I’m having trouble making up my mind about this book. On the one hand, it’s fairly short, has very poor diagrams, has quite a bit of fluff, and many pages are only useful for straight pool players. On the other hand, the book is a classic, chock full of useful information. It’s probably the oldest serious pool instruction book still in print because it was so far ahead of its time. Willie Mosconi’s Mosconi on Pocket Billiards (1948) and Winning Pocket Billiards (1965) are older but have far less substance and depth. Even with all the caveats above, 99 Critical Shots in Pool still has more high-quality content than some books twice its size.
The book begins with a short section on the fundamentals, including stance, bridge, stroke, etc. Ray talks about the right way to do things as well as pointing out a number of common mistakes. It’s all how, with no why or why not, but it’s easy to understand and the photos are good, though in B&W. This book was first published in 1978 and the views on stance are from that era. While getting down low on the ball is popular among many of the best pros of today, and considered good technique, it’s considered wrong in this book. Otherwise, this is standard fare done well.
The 99 Critical Shots in Pool is very thorough, going into so many intermediate and advanced concepts that if studied well can take anyone all the way to being an accomplished player.
Getting to the meat of Ray’s book, you very quickly notice one of the book’s main weaknesses; the graphics suck. The balls are about double sized relative to the table; in fact, they don’t look like they’d even go into a corner pocket. Also, object balls on the table other than the one to be pocketed are dark gray, in only very limited contrast to the black of the object ball to be pocketed. They are very hard to tell apart, adding to the difficulty of understanding the diagram.
The arrows used in the diagrams showing the path of the cue ball to the object ball often don’t point to the spot on the object ball that needs to be struck. Lastly, the path the cue ball takes after colliding with the object ball is always shown as a straight line when in reality it’s often curved. If you try to match the shots exactly you’ll have some difficulty with the draw and follow shots. The ball will end up close to where the diagrams show it, though, so this may not be a big problem. You can still get what you need from these diagrams, but you have to work unnecessarily hard, which takes away from the usually excellent content.
The style of the book emphasizes the ‘what to do’ rather than the ‘why it works’. For example, nowhere in the book is the 90° rule or tangent line discussed. This makes everything simpler to explain, and works well as far as it goes. That’s not to say there aren’t any explanations. Throw comes in for significant explanation and review, with numerous examples, because so many of the shots rely on it.
Generally, the big weakness of this approach is usually that the concepts are difficult to apply in other, not quite identical situations. Ray avoids much of this problem. He covers enough variations so the reader sees how to apply the technique in many different circumstances. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was the quiz following the 99 shots. There, 11 situations were presented and you were to find the hidden shot. This was a great exercise and I wish there were many more of these problems.
While the book can be used by complete beginners, starting from scratch, it rapidly leaves beginner territory. A beginner could reasonably follow everything here and learn a great deal, but most beginners need to move more slowly than this, and would benefit from more detail and more examples. The book is very thorough, going into so many intermediate and advanced concepts. If studied and practiced, it can take anyone all the way to being an accomplished player.
The 99 Critical Shots in Pool was written when straight pool was the dominant game. Also, Ray was a three-time world champion of this game, so naturally there is an emphasis on 14.1. A full 21 of the 99 shots are directly related to straight pool break shots and full rack safeties. These are of limited value to any reader who doesn’t play this game. But if you do, or want to, they’re golden. In my personal opinion, everyone should play straight pool, at least a little. It can teach you so much, but if you don’t, you don’t.
Over 20% of the book is devoted to the official rules and a glossary of terms. While this is in keeping with the book’s apparent intended audience of novices, there are a few problems. The rules are old (for example making the 8 on the break is a loss, and after fouls, the incoming player has ball in hand behind the head string). With this much useless information in an already short book, you might expect the book to be too short to have enough information to be worth its price, but that isn’t true. This book earned its classic status and remains a valuable addition to one’s pool library.
It’s a shame that when the book was re-released the publisher didn’t update the diagrams to current quality standards. This was a disservice to both Ray and the reading public.
Ray’s book contains a heaping helping of valuable information, clearly explained as to implementation and relevance. This is what we’d expect from a three-time world champion. The overall package is brought down by some of its contents which aren’t up to current standards, like old rules and poor graphics. Weighing the good with the bad, I’m giving The 99 Critical Shots in Pool a 7 out of 10.