Well, sir, it has been almost two years now since I was in a strange pool hall. Most all of the time I go down to old St. Elmo's on Brook Avenue in Norfolk where everybody knows me—and nobody will play me. It's all right; I always have to practice alone. But this one time two years ago I ambled into a tiny, old, beat-up place in some West Virginia town and I was shooting a few. Nothing fancy. Suddenly it got real quiet in there, and I kind of glanced around and caught them all looking at me. Finally someone sidled over and said, "Hey, boy. You kin really play this here game." And I sort of shrugged and said, "Well, hell, I'm only just practicing." And I waited for them to maybe get their money out. But they all just stood around there with their hands in their pockets a lot, and that is what I am here to tell you. It has got so you can't sneak up on anybody anymore.
Now, I have been a pool shooter all my life, man and boy. A shooter. Do not ever confuse that with hustler. I have got nothing against hustling, if that happens to be your game, but even the hustlers will tell you that I am not one. I am strictly a money player, which is something else again, and I will play you for money, marbles or chalk. I mean, I come from out of Norfolk, which used to be the pool-shooting hub of the whole world, I swear, and they had more gambling there than's ever been. But they also produced a generation of gentleman pool sharks. Weren't for pool maybe I could have been a millionaire. But you do what you can in this old world, and that is the way life is.
Long time ago I used to stand there and peek over the lattice work into that cool-looking darkness of the old City Billiards in Elizabeth City, N.C. And I heard the sound of those old ivory balls going "pock!" Man, there is no other sound in the world nice as a ball dropping into a pocket. And it seemed as though the place had a special sort of smell to it that you could breathe. Like old green-felt tables and brass spittoons and those dark, polished woods. Then a bluish haze of smoke and sweet pool chalk and, strongest of all, a kind of manliness. All through me I could feel something else, I didn't know what, but it seemed like a fine, lazy tension in the air. I was 13. And that did it.
Maybe pool shooters are born. Mama always wanted me to study and become a doctor. Daddy was a mill foreman making $62 a week, and mostly he wanted me to do the chores and grow up to be a something. Neither one of them ever wanted me to shoot pool. Uh, uh. But by the time I was 15 years old I was shooting maybe seven, eight hours a day, and people had already started to back away from me. I had a little bit of money in my pocket, and the game had me up tight.
Oh, sure, I played some baseball. In fact, it was at some little old ball game that I once ate 12 hot dogs and drank 13 Cokes and Orange Crushes, and everybody fell to calling me Wimpy. But still I began playing pool in my old plaid knickers that buckled right below my knees, and I had a slingshot hanging out of my back pocket.
And you know what happened? Wasn't long before I was hanging around down at City Billiards and looking in the back door at that beautiful blackness. It finally got so I looked like a piece of the furniture down there, and nobody even noticed I was under age.
I'll tell you, those were the days. By the time I was 18 or 19 the word got out, somehow. And those well-dressed strangers with their slick hair and clean fingernails began to drift into town from all around and try and get me. All the good old boys at City Billiards thought that was pretty funny. I could always get up plenty of local money to back me, and we would shoot those strangers loopy-legged and leave them just enough to catch the bus out of town and split the winnings.
Stakes got pretty high, naturally. But I sure wasn't losing much, because if I lost it came out of my share of the pot. Still, I was all of 21 years old before I ever had a whole $100 all to myself. The thing is, I had played for $100 many times and it had made a man out of me. A pool hall, remember, is a meeting place where men gather to talk and shoot a few games, and it is the closest thing to a gentlemen's club you are ever going to find in this country, I'll tell you.
More money that was at stake in a game, more it made me fight. It still does today. And by the time I got to Norfolk, around 1945 or so, I was really shooting high and handsome. Gambling for big pots. I mean, you talk about discipline. Well, maybe milking a whole herd of cows every morning or keeping the woodbin full is good for your soul, but I swear, ain't no tougher builder of men than $50 Freeze Out. That is where each guy puts $50 in the pot and you all take off your coats and settle down to shooting some serious, uninterrupted pool, and first guy to get 10 games ahead takes it all. Ten games builds a lot of tension, I'll tell you. I can remember one time when it took me 18 straight hours to get 10 games ahead, and I was so disciplined you couldn't stand it.
Guess I'll always be a natural-born clutch player and not a tournament or exhibition man. Why, I had never wanted to enter any tournaments in the first place, because I just knew that it would get so that everybody would recognize me, and I wanted to be able to sneak up on them. Or have them try and sneak up on me, which is almost as good. But I finally got talked into it, all right, and maybe you know what happened; I won a whole lot of matches around the country, Johnson City and all, and I lost a few too and I won the world championships in New York City in 1963, 1964 and 1966 and 1967.
