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Position Play

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Introduction

Position play can be the sole factor that separates a good player from being a great player. Excellent pool looks effortless and simple, but it is only because of great positional choices in combination with precision cue ball control that professionals make it look so easy. The goal of this lesson is to teach you all of the basics of position play to help you plan out your runs and maybe even make them look effortless.


This is all accomplished via choosing consistent paths to get the cue ball to a spot on the table where you can pocket the next object ball in your run and easily get shape on the ball after that. This lesson will expand on the previous lessons of cue ball control and side spin by discussing how to use your control over the cue ball to play good position, make good decisions, string together runs, and eventually start running racks.

Good Position

Before we get into finding the best way to move the cue ball around the table, it is important to first be able to identify the right point on the table to send it to. Good position should accomplish two goals; it should be a location that makes pocketing the current object ball easy while simultaneously providing an easy route to get on the next ball in the run. An easy to pocket object ball that offers no position to the next ball quickly turns into a difficult shot as you try to force the cue ball around the table.


One of the easiest ways to pick a good spot on the table to play for is to ask yourself what you would do if you had ball in hand on the next ball that you are playing position on. You can usually find two to three places that you might want to place the cue ball and these are a great starting point. Once you have identified all of the best options available, you can ask yourself which one of those has the highest probability of success. This quick calculation should include your chances of pocketing the current object ball, getting the right position, pocketing the following object ball and still managing to get good shape on the ball after that. This probably all seems fairly obvious up to this point, “play the highest percentage shot”, but we can start getting more into the weeds now that a baseline of what good position is has been established.

Speed Control

The hardest thing that you can do when it comes to position play is to try to execute a shot that requires precision speed control. If you think back to the wagon wheel drill, it is actually quite easy after a bit of practice to get the cue ball to travel to and strike the rail within at least half a diamond of your goal. The same couldn’t be said of speed control, especially over long distances. Even professional players have difficulty consistently landing their lag within half a diamond of the bottom rail. Add pocketing an object ball, getting the right amount of spin on the cue ball, and the cue ball bouncing off a rail or two and getting the cue ball to stop within just one diamond is probably asking too much.


Since speed control is so difficult, there are two different approaches you can take that allow you to minimize the importance of speed control. The first approach, and easiest to execute is the minimization of the distance that the cue ball will have to travel. If you only have to shoot a stop shot, getting the cue ball to stop exactly where you want actually becomes quite easy. The second method is to choose a path for the cue ball so that it is traveling into the desired shot line and not across it.

Minimizing Cue Ball Movement

The most consistent way to get the exact position that you want is by choosing a path or run that involves the least amount of cue ball movement possible. As discussed earlier, the most challenging parts of position play is speed control, so minimizing your reliance on speed control by minimizing cue ball movement will dramatically improve your chances of getting your desired position.


Some very famous advice that originated from Buddy Hall is that you shouldn’t play for position you already have. In other words, don’t move the cue ball around unnecessarily if you can just play a stop shot or something similar to a stop shot and still get good position on your next ball. Essentially, don’t do any more than you have to. Keeping this advice in mind, if you are able to plan the order you want to run out in, such as in 8-ball, try to choose a run that minimizes cue ball movement. Choose shots that lend automatic position to the next shot in your run and so on.

A great way to identify these patterns is what some players call “connecting the dots”. If you look at the above graphic, you can see that the general location of the 1-ball lends good position to the 2-ball. In other words, if the 1-ball was the cue ball, it would offer good position on the 2-ball. The 2-ball offers good position on the 3-ball and so forth. This is what is referred to as a connect the dots run and is one of the easiest runs to execute in the game. All you have to do to run this out is leave little to no angle on the next ball and it should be easy to get the cue ball to stop right at or within a few inches of the object ball. While connect the dot runs are great to take advantage of when you have the chance, position gets much more complicated when you have no choice but to move the cue ball around the table.

Positional Zones

Earlier we identified the ideal positions for the cue ball by identifying the places where you would like to place the cue ball if you had ball in hand. This is a good way to get an initial starting point, but playing with such precision as to stop the cue ball exactly where you want isn’t realistic. Once the ideal position has been identified, we need to expand this point into a zone of acceptable position.


The first step in building the position zone is to identify the shot line that you have chosen. All you have to do is expand the line from the ghost ball straight through the identified ball in hand position cue ball. From this line expand out left and right of the shot line until there isn't enough angle, or the angle becomes too extreme. Cut off the position zone to a point where distance makes the shot too difficult for you, and you have created your positional zone. As long as you can land the cue ball within this zone, you will have ideal shape on your next ball.

