Doing things instinctively
We do many things in life without thinking, such as eating, walking etc; these skills that we have learned are so inbuilt that we can do them without really paying attention. As you progress with Billiards you should aim to build up a knowledge of shots so that you do not have to think about what presents itself on the table - you should know the shot. Similarly, your cue delivery should natural and practiced so that the motor skills required to deliver the cue are inbuilt. In effect you are doing things naturally, using your subconscious. If you can work towards achieving this, you will improve your play. Nevertheless, sometimes you will be presented with a shot that confuses you; perhaps you will not be sure whether to play the shot or to play safe. In this case, you need to complete your shot preparation before you play the shot.
Before you get down for the shot be absolutely clear as to which shot you are going to play and how you are going to play it. Stand back from the shot and analyze it. It is important to realise that if you begin thinking about altering the shot when you are about to play it, you should stop and stand up, to begin your preparation again. Obvious as this may sound, everyone breaks this rule from time to time and this often results in a missed shot.
Once you have decided what you are going to play, walk into the shot, looking at the line that you are going to play, and as you get down to address the cue ball you should be looking at the object ball and the line of aim that you need. Just before you are fully down on the shot, transfer your sighting to the cue ball and point your cue at the aim point on the cue ball.
Now look back and forth from the cue ball to object ball to line up the shot, whilst completing your preliminary strokes. After you have completed this part (‘feathering’ the cue ball), as you take your backswing, look at the object ball and keep your eyes on it.
This is a personal thing and you will need to experiment with different techniques to find what is right for you. Two to five preliminary strokes should normally be enough. You can use even preliminary strokes or you can increasing or decreasing the amount of cue action in order to prepare for the shot. At the end of this it is usually best to take a short pause, with the cue pointing at the cue ball, before starting the backswing.
You need to develop good timing to get spin on the cue ball. There are certain shots that require you to get as much backspin or sidespin on the cue ball as you can manage and it is these particular shots that require good timing. However, even on simple shots good timing will enable you to strike the cue ball with the least force necessary to make the shot; less force normally means more accuracy and therefore better results.
Timing is all about the cue delivery, which begins with the backswing. Your cue and cue-arm have a natural cadence in just the same way as a pendulum in a grandfather clock or a garden swing. If you try to go against your natural rhythm then, to some extent, you will lose timing. If you use a very quick backswing and delivery without any pause in the backswing you will be effectively fighting against the physics of the shot and will not get as much spin, screw etc on the cue ball. Try to push a garden swing forwards when it is travelling backwards and you get the same effect; it doesn’t want to move against the natural timing. However, give it a push as it is just about to begin moving downwards and it will accelerate nicely. Therefore, it is essential to have at least some pause at the end of the backswing, as the cue direction reverses.
When the tip hits the cue ball the cue decelerates momentarily due to the conservation of momentum. However, the cue arm carries a lot of momentum in itself and then drives the cue forward once again, through the cue ball, enhanced by releasing the wrist at impact, along with squeezing the fingers to push the cue through.
So, although coaches often talk about accelerating through the cue ball, in reality this is impossible to do (as shown by high-speed cameras) and most players will at best achieve near to a constant cue speed at impact. However, if you concentrate on pushing through the cue ball the tip will remain in contact with the cue ball for as long as possible and you will get more action on the cue ball.
If you tie a piece of string or a handkerchief around the butt of the cue and hold the string/handkerchief approximately 6 inches from the butt, you will be able to swing the cue freely. Now try to hit the cue ball. You will be forced to hit the ball in synchronization with the natural cadence of the cue; if you go against this, you will probably be unable to strike the cue ball at all. This is a good exercise for getting the feel of the timing and you will probably be surprised at how easily you can hit the cue ball, once your timing is good.
Having a good stance is fundamental to playing good Billiards, but your particular stance will depend on your build and physical makeup. Billiard tables were designed when the average height was much less than it is now, so if you are tall you will find that you need to adjust your feet position accordingly. Get a stance that is good for you, so that you can be still on the shot, feel comfortable and deliver the cue in a straight line. When you are down on the shot you should be solid yet comfortable.
Playing the line
When you are happy with your stance, are aiming correctly and correctly set up for the shot, play the line. You know the shot to play, you have decided the line of aim, you are addressing the cue ball correctly - now is not the time to change anything - simply deliver the cue along the line of aim, that is all. Trying to put that extra bit of side on at this stage can end in disaster. Try to follow the important principle of:
See if you can play a straight pot off the Billiard Spot with your eyes closed. When you are all set to play the shot, close both eyes and deliver the cue. You should be able to do this.
Now try this with other more difficult shots, particularly losing hazards from distance. You will be surprised how many you get.
Quality of the Stroke
As the most common stroke in Billiards is the in-off, it is very important to get the cue ball rolling nicely before it hits the object ball. Many of the strokes played from hand will be half-ball shots and you must concentrate on the smoothness of the cue action to achieve a consistent half-ball throw of the cue ball. Billiards is very different from Snooker in this aspect as Snooker is all about the player's aim and hitting the object ball at an exact point. To get a half-ball loser you do not have to hit an exact point on the object ball because the margin of error is much greater than for pots, but the quality of the stroke must be such that the cue ball is truly rolling on impact with the object ball. Jerky/punchy cue actions will cause skidding of the cue ball and the cue ball to take a wider path than the natural angle.
One of the most difficult things to grasp for a player new to Billiards, is how to strike the cue ball sweetly, with a nice follow through, to 'bite' into the cue ball, without using pace. Snooker players tend to use a long backswing, a punchy action and a limited follow through. This is fine for some shots, but not very efficient at getting the side on.
Have a look at the video of the Short Jenny and see the tip 'biting' into the cue ball. The cue is pushed through the shot.
Different backswings for different shots
A golfer would not take a full backswing (as if hitting a driver) for a short chip from just off the green. The same principle applies in Billiards. Unlike many other cue sports, Billiards needs you to play with 'a full set of clubs'. Snooker can be played more or less the same long backswing for most shots, whereas with Billiards you will need to adjust your cue delivery much more often.
Practically, if you have a forcing loser, it is probably best if you use a full backswing but with a gentle cannon, you should move your grip up the cue and use a minimum backswing.
For shots in between, use the backswing that you need, and no more.