Pool, as is noted in this great Sports Illustrated article that I’ve just stumbled across, involves sustained waiting. “When one player is at the table, there is nothing his opponent can do except sit and hope that he misses,” wrote Robert Coughlan in the April 4, 1955 edition. “The player at the table, on the other hand, knowing that a miss will give his opponent a chance to make a long run and win, is under steadily increasing stress to keep pocketing balls. … This can be a nerve-racking pastime.”
This is why sharking can be so effective. Drop your cue at an opportune moment, stand in the line of vision of a shooter, excessive fidgiting: all of these can be effective ploys. The game rewards those adept at psychological warfare — but in a manner that is not too overt. This is the definition of sharking. “Anything obviously calculated to rattle an opponent is against the rules, so players develop subtle forms of torture for one another,” writes Coughlan. This is in contrast to hustling, where a player hides his or her true speed or deceives an opponent into a game he can’t possibly win.
I’ve come across a great book on the topic of sharking entitled “The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship.” It was written by Stephen Potter in a faux Victorian style, with “Gamesmanship” being the euphemistic term the author uses for sharking. The book is appropriately subtitled “The art of winning games without actually cheating.”
I’ve gone through this book, Coughlan’s article, and my own notes from Hustler Days and The Hustler & The Champ to create a list of pool’s greatest sharking techniques. Be sure to try these at your local pool hall. It’s a great way to make friends.
* The Annoying Body Noise Shark
A well-timed coughing fit, burp, or loud sneeze during your opponent’s shot can put a player off their game.
* The Line of Sight Shark
Writes Coughlan: When a player is shooting down-table, the opponent “may seize the moment to wipe his hands on a towel or shower them with powder, sight down his own cue or file the cue tip, start telling a joke sotto voce to someone sitting with him, or discover an itch that must be scratched vigorously.” The showering-the-hands-with-powder shark was popular with Minnesota Fats.
* The Lauri Searchlight Shark
Pool legend Onofrio Lauri would polish his bald head in the line of sight of his opponent. Sometimes he would get it to shine so brightly that he could use it to reflect a dazzling light into his competitor’s eyes.
* The Willie Mosconi Shark
Some very good players can destroy their opponent’s game simply by assuming their regular haughty demeanor. Both Willie Mosconi and Ralph Greanleaf would exude such extreme confidence that their opponents felt like insects by comparison. Mosconi almost never lost during his mind-numbing exhibition years on the road. He said this was because his opponents needed to play above their regular skill level, but because they were so unnerved by him they generally played below it.
* The Minnesota Fats Shark
Your opponent on a roll? Stop the game to eat a sandwich. Repeat as necessary.
* The Nice Chap Shark
Also, from the Gamesmanship book: when playing a polite young player and one that has been well-brought up by their family, it can be useful to subtly implant the idea that it would be a rather rotten trick to beat an old man by too much. “Thereby the fatal ‘letting up’ is inaugurated, which can be the undoing of so many fine players,” writes Potter.
* The Free Advice Shark
Give free — but useless — advice to your opponent. Potter says it can be as simple as telling him or her to “take it easy” before shooting. Also, telling your opponent to be sure to “look at the line” works well.
* Potter’s Improvement on the Primitive Hamper Shark
The name of this shark, again from Potter’s book, is admittedly ridiculous. But the essence of it is to interrupt your opponent’s flow — “the hamper” — but in a way that is seemingly meant to assist your opponent. For example, just as your opponent is in mid stroke, you can tell him to stop. Then, indicating some kids well on the other side of the pool room, say: “those damn kids — walking across your line of sight.”
Potter’s book has plenty of hilarious examples of more sharks, including ploys that are useful in tennis and golf. Have your own favorite shark story? Send it in.