Some Comments Regarding Three Billiard Books Or: What The Billiard Magazines Refuse to Tell Us
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
There’s no book so bad that something good may not be found in it. Cervantes
I seem to find myself in places where a decent game of pool is virtually impossible so I have to resort to other strategies to maintain my interest and minor skill set in this highly addictive sport. Last year I lived in Naples, Italy, where the game of choice is bocce ball on something that looks like a snooker table. Now I am living in southern Utah in a county twice the size of Rhode Island without a single stoplight, bar or library. In the two ranch homes where I have been invited to play pool I made the cardinal mistake of winning several games before realizing that I had just eliminated any possibility of being asked back. I practice alone on a 1961 Gold Crown snooker table I re-felted myself. Three books purportedly devoted to “the mental game,” seemed suited to my insular circumstances this year: Bob Fancher’s Pleasures of Small Motions, Phil Capelle’s A Mind For Pool and Max Eberle’s Zen Pool.
An excellent player from Portland named Bob Zack recommended Fancher’s book to me several years ago so I was particularly excited to read it. Zack was able to discern that I am a self-punitive, impatient, perfectionist when I play pool (my nine ball game remains a paragon of mediocrity). Pleasures of Small Motions is largely about appreciating one of the most salient reasons we play this game: to use a beautifully hand-crafted piece of athletic equipment to make two or three balls do astonishing things on a piece of homogeneous metamorphic rock covered with some elegant green cloth. Although this seems to state the obvious, it is a very important thing to always be cognizant of (like when we are behind three games in a race to seven) no less than the reasons for why we climb mountains, wrestle, throw darts, shoot arrows and play the piano. We play a Mozart sonata for the beauty of the sound, the harmony of notes weaving a cherished melody. I suppose at some time we may “compete” with our “interpretation” of Mozart but the main thing always is a love of music being played on a fine instrument. Although he does not say so exactly, the import of Dr. Fancher’s remarks also suggests that we forget about fame, fortune and world renown; those spots are taken by 15 year old prodigies from developing countries. First and foremost on a pool table, is the play with beautiful equipment and endless possibilities regulated by the laws of Physics.
After the “play”, when we start to think we might have some talent at this game, when we begin to compete seriously, then the psychology kicks in; the demons of guilt, insecurity, self-esteem and anger raise their hideous heads. I guarantee that in every single poolroom across the country you will find the same assortment of stalwart, solid “players”…and then the miscellaneous woebegones, whiners and bullies. Why does one guy hang his head and skulk back to his chair while another shrugs his shoulders and smiles when they each miss a shot? Why does one guy talk trash and the other sit stoically in his chair? Why do so many people insist on playing for money? Why is there still violence associated with this game? (In the Meucci warranty caveat they say, and some cues are even broken over somebody’s head in a fight.) These are elements of “the mental game” which are only addressed satisfactorily by the combination of Fancher’s and Capelle’s books. Lets not kid ourselves: “the mental game” and anger (rage, frustration, guilt) are virtually one and the same in pool. I don’t think Dr. Fancher ever uses the word anger (or rage or fury) in his book.
Mountaineering is apt for this discussion because of the love aspect. We do not get angry and stop loving a mountain if we fail to reach the summit. We just love being in the mountains. And, by the same token we should love the pleasure of small athletic motions as we hit balls around on a big table whether we win or lose. This is one of the very good things in Pleasures of Small Motions; emphasizing again and again this qualitative, fine-motor-skill thing about pool, the very basic reason why we love this activity. This aspect of pool is illustrated in the hours and hours all good players devote to practice and drills. Over and over they work at sinking every ball without touching a rail or jumping and jumping until they can clear a ball two inches away or banking and banking until they can kick anywhere on the table. This is testimony to the pleasure we get from perfecting small motions. This is indeed, a very large reason why we play pool.
