Changing Hand Positions

The key remedy for overcoming lane conditions

Those who can change hand positions enjoy a distinct advantage over those with limited skills. In last month’s issue, I addressed the amount of hook required to be successful. Any hook that carries out the 5 pin is considered a quality shot, regardless of the amount of boards the ball covers… that is, provided the ball is delivered with accuracy.

Strike shots can be produced from numerous angles. Laydown points can vary from the first to the 39th board, depending on the amount of hook the player desires and is able to execute. One of the most important aspects of sound fundamental bowling is a good release, which depends on placing the ball well back into the hand. At the release point, the thumb exits quickly, the weight of the ball is transferred to the fingers, and the fingers project the ball INTO the lane.

Bowling has certainly had its share of players who have accomplished the art of changing hand positions to achieve maximum hook, medium hook, end-over-end roll, or straighten out a shot. Two of the greatest players in the game, Chris Barnes and Norm Duke, honed their skills through grueling match game competition.

Duke’s versatility can be traced to his innate ability to alter hand positions at any given opportunity. Chris Barnes, generally regarded by his peers as the most complete player in the game, can also attribute his meteoric rise to stardom to his mastery of hand positions.

There are six major paths to the 1-3 pocket:

  • Gutter Shot
  • Straight  Shot
  • Down and In Shot
  • Inside Line
  • Deep Inside Line
  • Deep-Deep Inside Line

Gutter shot


The gutter shot is one of the most intricate shots in the game. It requires steel nerves and precise accuracy and is a very effective weapon when executed properly. The gutter shot, unheard of until Jim St. John startled the bowling fans in the World’s Invitational Tournament in Chicago in the early 60s, created a new angle to the pocket.

St. John ran roughshod over all opposition playing right of the first and second board, riding the gutter for 30 or 40 feet, then sweeping into the pocket for an overwhelming victory. To prove he wasn’t a fluke, St. John repeated his victory again the following year and set a new standard for years to come.

Despite the fact that a gutter shot can be extremely effective, it can also result in disaster. It is imperative this type delivery be executed with a closed shoulder; that is, the shoulder of the bowling arm must be positioned slightly forward of the non-bowling shoulder. Any ball delivered with the bowling shoulder open, even slightly, will inevitably head for the gutter.  Therein lies the importance of intestinal fortitude for executing this maneuver. In short, gutter shots are not designed for the faint-hearted.

Primarily, the gutter shot is ONLY effective when the outside part of the lane is dry and void of oil. On the PBA tour, only a few bowlers have mastered this type execution. It is utilized successfully by Walter Ray Williams, Norm Duke, and Chris Barnes when conditions are favorable to this type delivery.

An effective gutter shot is executed by standing on the extreme outside of the lane, laying the ball down on the first or second board, riding the gutter for at least 40 feet, then sweeping into the 1-3 pocket. However, there is a drawback to this type delivery. Quite often, the ball will go slightly behind the headpin and leave the bowler facing the dreaded 2-8-10 split, a punishing factor in this era of reactive bowling balls. There is an old adage; “no guts, no glory”, a befitting proverb for those who choose to play the gutter shot.

Straight shot

straight shot

The straight shot is the least preferred angle by professional bowlers. As a matter of fact, the smartest professionals utilize a straight ball for converting single pins, particularly the 7 and 10 pin spares. For a strike attempt, straight shots are hardly the choice of top-rated bowlers. Simply put, they lack the hitting power of hook shots and require deadly accuracy. Straight balls have become more useful for safety measures when counts of six or more are needed to insure victory.

The PBA features several players who are considered straight players. However, bowling straight in the pro ranks does not relate to throwing the ball completely straight. Rather, it means assuming a stance farther right in the approach and directing the ball in a more direct path to the pocket.

For a proper straight shot, the middle-finger location is at 6 o’clock. The wrist should be firm and the ball triggered by driving the two middle fingers straight through to the 12 o’clock position with NO finger rotation whatsoever. Additionally, speed is of the essence.

Down and in shot

down and in shot

The down and in angle is the testing pattern for seeking the best strike path to the pocket. This angle normally dictates the character of the strike zone, indicating how the lane oil is applied. Accomplished bowlers began their practice shots down the 10th or 12th board with various hand positions in order to find the most advantageous line to the pocket.

The down and in shot is the bread and butter angle for superstars Walter Ray Williams and Norm Duke. It is the Highway to Heaven for these two players; an ideal line for their end-over-end deliveries. It requires little or limited hook, yet maintains a great strike percentage. This type roll became especially effective with the appearance of reactive bowling balls that maintain a direct path to the pocket with little or no deflection. Properly executed, it is seemingly simple. Strangely, except for Chris Barnes, very few other PBA players utilize this type delivery. Perhaps this is due to a lack of confidence. An end-over-end shot requires deadly accuracy coupled with sufficient speed to prevent hook out.

