Joe Lavin

April 27, 2004

Teach Yourself Losing at Billiards


Knowledge is timeless, and so when I was given a copy of Richard Holt's "Teach Yourself Billiards and Snooker," I was undaunted. So what if it was published in Great Britain in 1957? That doesn't mean that I couldn't learn something from it to improve my pool game.

As I only started playing pool a few years ago, my game could use a lot of improvement. Only recently have I begun to see the merit in even aiming at the balls. This new strategy has helped my game, but just marginally. Still, this simple book from the 1950s -- well worth its $1.65 cover price -- held much promise. With what I learned from it, I hoped that I might soon be able to beat my friend Mark, who has been playing since junior high. This book might be just what my pool game needed, I thought.

Alas, it was most definitely not, but I did learn many interesting things, such as:

"In a word, good Billiards is the art of controlling the balls and working them in a harmonious or skillfully gauged fashion."

Well, thanks for clearing that up. In a word, Mr. Holt is verbose. Sadly, the whole book reads like this. This was only the introduction, and even then I was starting to think that learning pool from a stodgy old Brit from the 1950s might not be the best idea.

"The purpose of [billiards] is, as implied above, to make, in sequence, as many cannons, losing and winning hazards as possible, and thereby to score more points than one's opponent."

This was about the time I realized that British billiards might differ from the version I play. (Actually, most types differ from the version I play.) Mr. Holt cluttered his book with dozens of terms like this that I had never heard before. One chapter is even entitled "The Long Loser." I would tell you more about what this is, but I already know all I need to know about losing at pool for a long time. I figured I could skip this chapter.

Other chapters I have not yet read include, "Stun, Stab, and Screw," "Influence of the Nap," "Potentialities of the Colours," and "The Intentional Miss."

This last one I have decided to incorporate into my game, if only to explain away all the inept shots I end up taking.

"One of the most important things in Billiards ... is concentration. It is well, therefore, that every player should school himself to put up with every kind of disturbing noise or influence which is apt to crop up in the billiard hall, and this means that he should accept them as inevitable and bound to occur, instead of allowing irritation to ruffle him and disturb his fixity of purpose."

I think this point can be best illustrated by a recent experience of mine at the pool hall. If, for example, you are playing pool in a bit of dive frequented mostly by teenagers and if two of the teenage girls there happen to be sitting on each other's laps and kissing each other on the lips for much of a half-hour, you should not let this distract you from your game. In short, if this happens, you should not act like Mark. Do not allow your game to come completely unglued at this critical moment. Unlike Mark, you should especially not forget that you are solids and let your friend win simply because you hit his ball in by mistake.

Certainly, Mark wasn't alone. I suspect that you have never seen such poorly played pool as I did that night. Just about every man in the place was desperately pretending to concentrate on his game, while at the same time keeping track of all the very latest developments on the hot-teenage-girls-kissing front. Let's just say that every man there that night had a definite "fixity of purpose," and it had nothing to do with pool.

"To make half-ball contact, we aim, as stated, through the center of the cue-ball (not shown) at the outside (central) edge of the object-ball (point B, ball 1) and A will be the point at which the rim of the cue-ball (theoretically, of course) would intersect the object-ball."

If you find this confusing, then you don't even want to see the diagrams. There are diagrams in this book that make one want to run to the comfort and solace of a geometry textbook. Still, it has brought about a significant change in my game. Whereas before I played poorly, now I'm also confused while playing poorly. Before, I would simply miss shots. Now, I miss shots and worry about whether I used the wrong hypotenuse.

I suppose this is progress, but I doubt it's going to help me beat my friend. My new plan is to give Mark a copy of this book. If I'm lucky, it will confuse him just as much it confuses me, and I might have a decent shot at winning.

That's Plan B, of course. Plan A is to bring the kissing teenage girls back to the pool hall.


©2004 Joe Lavin

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