I think where Bob Fancher really hits the mark and makes his book worth a serious study is in chapter Seven: “Confidence: The Security of Accurate Expectations”. As he says, “most of us do not suffer from a lack of confidence; we suffer from “ill-founded confidence.” Indeed, if we base our confidence and expectations on an occasional stellar performance then we are destined for disappointment. This is where his expertise in psychology provides us with the central clues about anger/frustration management. We must be realistic and peg our expectations to our “average expectable ability.” He goes on to say, “The stability of your confidence is a function of the soundness of your beliefs about what you are likely able to do. Achieving stable, effective confidence depends on two things: accurate self-knowledge and reasonable expectations.” He makes an excellent suggestion to further our confidence-management: a pool journal. I have kept journals for judo and table tennis and I can attest to their value. The pool journal, of course, is more geared toward drill progress than what works against particular opponents of course, although that too is important.
Despite the excellent advise and professional observations in Pleasures of Small Motions, there are comments which are bound to raise a few eyebrows. For example, Dr. Fancher says it is fruitless to model yourself after a professional (P77). This reminded me of a time in college when I was standing in the lift line at Aspen with my older brother who was on the U.S. national ski team. I was standing there in blue jeans and an army surplus jacket, smoking a cigarette and slouched over my poles when he said, “Godamit Arthur, if you are going to ski with me the least you can do is start to look and behave like a good skier.” I think he was absolutely right about the clothes, the cigarette, the posture and the attitude. Of course, a new cue and a swagger around the Gold Crown are not going to get you into dead stroke but it is a start in the right direction. I think we should try to emulate every nuance of a great player’s game from the way he enters the room, to how he screws his cue together, to how he puts on the chalk, to his pre-shot routine, to his stroke etc. Dr. Fancher has some arcane scientific reasons why this is not recommended but I’m gonna keep copying Ralf Souquet thank you.
Elsewhere he gives an example of being left with the seven on the spot and the cue ball on the far end rail. The gruesome fact is, you have a legal responsibility to shoot the seven (or make an intentional foul giving your opponent ball-in-hand). No matter what, the game rides on how well you hit that seven whether you play safe or deposit it. You have no choice but to pump yourself up for a great effort. This is it for all the marbles! And this is precisely why some pros get names like the Iceman, the Rifleman and the Magician. They get themselves psyched up for extraordinary shots, not to mention the fact that they spend hours and hours practicing just such nightmare shots. Okay, so there’s the seven with a lot of real estate in between and whitey is on the rail. Guess what Dr. Fancher advises? He says that the worst thing we can do in such a situation is to “think positive.” (P42) He waxes academic about skill analysis, percentages and probable outcomes to conclude, “it’s irrational to invest your hopes in the highly improbable.”
Dr. Fancher also eschews the old maxim, “play the table.” In chess, common wisdom suggests (in most games less than championships for which months of opponent-specific practice is de rigueur), “Just play the board.” This is good advice. It certainly is not bad advice. Pool, chess, archery and golf are all games in which our opponent never touches us, or the things we are moving around when it is our turn, so why worry about who we are playing? Of course we do and of course such awareness affects our play but the fact remains, the cue ball is six inches off the end rail toward a corner pocket and the one is on the near side rail next to the seven; a perfect safety opportunity. That’s the table pal. Do you play a nice safety or do you get all messed up in your head because you are playing Dan Louie? Are you out there trying to play this game to the best of your ability or not? Are you gonna take some pleasure in executing a beautiful shot which you have practiced a thousand times? Come on, there’s the shot pal, make it or not. The other guy is sitting in his chair. Play the table. Sometimes I think Dr. Fancher tries too hard to construct an academic theory which belies good common wisdom. He is right of course that some famous rivalries have made for great competitions (say, Kasparov-Karpov or Reyes-Strickland) but for most of us, even if we happen to despise the guy sitting in his chair, a very good rule for mental equanimity is, “play the table.”
