Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Half-Ball Hit And Russian Billiards

Part two of Mike Page's excellent half-ball hit youtube series introduces the concept that the path of the cue ball of a half-ball hit is not very sensitive to the exact point you hit the object ball. That is, you can aim the object ball within a range of about 20 degrees of angle and the object ball comes out within two degree accuracy. In Mike's example, he cuts the object ball in such way that the cue ball drops into the corner pocket and it seems that he does it with great accuracy. But as Mike explains, it's mostly because of the cue ball path is more or less the same, if you just manage to hit the object ball in a range that is pretty wide.

Now, readers outside of Finland or Russia are probably unaware of billiards variants called Russian Billiards or the slightly different game (popular in Finland) called Kaisa. Both are played on a pretty large table with rather large balls. But the main characteristic of the game is that the pockets in both Russian Billiards and Kaisa are extremely tight. Like few millimeters wider than the balls. Straight-in shots are hard on these tables, unless you've practiced a whole lot. If the object ball is on the rail couple of diamonds away from the pocket, the shot is practically impossible.

[1] License of the pictureGFDL and CC-BY-SA 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0. Author: Alexei Kouprianov. 

The Russian Billiards has different variants and I don't know how each of those work exactly, but I think it's called "American" or the free variation, where you get points for pocketing the cue ball too. You'd think that pocketing the cue ball is pretty hard with these balls and pockets and you'd be right. But if you look at a typical game of Russian Billiards by world's best players, you'll notice that they make it look pretty effortless. And pocketing the cue ball is very powerful shot in that game, because not only you get a point for it, but you also get a ball-in-hand and for most shots, you'd like to be straight-in to make sure you get the object ball in.

I believe that the reason that they manage to pocket the cue ball so accurately is the exact same that Mike Page describes in his video. The angle that the cue ball must come out of the hit is much narrower in this game, but it's still not that sensitive to the exact angle that the object ball goes to. It's certainly not always an exact half-ball hit, but I'd claim that it revolves around it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Story uusi poolin joukkuemestaruuden

[This article is in Finnish.]

Story Poolin joukkue, Juan Castaneda, Tuomas Riipinen, ja Jesse Rosendahl, voitti vuoden 2010 poolbiljardin joukkueiden suomenmestaruuden. Nuorekas mutta kokenut joukkue uusi mestaruudensa edelliseltä vuodelta. Mitään untuvikkoja Storyn pelaajat eivät toki enää ole, mutta etenkin finaalissa Storyn joukkue oli selvästi ikävuosissa Galaxie Cue Sports 2:n "veteraaniporukkaa" perässä. GCues 2:ssa pelasivat seniorirankingia hallitsevat Mika Määttä ja Kauko Keskinen sekä kokenut Teppo Rantanen. Kisat pelattiin Tampereella Galaxie Centerissä. Kolmosijalle jäivät Galaxie Cue Sportsin ykkösjoukkue ja Lahden LP-90:n kolmosjoukkue.

Finaalien peliparit olivat 9-pallossa Riipinen vastaan Määttä, 8-pallossa Rosendahl vastaan Keskinen ja 14.1:ssä Castaneda vastaan Rantanen. Molemmissa joukkueissa pelattiin melkein koko kisat samoilla pelivalinnoilla.

Ysipallo-ottelussa Storyn Riipinen pääsi alussa 3-1 -johtoon, mutta Määttä pääsi tasoihin kahdeksannessa erässä. Riipinen otti kuitenkin uudelleen johtoaseman ja johti parhaimmillaan 8-4. Määttä kavensi, mutta 8-5 -tilanteessa Mika ei päässyt hyvästä aloituksesta huolimatta ykköspallon päälle. Alla video ysipallo-ottelun ratkaisuerästä:

Mestaruus ratkesi Jesse Rosendahlin ja Kauko Keskisen kasipallo-ottelussa. Ottelu eteni tasaväkisesti, mutta Rosendahl sai lopussa puristettua itsestään tarvittavan keskittymisen ja vei ottelun lopulta luvuin 8-6. Aiemmin jo kasipallon SM-kisojen puolivälieriin selvinnyt Rosendahl pelasi koko kisojen ajan vakuuttavaa kasipalloa. Viimeisessä erässä Rosendahl joutui urakoimaan pussitusten ja jättöjen kanssa, mutta varmisti lopulta Storyn mestaruuden varmoilla otteillaan. Alla ratkaisuerän viimeiset pallot.

Peli oli tätä ennen hetkittäin hieman hermostunutta. Tässä erässä GCueS 2:n Keskinen putsaa lopulta pöydän, molempien pelaajien päästessä yrittämään erän voittoa.

Samaan aikaan straight pool -ottelussa pelasivat Storyn Juan Castaneda ja GCueS:n Teppo Rantanen. Pelissä ei nähty valtavia lyöntisarjoja ja peli eteni tasaisesti pisteissä. Ottelu keskeytettiin, kun Rosendahlin voitto Keskisestä ratkaisi finaalin. Alla näyte Castanedan ja Rantasen pelistä.

Toisessa välierässä hopeajoukkue GCueS 2 kohtasi saman seuran ykkösjoukkueen, jossa pelasivat Toni Valkila, Einari Autero ja Jimmy Wikman. Ykkösjoukkue oli etukäteen kisojen ennakkosuosikkeja, mutta Kauko Keskinen jyräsi Valkilan kasipallossa (8-2) ja Määttä voitti hienosti pienestä altavastaaja-asemasta mestaruussarjan kärkimiehen Einari Auteron lukemin 9-6. Jimmy Wikman ehti ennen näitä pelejä voittaa Rantasen straight poolissa. Wikman nakutti tauluun lukemat 100-20 tyypilliseen nopeaan tyyliinsä.

Story kohtasi välierässään Lahden LP-90:n kolmosjoukkueen, jossa pelasivat Jarno Toivonen, