If you want to carry a cue from place to place without accidentally prodding people, you'll need one that comes apart in the middle, which adds $10 or $20 to the price. If you also want well-seasoned wood, superior workmanship, a twine or leather grip and a few decorative touches, you'll have to pay between $30 and $60. Beyond that you'll be buying mainly additional ornamentation and the mystique of a highly regarded cuemaker's name, factors which contribute to resale value and personal satisfaction but don't enable you to play markedly better. Quality of play is probably more affected by the leather tip than by the cue. Give Willie Mosconi a broomstick with a good tip and he'll make some remarkable shots.
A cue should be within half an inch of 57" long, provided you have a normal wingspan and are between 66" and 76" long yourself. Leaving aside the special needs of tiny people as well as normal-sized people trying to cope with miniature home tables, a pool cue should weigh between 16 and 21 ounces. The diameter of the tip should be between 11 and 13 mm. The "right" size and weight are whatever feels best in your hands.
If you are shopping for a cue, talk to a dealer who specializes in billiard supplies or to the proprietor of a billiard room who has cues for sale. Some sporting-goods stores and department stores sell cues, but on such premises it is hard to find clerks who are sensitive to the nuances of weight, size, balance, taper, flexibility and craftsmanship. Usually all they will know about a cue is how to record its sale. In no case buy a cue that breaks down into more than two parts, has a tip that screws on, is painted in festive colors or is made in Taiwan. Made in Japan is O.K.; the Adam line, made there, is one of the best.
It's easy to make a cue last a lifetime. Don't boil it or freeze it in the trunk of a car. Don't lean it against a wall for years. If you lose a game to a complete idiot, hit the edge of the table in anger with something other than your cue. Don't sword fight with it, even in jest. Never poke anything with it other than cue balls. Don't store it near kindling. Withhold it from pets and offspring.
A dirty cue and a sweaty hand tend not to slide smoothly over one another. If you turn to talcum powder for relief, apply it sparingly to the crotch of the thumb. Wipe the excess off your palms before touching the cloth of the table or you'll mess it up, much to the irritation of people like myself. Next time your cue feels sticky, clean the shaft with a damp cloth and dry it thoroughly, then do the same to your hands. If your hands sweat a lot, keep a dry cloth within reach. Finally, but only if needed, caress the shaft with a pad of Scotch-Brite, a product made by the 3M Company for scouring pots. It's available in the kitchenware section of most supermarkets, is just abrasive enough to remove the film of grease and grit from a cue without gradually changing it into a long toothpick and is used by billiard cognoscenti the world over.
Miscues are usually caused by a loose bridge or a crooked stroke, but scowling at the tip to divert suspicion from yourself is de rigueur. Most top players like a hard tip rather than a soft one, even though it has to be roughened once in a while to make sure it will hold chalk. The contour of the tip is very important. Don't try to play with a tip that is flat or nearly flat. Take a piece of medium sandpaper, fold it over a few times to ensure proper stiffness and round the tip off to the approximate curvature of a nickel. The tip will last longer and will work best if it is exactly the same diameter as the end of the cue. There shouldn't be the slightest overhang at any point—if there is, hold the cue upside down on a flat surface, press down and trim off the excess with a sharp knife. Smooth the knife marks with fine sandpaper. Harden and burnish the edges of the tip first by moistening them, then by wrapping the end of the cue inside a matchbook cover or piece of leather and rubbing rapidly up and down. An optional cosmetic finale is to paint the sides of the tip with a black felt pen.
Putting a new tip on a cue takes some time and fussing but isn't difficult. Start with the best tip you can get, as the extra cost is negligible compared to other ways of wasting money. With a knife and sandpaper, remove the dried glue and what's left of the old tip from the end of the cue. The flat surface must remain flat, so be careful not to round off the edges. Select a tip that is slightly larger than the end of the cue and roughen the bottom of it with sandpaper. Apply a thin coating of glue to the cue and the tip. Elmer's white glue is fine; don't use epoxy or any of the new "super-glues" because they are too hard to scrape off next time around. Center the tip and press down on it with your thumb until it will stay in place by itself. Carefully stand the cue upside down in a corner as vertically as possible and leave it there overnight. In the morning trim off any overhang and shape the top of the tip.
A thin coating of chalk increases the friction between the tip and the cue ball. You can't apply spin with any assurance unless the tip is chalked. Chalking up after every shot is not overdoing it.
When applying chalk, don't spin the cue into it with the flat of your hand. Hold the cue still and use a rocking motion of the cube. Look at the tip to make sure it is coated completely; if it is not, touch it up with light brush strokes.
If you want to be regarded as thoughtless or if you are deliberately trying to irk your opponent, leave the chalk on the opposite rail, where he has to walk all the way around the table to get it, or put it absentmindedly in your pocket. I advise against spitting in it in the hope of causing your opponent to miscue; that tactic has been known to lead to compound fractures of the thumbs.