The more I read Fancher’s book (3 times so far) the more I appreciate much of what he says, but again, I think he is groping at times for that ineffable thing which makes for killer run-out players; guys who don’t have mental problems, I mean, problems with their “mental game”. He is an intellectual trying to understand the serial killer. The thing is, only real “players” can fully understand big money, sweaty-armpit competition. While real “players” were learning to run racks all day throughout their teens Bob Fancher was getting a PhD and preparing himself for a professional career as a psychologist. Then, as he admits, because of a personal life crisis, he took up pool. Not having been a varsity, much less state or national caliber athlete, he tries to divine what great athletes must do mentally in order to achieve that winning edge. The problem is, things like sports and music are not generous toward latecomers. When you start to play pool or chess when you are thirty, you are already twenty years behind the real players. I’m not convinced he can ever thoroughly understand the make-up of the genius, child-prodigy athlete (Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences). For example, I would be very surprised if there is a single player on the pro tour who started playing pool after the age of fifteen. I think Bob is trying to over-analyze something beyond description; sort of like trying to figure out Mozart.
For example, he describes a couple instances in which he simply could not bring himself to beat an inferior player for fear of “discouraging” that person or hurting their fragile “pool ego”. This is all very nice and many of us have indulged in exactly these kinds of give-away antics in various sports but this is not the attitude of champions. Several decades ago I coached a tennis team on which was a state champion. The few times when we played small rural schools this kid just crushed his opponents 6-0, 6-0 and then went for a run. It seemed merciless but then I remembered playing tennis with a Norwegian national ski champion one summer. I was much better than he at the beginning of the summer but by the time the next ski season came around he was beating me with an unforgettable kind of determination. Finally, just a few years ago when I was taking lessons from Dan Louie we ended up playing each other in a nine-ball tournament and I suggested that he give me some pointers as we played. Dan very graciously said he would be happy to discuss some things afterwards but not during play. Indeed, when he was done running a few racks he was more than generous about pointing out my usual mistakes but again, he illustrated that quality I have noticed over the years with all champions; total focus. They cannot give away games any more than the Pope can hand out condoms. They only play to win. That’s why they are winners and the rest of us are….who we are.
Here, I expected Max Eberle’s book to provide some more insight. Max was an intercollegiate nine-ball champion and is a respected competitor on the professional tour and I expected a solid, academic treatise, in addition to an experiential perception of cue games in his book, Zen Pool. After reading Zen Pool, we know one thing for sure; Max Eberle weren’t no English major. The vocabulary and syntax of this book are geared for Harry Potter fans. And calling this book Zen Pool is like calling George Bush a semanticist. Remember what Senator Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quail, “I knew John Kennedy and you are no John Kennedy.” By the same token, when you write a book and call it Zen Pool you damn well better be prepared to be compared to Zen in the Art of Archery. I have read Zen in the Art of Archery many times and Zen Pool is not a treatise on Mahayana Buddhism by a long shot. I suspect that Max Eberle is a heluva nice guy but I am sad to see another great athlete try to jump on the Zen bandwagon.
In fact, the irony is that Zen Pool is all about Max Eberle without a hint of self-deprecation. Zen is all about losing oneself, abandoning one’s ego. But Max insists on telling us about his tournament victories, his dinners with Efren, workouts with Manny Pacquiao (boxer) and sundry tete a tetes with the lords and ladies of Hollywood. One of the better books on Zen is called If You Meet The Buddha On The Road Kill Him (supposedly, a quote from Lin Chi) which admonishes us to beware of all Zen doctrines and teachers. I went through a Zen phase once when I was doing a lot of judo and read dozens of books from Hesse to Suzuki to Watts and although I would not claim to be a Zen practitioner for one nano-second I do have an academic appreciation for the basic tenets of Zen. Zen Pool does not come close. And, in the final analysis, serious, competitive pool, like any highly competitive endeavor, is totally antithetical to Zen principals. All great athletes are scrupulously focused, totally self-absorbed, egotistical “killing machines” with about as much in common with the basic idea of emptiness and non-ego as Attila the Hun. Now, having said that; meditation, like Ralf Souquet seems to practice, is another thing altogether. Meditation is good. I think Max Eberle needs to read about twenty more Zen books and spend a couple years in Japan before attempting to write one more word about Mahayana Buddhism.