The end-over-end roll is the simplest shot for controlling the ball’s path to the pocket. Although it has a great strike percentage, it lacks the thunderous impact of a hard-hooking ball but, released properly, possesses enough rotation to carry out the 5 pin. The greatest disadvantage of this delivery is its tendency to leave weak 10 pins, particularly when the back end inhibits the added rotation required for maximum carry. This risk, however, is balanced by the shot’s effectiveness in blowing out 4 pins and 7 pins. Furthermore, an end-over-end roll is less likely to leave a 9 pin. In this age of reactive bowling balls, 9 pins (8 pins for lefties) have become increasingly visible on strong pocket hits.

Bowlers execute this delivery by applying maximum forward roll with the hand fully under the ball, then thrust onto the lane with virtually no side turn. The secret to this method of execution is minimum application of the ring finger turn combined with accenting the release off the middle finger in an outward thrust.

An effective end-over-end shot resembles a full roller in its rotational movement…with one exception; a full roller is tracked between the thumb and fingers and has no side roll whatsoever. An end-over-end roll is tracked just outside the thumb and fingers and rotates slightly leftward. Unlike a semi-roller that evolves into a sharp hook, an end-over-end roll maintains an even arc and is far more controllable.

For an end-over-end roll, the middle finger is at a 6 o’clock position before the release. The ball is nested in the palm of the hand and rolled in a straightforward motion. The rotation of the ball must be generated from the middle finger to minimize side roll and completely free of any ring-finger turn. Any application of the ring finger in the release will create undesired side turn. The middle finger thrust should be from 6 o’clock to 1 o’clock.

It must be noted that the down and in shot is not solely reserved for the end-over-end roll. Down and in shots have been successfully utilized by accomplished strokers by virtue of changing hand positions and applying less rotation.

Inside line

inside line

The greatest majority of good bowlers rely on hook balls for scoring potential. Hook balls, no doubt, afford the greatest percentage for strike shots. However, the minimum revolutions required for strike balls is taking out the 5 pin. Consequently, the amount of hook a bowler desires is a matter of choice. Each delivery has its advantages.  The wide hook requires less accuracy and widens the pocket. However, the wide hook can also result in slightly errant shots that leave clusters of pins and ungodly splits. On the other hand, shorter hooks cover fewer boards and are easier to control.

Short hooks are the overwhelming choice of “strokers”. They have softer and looser arms that execute by virtue of finesse, rather that raw power. Nonetheless, strokers can tally with the best of the power players with far less effort, greater balance, and undoubtedly, greater accuracy.

Strokers, often dubbed  “tweeners”,  (bowlers who do not rely on straight shots or wide hooks are in between these two deliveries…sort of medium in hooking power) normally opt for the inside line shot. Accomplished inside bowlers lay the ball down on about the 20th board at the foul line, swing it to an area around the 13th to the 17th board at the arrows and reach the breakpoint around the 10th board in a smooth arcing manner. Like ballet dancers, they glide to the approach in perfect balance and apply sufficient revolutions to the ball, culminating the shot with an extended follow through…all with little or no exertion whatsoever.

Strokers are at a slight disadvantage when lanes are dry, especially when the heads are void of oil. Dry heads invariably compel bowlers to over-energize their deliveries in order to prevent early roll. This, in turn, alters their method of execution. Many bowlers attempt to loft the ball beyond the heads but more often than not, it is counter-productive. Balls that are lofted are already in a spin cycle and over-react when they make contact with the lanes.

Nonetheless, astute bowlers can overcome dry heads by applying less grip pressure to the fingers and releasing the ball in a long extended laydown point. I have always referred to this maneuver as a “drag shot”. This was one of Earl Anthony’s strongest suits and possibly Don Carter’s secret…similar to pushing the ball through the heads and down the lane.

Deep inside line

inside line deep

Wide sweeping hooks are the most potent strike balls. They are utilized by bowlers who deliver balls with inordinate force by virtue of a quick release of the thumb and excessive finger rotation.  These type players generally focus on the breakpoint rather than attempting to hit a one or two board spot on the lanes.

Power players definitely notched a place for themselves in bowling annals. During the 50s and 60s, Hall of Famers Earl Johnson, Bill Lillard, Carmen Salvino, and Harry Smith tore the cover off the ball. Their stature in the bowling world was established during the period of hard rubber balls that had far less traction on the lanes than modern urethane equipment.

Energizing the ball was an absolute necessity. This was an age of uncoated pins with flatter bottoms on wooden lanes that required stronger oil application. It was also a period in bowling history that was void of the all-out practice of lane blocking. However, in fairness to today’s advantages, scores during the days of shellac and lacquer were greatly aided by tracks created on the wood surfaces. Astute bowlers took advantage of the tracks and piled up some hefty scores. However, there were far, far less 300s and 700s. Moreover, the rash of 800 series currently being recorded nightly was virtually unheard of. At that time, an 800 series was worthy of national attention.

