The Pool Hall

This is the first of a series of lessons not found in books

Freddy G on Unsplash

A Lesson in Life and Business at the Pool Hall; Or, You Can Learn Good Stuff from Unexpected Places

By: Oliver W. Cummings

Sometimes, when life seems particularly unpredictable and hard to cope with, it pays to think back to what we have already learned and put to use over years of experience.

My father used to say, “In life the strong live off the weak and the smart live off the strong.” This is a, perhaps less elegant but equally to the point, way of saying that the art of success in life (and business) is about finesse, not force.

Here is the Lesson

One of my favorite hang-outs when I was a teenager was a brightly lit, clean pool hall. The place was opened in town as a place primarily for young men of the community. The proprietor served pop and snacks, but no alcohol, and kept an orderly place.

One spring a drifter showed up and the pool hall became his place to pass time just about every day. He disappeared when the weather turned bad in the fall and then showed up in springtime in the subsequent years. His name was Norman. No one seemed to know where Norman went for the winter and I never really knew where Norman stayed when he was in town. Gossip said he slept in the barns at the fairground. He was not particularly spiffy, but he stayed clean shaven and his clothes were kept in better shape than those of other drifters that passed through in the 1960s.

Norman was pretty mysterious to the boys that hung around the pool hall. Many of them didn’t want anything to do with him, but I thought he was interesting. He talked philosophy and religion as if he were well-educated. I don’t know how schooled he was, but he went to the town library sometimes during the day, before he came to the pool hall in the evening. Maybe it was just a comfortable place to kill time, maybe he liked Miss Maude, the Librarian. But, I think he went there to read interesting things.

I learned some important things about pool from Norman. Most importantly: the art of shooting pool is one of finesse, not force.

How you hold the cue stick is the beginning of executing a good shot. Too much tension and you will be jerky in your execution and can’t hit the cue ball accurately. Too little control and you can’t hit the cue ball accurately either. Both ways you lose.

You need to think two or three shots ahead, because how you play one shot leads to the next opportunity you have. If you don’t think about your leave (i.e., where this shot will position you for the next shot), you can block yourself out, and, again, you lose.

You should never take a bank shot when a straight shot is possible. When you shoot a bank shot, it may look impressive, but the added variables of the angle of the rebound, the English you put on the ball, and the performance of the rail cushion make the shot more difficult than a straight shot, even if the latter is at a significant angle. Taking the straight shot represents foregoing showboating for a winning strategy.

It takes balance and planning. It takes knowing your equipment, the shot you are going to take, and your situation on the table to make a good shot.

Maybe these lessons came from Norman’s study of eastern philosophies or maybe it was simply that he was passing along a skill in shooting pool.

Either way these things are important to me because it is just that way in business and other aspects of life: the secret to success, as in shooting pool, is one of finesse, not force.

Taking the smart shot, stroking the cue ball so that it touches the target ball precisely and gently and lets it roll softly into the pocket, is always preferred to slamming the cue stick into the cue ball, making a jerky shot, and hoping that you get to hear the target ball rattle into the pocket.

In other words, in business and in life if you:

  • pay attention to doing the right things and, then, doing things right;
  • neither do things the hard way, nor shrink from the hard to accomplish;
  • sense and make sense of your environment;
  • know yourself and your equipment (i.e., what you have to work with);
  • find an appropriate balance of flexibility and control;
  • focus on what is important to winning and decide what you will do next; and
  • execute as well as you can, without fanfare;

then you can call the shots for your own game and you will win more often than not.

Reader Interactions


  1. tamra moore says

    Ah..the lessons we learned by growing up in a less complicated time. They have served us well.
    I wish the generations that came after us had enjoyed the opportunities that we did.
    Small towns, good people and great mentors have largely ceased to exist.
    But..mostly students have not learned to listen and be grateful for the lessons offered so willingly.

  2. Oliver says

    Thanks for the reply, Tamra. Indeed, those times, the small towns and the folks who lived in them were in many ways unique.

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