(February Issue 2004)

If you are just beginning to use side spin (english) or are trying to teach a beginner to use it, you have almost certainly noticed that the required aiming is different. Usually the problem is that you need to compensate for squirt (sometimes called deflection). The cue ball does not start out moving parallel to the cue stick when you use side spin, but instead moves off that line along some angle that can be as large as four degrees, and the stick needs to be turned the same number of degrees in the other direction to get the aim right.

Most players learn to compensate for squirt subconsciously; they just aim over some so the cue ball lands where it needs to. Often these players are completely unaware that they are compensating, and might even think their stick is parallel to the line the cue ball takes. The human mind has an amazing ability to ignore the little details and get on with the business at hand which is putting the ball in the pocket.

If you're teaching or learning, however, I think it's better to know the details of what's going on. I think you can learn faster and when things do go wrong, you'll have some idea of what it takes to fix them.

In the diagram is a typical shot that a beginner might have trouble with. The goal is to make the cue ball with enough inside english (right-hand side spin) to carry the cue ball around two cushions to the other end of the table. The shot is set up so that the shooter needs to hit about half of the object ball to make it, which is a 30-degree cut shot.

Usually, a beginner will try to do parallel aiming, so after the cue ball moves to the left (due to the squirt from the right english), the shot will be overcut.

Here is how "backhand english" is used to do the necessary compensation. First aim the shot without english, so the stick points directly through the center of the cue ball. For a half-ball shot, the stick should also be pointed at exactly the edge of the object ball.

Take a few strokes along this line to make sure your aim is right without spin. To make sure your setup has the right angle, you could even shoot the shot and adjust the positions of the balls as necessary.

Once you are sure of the no-english line, bring your tip out to near the cue ball without touching it -- you should be able to get within a half-inch easily. Now, keeping your bridge hand in place, move your backhand (grip hand) to the left to bring the tip over on the cue ball to the right for as much side spin as you want.

Next, take a couple of strokes along the new line. It may look wrong and you may be tempted to move your bridge, but suppress that urge. Once you are satisfied that you have the spin you want, bring the stick straight back and straight through the cue ball along that new line with enough speed to carry the cue ball to the other end of the table.

Did you make the ball? If not, which side did you miss on? If you hit the ball too full, the backhand method gives too much compensation for your bridge and cue stick. If you still want to try it, you will need to use a longer bridge. If you over-cut the ball (hit it too thin), the compensation wasn't enough and you will need to use a shorter bridge. The length of the bridge is a factor because it determines the angle of correction for a given amount of side spin.

For most house cues, this method of compensation works fairly well, because they have quite a lot of squirt. Low-squirt shafts, such as Predator and the new Meucci shafts, don't need nearly as much compensation, so this technique will work only if you have a very long bridge.

Backhand english is also referred to as the "aim-and-pivot" method. There is another technique that some players use, and that is to adjust from center ball to side spin on the final stroke; they come back straight from the center of the ball and then on the final forward stroke, they swerve their arm in or out to get the side spin. I think this last method, which I call "aim and swerve," is a recipe for disaster, but with enough practice, some people can make it work.

Backhand english doesn't work for all people or all sticks, and it certainly doesn't work for all shots even if it does work some of the time, but it is a useful way to introduce side spin squirt compensation to beginners.

(Visit the SFBA web site at for a free set of practice drills in the Basic Clinic handout.)


(January Issue 2004)

Sometimes I think beginners believe too much in aiming systems. They think that if they just find the right way to look at the cue ball, object ball and pocket, they will never miss again. Unfortunately, there is no such system. Aim varies with balls cloth, stick, speed, spin, humidity, and where your head is, literally and figuratively. All systems, or at least the ones I know about, ignore some or most of those factors.

The only way to learn how to aim is to play and develop a feel for angles, but that's not to say that all systems are worthless. A system can provide a first estimate of the line of a shot that you have no feel for, which will frequently be the case if you are just beginning to play seriously. If you practice with one, it can give you confidence in times of stress. A system will usually make you look at the shot, and that alone will improve your play if you've gotten into really lazy habits. Finally, a system will organize angles into a structure that may be easier to understand than if every shot is separate and unconnected to shots at slightly different angles.

The fractional ball aiming system has been with us for perhaps 200 years -- it appears in a book by Edwin Kentfield that was published in 1839. The basic idea is simple: any cut angle is described by "how much" of the object ball the cue ball hits. If the cue ball is directed straight at the object ball, it is said to hit the object ball "full." If the center of the cue ball is sent towards the exact edge of the object ball, it is said to hit "half" of the object ball. If the cue ball barely grazes the edge of the object ball, for a cut of nearly 90 degrees, it is a "very thin" hit.

