Physics and Pool

By Jim Meador

If it was possible to talk the balls into the pocket, I would be seeded number one on the pro billiard tour. Unfortunately, talk is cheap, and nothing worth pursuing can be acquired cheaply. "Shut up and shoot" is an admonition, that should be carved in stone above every billiard parlor entrance.

I am personally guilty of describing, in nauseating detail, every pivotal shot I miss, to anyone who can fog a mirror, and is lonely enough to fake interest. A glassy-eyed nod is good enough for me. I'll describe, with remarkable recall, every nuance of a shot, to a drunken goat herder. The fact that my victim speaks no english and is too drunk to lick his lips is irrelevant. In recompense, I try to be patient when the situation is reversed. I will nod interest in someone else's pool crimes, at least until I fall out of my chair. None of this has anything to do with the topic. However, as a lighthearted introduction to the heavy stuff, it might have a redeeming quality.

The topic here is pool and physics; or more accurately, pool is physics. No other game on earth is so vulnerable to the natural laws of physics, with the possible exception of sex. (Every story should have sex in it. That was my contribution.)

Pool is physics transcribed for poets and artists. At its best, it is Swan Lake. The player is the conductor, the cue stick his baton, and the balls are dancers on a stage of green felt. When the game is played skillfully, one is mindful of the harmony that exists between man and nature. When I shoot, one is mindful of famine, pestilence and (pay attention here) chaos. But, why not. The likelihood that I will fall victim to chaos is law, not luck.

It is a fact that, unless intelligently influenced otherwise, it is the nature of all things to fall into chaos. (I can't intelligently influence my thumb.) It is one of the laws of physics, and seems paradoxical. One would think that order, being the most effective way to assure success, should be nature's way. But it ain't so. It is nature's scheme to create problems that will force living things to think. Ultimate survival depends on the power of the mind; not swiftness of foot, sharpness of tooth or keenness of eye. If we don't have problems to solve, we create them. That explains why games are such a critical part of our lives. They provide us with brain food. Without problems to solve, man would regress to a stone age mentality. I'm halfway there now. I shoot pool like a Neanderthal with a brain tumor. 

If you can believe that a tendency toward disorder is a law of physics, consider its implications to the game of pool. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to run a rack of 8 ball? With each shot we appear to be "organizing" a victorious end. Yet, for some reason, the last few shots become increasingly difficult, and we often find ourselves in a "Murphy's Law" position on the money ball. It is not bad luck. It is law! Add to this, the brain's tendency to disorganize under stress, and the chaos is exacerbated. In order to play smart pool, we have to violate at least one natural law by applying others that are more easily controlled. (Stay with me. I might need help.)

Learning to overcome chaos is the unconscious goal of every pool player. Professional pool players, even if they don't know it, owe their success to this fact. They have learned, for example, that the easiest shot may not be the smartest shot. By removing the easiest balls from the table too early, we dutifully fall victim to chaos later. This does not mean we should take tough shots if missing is probable. It means we should manage the table in an effort to take advantage of our opponents mismanagement. When advised to "Manage the table", you are being wisely instructed to overcome chaos, as it affects your strategy, and to put your opponent into chaos, as it affects his or hers. Obvious, you say? Get a grip! If it were so obvious, table management would not be so underutilized.

So, how do we overcome the chaotic conditions that lead to defeat? First, don't think too much. Too much thinking is a sin, and it hurts between the eyes. Thinking a little bit is okay, if nobody knows you're doing it. Remember that chaos feeds on too much thinking, especially when attempted by pool players. Focus on the object ball. Slowly fine tune your aim. If there is any brain matter left consider, without thinking too much, where the cue ball is likely to end up. Unless you're an advanced player, be satisfied with a safe, general area, not a specific spot. Leave yourself an option. Don't try position that could leave you snookered and your opponent open. Above all, make all of these decisions, and those regarding speed and deflection, before you bend over to shoot. This will allow you to concentrate on the object ball. You will get better at this with experience, and maybe a few beers. O.K. I lied about the beer. Like driving, drinking and pool don't mix. As a matter of fact, neither does driving and shooting pool. (I've heard that alcohol and gasoline do mix. But it tastes terrible.)

There are other less daunting laws of nature (other than chaos) that should be appreciated, if not completely understood. Gravity, motion, velocity, friction, mass, deflection and others affect how pool balls respond to our efforts to control them. It isn't necessary to be a physicist to have a general knowledge of the nature of things. It does require faith. If we do the same thing every time, the same end will result (assuming the table is level and in good condition). If for example, you shoot the cue ball from the head string spot across the foot spot to the end rail using no spin or english, the ball will rebound directly back toward the tip of your stick. Not might. It will. It is the law. If you are cutting an object ball into a pocket, and the cue ball makes contact with no forward, reverse or side spin, it will deflect from the object ball at a 90 degree angle to the line between the object ball and the pocket. Not might. It will. It's the law.

Trick shooters use the laws of physics to the extreme. They simply set up shots that allow physics to function as free of human interference as possible. They know that if they do the same thing every time, the same results can be expected. In fact, trick shooters develop shots by backing into them. They watch the action of a ball when it is shot in a certain way, and invent a trick shot based on that action. The complexity of the shot is built, layer by layer, from back to front. Tournament players seldom see the exact same shot twice in their life. To a tournament player, physics is the foundation of their shooting skills. To the trick shooter, physics is the skill. Whoa! don't get me wrong! Many trick shooters are world champion players who started trick shooting simply to entertain. Massey and Rempe are examples. Both are world class pool players...period.

Back to the business of physics in pool.

Because the weight and mass of the cue ball and object ball are the same, when the cue ball "slides" into the object ball at no angle (0 degrees) and with no top, bottom or side spin, the cue ball will stop dead, regardless of velocity. Not might. It will. It is the law. 100% of the energy (weight, mass & velocity) of the cue ball is surrendered to the object ball, and there is no energy remaining to carry the cue ball further in any direction. The use of english and spin changes the result, but nonetheless, by the use of physics.

The friction of the cloth will put forward (never backward) roll on the balls. The leather cue tip is used to increase friction with the cue ball, which in turn provides control over the friction of the cloth. This is physics. Believe it. Trust it. Use it.

Many players feel using top or no english provides better control. Why? Because top spin works with the natural friction of the cloth and not against it. Advanced players know how to use conflicting forces (laws of physics) to move the cue ball in magical ways. A novice should work with the laws, at least until they have learned to understand, or at least trust them. Faith in the physics of the game will allow you to concentrate more on improving the human factor.

I will write more about the physics of pool later. My purpose here is to influence players to trust the laws, even if they don't fully understand them. Faith is important in any game. Confidence is nothing more than faith in your technical and mental control of the game. If faith can move mountains, pool is a piece of cake.

Happy Shooting!


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