But I keep in mind my oldtime rule that tournaments aren't the real test of pool. The real test is not what the prize money is—it most always isn't very much—but how much money from your own pocket is on the game. It separates the men from the hustlers.
And now, looking back on it all, I'm not so sure I would make a real good millionaire. I mean, I have got a little old house in my home town and an old Cadillac I drive around in and a suitcase and a sturdy, shiny tuxedo and a pool cue with a $2.50 gold piece in the handle. I lack about two feet of having enough room to keep a pool table in my house—but old St. Elmo's is just 44 miles down the road, and everybody there knows me. Nobody hustles me and I don't hustle nobody in return.
For years now colleges have been trying to get me to play exhibitions, and people have been asking me to teach them how to play the game. And for years now I have been insisting that you can't just haul off and teach anybody to shoot pool. You have got to feel it inside your bones and play it a lot. But there is one thing I can do, and I'm going to do it.
I am going to assume right now that maybe you already play the game a little bit (I can't start with beginners; a beginner's got to be about 13 years old in a pair of raggedy old knickers). Then I will tell you what to do and maybe the best way to do it to improve your game, what to look for and the one, big key to the whole thing.
Now, I don't promise to turn you into an overnight shark. And especially not a hustler. Because, sure enough, you are going to hustle someone, and they are going to stumble up to that table all splayfooted like a blind cripple, and then they are going to shoot your eyes out and maybe leave you with just enough bus fare to get out of town.
But do like I say and maybe someday soon someone is going to say to you, "You kin really play this here game." And you will wait for them to maybe get some money up. And if they do....
Oh, Lordy, you're on your own.
Now for some serious shooting. But remember: this here thing is a cue, not a club—so hold on it gently and make a bridge you can work with. My Old Basic is best, the bridge for most everything—breaks, English, cutting and all. I put my little finger out like a brace and plant my hand squarely. A High Bridge is the one you'll use next most often. It's for close quarters. Just curl up your thumb and make a saddle for the cue, let your index finger become the bracer. Everybody can do the Rail Bridge, but the Fingertip, to keep from fouling, and the Masse, to curl the ball, are tough. The secret is to stand steady and never lean on your hand. If you miss, you should always blame the chalk.
"By the way, it sure can't hurt nothing to wear a tine ring on your little finger. Mine is tooled gold with three rubies. Folks get to watching that shiny old ring, and they can't learn your secret."
And now we get more technical. You want complete control of the game. So always walk around to check where the cue ball might go when you hit it. Then face your shot squarely, all flat-footed and firm. If you need hard, fast action and extra hop or draw on the ball, swing around and plant your weight on your left foot. The butt of the cue will raise up, as in the top two pictures here. Same stance, weight on right foot, as in the pictures below, will drop the butt of the cue down for all your delicate shots, especially for right or left English and cutting. My high stance (above) will make that cue ball hop, then draw back to me; the low one (below) will make the cue ball follow. These are your two basic working positions: low stance for fancy play and follow and high stance for power and draw. If you run into troubles, try to shorten up a bit on your stroke.
"Don't laugh. I dress baggy like this for a reason. In competition I always wear real loose clothes, floppy pants and all. It may not be stylish, but you can't afford to have clothes grabbing you when you're shooting."
SHOOT FOR POSITION
The secret of pool is positioning, and the best way for me to show it is to shoot it. This here is pretty fancy stuff: we did it with flickering light. When the ball is sharp and spaced out, it is rolling fast. It gradually comes together in a blur as it slows down. When it twists you can see the English on it. Now then, let's say we face the problem above. To get at the 9-ball, sitting on the rail near me, I must first sink that 1-ball down at the far end. I take the low stance I showed you earlier, apply slight low-right English and stroke it smooth—no jumping. The cue ball takes off, sinks the 1-ball and, still barreling pretty fast, heads for the right cushion. Now note that the English does not grab it until it comes off the second cushion. There it takes on overspin to hold it on course. The third cushion takes the English back off, and after the fourth cushion it lazily rolls up to where I can get at the 9-ball. Now we'll try a draw-follow. The 1-ball shot (below) is easy. Trouble is, we got to get that cue ball back. This time I take a high stance, apply right English, and blast the 1-ball right in. I hit this one hard. It takes three cushions before the English gets on the cue ball, and after five cushions it comes up tamely right where we want it. Now here's a jump-follow that fine curving shot above. That cue ball jumps for a reason: we must sink the 1-ball, then do a little Huckle-Buck and get the cue ball to move over into all those easy cripples. I take a low stance and hit the cue ball just above right center, with a whole lot of follow-through. I got to hit that object ball so square that the cue ball, with all its top spin, actually hops a little and spins enough to come off four cushions just so-What I call the bank shot, southern style (below) is a trademark of mine. Man, I love it. There's no problem here. I should be able to sink that 1-ball by cutting it. But angling is always risky: Why use part of a pocket when you've got a whole pocket to aim at? I step up low stance, aim low center. The 1-ball banks in. Then the slight draw effect pulls the cue ball right over to the 9.
