One size fits all


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on June 22, 2013

Bert van ManenA few years ago, I was watching a match in the Belgian league between two guys named Freddy. Same first name, but in appearance they made Laurel & Hardy look like twins. Big Freddy is six feet four and seriously overweight: a mountain of a man. Little Freddy is five-three on heels, and he only eats on Thursdays. Both are good and experienced players: anywhere from 0.750 to 0.900 I’d say. Out of curiosity, I checked both their cues when the match was over. Same length, same weight.

In a way, this is odd. A hundred or more sizes for jeans, but cues are a one-size-fits-all product. It’s up to the players to come to terms with that cue and learn how to hit balls with it. Which is fine, if you are of average height and build. But it is a lot to ask, of both Freddy’s. To be able to stroke freely (and straight) and aim with precision, they must adjust their hold of the cue and their stance. The degree of bend in knees and elbows, the arch of the back, the head even. No two billiard players are identical in the way they position themselves for a shot. But, as it turns out, most of them manage. Many roads lead to Rome, even some less travelled.

In the execution of a shot, there is very little you can get away with. Movement of the head, lifting of the bridge hand, lateral cue movement: they will ruin your game, prevent progress. Live by the rules, or pay the price. But in preparation for a shot, it seems that different bodies simply MUST do different things. There are rules, yes. But they are so often broken successfully.

There is a Belgian player who’s stance is so upright, his head is 5 inches higher than the average, when shooting. It looks odd, artificial and uncomfortable. Obviously, he never had the luck of finding a proper teacher early in his career, you say? He’s Kurt Ceulemans, son of you-know-who, and he’s a feared competitor with a 1.3 average.

There’s this extremely tall Dutch guy (with a normal length cue), and he has trouble getting low enough for the shot. He does not seem to like bent knees, so he spreads his legs. Far. Trust me, if his feet were any further apart, they’d be in different time-zones. Nobody can shoot like that, you say? He can, he’s Dave van Geel, and he plays impeccable 3-cushion with a 1.2 average.

There’s an American player who “uses less cue” than anyone I have ever seen. His right hand is halfway on the butt; no matter if it’s on a ticky, or on a twice-around. That is just bad technique, he’s never going to have a quality stroke that way, you say? He’s 2005 USA National champion Sonny Cho, well over 1 average, and his game is both powerful and beautiful.

For good measure, let me throw in this anecdote. The gifted but eccentric John van der Stappen is in a league match, needs to use the extension (the type you screw in between the butt and the shaft), on three consecutive shots, makes all three. “This feels good”, he says. A few weeks later he shows up with a new, custom made cue that is 160 cm. long. Played every match and every shot with it for a full season. His average, believe it or not, went from 1.1 (with the 140 cue) to 1.1 (with the 160). Best 3-cushion player in Paramaribo, currently.

And I did not even mention that bizarre talent, Filipos “Good Vibrations” Kasidokostas, the 2009 World and 2012 European champion. I’ll never understand how he does what he does.

Still, there is a temptation to say: “OK, so these players have made the most of their own peculiar style, but they would have been stronger with proper stance and traditional cueing”. I am not convinced that is true. I am not even convinced there is such a thing as a textbook stance that can be copied and taught. It may well be so that all stance & stroke technique is an individual matter, dictated by body & brain, not literature. Maybe to a lesser degree than Kurt, Dave and Sonny, but most players have in some aspect of their game deviated from the norm, to fit their own needs, to make a compensation for the way their body is shaped or functions, or to use a particular individual talent to the fullest. Some of their strength may be “because of”, rather than “despite”.

I certainly don’t recommend that everybody hold their cue like Cho, or stand like Kurt C. But I would never tell those two – if they asked me – to change what is so different about them. I tell my students to find a stance that feels good to them, not copy mine. Teaching kids, that’s a different thing: you hand them the established basics. Feet here, hands there, head straight, the DO-RE-MI that will give them the best chance of making future music. Should they develop a style of their own later on (and most of them will), fine. But if you are an adult, if you have played this game for years already and, for some reason, feel certain that you must make adjustments: make them in small increments and over time. Never be drastic: your (intuitive) internal calculator will not be able to keep up. You will have the venom of doubt coursing through your veins and brains for years if you do. I have seen this happen, and it’s sad.

How much damage does a technical flaw do? Or, to better phrase the question: how far can you go in this game, with technique that is less than perfect? Well, you could for instance become Semih Sayginer (whose cueing is noticeably askew) or Marco Zanetti (whose right hand has a more horizontal tilt than any teacher would recommend). That’s right. The most legendary stroke in the game and the best player in the world for the past half-season are both individualists, one of a kind billiard players, who deviate from the norm. Much like the rest of us, by the way. What that should tell you, is that the sky is the limit, even if there is an imperfection in your game. Steffi Graf could not hit a topspin backhand to save her life, but she had a decent career. Seve Ballasteros lost 30 odd yards to his competitors on every tee shot, but he usually overtook them on the leader board.

If you insist on emulating a player, and not even Semih or Marco represent textbook perfection, who would be a good role model? My suggestion would be the current world nr. 8, Sung Won Choi. Zanetti is well ahead of him in most departments of the game, and he’ll never make jaws drop the way Sayginer does. But as for stance and cueing: he is eerily close to perfection.

If YOU are not, think about Steffi, Semih and Seve. Imperfect is good. Imperfect works.