Various thicknesses of hit are illustrated in the top diagram. Shown is how much the cue ball overlaps the object ball from the tip's-eye-view. Of course the diagram is a simplification, since the balls are drawn as equal-sized two-dimensional disks, and real balls are three dimensional. The cue ball will always appear larger than the object ball at its starting point and even at the time of contact because it will be nearer to you.

Besides full ball and half ball are 1/4th or "quarter" ball and 3/4ths full. To aim for a half ball hit, you actually have a visible target: the edge of the object ball. Your stick should be aimed directly through the center of the cue ball at the edge of the object ball. For 3/4 full, you sort of have a target if your stick is pointed half way from the center of the object ball to the edge. For a 1/4 full shot, your stick must be aimed as much outside the edge of the ball as the 3/4 shot was aimed inside the ball.

In the lower diagram is view from above of a half-ball hit to make things a little clearer. Note that the edge of the cue ball is going towards the center of the object ball, just as it's center is going towards the edge of the object ball. Also drawn is a line half way between the two "centerlines" which turns out to give the two points on the balls that actually make contact at "CP." This demonstrates that the stick is almost never pointed at the spot on the object ball you actually want to contact.

Geometry tells us the cut angles for each of these four cardinal fullnesses of hit. Full ball is pretty obviously a cut of zero degrees. Half ball is 30 degrees, which can be shown pretty easily with equilateral triangles, if you retain some of your high school geometry or mechanical drawing. It's a little harder to work out that 3/4 full is a cut of 14.48 degrees, and 1/4 full cuts the ball 48.59 degrees. A friend of mine memorized the cut angles for thicknesses down to 64ths, so he could tell you that 51/64ths full is a cut of 12 degrees. I think the 1/2 ball angle is plenty for most people, since you have to judge the angles by eye anyway.

Even if you don't use the idea of fractional ball hits to aim, it is very useful to describe how full a shot is hit. In future columns, I'll cover some other common aiming systems.


(December Issue 2003)

When in doubt, use follow.

This is good advice for playing position because the cue ballreally wants to have follow. If you start it with draw, thebackspin will dissipate as the cue ball travels on the clothto the object ball, and if it's a long way to ball, you're likelyto have follow when you get there.

On the other hand, if you start the cue ball with follow, it keepthat follow. If you start the cue ball rolling smoothly -- withneither slide nor overspin -- which you can do by hitting theball about halfway from the center to the top, it will continueto roll smoothly on the cloth. In this situation, you can controlthe distance of the follow simply by controlling the speed of theshot.

In the diagram is a family of drills. In each case, the objectball is a ball or so from the side cushion, and the cue ball isin hand. The goal is to pocket the object ball and leave the cueball close to target position. You can mark that target with anextra object ball, and the goal can be to leave the cue ball withinsix inches of the target ball.

Two of the setups are shown, object ball positions 1 and 4. In both cases, the goal shown is to get to target 1.

For each of the five locations of the object ball, see how manytries it takes you to reach each of the four target positions. Of course, the try doesn't count unless you make the object ball. Doing all 20 situations in fewer than 50 tries is very good. Ifyou get to that level, place a tighter restriction on how closeyou leave the cue ball to the target ball, for example within oneball diameter.

If the object ball is too close to the cushion to bridgecomfortably, move it a little further away. The goal of thedrill is to learn follow, and you can learn awkward bridges someother time.

At first you may have some trouble in deciding where to put thecue ball down to get the right angle to the target. Here is asimple system that works best for small cut angles. When inposition to shoot the shot, note where on the short cushion yourstick is pointed. That will be some distance D. The system saysthat the cue ball -- if played with full follow as describedabove -- will hit the rail a distance four times as large fromthat pocket, or 4D. If that's not the place you want to land,move the cue ball. In the shots diagrammed, the cue stick willbe pointed at D to get to 4D in spite of the fact that thedistances are so different.

A common mistake that a lot of players make with this shot isthat they don't hit the cue ball high enough for it to havesmoothing rolling from the first instant. You can test your ownability to cue the ball high by using a stripe for the cue ball. Place the stripe so that it is horizontal like a belt around theball. Your tip should be almost into the white at the top of theball. Look at the ball after you shoot, and the chalk markshould be barely all on the stripe. With perfect chalking andan ideal hit, you may be able to hit part way into the white, butthat's definitely miscue territory.

Finally, note that if the cue ball starts a ways back from theobject ball -- say three diamonds or so -- you don't have to beso careful to have good follow from the start. If the cue ballis sliding a little at the start, the cloth will "rub on" somefollow during the travel to the object ball, and it will arrivewith "perfect" follow.

Are you ready to practice? While your game can improve by playagainst a lot of players, you can learn specific shots and techniques a lot faster if you single them out and spend timejust with them. This month, let it be follow shots.