Playing Into the Zone

Once the position zone has been identified you can try to find a path from your current shot that leads into that zone and keeps you in that zone for the longest path possible. Since precision speed control is difficult, playing for a path that allows for more error will greatly increase your chances of getting good position on your next ball. Once you have identified the zone and the path into that zone, you can typically shoot to get into the center of that zone. Even if you hit a bit too soft or too hard, you still have a good chance of landing within your positional zone.

Seeing Three Shots Ahead

The pool community discusses seeing three shots ahead in the run quite a bit, but what exactly is meant by this? If you only ever thought three balls ahead, you would likely have a very low win rate in a game such as 8-ball where you need to develop a strategy for the entire rack where you identify key balls for break outs and a key position ball for the 8-ball. Seeing three shots ahead is less in reference to the development of a strategy for an entire run, but rather is a way of breaking that entire run down into smaller and more manageable segments.


Seeing three shots ahead refers to finding and playing position that leaves an angle on your next ball that lends position to the ball after that. In other words, you are pocketing your current ball and playing shape on your next ball in a way that gives you an easy way to get to the ball after that, ergo three shots ahead. Though you may plan three shots ahead, the truth is that you will inevitably make a mistake. Don't be afraid to deviate from your plan when necessary. Mistakes and recovery are an integral part of the game.

Leaving the Right Angle & Natural Position

If you recall the lesson on cue ball control, the only energy left in the cue ball after a straight in shot is the spin which can either make it go forwards or backwards with top or draw respectively. Controlling how far the cue ball travels with spin alone is not only quite difficult but also significantly limits your positional options as you can only send the cue ball along the shot line.


Leaving an angle however opens up a large range of positional options with differing amounts of top and bottom. Think back to the large number of positional options you have with just one angle from the Wagon Wheel Drill. Additionally, you also typically get to a rail faster which allows you to manipulate the cue ball's path and speed with left and right spin which open up even more positional options.


The more angle you have, the easier it is to move the cue ball a farther distance, but leaving a large angle also makes it hard to stop the cue ball. You don't want to be forced to hit a ball abnormally soft or hard to get it to travel the right distance. You also don't want to end up on the wrong side of a ball and be forced to run the cue ball all the way around the table or even worse collide with other balls in an uncontrolled manner because you were not careful in picking out acceptable angles. This should be one of your primary concerns when developing your positional zone that you are playing for.


The right angle for a shot you will make it easy to send the cue ball in the right direction at the right speed while shooting the current object ball at pocket speed. This is what is referred to as natural position. You aren't fighting the cue ball and trying to force it around the table. Instead the cue ball floats around the table coming to rest right where you want it to with little to no effort. This is the power of leaving the right angle.

Staying Away From the Rail

Another positional hazard to consider is the rail. While it is essential to use rails to get position, be mindful to hit the cue ball hard or soft enough that it either hits the rail and bounces out or stops a good distance away from the rail. This isn't always possible due to occasional tight positional requirements, but make a concerted effort to not end up frozen or close to a rail when avoidable. Failure to do so significantly decreases the number of positional options that you have. You are either forced to hit with high follow or you have to angle your cue down and dig into the cue ball which will significantly decrease your accuracy. Even if you only decide to shoot top, being frozen to a rail will still reduce your chances of pocketing the ball.

Playing the Percentages

In terms of winning the most games possible, you have to discipline yourself to play the percentages. Offensively, this means balancing out the difficulty of the execution of your current shot with the difficulty of the rest of the shots in the rack. It might feel good to get one really difficulty 50:50 shot out of the way if it means the rest of the rack is easy, but you actually have a significantly higher probability of getting out of the rack shooting 2x 75:25 shots, or even 6x 90:10 shots. A good mental exercise is to think to yourself, given 10 attempts, what is the most reliable way to get out of this rack. The roles here could also be reversed in that you need to accept a higher difficulty shot on your current shot to try and make your next a bit easier.


What I tend to see is that newer players usually put all of their effort and focus into shot making with little care for their position on the next shot. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the developing player who puts too much emphasis on position play and forces the cue ball around the table in an effort to make their next shot easier. Neither of these approaches are ideal and the best shot usually lies somewhere in-between these two extremes. Simply put, It isn't worth coin flipping on either your current or next shot if you can take a simpler, more balanced, and higher percentage approach by splitting up the pressure between multiple shots.

