I was 17 years old and was just starting to get my feet wet with serious competition.
J.R.’s weekly 8-ball tournament in Lancaster, Kentucky was viewed by many as the strongest tournament in the state. When I arrived on the scene over 50 players had already paid their entries. During the tournament, one player in particular caught my attention. In fact, the man referred to as “Toothpick” waltzed all the way to the finals of the 52-man field. This wasn’t by coincidence. At that time, Ronnie Lane was one of the best defensive 8-ball players that I had ever seen.
After watching a few games, it was easy to see that Ronnie played 8-ball like most people play chess, executing shot after shot with a toothpick hanging out of the side of his mouth. Every move and every shot was both deliberate and calculated. Many times he would either pocket his opponent’s ball for strategic purposes or roll a ball in front of a pocket to congest traffic for his opponent.
At the same time, I too was making my way through the one loss side and it was becoming apparent that there would be a showdown between the two of us in the finals. There were a lot of clusters in our final rack, and I knew it was going to be a long defensive battle. After running a few balls, I attempted a difficult defensive shot and fell short of the mark. At that point, Ronnie had positioned his balls out in the open and decided to attempt a run out. During his attempt, Ronnie played himself out of position on his final striped ball and was left with the layout below.
As soon as Ronnie got out of line I felt as though I had a chance to win the tournament. It looked as though his best bet was to play a difficult low percentage bank.
But even in face of adversity, one could see the wheels turning as he decided what to do. Ronnie approached the table and did something I never expected. He shot the cue ball into the 14, freezing the cue ball to my 3 ball (leaving me at cue ball position “a”). At the same time he banked the 14 up table positioning it near the upper corner pocket. The key to this shot is to hit the cue ball 1 tip below center striking the 14 slightly to the left of center. When executing the shot, you are better off banking short leaving the object ball near the long cushion.
Speed is critical to executing the shot. If you hit the bank too hard you could pocket the ball or leave it on the end rail where it would be very difficult to pocket.
“Don’t overlook the obvious!” he said as he executed the shot. It was a very common sense, high percentage play. The truth is, I never thought about him using my ball to play a defensive shot. In fact, looking back on the situation, he did the only high percentage thing that he could have done.
“At least you can hit it!” he laughed. I was in a trap.
Ronnie had turned a losing proposition into a fighting chance to win. I will always remember the disappointment I felt as I approached the table. I attempted to play some kind of a safety, but the sly fox had positioned me into a no win scenario. When Ronnie returned to the table he pocketed the final two balls to win the tournament. The wise veteran had taken me to school.
It was at that moment I began to understand a new concept. I had learned not to overcomplicate things, and to look for simple things to do in high-pressure situations. Over the next few years I learned a lot from watching Ronnie play, but looking back I will never forget the time that he showed me just how important it is to always play the percentage.