Last Call: You're Playing Pool WRONG. Yes, You.

Nice rack!
Nice rack!
JK Grence

From my post behind the bar at Shady's, I see quite a few things. Many of the drink-related things I see become posts on my weekly Chow Bella column "Last Call." But a good bar is about more than just drinks, and that's why I'm here on Jackalope Ranch this week. One of the nice things about the bar where I work is that we have a pool table. It's your standard issue 8-foot coin-operated bar model; nothing fancy, but it's ours, and we like it.

While I'm busy pouring beer and mixing drinks, I've watched out of the corner of my eye and noticed that a lot of people are very sure about how to play pool, and I've also noticed that everyone seems to play with a different set of rules.

I'm here to set the record straight.

There is a fairly standard set of rules in American bars, and those rules by and large suck. There's a group, the Billiard Congress of America, that has created a better set of rules. Here are five things you can do to play a better game of pool the next time you're out.

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5. The Cues: Every bar's cues are all warped because everyone abuses them. Get over it, just grab one and play. The exception to the rule: Guys, if you're on a date, see which one's straighter and give it to your date. Giving her the other one is unspeakable.

4. Racking and Breaking: It's conventional wisdom that the balls are put in the rack in alternating order between solids and stripes, often spending quite a bit of time arranging one's balls just so. The problem with this is that it puts solids on both rear corners of the rack, giving solids a pretty good advantage in the game to follow.

It's better to put a solid in one corner, a stripe in the other corner, the 8-ball in the middle, and then mix up everything else. The 1-ball doesn't have to be at the top of the rack; that's when you're playing Nine-Ball.

Whether you want to assign sides on the break (sink a solid, you're solids) or require a called shot after the break is your decision. I prefer the latter because there's occasional times you sink a solid or two, but the stripes end up in a better position on the table.

Oh, and for the love of god, stop tapping the balls in the rack with the cue ball to fix them in place, it screws up the felt.

3. Scratching on the 8-Ball: Why is it that for the entire game, the penalty for a scratch is loss of turn (plus ball in hand once solids and stripes are determined), then once you're down to the 8-ball, all of a sudden you lose the game instead? It's better to play as you did for the rest of the game, with ball in hand when you try to shoot the 8-ball and scratch. Actually sinking the 8-ball is the only thing that ends the game. If you sink the 8-ball while you still have balls on the table, or if you scratch when you sink the 8-ball, that's when you lose the game.

2. Scratching: The game is a lot better when the penalty for a scratch (after sides have been determined) is that your opponent gets to put the ball anywhere on the table.

It's happened to you before: You're down to just the 8-ball, and it's right up against the head rail (the side of the table you stand behind when you're about to break). Your opponent scratches. Now, you have an impossible shot to make. With conventional rules, it's possible for your opponent to do that to you intentionally. Switch to ball-in-hand anywhere on the table, and you don't have to worry about that dirty trick again.

1. Actually Playing Better: The one tip I can give you to improve your game: Lighten your shots. Damn near everyone hits the cue ball way, way too hard. Before you shoot, always ask yourself "Where is the cue ball going to end up?" If the answer is "I don't know", that means you're going to hit the ball too hard.

It's OK to have just a general idea of where the cue ball might end up, and it's OK to find out you were wrong. Play more, you'll get better at sending the cue ball where you want it. Once you have that down, it's almost like the table plays itself.

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