Keeping Your Distance

Players with weak fundamentals tend to want to place the cue ball as close to the object ball as they can as it makes pocketing the object ball much easier. While this isn't a bad strategy if you have ball-in-hand, if you are trying to play position to get close to the object ball, you are flirting with disaster. If you look at the graphic above, notice how small the positional zone gets the closer you get to the object ball. At such short distances, a slight over hit or under hit of just a few inches can result in missed position. A quote I came up with is to remember to "play position FOR the next ball, not ON it".

A greater distance from the object ball however makes position easier. In the above example we see that the 7 ball has a relatively small window of position. There is a very narrow band of acceptable position due to the 8- ball and 9-ball. If you get greedy and try to get close to the 7-ball, you are likely misjudge the speed of the shot and be forced into a jump or kick shot which. If we accept a longer distance shot on the 7 ball, that narrow band of position gets wider and wider the farther we get from the 7-ball. While the greater distance will slightly decrease our chances of pocketing the 7-ball, we are at least guaranteeing that we will have a shot.

Study Professional Play

By far one of the fastest ways to learn how to play position like a pro is to study pro play. This goes much deeper than just tuning in and watching pro matches. When you watch a match choose the shot that you would shoot and then see if the professional chooses the same shot as you did. If they do, congratulations because you likely chose the right shot. Them choosing a different shot is even better news because it means that you have something to learn. Before moving on to the next shot, pause the video for a moment an really try to understand why they chose the shot they did.


Another great incite that you can get from watching professional matches is some of the excellent commentary from former professional player commentators like Jeremey Jones. They can provide deep incite into the game and help reveal what is likely going on in the players mind. There are many other factors on the table that you probably haven't considered that they can shed light on, helping clear up some of the choices that the professionals make that you might not understand.

Common Positional Shots

Stop Shot: The stop shot is the one of the most common shots in pool. The amount of bottom needed will vary based on how far the cue ball is from the object ball and how hard you are hitting the shot. The stop shot offers you the unique opportunity to play pinpoint position.

Draw Shot: To draw the cue ball, you need to strike low enough to force the cue ball to spin backwards and still hold that spin when it reaches the object ball. As soon as the cue ball leaves the tip of your cue, friction with the felt of the table is working to remove the backwards spin that you have applied. Once the cue ball reaches the object ball, it needs to have just enough back spin to accelerate it backwards behind the tangent line to wherever it was that you intended it to go.

Follow Shot: The follow shot is quite easy to execute as the cue ball's natural tendency is to roll in the same direction that it is traveling. Even if you hit dead center, the cue ball is guaranteed to have a rolling top spin given enough space between the cue ball and object ball. At about X tips of top, the cue ball starts with rolling spin. If you strike above that, the cue ball will actually start out spinning faster than it is rolling. After striking the object ball, the top spin grabs the felt of the table and pushes the cue ball in front of the tangent line.

Force Stun Shot: In this shot we need to get position on the 9-ball, but have left very little angle to get over to the opposite side of the table. We can't draw backwards because of the 10-ball and we can't go forwards because of the ball that I forgot to place when I was creating the graphic. (I'll fix this) We have to take advantage of the little bit of angle that we have and strike the cue ball with a powerful stun stroke. Getting the exact angle we want here is difficult because of the speed of the shot. A bit too much top and we are headed straight at the 9-ball. A bit too much bottom and we risk hitting the 10-ball or scratching in the side pocket. Just a touch of bottom will get the cue ball to head straight across the table for shape on the 9-ball.

Drag Follow: In this shot we need just a touch of follow after striking the 8-ball. Enough that it will leave us close to straight in on the 9-ball. We could play this shot really soft so that the natural roll that the cue ball has would be the perfect speed for shape on the 9-ball, but playing the shot at such a slow speed is a bit uncomfortable, especially if you are playing on imperfect equipment where the cue ball is likely to roll off at a lower speed. Instead we can hit this shot firm with bottom. By the time the cue ball reaches the 8-ball, it will have lost its bottom spin and gained a slight forward spin. This allows you to maintain accuracy with a firm stroke and still only roll forward slightly after contacting the 8-ball. This shot is quite difficult to time and will take a good amount of practice. A good way to judge this shot is to hit slightly higher than you would for a stop shot of whatever speed and distance you are playing. Even if you are straight-in on the object ball, if the object ball is close enough to the pocket, you can cheat the pocket enough to pull this shot off.

One Rail Position: In this shot we are cutting the 8-ball into the corner and have an angle that is taking us into the rail. Off the rail we can utilize both the vertical and horizontal axis of the cue ball to change its path. Bottom and outside spin work together to pull the cue ball back to the right side of the table while top and inside spin work to push it further down to the left side of the table.