Deep inside players normally lay the ball down around the 35th board, direct it toward the 25th board at the arrows out toward the 8th or 10th board at the breakpoint, then roll toward the 1-3 pocket. They keep the ball well back in the hand with a cupped wrist. In this technique, the wrist is cupped throughout the forward swing until the release point. At this juncture, they collapse the wrist and flick it outward onto the lane. This was the trademark for superstars like Marshall Holman and Del Ballard and is fast becoming the standard for today’s power players. It is this type delivery that has catapulted Chris Barnes into the most elite player in the game and Sean Rash into one of the brightest young stars on the PBA tour.

Crankers are ultra versions of wide hooking artists and at times resemble contortionists. They apply incredible revolutions to the ball with absurd finger rotation and usually cover 15 to 20 boards on their path to the pocket. They deliver exciting bombs and create a larger pocket, but, all in all, successful bowlers of this type are few and far between.

Stan Slomenski threw the biggest hook of anyone in the game during the rubber ball era. He was somewhat competitive but in searching through USBC record books, I found nothing he did to distinguish himself as a superstar. So what does this indicate? Are wide-hooking balls the key to success? Perhaps it was an asset to a select few but, on the whole, apparently not.

Three of the most prominent bowlers of the past decade utilizing wide hooks were dismal failures in PBA competition….Kelly Coffman, Rudy Kasimakis, and Tim Mack. For example, Kelly Coffman, who spent over ten years on the PBA tour, put 20 to 24 revolutions on his shots with a polyester ball, yet NEVER recorded a title. It must be noted that polyester balls have far less traction on the lanes than urethane equipment. Yet, Coffman applied as many revolutions on polyester balls as today’s players do with urethane equipment, further substantiating Kelly’s ability to out-hook all his contemporaries.

Much of Coffman’s failure can be traced to his anemic spare game. Coffman threw his same wide-sweeping hooking balls at spares, an exercise in futility when attempting to convert a 10 pin. Simply put, he was obsessed with revolutions and made no attempt to refine his talents for a sounder, fundamental manner of execution.

Rudy Kasimakis also spent considerable time on the PBA tour to no avail. He established a nationwide reputation as an action player in the New York area and megabucks tournaments before turning professional. He was extremely successful in his favorite surroundings in the New York area and took on all comers in a bold and fearless manner. Nonetheless, he was a dismal disappointment in his tenure on the pro tour. Kasimakis hooked the ball from coast to coast. Although a bit robust around the waist, he was strongly built, with forearms like a blacksmith…so strong, in fact, he toted four balls at a time WITHOUT a bowling bag. He unleashed a powerful wide-sweeping hook with seemingly no effort. Yet despite all this, he NEVER won a PBA tournament.

Tim Mack may be the biggest disappointment of any bowler I can recall. He was regarded as the greatest amateur bowler in the world for many years. He earned in excess of $100,000 in international competition year after year and dominated the game throughout Europe and Asia until the two-handed, no thumb superstars, Jason Belmonte and Osku Palermaa, came on the scene. Mack never came close to winning a title. It wasn’t because he didn’t put in an all-out effort to succeed. Mack worked extremely hard to be competitive on the PBA tour but never found the proper solution. He quit the tour and embarked on a new career in bowling – coaching in foreign countries.

Deep, deep inside shot

very deep inside line

The most prominent bowler in this category is, or was, Robert Smith. It was not unusual for Smith to stand several boards left of the left gutter and loft the ball across the gutter toward a breakpoint at the 5th to 8th board. At times, Smith lofted the ball as much as twenty feet out to the arrows…a  practice that was doomed to failure and one that led to his retirement from the PBA tour.

Smith began his career fairly well but his game deteriorated slowly year after year. Unlike Mack, Smith hardly attempted to alter his method of execution. Although Smith annexed seven titles, he was woefully weak in his last two years on tour and, like Tim Mack, left the PBA tour and began a coaching career in Asia.

Brian Kretzer and Brian Himmler are two others who occasionally stand left of the left gutter to deliver their booming strike balls. Both established reputations in megabucks tournaments before turning professional and both have had mediocre careers on the tour. Himmler recorded four titles but faired very poorly in his later years before quitting the regular PBA circuit. Kretzer is enjoying a steady tenure on the tour. He has but one title but remains quite competitive, due principally to the fact he altered his game to better manage his profession.

To sum it up, bowling affords players several ways to post high averages and scores. Nonetheless, records bear the old adage, “straighter is greater”!

John Jowdy

About John Jowdy

John Jowdy has been a bowler, author, instructor, and speaker over the last 60 years. He was coach to some of the most successful bowlers on tour. John’s awards and accomplishments include: Bowling Coaches Hall of Fame, ABC and PBA Halls of Fame, International Bowling Coach of the Year. He was a contributing writer for Bowling This Month for 13 years. John Jowdy passed away in 2013 at age 93.