The game of Billiards
Practice Makes Perfect – So They Say
That is indeed what they say. Yet we all know that it not true. We all know men who have played billiards for years and are still
waiting to make their first thirty or forty break. It is true enough that some of these men claim that they play simply for enjoyment,
that it is a social thing. I don’t believe a word of it, there is nothing very sociable about billiards. To be really good at the game a man
has to become selfish and not care tuppence if his opponent spends all evening fielding out Most players, though they would not
admit it, can hardly wait for their playing partner to break down, the murmured, “Hard luck,” is one of the most insincere of all
sporting comments. One of the most extreme examples must have been Leslie Driffield. I have never seen anyone so eager to score
and to keep on scoring. I have seen Driffield in matches with such a lead that he could not possibly lose, and yet he would still
double-baulk his opponent, he would still extract every possible point from every leave. I suppose that is why he was a champion, and
at least, Les Driffield was honest about it. None of your mealy mouthed commiseration from Les, he positively willed his opponents
to break down. On the other hand I do believe that there are thousands and thousands of people who play snooker purely and simply
as an excuse to spend an evening out and have a drink or two with their mates.
Of my billiards acquaintances I cannot recall one who did not seriously want to improve his game. I have known players to whom all
time spent away from the table was considered as time wasted. I have known players to suffer periods of acute depression and I have
known marriages to break up. Many years ago I knew a young player who hanged himself because he thought that he had eye
problems. I have also observed that very few of these players I have known ever got much beyond the hundred break stage and most
of them not much beyond the fifty break stage.
The Road to Improvement
There are four quite vital factors involved in becoming a top class billiards player. There are other factors but I feel these to be the
four most important:-
1. It is necessary to start by the age of about eleven or twelve. Tom Reece and Herbert Beetham were remarkable exceptions to
this rule and no doubt there have been others. As a general rule it is indisputable. But nil desperandum, There are plenty of good
players who were late starters.
2. A lot of time must be spent practising in the first two or three years of learning the game and it follows that there must be the
opportunity to play and practice.
3. There must be some teaching usually known as coaching, and there must be opportunity to watch and play with better
4. The young player must be highly motivated.
It is not necessary to be an Einstein to spot that these four factors add up to the Teesside Boys League!
I do not include aptitude, usually called talent. Whilst it cannot be denied that some people seem to have more natural ability than
others, the question of just what constitutes natural ability is a very complicated one. Snooker commentators are very fond of saying
that Jimmy White is, “The greatest natural talent the game has ever seen.” Well, they used to be fond of saying it, nowadays Jimmy
seems to have slipped down the natural ability stakes in favour of Ronnie O’Sullivan. Remember that White did very little else but
play snooker from about the age of eleven onwards, and that O’Sullivan seems to have been groomed for a professional snooker
career from an early age. I can’t see how anybody can have, “Natural ability,” to play snooker or billiards. It is certainly necessary to
have good eyesight (although Joe Davis didn’t!) and it is necessary to have two arms and two legs, an intact central nervous system,
reasonably good natural neuro-muscular co-ordination, and at least a modicum of common sense. Given these natural attributes then
there is no reason why anyone should not play billiards to a very high standard. The fact that not many people do has little or nothing
to do with natural ability and everything to do with the four essentials, and particularly opportunity.
Why do people practice?
There are various reasons. The main one is that by practising a player thinks he will improve, and no amount of evidence to the
contrary will persuade him otherwise. Practice leads to improvement only to a limited extent because most players simply do not
know how to practice. Another reason for practising is that a player may enjoy it. He can set the balls up in any position he likes and
try to make a break which will beat his previous best. Or, as many do, he can try his hand at nursery cannons, or at the top of the
table. With regard to the nurseries, many players can make eight or ten of these but never make any more and never seem to ask
themselves why. It is a similar story with the top-of-the-table. There are dozens of players who put the balls at the spot end virtually
every day of their lives and hardly ever succeed in running up much above a twenty break. They never get any better.
Two or three years ago, the World Billiards Championship preliminary matches were held at the Norbreck Castle, Blackpool. During
the billiards interval I stood for a few minutes in the practice room watching a young player. He put the black on the spot and a half dozen
reds around the pink spot. He then set up a long red from hand which, if potted with stun, would leave the black. He potted this
red, followed with the black, and then proceeded to pot alternate reds and blacks with astonishing ease. I watched him go through this
exercise four times and he never missed a ball! So what was he practising for, he could hardly have got any better? The obvious
answer is that he was keeping his eye in, keeping his touch right, settling quickly into his stance, maintaining the bodily machine in
good working order so that in the heat of the tournament he could keep his mind on the task in hand without having to give any
thought to the technique of the matter. Rather like keeping an engine nicely tuned. At least that is the theory. But whatever he was
practising for it would certainly not result in any improvement as that was virtually impossible, it would hopefully lead him to be
more consistent – but that is a different thing.
This leads to the hypothesis that there are two main reasons why the man who has reached a certain standard, say sixty or seventy
break level, will continue his practice. The first is to maintain the level and the second is to raise the level. Practice will have a
profound effect on the first of these two but, sadly, it will usually have only minimal effect on the second, and the reason is that
ninety-nine players out of a hundred do not know how to practice, they do not know how to learn.
In the dim and distant past I struggled through a Masters Degree in Educational Psychology, and therefore, whilst open to the charge
that I can’t possibly know anything about billiards because I am no good at it, I do claim to know something about Learning Theories.
The Law of Frequency and Recency
In laymen’s terms, this states broadly that the more often an activity is practised then the more likely it is to be repeated under similar
circumstances, and secondly, that the most recent effort is the one most likely to be repeated the next time a similar situation occurs.
In billiards terms the more a player practices the greater the probability that he will be able to repeat the particular sequence that he
has practised; and that if the last stroke he practised were, say, a well-played long-loser, then the more likely it is that he will play that
long-loser correctly on the very next occasion it crops up in play or practice.
The second part of the equation simply means that a practice session should always end with the player making a good correct stroke.
Never end on a sour note, always end on a successful one. The first part is rather more complicated. It is true that the more an activity
is practised the more it becomes a habit. However, remember that it is just as easy- and probably easier – to make a habit of doing
things wrong as it is to make a habit of doing them correctly. There is such a thing as practising your mistakes and this is precisely
what many players do.
Think about it.