(November Issue 2003)

During a recent lesson, I noticed that my student had a puzzled look. Backtracking a short ways, I discovered that I had used the word "draw" without bothering to make sure that its meaning was clear. Unfortunately, even among serious pool players there is often confusion about the terms used to describe what's happening on the table. Here are some pool words and how I use them. Lets start with the parts of the stick. I'll try to avoid getting too technical.

Tip -- that leather thingie on the front of the stick that actually contacts the ball. Tips are usually made from leather, but one company has tried very tough plastic, and some jump cues come with phenolic (hard plastic) tips. Some leather tips are "backed" which means there is a thin fiber wafer glued to the back of the leather that is glued onto the stick, and such tips are especially recommended for cues that have ivory ferrules.

Ferrule -- the usually white part of the stick at the front that the tip is glued to. Most ferrules are made from hard plastic, but high-end cues often have ivory ferrules. Black fiber, buckhorn and brass are also used, the last mostly on snooker cues. Ferrules on pool cues are up to an inch long, but on carom and snooker cues they are often about half an inch long. (More about the games of carom and snooker later.) Ferrules come in various designs -- with and without screw threads, for example.

Shaft -- On a jointed cue, the part between the joint and the tip. On a house (or one-piece) cue, the front foot or so of the stick that slides over your bridge (front) hand.

Taper -- The cue gets bigger from the tip on back, and there are several styles of how quickly this happens. Mostly this applies to jointed cues. The so-called "pro" taper keeps the same diameter over most or all of the shaft that your bridge hand touches -- maybe 14 inches -- and then it flares out to joint. Some cues start to get larger immediiately from the tip, in what' called a "conical" taper. If you are getting a custom cue, the maker should offer a choice in this.

Joint -- In a jointed cue, the screw and its parts that hold the stick together. There are lots of different joint designs, and most of them seem to work fine. Metal to metal, metal to wood, and even wood to wood are available -- yes, the screw is made of wood also. Personally, I don't like designs where both flat surfaces that touch are metal, but all the rest are fine with me. The various joint designs have many different parts, too many to cover here.

Butt -- The thick half of the stick.

Forearm -- This is the part of a jointed cue between the joint and where your back hand holds the cue. On fancy cues, this is where most of the fanciness goes. The various types of decoration have their own whole vocabulary, which is more useful to collectors than to players, so we'll skip it.

Wrap and Handle -- The part of the cue that your back hand holds. Many jointed cues have wraps made of string, leather, cork or rubber. "Irish linen" is the most common kind offered. It's a kind of string that has flecks of colors which help to hide dirt and such. It's relatively easy to put on and maintain. The ultimate in a no-slip grip is offered by a rubber wrap, which is usually a temporary sleeve that is rolled out on the handle. Avoid nylon and similar raps unless you want your back hand to slip during the stroke.

Butt Plate -- The part at the end of the stick that you will be holding if you're stretched way out over the table to reach a distant cue ball. Often this is made of tough plastic to survive frequent encounters with the floor. Fancy sticks will also have a Butt Sleeve which is some added decoration between the end of the wrap and the Butt Plate. House sticks (also known as Wallabushkas, denoting where they're kept) usually have neither and simply end in solid wood.

Bumper -- The rubber part that lets the stick bounce a little if you drop it on the floor.

Balance -- The point along the cue, usually in the forearm, where you can teeter-totter the cue horizontally on a finger, measured from the bumper. A typical balance is 19 inches, and if you get a custom made cue, this is one of the things that you may want to specify. I find that if I'm using a house cue to break at eight or nine ball, the balance is more important to me than weight.

Diameter -- This nearly always refers to the diameter of the ferrule and tip, and is given in millimeters because all the good tips used to be made in France, the home of the metric system. A common diameter is about 13mm, but I like something smaller, down around 11.5mm. Experiment for yourself. On custom cues, you can also specify the diameter of the butt, which is usually given in inches to complicate things.

Weight -- You will find the weights of house cues in ounces stamped on the butt, and it might range from 17 to 21. Often the number is correct within one or two ounces. Some players are very sensitive to the weight of the stick. I recommend that you try a wide range of weights before making any buying decisions.

Stiffness -- The shaft bends to the side when it strikes the cue ball off-center. It's not yet clear that this has a major effect on what you can get the cue ball to do, but it certainly changes how the stick feels in your hands. Some like flexible and some don't.

Squirt -- This was mentioned in an earlier column on the perils of using English. This is also called deflection and is a property of the front part of the shaft, mostly. When you apply side spin, the cue ball moves off to the side some, at an angle that depends on how much spin you're applying. More spin, more squirt. The important point here is that different shafts have different amounts of squirt, and if you try to use English with a shaft that squirts differently than what you're used to, your game will be a series of very unpleasant surprises, culminating in the loss of your room rent. Avoid this outcome.

In future columns, I'll cover other terms used for other parts of equipment and in play -- but not next time, we've had enough vocabulary lesson for a while.


