You may have heard the story of Mosconi demonstrating position play
during an exhibition. He would put out a small piece of paper where
the cue ball was going to stop for the next shot, and most of the
time the cue ball would cover the paper.
Hal Houle tells a similar story about Ralph Greenleaf, who is often credited with training Mosconi -- intentionally or by osmosis. Greenleaf would let you put two object balls and a coin out on the table. He would then pocket the two balls and leave the cue ball on the coin after the second ball.
Have you ever tried to play this sort of precise position? I'm convinced that most players can't because they never try. Further, if they did try, they would probably discover and fix various basic problems in their game.
A learning aid on the market teaches this kind of position play -- Kim Davenport's "Target Pool" in which you play a sequence of shots hoping to leave the cue ball on a bull's-eye target placed on the table, and score more points according to how close to the 10-spot you leave the cue ball.
Here are some shots you can set up yourself to practice precise positioning.
In Shot 1, the goal is to leave the cue ball exactly on the side cushion. (If you need motivation, assume your next ball is by that rail and nearly blocked by intervening balls.) You have some leeway in the side-to-side position; anywhere close to the rail is OK. Start with the object ball close to the side pocket, and gradually move it further back. Give point: 1 point for a ball from the rail, 2 points for half a ball, 3 points for a chalk-width, and 5 points for freezing the cue ball.
In the second part of this drill, play the shot with draw to bring the cue ball back to the cushion you are standing near.
In Shot 2, the goal is similar, but you have to take the cue ball more or less sideways to leave it on the short rail. Again, try to freeze it. Begin with the object ball a few balls off the cushion, as shown, and gradually increase the distance the cue ball must travel. The cue ball is in hand for each shot.
Finally, try Mosconi's drill, but give yourself a little more margin. Use a dollar bill, and if you can leave the cue ball on the bill you get a point. You could even make a competition of it by adding the number of "on the bill" leaves to the number of racks won.
I think you'll find that after a few hours of this sort of practice, you'll be making position shots you would never have attempted in a game before. If you don't try for precise shape, you can't expect to get it.
A large part of playing in different locations is adapting to
the conditions. Many players -- myself included at times --
encounter equipment that leaves them baffled.
Size is important. I started learning on a small home table, and when I moved to the 4.5 by 9s at the pool hall, both my shotmaking and ball positioning suffered for a while. Then my game got tuned to a nine-footer, and my brief expeditions to other sizes were a problem.
Gradually, my experience built up, and changing to a different size was no big deal. The key is to get experience on a good range of tables so you are prepared for whatever you have to deal with. This flexibility came in handy when I was playing in an eight ball league with everything from 7-foot to 10-foot tables. Yes, one room out in the sticks had set up a big table to trap the visiting team.
The cue ball can be a big problem due to its weight. It's not just a problem of the "bar ball" that is oversized to get the ball return to work, but also a normal-sized cue ball becomes smaller with wear so that after a few years it's significantly smaller than the object balls. I played with just such a small cue ball for six months early in my career without realizing that my great draw was due to the defective equipment. When I ventured out to a strange hall, none of my position worked, and my opponent just waited for the last two or three balls before finishing me each rack.
Here is a test you can do to test the weight of the cue ball. Place the balls as shown in Shot A, and draw back to leave the cue ball nearly touching the side cushion. Repeat until you come fairly close each time. Now use the object ball as the cue ball, and try the shot again. Do you find the draw much easier or harder? A light cue ball draws well, but follow is hard. A heavy bar ball will follow well, but is much harder to draw. My own preference is for a cue ball that is the same size and weight as the object balls -- that's the standard, but it's not always available.
Another major variable is the cloth. Many rooms now have very smooth worsted cloth like Simonis, Granito or Championship which has essentially no nap and the ball runs for a long time. Other rooms use heavy, napped cloth, which is much slower and helps to hide roll-offs because the ball stops rolling so quickly the slope has little effect. Try lagging the cue ball a few times when you first get to a strange table, and then try a few position shots like Shot B, where the cue ball has a fair amount of travel. If you haven't mastered the speed on a strange table, don't try to play precise position unless there is no other choice; instead play area shape further from the object ball.
A last major consideration is the cushions. These can be dead or lively, slippery or sticky, high or low. If you use the cushions a lot for position play, you should develop a few practice shots for your warmups. One is to shoot the cue ball three cushions around the table to go to the corner pocket, checking both the speed and angle. Another is to shoot straight up the middle of the table with maximum side spin to see how much the spin takes on the cushion, as in Shot C.
You need to have a set of test shots like these for strange tables. Besides the ones above, take shots from your own bad experiences and make them into tests. Be prepared.
Side spin on the cue ball (or English as we call it) can be a very
useful tool for positioning the cue ball. It comes with three major
problems that you should be aware of when you're practicing your
spin shots so you will understand why you're missing some of your
shots, and what you need to consider consciously or subconsciously
when you play these shots.
