Position play is relatively simple in concept – you need to know where you want the cue ball to go, then how to make it go there. Of course you still need to have decent fundamentals in order to hit the cue ball correctly, experience to be able to aim properly, and enough practice and coordination to be able to execute the shot, but without a plan to get on the next shot the game simply becomes a pure shot making exercise, one that you will surely lose.
I learned a lot about position play from reading books and watching a ton of recorded professional matches. You can learn a lot from the commentary, and with all of the free content available on YouTube and similar sites you have months or even years of matches available for your viewing pleasure. If you like to read and really study the technical aspects of the game, I highly recommend anything by Robert Byrne or Phil Capelle, they’ve each written many excellent books on various facets of pool. If you can only get one or two, get the Standard Book of Pool & Billiards by Byrne or Play Your Best Pool by Capelle, you won’t be disappointed.
Position play is achieved through a combination of knowledge, angle, spin, and speed. You have to know what is possible and what is not, and where the correct position is – without this, you might play perfect position to an incorrect target. You need the correct angle in order to keep the route as simple as possible and avoid obstacles. You need the right spin in order to get the cue ball to travel on the desired angle and path, and finally the correct speed to land at the intended location.
There are several principles that come into play when thinking about playing position. I’m going to list ten key concepts that I think are important, many of which I learned from reading the books mentioned above or hearing concepts discussed over and over during recorded pool matches.
1) Perfect Angle + Perfect Speed = Perfect Position
This is the key, plain and simple. You need to have the correct angle on the shot, and then use the correct speed/spin on the cue ball to follow the intended path to the next shot in the sequence. Simple, right?
2) Think in Threesomes… J
Position play is all about thinking in groups of threes – you want the correct angle on your current shot, which then takes you to the correct position on the next shot, allowing you to get position on the third ball in the sequence. Danny DiLiberto, legendary pro pool player and frequent match commentator, is famous for saying “You need an angle for an angle”. Players should of course look at the rest of the rack and scope out any problems, look for key sequences, etc., but essentially you are simply performing a rolling three ball analysis and execution throughout each game – 1/2/3, 2 /3/4, 3/4/5, etc., until you sink the game ball. With knowledge and practice this will become second nature.
3) Get in the Zone
I’ve heard many players, even pros, talk about playing precise position for a specific spot. “That guy can stop his cue ball on a dime”. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but no one can stop the cue ball that accurately shot after shot. While it may be advantageous to pick out a specific spot, and let your mind/eye computer use programmed muscle memory to feel the shot and send the cue ball there, the game is really about understanding and visualizing the position zones on each shot. These zones can vary in size from half a table to a few inches, can be wide or narrow, and are roughly triangular or rectangular in shape, narrowing as you approach the object ball. They are typically limited by obstructing balls, the rails, or maximum practical cut angles for the shot. Learn to identify and visualize these zones!
4) Enter at Your Own Risk
Now that you are visualizing the zones, you should try whenever possible to enter the zone correctly. Imagine a rectangular-shaped zone that narrows as it gets closer to the object ball (this forms a trapezoid for you geometry geeks). You ideally want to send the cue ball down the line (right down the middle of the rectangle/trapezoid lengthwise) or across the widest part of the zone (the part usually farthest away from the object ball). Doing one of these things ensures that you are in the position zone for as long as possible, which maximizes your margin for error and allows you to stay in line from shot to shot.
5) It’s Good to be Right
Right-sided, that is… On most shots there is a right (correct) and a wrong side. Being on the right (correct) side makes the shot natural and simple, the wrong side often requires more speed, more spin, or a creative or high-risk recovery shot to attain position. Think about when you are shooting a ball in the side pocket, and your next shot is in the middle of the end rail. Would you rather be on the right side, above the ball, and just float down toward the next shot, or be on the wrong side and have to force the ball around the table 2 or 3 cushions, using more speed and bringing into play other blocker balls and the scratch? This may be necessary sometimes, but staying on the correct side of the shot makes getting to the next position zone a breeze.
6) Long is Strong
Most players do pretty well with this one naturally but it’s still worth mentioning. If a ball is 1 diamond away from the corner, it makes sense to position the cue ball on the long side, minimizing the distance the object has to travel into the pocket and maximizing your position zone. The zone is very small on the short side and most players intuitively know that. The key is planning ahead so you can utilize the zone on the long side, and also knowing when it makes sense to play for the short side in order to increase your overall odds of running out.
7) Keep it Natural
Try to position the cue ball so that you can use natural shape to travel to the next ball in the sequence. It makes both the shot and position easier since you are minimizing or eliminating spin on the cue ball and only need to control your speed to attain good position. These shots are the bread and butter of great players and what makes the game look far easier than it is.
8) Stay Centered
Getting back to the center of the table is a very important concept. When shooting from the center of the table, most shots are available and fairly close, and only those balls near the middle of the end rails or high up on the side rails are not accessible. As a bonus, if the cue ball passes directly through the center of the table after hitting a rail, it’s impossible to scratch! Practice the various 1, 2, and 3 rail routes leading to or through the center of the table and your game will improve immensely.
9) Play the Percentages
In general, try to attain position following the simplest and/or highest percentage path. If you already have good position with a stop shot, don’t try to get a little bit closer or a slightly better angle at the risk of missing the shot or losing position. Sliding the cue ball a bit is usually preferable to using 1 rail, 1 rail is usually preferable to 2, 2 is better than 3, follow is usually easier to control than draw, etc. I say “usually” because there are always exceptions based on the layout of the table or your personal preferences. One thing I’ve learned from watching a lot of commented matches is that most good players use very similar position routes with just a few personalized deviations. They’ve all learned the hard way through experience what not to do or what isn’t the highest percentage shot. While following the above mentioned principles (and others) is very important, you also have to know when to break the rules. Shooting an easy shot and taking a slightly harder shot on the next ball is often better than trying a risky position play to get perfect on the next ball. Weigh your options at the table and let knowledge and experience guide you in making the best decisions you can.
10) Dare to be Different
Staying focused on the proper way to play and the percentages is necessary if you want to win. But we all need to have a little fun sometimes too, right? Don’t be afraid to experiment during practice, shooting shots at different speeds, with unconventional spins, etc. Set up a shot by marking the table or using hole reinforcers, and shoot it using all combinations of spin to see what happens. Work on your stroke, trying to maximize your draw or follow action. Play with using side spin and how to compensate for the various effects (deflection, curve, etc.) at different distances and shot speeds. You will not only learn quite a bit about how spin can be used to alter cue ball’s path, but you will also learn your limits on certain types of shots, allowing you to better assess your chances in a game. And if you learn some cool or difficult shots or position routes, don’t be afraid to use them in a game when you need to, just use them sparingly and in appropriate situations.