(October Issue 2003)

Many players have a hard time with shots where the cue ball is quite close to the object ball. Aiming is one problem, but avoiding a foul is also hard to do when the balls are separated by less than an inch.

Let's see how well you can do to start with on "short stroke" shots, and then we'll make you twice as good. Put the object ball near the head spot (the middle of the headstring or "line") and just over the line as shown in Shot A. Put the cue ball five inches away so they are pointed straight up the table.

The goal is to make the object ball hit the far cushion without the cue ball going over the line and shooting more or less straight up the table. From five inches back this should be no problem at all -- just hit the cue ball firmly and a little below center. Of course you can't use a full follow-through, or you'll hit the cue ball a second time and send it down the table. For extra credit, can also you make the object ball hit the far rail and then come back to the head rail without double-hitting the cue ball?

Once you're confident shooting with a five-inch separation, put the balls only one ball apart. Can you get to the far cushion without a foul? Gradually work the cue ball closer to the object ball until a foul is guaranteed.

If your best distance is already under half an inch, I'm guessing you've practiced this shot a lot. Here are two ways to improve your distance. The first is a sort of trick that doesn't work in all situations, but does work here. Use a firm, short closed bridge, have the cue stick riding right down on the cushion, and move your grip hand forward so your index finger will run into the rail just before the tip reaches the cue ball. The idea is to run your stick forward, lightly smash your hand into the table, have the tip hit the ball, and then the stick will quickly recoil due to the springiness of your hand. This sounds horrible, but it's actually not too painful. Start slowly. Adjusting the position of your grip hand is critical -- it will not be in your normal grip position. Again, start from a ways back and work up to a small separation. You should be able to consistently play the shot with less than a half-inch separation.

The second method will work in most situations. Simply move your grip hand so far forward that your forearm is parallel to the floor at the moment of tip-ball contact. For most players, this will be a grip position forward of the wrap on the butt of the cue. The idea is to be out of stroke just as the tip hits the ball -- let your forearm close completely so that your grip hand hits your chest. In a standard stance, your grip-hand forearm is perpendicular to the floor (straight up and down) at the moment of tip-to-ball contact, so this grip will feel very, very unusual. If you perfect this technique, you should be able to easily drive the object ball two table lengths with just a chalk-width between the object ball and cue ball. Also, in the position in Shot B, you should be able to draw the cue ball back to the side cushion with no problem, even with just half a ball space between the balls.

These close-ball techniques have to be practiced to work well.

They both depend on a very precise set-up before the shot so that the mechanics will start slowing the stick at just the right time. In a future column, I'll discuss two other techniques to avoid close-ball fouls.


(September Issue 2003)

One of the most important shots to master for position play is the stop shot. It often allows you to plan several easy shots in a row with absolutely minimum cue ball movement.

A stop shot is a straight-in shot played so that the cue ball stops dead at impact with object ball. This is usually done by starting the cue ball with some backspin (draw) which is rubbed off by the cloth on the way to the object ball. Struck right, the cue ball will loose its last bit of draw just as it reaches the object ball.

On most straight-ins, there are many combinations of draw and speed that achieve this goal. You could shoot Shot A in Diagram1 just below center and quite hard, or you could hit softly and as far below center as possible without inviting a miscue. Either one can get the cue ball to arrive without spin at the object ball.

To see this, shoot Shot A using a stripe as the cue ball. This will let you see the spin rub off the cue ball as it goes down the table. First try the shot without any object ball there --just watch the stripe spin backwards, stop, and then start to spin forward when you play the shot with draw and moderate speed. Adjust the speed and distance below center that you hit the cue ball so that the cue ball is skidding as it passes the side pocket; the stripe will appear to be stationary then. Once you have the cue ball doing the right thing, add the object ball, and you'll have a perfect stop shot. Try a few different speeds to see which works the best for you.

In Shot B is a progressive practice drill for stop shots. On each shot, the object ball goes in the spot shown. The cue ball, in the mean time, moves half a diamond back for each good shot, and a diamond towards the object ball for each unsuccessful shot. The requirement is to make the object ball and leave the cue ball covering the ghost ball at least partly. (The ghost ball is where the cue ball needs to be at the instant of contact to make the shot. It is also called the phantom ball. It's imaginary, not a real ball.) Keep track of the cue ball's progress with a coin. If you can't get very far with the strict requirement, relax it a little to allow the cue ball to drift up to a hand-span after contact, but don't allow any forward motion. Your score in progressive practice drills is according to the position of the cue ball after ten or fifteen shots. Just shoot a rack or so of the drill, and then note the position of the coin. Remember --and this is hard for a lot of players -- to move the coin forward or backwards after each good or bad shot. For more into on progressive practice, visit the SFBA web site, and print out the handout for the Basics Clinic. It's free!

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