The Mind-Bending Physics of Trick-Shot Pool

The world’s best trick shooters have an unparalleled eye for geometry.

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

In a billiards parlor in Hoboken, New Jersey, Andy “Magic Man” Segal leans over the back table, angles his stick in the air, and stabs downward. The cue ball jumps in the air and lands on the felt, spinning and rolling backward, tapping each of 10 lined-up balls in succession before knocking the 8-ball into the corner pocket.

That’s the machine-gun shot. Welcome to trick-shot pool.

For years, trick shots were a novelty. Players would hang out in basements and pool halls, challenging each other with custom-made maneuvers. But nowadays, the sport has become an art form unto itself—separate and apart from traditional pocket billiards. It even has its own tournament on ESPN: Tune into Trick Shot Magic and you’ll see the likes of Segal, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, demonstrating four jump shots at the same time, or Florian “Venom” Kohler, licensed optometrist, performing a “sexy” trick shot that sends the cue ball over the knees of a model as she poses seductively on the table.

Anyone who thinks these feats are merely tests of shooting skills are missing the point. They’re more like case studies out of a geometry class or physics lab. Or a billiards lecture. That’s no typo. Students at Harvard are studying “Dynamics of Rational Billiards.” At Williams, “Geometry, Surfaces, and Billiards.” At Stanford, “Lagrangian Relations and Linear Point Billiards.”

David Alciatore, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University, has written extensively on the sport—zeroing in on the science of trick shots—and even incorporates pocket billiards into his lectures on energy, friction, and rotation. Speak with him about pool for five minutes and you’ll find yourself neck-deep in mathematical formulas. You’ll hear how a cue ball “throws” the ball it strikes, how it transfers spin, how equilibrium controls a jump ball, and how different forces are at play during a massé (curve) shot.

This analytical understanding, he says, comes intuitively to most trick-shot masters. They can instantly visualize complex shots that typical players would never dream of attempting—and then practice, practice, practice to perfect them. “Think about that massé shot, or the jump shot,” Alciatore says, referring to Kohler’s sexy curve and Segal’s quadruple jump. “Someone that hasn’t practiced these a lot can’t do them. If you don’t have the technique and the experience, it’s almost impossible. You can understand all the physics in the world and that’s still not going to help you.”

Tim “The Dragon” Chin, a top competitor in the world of trick shots, was the special-arts champion at the 2014 World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) Artistic Pool Championship. Chin, like Alciatore, has a doctorate, though Chin’s is in materials, not mechanical, engineering. Like many of today’s trick-shot artists, he has little interest in traditional pool. Instead, he’s been seduced by the analytical challenges of trick shots, and follows his passion from tournament to tournament, competing with the best in the field for small money when compared to the dollars in mainstream sports like golf or tennis. (Typical purses range from $2,000 to $30,000.) He also gives exhibitions and consults.

“I first saw trick shots on ESPN in 2000,” he says. “It seemed like a magic trick, only there was nothing hidden—it was all there! It became a puzzle to me, and solving the puzzle was the challenge.”

Dr. Dave, as Alciatore calls himself, breaks those puzzles down into two basic categories: setup shots and skill shots. The former involves arranging the balls in an ideal position so that they are sure to react properly when struck—even by a novice. A skill shot, on the other hand, requires a skilled shooter with a tremendous amount of technique and experience.

Chin agrees with this distinction, but he becomes most animated when talking about “knowledge-based” shots—those that nobody has seen before. He points to one of the sport’s newest practitioners, Will DeYonker, as an example of a trick-shot artist who has the uncanny ability to look at a new shot and master it quickly. “I don’t think you’re gonna get DeYonker on the same shot more than one or two tournaments in a row before he’ll figure it out,” Chin says.

Will DeYonker, also known as “The Gentleman”
(Courtesy of Will DeYonker)

DeYonker, a 24-year-old videography student at Madonna University, in Livonia, Michigan, beat out 16 competitors to win the 2016 WPA championship held last month in Oklahoma. He, too, has an innate sense of geometry, but for a unique reason. DeYonker, who is sponsored by his mother, the chiropractor Susan Blaskay, was diagnosed with a mild form of autism at the age of 4. He displayed traits typical of the condition: He made little eye contact with others, remained aloof, and had difficulty expressing his emotions. In 2006, when he stumbled upon Trick Shot Magic, he was mesmerized by the action of the moving balls. He began practicing hours a day on his family’s table.

DeYonker, who’s known to the trick-shot world as “The Gentleman,” says that his autism gave him an immediate insight into the art. He considers himself “more of a picture person than a word person,” which is one reason why, when coming up with a trick shot, he draws it out on paper first—mapping it out and running the math in his head. “My head’s like a 3-D map,” he says. “When I get to the pool table, the 3-D map comes to life, and I actually know what direction the cue ball will go, and how to shoot the cue ball, and from what angle, with what draw, spin, whatever.”

(Courtesy of Will DeYonker)

Dr. Dave is not surprised by DeYonker’s success. “In general, seeing geometrically is a critical skill in playing pool,” he says. “People with good 3-D visualization are going to be better pool players. You have to visualize the angles, the special relationship to the ball, and be able to picture the shot in your head.”

So now that trick-shot pool has a niche of its own, what does the future hold for the art form? According to many top performers, the competitions are filled with players who take an intuitive, if not studied, approach to science—and have an unparalleled geometric vision. So imagine the unimaginable.

“Trick shots have evolved from the classic days when there were standard shots that everyone knew,” Chin says. “One way to get ahead of your opponents is to invent a new skill and master it. I mean, take your standard jump shot; at one point it turned into a one-handed jump shot, and that stymied certain competitors. Now anybody can hit a one-handed jump shot. Then they got into doing it left-handed so you have to be a little ambidextrous. And now there’s people doing it behind the back one-handed or under the leg one-handed.”

As for who will dominate the field, Chin looks no farther than his competitor, The Gentleman. “Will DeYonker has been able to master shots quickly,” he says. “He’s pretty much set to dominate the sport for the next fifteen or twenty years.”