In the shot diagrammed, we need to pull the cue ball to the left off the cushion, and the easiest way is with left English. The first problem when playing a shot like this is that the cue ball doesn't start out along the line of the stick. Instead it starts out at an angle away form the side where you apply the English. This is shown with the exaggerated arrow to the side labeled "squirt" which is what this phenomenon is called. Sometimes people refer to this as "deflection", but it is actually the cue stick which deflects while the cue ball squirts.
The second problem is that the cue ball doesn't travel in a straight line to the object ball, but instead swerves or curves to the left, again shown by the exaggerated curved line. The curve is in the opposite direction, so it might actually cancel the effect of the squirt.
A third problem arises when the cue ball hits the object ball. Instead of driving the object ball straight away from the cue ball, the side spin grabs the object ball a little and pulls it to the side.
Each of these aspects of side spin can be more than large enough to make you miss a shot, and each of them has more or less effect depending on the speed, spin and distance of the shot. Squirt increases as you use more English. If you have a table-length shot, and use a lot of side, you might miss the object ball completely even though you were aiming for a bull-ball hit. Squirt also changes for different shaft designs, and both Predator and Meucci Cues have been very active in working to reduce this problem.
Swerve is affected by several other things. It goes up as more spin is used, but stick elevation and the use of draw will also increase the amount of curve you see. Since the curve takes time to develop, if you shoot hard, swerve is reduced. Most players elevate more than they need to, and all players elevate the stick on nearly every shot. Getting the stick flatter is a good way to reduce the guess work when using side spin.
Some players try to use side spin to put the object ball in the pocket, but this is almost never necessary. There are a few situations in which you need to swerve a little around a blocking ball or to throw the object ball into the needed line, but these are quite rare and for most shots, the added complication of the three problems listed above should warn you away from any needless spin. Keep it simple.
To practice spin shots, set up a shot like the one shown, and see whether you can get the cue ball to A, B or C. You will need to set the object ball up in the same place each time because on this shot, the angle of entry to the pocket makes a big difference in how you can manipulate the cue ball. I think you will find that draw combined with left English will get the best results. Start with the cue ball close to the object ball - within six inches - and gradually work it back. Try varying the speed and the amount of spin and see how the three factors vary. And remember to chalk!
Do you get bored with practice routines? Do they seem too easy or
repetitive? If you arrange your drills as something we call
progressive practice, they are guaranteed to be both challenging
Let's consider the example drill in the diagram. The point is to improve your ability to get back up the table when a ball is close to the corner pocket, as shown. For this drill, we're going to try to do it with draw. Begin with a fairly easy shot, with the cue ball only one diamond from the pocket. The goal is to pocket the ball - this isn't the challenging part yet - and bring the cue ball back behind the "Goal" line. If your draw is better than average set a tougher goal than the one shown, perhaps to touch the end cushion.
Shoot the shot. If you accomplish the goal, make the shot a little harder and try again. An organized way to do this if to put a coin on the rail at the cue ball's location, and move the coin back, say to Diamond 2, for the next shot. Put the cue ball by the coin, reset the object ball, and try again.
Each time you make the shot, move the coin (and the cue ball) farther from the pocket. When you miss, though, you need to move the coin closer to the pocket. Continue to shoot and adjust the coin until you hve gone through a rack of balls. After your first miss, adjust the coin only half a diamond at a time. Make a note in your practice log - you do have a practice log, don't you? - of the final position of the coin. That's the score for this session on this shot.
Once again, the frill is: set up the object ball, place the cue ball by the coin, shoot, and then move the coin closer to the pocket for a miss, and farther away for a good shot and repeat.
After you've done this drill a few times, you'll notice that the cue ball automatically moves to a position where you make about 50% of your shots. That's not an accident; the movement of the coin to a harder or easier shot depending on whether you miss or make the shot guarantees that in the long run, the shot will go to the 50-50 point, which means it will be challenging.
Also note that each shot is a little different from the one before. I've seen some players who practice the same shot - maybe a long, diagonal straight-in over and over. Heaven help them if they ever got the shot with just a little angle. After this drill, you should be able to accomplish the goal for any distance from "1" up to about your normal ending point.
If you feel frustrated with making only 50% of your shots, there is a pretty easy way to up the percentage. When you miss, move the coin twice as far towards the pocket (maybe one diamond) as you move it away from the pocket (maybe half a diamond). Or, move to a harder spot only if you make two in a row.
Be sure to move the coin every time you're supposed to or you won't get a good measure of your progress.
One thing that this kind of drill lets you find out is how your percentages run on such shots. If you find out that when the cue ball is back by the side pocket (difficulty 4), you almost never can get the cue ball back to the side pocket, you know that in a game situation you need to find a different alternative.
And, if you find yourself facing such a shot a lot in games, you know now a good way to practice it. If you don't make progress in ten sessions of a particular drill, it's time to get help over whatever hurdle is stopping you.