Gleanings from TAR 17: Donny Mills vs Shane Van Boening

TAR 17 Mills vs Van Boening Poster
Mills vs Van Boening Poster

This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of watching some great pool, live in my home town. I attended both halves of TAR 17 (The Action Report) in person at Crooked Cue Billiards in Clearwater, FL. This excellent pool hall, about 5 miles from my home, hosted a challenge match between Donny Mills and Shane Van Boening. The game was 9 Ball, the format was rack your own, break from the box.

You’ll be able to read all about the match on all the standard pool news sites. I won’t be doing any reporting here other to say that for the most part both players played extremely well, momentum shifted substantially several times, and the final score was Shane 100, Donny 83.

What I do want to talk about were a number of observations I made while watching. I suppose I could have made these at other pro events, and thinking back I wonder why I didn’t, but regardless, I’m writing about them now. First the most obvious one; not really new, but I’m throwing it in because it’s so important.

With practice you can tame dangerous beasts and make them your pet.

Fundamentals: No matter how many times you hear it, or read it, the advice to “stay down,” “be still,” “don’t move your head,” is hard to follow. Seeing these guys play 183 games of 9 ball and be rock solid for EVERY shot really gets to you. It drives home what staying down really looks like. And on the few shots where there was a miss, there was often a slight twinge of movement near the end of the stroke.

Consistency: It pays major dividends and only comes with lots of practice. Donny Mills broke 83 times and made the same wing ball in the same corner pocket 82 of them Yes, that’s right, he made the same ball 82 of 83 breaks. Whether you like the soft break or not is irrelevant here. My point is that with practice you can tame dangerous beasts and make them your pet. But if you think Donny did this with an hour of effort you live in fantasyland.

Simplify, simplify: Both Shane and Donny played a great deal of one rail shape, often requiring inside English. I know, I can hear you saying “that’s not simple” from here. Well, it is, you just have to practice it. It makes the cue ball path predictable with a high degree of accuracy. Also, the killing effect of the inside English helps you hit the ball a little harder, so that you can narrow the range of force used for most shots.

Donny_Mills - TAR 17
Donny_Mills – Photo by Nicole Hurley Palescuk

Stroke the Ball: I could count on 1 hand the number of times either of these guys slow rolled a ball, and on one of them the ball rolled off for a miss of an easy shot. Learn to control the cue ball with cueing rather than with the speed of your stroke. It will raise your consistency, minimize table hazards, and keep you in stroke.

Go Across & Back: In every single case where either of these pros were shooting at a ball near the rail, and their next shot was another ball along the same rail, they Always went across and back to get shape, they never tried to hold the cue ball. Even when the two balls were on the short rail, they’d go up and back instead of trying to hold. Practice this, and don’t hold any more.

Avoid Obstacles: These guys live by Danny Diliberto’s Law – Always Take the Path of Least Snookerdom. We should too. I would estimate that 4 of every 5 shots which resulted in poor shape (there weren’t many but they did happen) were because of obstacles that weren’t sufficiently avoided. These pros took routes that stayed well away from blockers when possible, sometimes going much further or making a tougher shot to do so.

Angles: Getting on the right side of the ball is far more important than having a short shot. These guys don’t even consider trying to play perfect shape, they play highly reliable shape, shape they can depend on. This one is going to have the biggest effect on my game, I think, because it’s the one I follow the least.

The area where the cue ball would be in good position for the next shot is usually a triangle which gets wider as the distance between the cue ball and the ball to be pocketed increases. Getting into this zone is much easier if you go a little further. This trade-off of longer shot for more consistently getting the right angle is the way to go. And by longer shots I still mean shots that are mostly within one half of the table, 3 or 4 feet from cue ball to pocket.

These guys don’t even consider trying to play perfect shape, they play highly reliable shape.

No Bridge: While it’s true that Donny Mills is quite tall (my guess 6’ 4”) and can reach further than most of us, Shane isn’t particularly tall and this applies to him as well. Taken together, these two players didn’t use the bridge more than twice, in 183 games. They didn’t stretch instead, they just didn’t put whitey in awkward spots. Learn to play shape so that you don’t need to use the bridge or be in an uncomfortable spot when shooting. One day in practice, figure out where on the table you’d have to use a bridge. I mean actually map it out. Now that you know where you don’t want to be, don’t go there. Play shape to be outside your bridge zones.

Focus: Both Donny and Shane had extraordinary focus during this long and grueling match. They would laser in on the object ball for a couple seconds and fire it into those small pockets with such precision it was amazing. But these guys are great, they’re not perfect. There was a stretch in the middle of the second day when neither guy’s break was working as planned and their games suffered. Their focus lost its keenness and they missed enough balls to make you wonder for a minute why you were paying to watch. It was clear to me, and probably to most in the audience, that whoever got their focus back first would be the likely winner. He did.

Adaptation: For a while, both players were having trouble with the breaks that had been working so well for them up to that point. Each stuck to what had been working, making tiny adjustments to try to get back on track. Finally, after about 20 or so games each the second day, Shane quit using the soft break entirely and went back to his hard break. This change seemed to bring with it a new attitude and a new level of focus to his play that enabled him to put the match away comfortably. When things aren’t working, don’t be afraid to adjust; you might break out of your funk and get right back in it.

When things aren’t working, don’t be afraid to adjust; you might break out of your funk and get right back in it.

As I said above, I’m sure I could have learned these things from other matches. I make this point because I believe you too can benefit from watching elite players. Accu-Stats has tons of great matches available for purchase, and Youtube has a slew of matches available for free. ESPN and other cable networks broadcast older matches. You can find these TV matches by checking the TV listings page on the Billiards Digest web site. I hadn’t watched a lot of pool up to now, and when I did I was paying attention mostly to how accurate they were and how they stroked the ball. I’m going to start watching much more and paying attention to lots of new things.

Let me know what you think with your comments, pro or con. I’m a student like most of you, and we all learn best with a multitude of inputs. May the best ideas win.

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