Straight-in Draw Off the Rail: In this shot we are straight in on the 8-ball limiting our positional options. We can use draw to get the cue ball to the rail where we can use left or right spin to modify its path. Since we are drawing the cue ball into the rail the spin has the opposite effect that it would if we were going forward. Right spin send the cue ball left of the natural rebound angle and left spin send the cue ball right of the natural rebound angle.

Draw to Side Rail: In this shot we need to get the cue ball back to the side of the table we are shooting from, but the angle is taking it in the opposite direction. All we have to do is play this shot with a bit of draw and an optional amount of outside spin that can help get the cue ball further down table.

Drawing Up Table: In this shot we want to play position for the long side of the 9-ball. We have a bit too much angle for a straight bottom draw shot, but not enough angle to go two rails. By hitting this shot softer with outside spin, the bottom takes quickly pulling the cue ball off of the tangent line and the right spin widens the angle even further allowing you to get all the way down table for the 9-ball. Hitting this shot too hard will delay the bottom taking giving you a sharper angle than you want.

Minimal Angle Out 2 Rails: In this shot we need to get back out to the center of the table, but we don't have enough angle to just come out off of just the bottom rail. Instead we can use top inside to or bottom outside to run the cue ball out 2 rails. Hit this shot a bit harder and you can get all the way down to the opposite short rail.

Straight-in Cheat the Pocket: In this shot we are straight in on the 8-ball, but the 8-ball is close enough to the pocket that we can cheat the pocket to create and angle. This manufactured angle allows us to use the same 2 rail pattern as shown above to get back out to the center of the table or even the opposite side of the table.

Rail First: In this shot we are straight in on the 8-ball. The 8-ball is too far from the pocket to get enough angle by cheating the pocket and the angle is so flat that drawing the cue ball will cause it to scratch in the bottom left corner pocket. With the 8-ball being so close to the rail, it is easy to judge the kick shot. Hitting the rail first allows us to manufacture an angle and get the cue ball away from the rail. This shot also works if you are in a similar situation with a flat angle on the long rail. You can also use left or right spin to get even further out if you can draw or follow enough to get to a rail. For example, if we drew the cue ball (green), we could put some left spin with the draw. The draw gets us to the rail and the left would send the cue ball even further down to the right side of the table.

Follow to Rail with Side-Spin: In this shot we top spin send the cue ball straight into the rail. From this position we can use use left , right, or no side spin to get to anywhere on the table. In this example right sends the cue ball to the top half of the table, left to the bottom half of the table, and no side spin to come back out to the center of the table. You will have to adjust the amount of side spin based on the angle that you go into the rail at.

Back and Forth: In this shot we need to pocket the 8-ball and go back and forth across the table to get position on the 9-ball. We could go straight back and forth across the table with stun, but if the 9-ball is frozen to the rail, getting past the points of the side pocket could be dangerous. Playing this shot with straight bottom, we can get onto the other side of the 9-ball. Playing the shot with outside gets us even further down table.

Side with Inside: In this shot we are on the wrong side of the shot line and need to get over to the right side of the table. We might be on the wrong side of the shot line, but we are still pretty close to straight in. Hit this shot as straight as possible by cheating the pocket and striking with top inside. The top helps the cue ball get to the rail and the inside spin gets us over to the correct side of the table. To get the top to take as quickly as possible, don't hit this shot too hard. Hitting hard will delay the top sending us farther down the tangent line which is counterproductive to our goal.

3 Rails with Running English from the Side Pocket: In this shot we need to get down to the right side of the table. We can send the cue ball around the standard 3 rail path to get down to the other side of the table with top outside spin.

Draw 2 Rails from the Side Pocket: In this shot we don't have enough angle to send the cue ball around the standard 3 rails to get over to the opposite side of the table. Instead we can load the cue ball up with bottom outside to skip the first rail. This allows us to accelerate the cue ball with the bottom which gives it enough energy to get all the way around the table.

2 Rails Out: In this shot we have a natural angle that takes us into the short rail. A bit of outside spin helps the cue ball run 2 rails to get back out to the other side of the table. Stun gets the cue ball to hit closer to the corner pocket which gets us closer to landing near the side pocket. Hitting with follow lands the cue ball further down towards the opposite end rail and corner pocket. Striking somewhere between stun and follow lands the cue ball somewhere between those two points. Pay attention to the tangent line and how much draw you put on the cue ball as it is quite easy to end up drawing straight into the top left corner pocket if you are trying to land closer to the side pocket.