"Playing position is tough. But keep at it and remember Lassiter's First Law: when you are shooting, nobody else can shoot. Get too fancy and you are just liable to end up sitting there while somebody runs the table on you. And nothing's badder than that, no sir."
PLAY THE BREAKS
So far we've been using examples from Rotation or Nine-Ball to practice positioning on. Now we'll play Straight Pool or 14-1, where you sink 14 balls in a row, calling each one—then sink the 15th ball and break up the new rack at the same time. You'll often find that last ball in some crazy spots. In these four pictures you see me make two hard and two soft breaks. Above, I take a low stance for delicacy, sink the key 5-ball and let the cue ball bust them up just a little. I hit it low for backspin, use right English for action and it pulls back in good position. At top right, I use power, cut that 9-ball finely and draw from the rail. The cue ball then hits the rack and takes off for the far end. Note that I'll have a clear lie on the 14-ball and 6-ball next. I've hit another hard one below at the left, sinking the 11-ball as a bonus, with enough low-right English to snake the cue ball back out. The last shot is a gentle thing, sinking the 9-ball and setting up the 15 with a draw. In all four of these situations, see how I try to keep the cue ball away from the rack and free.
"I don't know, maybe if I had shot billiards when I was a kid it might have sharpened my eye and helped my pool. But billiards always was a sissy game, anyway, in my book, and plain old Rotation is terrible dead. No sir, when you get right down to it. there's nothing like Nine-Ball and Straight Pool to make a player out of you. You got to use all that's on the table and sing, dance and ad-lib a little, too."
YOU CAN DO THIS ONE
Everybody needs a couple of trick shots in his bag—to shake up the rubes—and with just a little practice you can pull off this snazzy number yourself. Set up any six balls just as I have above. Hit 'em with a low, firm shot—don't use any English, of course—and all six will pop in, each in a different pocket, as you can see below. The secret is that the six balls must be frozen [touching] exactly the way they are above. The cue ball must be driven up the middle with what I would call calm speed. Note by the images that they're all zinging right along.
"Never, ever show off your trick shots in a pool hall. Sure enough, some beat-up, shaky, half-blind old man is gonna ask how you did it. Then you'll ask him to play—and hell shoot you full of holes."
In competition there is a lot to be said for striking your man dumb with a final fancy demoralizer. Here the 1-ball and 9-ball are both silting temptingly near the corner pockets, so why not go for them both. Hit the cue ball above center, give it lots of top-English and plenty of follow, and it will curl around to both shots and, as a bonus, come off in a good spot.
"You have got to play to spook your opponent as much as you play the game itself. An occasional fancy touch will always cut 'em up."
That whoop-de-do shot above and the one at the right are half trick, half serious, but there's no harm using them every now and then. If you can't drill a ball directly into a pocket, feel free to carom it off a couple of others. In this case, sink the 1-ball off the 7-ball and 9-ball. You don't need English, just a slight, dainty draw, and watch that cue ball pull back.
"You learn to size up all these shots after you've been around a while. It just seems hard at first. But never forget: even when you're in cold-blooded stroke, you got to miss sometime. Can't run 'em forever."
People keep sidling up to me all around the country and saying, "Come on, Wimpy, what's the real secret of playing pool?" And I never tell them anymore. I used to—and nobody would believe that it was that simple. But I'll tell you one last time. Ready? Never, ever overcut the ball. It is as easy as that, but it is the key to winning pool. Everybody has this natural tendency to overcut. They put on a little too much English, a little too much top spin, too hard of a draw. They make the cue ball go all curly and they lose control of it. So don't overcut. Just play steady, and play conservative. And with that—ain't nothing more I can tell you. Well, except to leave you with this final thought: the one gladdest thing in this whole world is running the table, just moving around it all light and easy inside, shooting and listening to your own music. The saddest thing in this old world is just sitting there while someone runs the table on you. I know both moods. You play a while, you'll get to know them, too—and that's what pool is all about.
TWELVE PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS