situations and shoot them over and over and over again until you master them (or until you lose focus), then move to the next area of weakness.  In my opinion, serious focused practice is where the real improvement comes from.  There’s a lot of great research available on this subject, and I highly recommend you read Daniel Coyle’s great book The Talent Code.  It’s very interesting and a pretty quick read…especially if you can’t put it down once you start reading.
  7. Matching up – I’ve learned a lot by matching up against other players.  Matching up with players who are better than me is a great learning experience because I pay attention when my opponent is shooting.  What I do is observe how my opponent approaches shots, how they play position, what types of safeties they play, how they do their pre-shot routines, what their mechanics look like, etc.  In short: I’m carefully watching.  I also get benefit from playing against opponents who are not as skilled as I am.  It’s important to have someone you can beat so you can recharge your emotional batteries and give yourself hope to come back to the table again.
  8. Tournaments – Tournament play, whether handicapped or open, has been great for helping me learn to deal with nervousness and also learn that there’s no shame in losing.  Each match lost is an opportunity to learn: I’ve lost an awful lot of matches, but I’ve also learned a lot in doing so.  I keep notes during tournaments when I miss shots or put myself into bad situations, then work on these issues at future practice sessions.
  9. Straight Pool – I started playing straight pool earlier this year and have developed a love for the game.  Straight pool requires you to develop a soft touch, learn to run simple routes to clear balls from the table, and develop the ability to break open clusters.  Two things I LOVE about straight pool: (1) the personal high run statistic gives you a quantitative way to directly measure your progress, and (2) the skills you develop in straight pool have a direct positive impact on your 8 ball game.  In 8 ball, I now automatically see cluster breaking opportunities several shots ahead; whereas in the past, tough clusters nearly always stopped by 8 ball run outs.

The following six items have had very little positive impact on my development as a pool player or have had a detrimental impact on my game:

  1. High tech pool cues – I wish there was a magic pill I could take to improve my game, but I don’t believe in magic, so I guess technology will have to suffice.  There are so many choices: solid wood, spliced wood, radially spliced wood, wood covered with a sheath of fiberglass, X shafts, Z shafts, 314 shafts, OB1, brass joints, steel joints, wooden joints, ivory ferrules, phenolic ferrules, Triangle tips,  Moori, Le Pro, Tiger, Elk Master, Kamui… aaaarrrghhhhhh!  Too many choices!  I don’t want to tell you how much money I’ve spent over the last twenty years on sexy new cue technology, but here’s the god awful truth:  the cue I’m shooting with today is the very first cue I ever bought…a straight off the shelf factory standard McDermott.  Twenty years old and purchased brand new for just $85.  Since then I’ve purchased and played with cues that cost well over $2,000, and I loved them, but in the end I always returned to my good ole $85 McDermott.  Why?  I really don’t know.  I just play best with it.  Period.  The only exception to this is my current breaking cue.  For 9 ball I now break with a Samsara cue fitted with an OB1 break shaft.  Oh yeah, baby…I like the way it breaks.  Thanks Mr. Fieldhammer!
  2. Personal pool mentor – I think having a personal coach or mentor is a fantastic idea and I fully encourage you to find one.  Unfortunately, I’ve never really had the opportunity to work extensively with a coach, so for me personally I give this a ‘no positive impact on me’ rating.
  3. Playing for money (a.k.a Gambling) – If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I couldn’t improve unless I gamble, I’d be a very rich man.  What’s the fascination with pool and gambling?  I just don’t get it.  To be fair, I think most people have a scarcity or fear mentality when it comes to money, so if they play for money, this forces them to ‘get serious’ and play for the dough.  Sorry, it just doesn’t work for me.  It’s possible that I’m the strange one here…okay, maybe it’s LIKELY that I’m the strange one here… but when I play a ‘serious match’ I play for pride.  That’s it, I just don’t like losing.  Nope, not one bit.  So when I ‘play serious’ I’m gonna do my best to pound you into the ground.  Sorry, it’s not personal!  I do, however, love to play for ‘fun’ and I play for fun with my friends all the time, but if we decide to play a serious match I play serious… AND I DO NOT LIKE TO LOSE WHEN I PLAY SERIOUS!  I don’t need an external motivator to get me going.  But again, I’m sure I’m the strange one.  If you want to gamble and think it will improve your game, great.  It just doesn’t work for me.
  4. Jump shots – Let’s face it, jump shots are sexy, right?  After all, Tom Cruise hit a key jump shot in The Color of Money to beat Fast Eddie Felson, so wouldn’t it be cool if I hit a jump shot too?  Yeah, right.  When you are in a match and think you need to hit a jump shot, please, just look for the one rail kick or jack up and hit a masse shot.  Either one is likely to give you a better result.
  5. Bank shots – Bank shots are usually the first ‘trick’ shots we learn, and they are fun to shoot aren’t they?  Yes, I love them to, but in real competitive situations I almost never shoot banks.  If you really want to take your game to the next level, work on getting the cue ball where it needs to go in the first place.  That way, you don’t need to attempt a bank.  In my earlier pool years, I wasted a LOT of time working on bank shots.  My time would have been much better spent working on safeties, kicks, and cue ball distance control instead.
  6. Masse shots – Okay, okay, maybe I’m a hypocrite.  Earlier I told you to forgo the jump shot and instead try a masse.  Well, now I’m telling you to forgo the masse and instead try the one or two rail kick.  There are those rare exceptions when a masse shot is the better choice and I do shoot them occasionally, but I would prefer not to.  The key here is to practice jumps and masse A LOT if you ever plan to use them in competition.  Otherwise, don’t bother.  Your time will be much better spent, and you will receive a much better return on your investment, if instead you spend your time practicing your one and two rail kicks, safeties, and distance control.

Well, I think I’ve blabbered enough on this subject.  Once I get started talking about pool it’s very hard for me to stop.  I hope you’ve learned something here today that will aid you in your journey to improve.  Please visit John Biddle’s website to see articles written by the other PoolSynergy authors.  Best wishes!

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5 responses to “The Bare Naked Truth: What Worked And What Didn’t

  1. Pingback: PoolSynergy #24 – Practice: What’s Worked | Pool Student's Blog

  2. Your point #3 in the “Did not help” column… is exactly me! I have tried and tried again to gamble with people, but the fact is… I will play you as hard “for fun” as I would for the cash. Why? Because I Can.Not.Stand to lose.

    I suppose there is more pressure, but only because I put more pressure on myself – because I feel like I’m supposed to or something. It’s distracting actually. So… there *can* be a silver lining to it… dealing with pressure – no matter the source, and being able to forget everything that’s not on the pool table right then and there. But, that might be stretching it a bit.

    • I do see the point in gambling…it’s really about the pressure we put on ourselves and the pressure we THINK the money will have on our opponents. I have many friends who love to gamble, but for some reason it never has appealed to me. I guess the love of the game and pure competition is enough for me.

  3. Michael,

    This is such an excellent and complete set of instructions! Any budding player should read this. And thanks for the mention — now find a way to visit Minneapolis for a tournament up here or a lesson with me!

    Well done,
    Mike Fieldhammer

    • Thanks Mike! I would love to visit Minneapolis and take a lesson or two, then head over to Fargo Billiards for a couple of days and shoot pool… maybe I’ll call it my mid-continent pool tour / vacation. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that next year. I’ll let you know before I head out. Thanks for the comment!

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