Finally, notwithstanding the fact that Zen Pool is one of those economical, do-it-yourself web-design books, it is embarrassingly short on gravitas. The “mental game” and Zen are serious subjects. For the most part, Zen Pool is a compilation of articles Max wrote for some billiard magazines over the last ten years. Fine, lots of essayists eventually put their best articles into books but they always do some revising from the attenuated format of periodicals. Other than the introduction and quiz at the end I have the feeling that Max did virtually no revising for this book (let). For example when he talks about tangent lines he spends less than a page, exactly 313 words on this all-important subject. He spends two “chapters” telling us about Chia-Ching Wu the phenom from Taiwan and another article from 2005 about Mike Davis and Shawn Putnam. Should I care about Chia, Mike and Shawn? Are they Zen Masters or something? I don’t think so. Frankly, I fail to see what these three articles (chapters) have to do with anything other than as fillers in a book which contains only 83 pages of actual text. As a matter of fact, I feel downright embarrassed that I spent $25 for this pamphlet. And I still can’t figure out why there is a full-page reproduction of a Max Eberle acrylic painting of Michael Jordan, “which glows in the black light” at the end of the book? Go figure.
So, we started out with a very intelligent non-player who tried to apply his understanding of the scientific study of the human mind and its functions to pool and moved on to a real shooter who is trying to get us into “the zone” while “the force” is with us on every shot. In the end is good ole Phil Capelle and his A Mind For Pool. I highly recommend this book if you want a less expensive version of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (there are about 400 famous people quoted in this book). A Mind For Pool was the most difficult of the three for me to read because, snob that I am, I cannot stomach bad grammar, typos and sundry insults to the English language. I estimate that every tenth page in this book has an example of indifferent editing. If you think I am too pedantic I remind you that no less a writer than Hermann Hesse (Nobel Prize, 1946) has an entire chapter devoted to this very subject in his inimitable Autobiography.
Guess what the very first quote in A Mind for Pool is: “God is in the details.” Phil attributes this remark to a guy named Ludwig Mies van derrone. Beware if you are going to quote people with funny names because some of us might know a lot about those people. The fact that he screws up the very first quote does not augur well for the rest of the book. Mies van der Rohe, an architect, was one of the leading proponents of minimalism while on the faculty at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. He is more famously known for his succinct remark, “Less is more.” I love Phil Capelle, but there is a limit; you know what I’m saying?
Trying to wade through the advice, some sage, some silly, of everybody from Plato to Woody Allen in this book reminds me of a time in college in which I invited the whole wrestling team over to my house for dinner, which I made; stuffed green bell peppers, mashed potatoes and salad. I conjured up an enormous salad in which I put copious amounts of just about every single vegetable available in Safeway. It was rendered inedible by my excess. Remember the salad you had at that expensive French restaurant you went to on your anniversary years ago… lettuce, a touch of avocado, maybe a touch of onion and vinegar and oil. A delicious blend of discretion and simplicity. The one (Hindu) quote Phil missed in his pillaging of Bartlett is, “Even nectar is poison if taken to excess.”
How would you like it if you were taking a lesson from Phil and you were discussing some difficult cut shot possibilities and Phil says, “It is obvious that there are causes, and many of them. These are discovered when we begin asking: why did this happen.” (Aristotle) Thanks Phil. So you approach the table with an 87-degree cut shot and Phil says, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” (Einstein) Wow, that’s great Phil. You line up the shot and Phil says, “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction. “(Newton) Yeah, I’ve heard about Newton and the apple tree Phil, thanks. You get down on the shot and Phil says, “There is no royal road to geometry.” (Euclid) Gee, I never thought about it quite like that, thanks Phil. You begin stroking and Phil says, “Science is the knowledge of consequences and dependence of one fact upon another.” (Hobbes) Tell that to George Bush Phil. You are just about to drill the shot when Phil says, “The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances and demonstrations for impressions.” (Ruskin) Phil; do you mind? You drill the damn thing and Phil says, “Physics is experience arranged in mathematical order.” (Ernst Mach) Hey Phil, enuf awready! You know what I’m sayin?
