Thursday, April 15, 2010

PoolSynergy 6: One on One with Robert Byrne

PoolSynergy is a collaborative effort between online pool writers, each of whom agree to post essays on a single theme. This month's edition is hosted by Fast Mikie McCafferty and his Diary of a Pool Shooter blog. Check it out to find more essays.

For our PoolSynergy topic this month we've been asked to write an essay about "The Most Important Thing about Pool." I have to confess this was something of a stumper for me. Keep your head down when you shoot? Remember to follow through? No crying in nine-ball? I had no idea. So instead of inventing some weighty bit of nonsense and then pawning it off as wisdom, I took the coward's way out. I called Robert Byrne.

As the author of seven popular books on pool -- including his incredible Standard Book on Pool & Billiards -- Bob Byrne enjoys a much-deserved reputation as our sport's foremost educator. His Standard Book has sold more than 400,000 copies since its original publication in 1978 and his Complete Book of Pool Shots has sold more than 80,000. Either one or the other has consistently outranked all other pool books on Amazon's list of top sellers. Byrne also has authored one my favorite pool biographies, McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler, and has produced some of the sport's most popular instructional videos. His latest book, Behold my Shorts, is a hilarious collection of essays and newspaper columns.

I figured who better to ask about pool's most important thing than pool's number one teacher. Straightaway I called the Hall of Famer at his Iowa home, which he shares with his wife Cynthia Nelms and shi-tzu Betty Boop. I was all ready to pose my question when I remembered that it was just about to be Bob's birthday. He turns 80 on May 22. And so before you know it, we're talking about that, and not about his instructional advice. Bob tells me he feels great at 80, although "growing old is like getting pushed toward the precipice by an irresistible bulldozer." And so that's where we began, with a discussion of pool and aging, and not the most important thing.

I've reproduced here part of that Q & A. But just so you know, Bob is a native of Dubuque and attended both Iowa State and the University of Colorado. He authored a humor column at the first university, and edited a humor publication at the second. He graduated in 1954 with a degree in civil engineering and his first job out of school was as a reporter for a construction industry trade magazine in San Francisco. The magazine eventually folded, which contributed to Bob's decision to become a full-time writer of books.

By why pool? Bob says he was a winner of tournaments in college, and then continued playing after moving to California. There he rubbed elbows with national champions. He came upon the idea of writing an instructional book upon realizing there wasn't many other books available at the time that offered sound advice.

He said he learned much about the technical aspects of the game from his friend Bob Jewett. "The two of us were always talking about the physics of the game so when I had an offer to do the book, I was well prepared to go into the technical aspects," explains Bob. "Also, as a former magazine editor, I knew what I wanted the book to look like. I didn't want the explanations running onto the next page. I hired a graphic artist to do the diagrams of the table and the drawings of me. He did them from the top of a step ladder. Instead of doing arrows, I had a player who would be aiming the shot."

The Standard Book and The Complete Book of Pool Shots "is what keeps me in pancakes," says Bob. But it was the excellent writing in those books and his sound advice that has earned him the respect of fans and colleagues. In 2001 the industry bestowed upon Bob Byrne pool's highest honor: he was inducted into the Billiard Congress Hall of Fame for meritorious service.

So, Bob and I spoke about that honor, and his books, and his long history observing the sport, and his birthday. Here's some of the rest of it:

Q: Do you have any general thoughts about turning 80?

A: I'm lucky in that I don't look 80 and I don't feel 80. I'm in good health and still thinking about future projects, some of which involve billiard books and DVDs, which are on hold at the moment because of the lousy economy. Appropriate words to describe me given my age are 'peppy' and 'spry.' I ran 78 in straight pool when I was 78 and a year ago matched my lifetime high run of 14 in three-cushion. My instructional books and DVDs do very well, so I'm happy.

Q. But what about pool in general? Why has the sport gone to hell in a handbasket?

A. Most but not all of the negative aspects of the game are related to the severe economic slump. There is no men's tour. The women's tour has been reduced. Only a few pool players in the word make a decent living at the game, and to do it they have to practically live on the road.

The industry in general, which depends a lot on table sales, is in the severe slump because new home construction is way below normal. Business is down at most pool rooms and many rooms have closed in the last couple of years. The print magazines have seen discouraging losses in advertising income and circulation. There is no live TV coverage of pool.