3 Rails Out: In this shot we need get the cue ball back to the bottom right side of the table. The top and inside work together to get the cue ball on the standard 3 rail path around the table. Hit a bit softer to stop the cue ball anywhere on the illustrated path or hit a bit firmer to the cue ball all the way down to the right end rail. When shooting this shot keep in mind that the closer you hit to the top left corner pocket, the further up the rail you will hit closer to the side pocket. The farther you are from top left corner, the further down towards the bottom right corner pocket you will end up.

4 Rails Back Around: In this shot we need to get down to the left short rail for shape on the 9-ball, but have left ourselves with the wrong angle on the 8-ball. Rather than try to fight where the cue ball is going by trying to hold the cue ball on the left side of the table, we can embrace its desire to travel to the right side of the table and let it run 4 rails all the way back to where we want it to land. The bottom pulls the cue ball a bit off of the tangent line allowing it to hit closer to the side pocket which ensures that the cue ball will strike the 4th rail instead of scratching in the top left corner pocket. The outside spin helps the cue ball get all the way around the first 3 rails and back down for the 9-ball. This shot is almost impossible to overhit as the right kills the speed of the cue ball on the 4th and 5th rails.

4 Rails Back Around from Short Rail: In this shot we have too much angle to hold for the 9-ball. Going straight up and down the table is difficult to judge as we need to hit perfect to land back on the short side of the 9-ball without scratching. Instead we can play this shot firm with mostly right and a bit of top. This spin helps the cue ball run around the rails come all the way around and land back on the short side of the 9-ball. Watch out for the scratch at the end of your 4 rail journey in the top left corner pocket.

3 Rails Back Around from Short Rail: In this shot we have too much angle to hold for the 9-ball. While going straight up and down the table without touching either of the long rails is possible, playing this shot with inside makes it easier to pocket the 8-ball. All you have to do is hit the shot firm with mostly right and a bit of top. To get the right shape you need to ensure that you hit somewhere on the long rail past the side pocket. Be wary of this shot as you are likely to scratch in the upper right corner pocket if don't have enough angle or hit rail first.

Reverse Inside with Top from Side Pocket: In this shot we have a somewhat thin cut on the 8-ball and need to bring the cue ball back up to around where the 8-ball is located. Judging the amount of draw needed to pull the cue ball far enough off the tangent line to avoid the scratch is quite difficult, so instead you can embrace running into the long rail with some top spin. If we only played this shot with top spin we would end up on the bottom half of the table which isn't where we want to be. In order to stop this we play the shot with a bit of inside which grabs on the 2nd rail sending the cue ball straight back up the table. In some instances of this shot you can even get enough inside on the cue ball to hit the same long rail on the way back up the table.

Reverse Inside with Bottom from Side Pocket: In this shot we have left ourselves too much angle or perhaps even on the wrong side of the 8-ball. We need to bring the cue ball down to the same area where the 8-ball and cue ball are. The key to this shot is to hit the cue ball with enough bottom that it will be a stun shot at contact with the object ball. This will send it down the tangent line and the side spin will take off of the first rail keeping the cue ball on the same side of the table as the 8-ball. The danger with this shot is that if you misjudge the amount of bottom you need and the cue ball ends up with a bit of rolling spin instead of stun, you could scratch in the top right corner pocket. The danger with this shot is if you undercut the 8-ball which will send you straight into the corner pocket.

Draw Off Another Object Ball: In this shot, we are playing 9-ball and need to get position on the 8-ball. The 9-ball is positioned directly on the tangent line of our shot to pocket the 7-ball. Since the 9-ball is so close to the 7-ball the cue ball wont have the space needed to move itself off the tangent line with top or bottom before it strikes the 9-ball. The cue ball will strike the 9-ball full, stop, and then the draw will start gripping the felt and pull the cue ball straight back parallel to the shot line.

Conclusion

Position play is all about making the right choices. When you're at the table, your goal is to make the game look easy and let the angles do most of the work. When possible, minimize cue ball movement. If you have to move the cue ball around the table, analyze the table and try to pick the highest probability shot that gives you the largest margin for error. Always be planning three shots ahead, and continue to study professional matches. Eventually you will reach a point that you know exactly what you need to do. The only thing that will be holding you back at that point is your ability to execute the shots.

Completion Requirements

  • Read and comprehend this entire lesson

  • Try out each of the illustrated common positional shots

  • Make it a habit when watching professional matches to try and predict what they will shoot and how they will shoot it

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