Phil Capelle, lovable as he is, is like a guy with adult ADD running around the table trying to teach us to play a very refined, elegant, small-motor-skills game based largely on the laws of physics. On any given page there is a box with several quotes (never just one) from Goethe to Yogi Berra to inspire us. Then there is the bold title of the topic and a paragraph or two about maintaining a consistent stroke, for example, alongside of which are several annoying cartoon contrivances of canon balls and light bulbs flashing to make us even more aware of the importance of this particular paragraph; and then another obtrusive gray box with “Capelle’s Laws for Pool” and finally a chart to graphically illustrate the progress of consistency. Imagine trying to listen to Goethe, Yogi AND Phil with all those light bulbs and canons going off all the time. It’s too much! I’m surprised he doesn’t recommend Bach, Stravinski, Scott Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Mozart and Montovani for background music.
By the time I got to chapter eleven I was too exhausted from digesting the wisdom of Confucius, Aristotle, Goethe and Yogi to notice that Mr. Capelle was finally indulging in some very insightful observations about the “mental game.” The thing is, Phil Capelle has developed redundancy to a high art, even repeating some sentences verbatim (P135 and P139). Experienced player that he is Phil comes back again and again to the basic fact that the “mental game” is inextricably tied to the physical game; thorough practice, good health, love of small motions and an unshakeable shooting routine will just about take care of the mental game. Neither Phil Capelle nor Bob Fancher attempt to go into the Cimmerian recesses of our minds to try to analyze “mental game” problems stemming from childhood abuse, divorce, intellectual insecurity, failed relationships, job loss, Viet Nam, the stock market and so forth; all of which have deleterious effects on our game. I think Phil Capelle and Bob Fancher should collaborate on just such a book.
As an insatiable information-gatherer and drill-meister I would say keep practicing the “circle drill” and the “L” drill and every other drill you can think of…then study Dr. Fancher’s book. Try to get a copy of Phil’s book for half price. I wouldn’t recommend paying any more than five bucks for Max Eberle’s little pamphlet even though it does have a few good basic tips for the technical game.
The ineluctable fact remains; good pool comes ONLY from practice. Remember the old story about the guy who asks Arthur Rubenstein how to get to Carnegie Hall and Rubenstein says, “Practice, practice, practice”. You can be Buddha himself but if you aren’t practicing six or eight hours a day you are never going to shoot great pool, much less experience Nirvana, AKA “dead stroke. There are no shortcuts to pool just as there are no shortcuts to learning to play a Mozart sonata. It is human nature to want to think there are magic formulae, secrets and shortcuts but there ain’t. I tried that with chess years ago and it doesn’t work.
If you are an intermediate player anxious to improve and you want to buy a couple more pool books, I suggest the following as invaluable sources of cueist knowledge: Capelle, Play Your Best Pool, Kanov and Stauch, Precision Pool and Pool Players Edge. As a break from the technical aspects of pool I strongly recommend David Mccumber’s Off The Rail. Another book from which I have learned a great deal is Ron Schneider’s The Best Damn Pool Instruction Book, Period. I still go back through Ray Martin’s famous 99 Critical Shots once a year. A book I keep in the bathroom is George Fels’s How Would You Play This? Finally, I think Robert Byrne has a great deal to teach us about this game and his Complete Book of Pool Shots is a daunting compilation of about two hundred more key shots Ray Martin forgot to mention in his seminal treatise. I mean, if you can master all the drills and all the shots and all the strategies in these half a dozen books you won’t ever have to worry about your “mental game”… guaranteed. I’m gonna go back to the 5×10 Gold Crown and put the nine on the spot and whitey on the far end rail. Hasta la vista baby.