When there is a tournament on TV it is almost always 9-ball. Great games like straight pool are never seen on TV because the long runs become tedious, with too many easy shots. Even 9-ball on 4.5 x 9 tables is too easy--top players almost never miss a shot they try to make, which does not make for compelling television for the average non-playing viewer.

Q. Is there hope for the future?

A. Maybe for televised matches 5x10 tables should be used to provide more of a test. Snooker is still popular in Great Britain, partly because the 6x12 tables are a formidable challenge and look awesome on television. Making a long diagonal straight-in shot on a 6x12 table with tight pockets and you deserve applause; such shots on a pool table are so routine that they aren't interesting.

As a geezer, I can be expected to feel that things were better in the good old days. Pool rooms when I was young were more interesting because you could play or watch pool, snooker, or three-cushion, and the pool games being played weren't always 9-ball and 8-ball. Those two games have driven out great games like straight pool and rotation from the average public room. The billiard world has seen many ups and downs, booms and slumps. I look forward to the next boom, but I don't think it will come soon.

Q. How is that you can write so authoritatively about the sport?

A. A year and a half ago when I was 78 years old I ran 78 in straight pool. I doubt if I will ever run my age again. Six months ago I ran 14 in three-cushion, which ties my lifetime high run that I made 50 years ago. While those feats are nothing for professional players, they help me write about the game because I play well enough to understand what the top players are doing. I have a pool table at home, not a billiard table, and I spent a lot of time on it when dreaming up and testing the shots in Byrne's Complete Book of Pool Shots.

Three-cushion is my best game by far, and decades ago I won my share of tournaments on the West Coast. National champions I have beaten in tournament play include Frank Torres, Harry Sims, Eddie Robin, and Bud Harris. In 1999 I won the National Amateur in Louisville, KY and the same year I won the National Senior in Chicago, in both cases averaging .800. Those are the last significant competitions that I've won. My skills have slipped quite a bit as I've reached advanced geezerhood, but I'm still competitive.

(As I mentioned before) much of my understanding of the physics of the game I learned from Bob Jewett, like the fact a spinning ball does not curve when it rolls down the table. To make a ball curve you have to strike it a downward blow with an elevated cue, otherwise no curve. To prove it, spin a ball with your fingers or with a sidespin stop shot. When the ball is spinning in place like a top, knock in slowly down the table by throwing another ball against it. You'll see that the spinning ball travels in a straight line.

Bob and I continued talking about pool for a long while more, and during the course of the conversation, he mentioned his website,, where you can find plenty of useful tips. For instance, pool tip number 2:

"With ball in hand and a cluster that must be broken, consider playing safe in a way that breaks up the cluster. It may be possible to drive a ball into the cluster and at the same time snooker your opponent."

Is this the most important thing about pool? Probably not. But I had so much fun talking, I forgot to ask him about the most important thing. And as this tip comes to us from America's foremost pool writer, it's certainly worth remembering.

-- R.A. Dyer


cynthia byrne said...

As Bob Byrne's wife, I've been subjected to overhearing teen pool players point at Bob and say "That's Bob Byrne! He's a god!" which is a statement no wife can abide, no matter who she's married to. But Bob is a wonderful, knowledgeable person. He not only knows about pool and billiards, but about literature, calculus, engineering, good writing, literature, classical music, art, and on and on. Since he is SO much older than I am, his wisdom has given me more than a college education.

Bob Probst said...

Thanks for publishing this interview! and Bob, if you read this, thanks for your wonderful books! Your entertaining writing and clear explanations are inspiring. Applying the principles and ideas that you offer up have given me many exciting moments at the table!

Russell said...

As Bob Byrne's son, I learned the difference between follow, draw, english and squirt at a very young age (not to mention concrete vs. cement).

But it's sometimes embarrassing knowing so much about how to play without being able to ACTUALLY play (my high run is something like 12, due to an inability to control squirt).

Don't tell mom this, but I still remember when dad took me a few times to those awesome smoky rooms on Market St. in SF (circa 1970 when I was 8) -- I remember Bud Harris and also Masako Katsura.

Dad, you'll always be my role model for who I want to be when I'm 30 years older.

Luxembourg said...

My game went to the next level. His checklist for running a table, his description of different types of "throw" shots and his simplifying the stroke all were instrumental. In pool, unlike other sports, there are few real teachers, Robert Byrne is a great teacher for the beginner to the very advanced player. It's the least expensive pool lesson you'll ever get.