The contribution to human happiness made by Captain Mingaud of the French infantry has gone unrecognized. No sidewalk boasts his hand print, or any hall of fame his bust. He sits astride no bronze horse in any public park. Yet in about 1807 in Paris, when people there and in England were still pushing billiard balls around with blunt wooden poles as if they were so many shuffleboard pucks, Mingaud unveiled a new invention, the leather cue tip, thereby changing the course of billiard history. For a time he stood alone in all the world in his ability to make a cue ball spin. He could make it curve so spookily that suspicions must have been raised about the ownership of his soul. The latter part of his life was devoted to giving exhibitions that dazzled the crude and genteel alike.
Thanks to Captain Mingaud—and to others like Bartley and Carr of Bath, England, who gave us chalk around 1820; John Thurston of London, who introduced slate for table beds a few years later; and the American, Michael Phelan, who in 1856 redesigned the cushions, using vulcanized rubber—the game of pool was imbued with such a range of subtlety and richness that it metamorphosed from an idle pastime into a thing of beauty and a splendid challenge to human powers of coordination, concentration and creativity. There's now enough to the game to fascinate the finest minds. Master the practical applications of a spinning cue ball and you'll not only have a trade to fall back on, you'll be an object of wonder to children.
One of the kinds of spin you can impart to a cue ball with a properly groomed and chalked tip is backspin, called "draw" in the pool-hall subculture. Draw makes the cue ball back up after hitting an object ball. It's a technique experts use to get the cue ball into position for one easy shot after another. ("Follow," which causes the cue ball to resume a forward motion, and "English," which makes it curve, are others.)
The ability to make a cue ball spurt backward off an object ball is something fervently to be desired, for the draw shot is the soul of pool. Without it the game is diminished to the level of, say, bowling. However, it's a hard shot for most beginners to learn. For lack of knowledge, many earnest strivers spend years without finding the handle.
To draw the ball with consistency and control, you must have a reasonably straight stroke; a snug grip with the left hand so the cue can't stray off course; a hit on the cue ball far enough below center to suit the circumstances; and speed appropriate to the distance. Many beginners balk at hitting the cue ball more than a little below center, apparently fearing an airborne golf shot and the titters that follow a cue ball bouncing absurdly down, or even off, the table. If your cue ball refuses to draw like other people's, try hitting it lower than you ever dreamed possible; you won't miscue if your tip is chalked and your bridge is solid.
There is another secret that the beginner must absorb and make part of his personality: keeping the cue as level as possible. To hit the cue ball low, lower the lefthand support, don't raise the butt of the cue.
As any physicist or pool hustler will tell you, a draw shot is feasible only if the cue ball is close to the same weight and size as the object ball. Unfortunately, proliferating through the saloons of America as I write is a species of undersized coin-operated table with oversized and overweight cue balls. The stark fact is that the game of pool cannot be played as God intended with an obese cue ball because, except for champions, it is almost impossible to impart proper draw action. Unable to make their cue balls back up, hundreds of thousands of average players are being denied one of life's sweetest pleasures. In some cases they impute their failures to personal inferiority and drink more than they should. A noble game is being eviscerated, and yet the government remains indifferent. The public has a serious grievance that is not being redressed. Violence seems inevitable, though nothing I say should be construed as advocating it.
A surprisingly large part of pool skill is attributable to attitude and concentration. When the pressure is on, the player with the best control of his mind, nerves and emotions has a big advantage.
You should try to play with confidence, even if you have little reason for having any. The sooner you act like a good player, the sooner you'll become one. I don't mean you should swagger, pose, brag and sneer like some of the insufferable clowns you see at tournaments, but I do mean you should cultivate an air of command. When it's your turn to shoot, don't come to the table with your face revealing fear and indecision; step right up as if everything were under control. Handle the chalk and cue so as to create an illusion of easy familiarity. Survey the mess on the table as if a computer were whirring in your head, producing printouts of favorable odds. For your brain is like a computer, and if you practice enough it will make decisions on a subconscious level about speed, hit and spin. When that happens, people will begin saying that you have a feel for the game.
Acting like a good player, even though you are miscast in the role, is not so much for the purpose of frightening your opponent as it is to build up a feeling of confidence within yourself. In many areas of life and pool, a confident mental attitude is almost as important for success as luck, or cheating. You must be able to make cold-blooded assessments of percentages, but once you decide to try a certain shot it pays to do so with forthrightness, even ebullience. You've got to believe that you can make the shot, that you will make it. At the moment of truth there is no room for pessimism. Once you allow yourself to start worrying about how hard the shot is; how poor your chances are of making it; how bad you are going to look if you miss; how embarrassing it will be to lose the game...well then, that exquisite machine you've been fine-tuning is almost sure to belch, backfire and run off the tracks.