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If you have an occasion to watch professional pool players in competition, you will notice that they try to position the cue ball for a straight shot whenever possible. A straight shot in billiards, in which the cueball and object ball are directly in line with a clear pocket, is a very high percentage shot, and thus preferred by those players whose livelihoods depend on making each shot count. For the rest of us, we must be prepared for those times when our object ball doesn't exactly sit squarely in line with a pocket. We may have to use what's called a 'bank shot', a shot in which the object ball strikes at least one rail and is reflected into the pocket. This is not a high percentage shot, but with a little practice and visualization a beginning pool player can achieve some consistency and use the bank shot to his advantage. Here's a few tips on how to plan and execute a bank shot:

1. Basic one-rail bank. The key to any trick shot in pool is visualization. A good bank shot starts in the mind, not in the stick or the cue ball, so you must first examine the situation like a golfer examining the green before a putt. Will you have to avoid some other balls while making the shot? Which pocket offers the best angle of attack? How much speed will I need? These are all good questions to ask yourself in order to make a successful bank shot. Once you have a clear picture in your mind of how you want to approach the shot, it's time to map out your actual gameplan.

A basic one-rail bank shot depends largely on the reflective angle principle in physics. Simply put, if the ball strikes the rail at a 45 degree angle, it should come off the rail at a similar 45 degree angle, unless something is there to alter its course, which you hope won't happen. Change the angle of the hit, and you change the angle of the reflection. You should imagine your body as being located at one of the bottom corners of an imaginary triangle. The intended pocket lies at the other bottom corner, or in that extrapolated angle. Your object ball (the one you're trying to sink) should ideally follow one side of this triangle towards the top 'point'. This point is right on the rail. Once the ball strikes this point of the imaginary triangle, it should follow the other side and end up in the intended pocket. You should visualize the top point as being halfway between you and the pocket, and adjust your angle accordingly.

You should not be as concerned with the trajectory of the cueball as much as the angle of the object ball, but you do want to make sure the cueball does not interfere with the path of the object ball once it is struck. Do not put a tremendous amount of English on the cueball. You want the cueball to either replace the object ball or move out of the way, not follow along for the ride.

2. Cross banking. This is a shot that many pool hustlers pull out while 'sharking' their opponents. ("Sharking" is a pool hall term for a good player waiting for the right moment to start playing up to his ability. Hustlers tend to play lousy pool for a few games, to give their opponents a false sense of confidence.) You can also learn to cross bank using the same principles as a basic one-rail bank, with a slight adjustment. In a typical cross bank situation, the object ball is sitting very close to a side rail, or is in a no man's land near the side pockets. The idea is to strike the object ball with a glancing blow, causing it to strike the nearest rail at an angle and cross the table into the opposite side pocket. This is a difficult shot, but can be devastatingly effective when trying to intimidate your opponent. To pull this shot off, you use the same 'triangle' principle as before, but your cueball must do double duty.

In a cross bank situation, the object ball is usually at a very acute angle relative to the intended pocket. It's a very tight triangle, in other words. Instead of striking the object ball directly, you must aim the cueball as if you were trying to 'cut' the object ball into a non-existent pocket on the side rail. 'Cutting' a ball means to strike the ball at an angle that will force it to travel in a certain direction and speed. It is mostly used to deflect a ball that is at a slight angle from the pocket. In this cross bank scenario, you must use the cueball to cut the object ball into the side rail at the same angle as your imaginary triangle. The cueball should then continue on to the end of the table, and the object ball should strike the top point of the 'triangle' with enough force to propel it across the table and into the intended pocket.

3. Multiple-rail bank shots. These are very risky shots, since much more can go wrong than right, but occasionally a player may find himself with no other option but to play a two or three rail bank shot.

To plan and execute a multi-rail shot, you must do some serious visualization first. Instead of dividing the shot into a single imaginary triangle and aiming for the top point, you must now imagine two smaller triangles, each with their own top points and side angles. Your body is at one bottom corner of one triangle. The object ball must first strike the top point of the initial triangle with enough force to keep it going through the opposite bottom corner. From there, it should ideally follow the side of the second triangle and strike the top point directly on the second rail. If everything goes well, it should follow the second side of the triangle into the intended hole. If there are any other balls in either trajectory, the shot simply won't work. To improve your odds of making this stunt shot, you should already be comfortable enough with your single rail banking that the first 'triangle' is automatic. You should be able to tell exactly where the object ball will strike the next rail, because the second 'triangle' is really the critical one. Your visualization should concentrate on that second set of deflections. The angles are virtually the same for each 'triangle', but the success of the shot depends on how well you hit the second triangle's trajectory, and how much speed is left on the ball. You must hit this multiple rail shot with a fair amount of power and authority. It is an extremely difficult shot to pull off, so you'll also need a lot of practice.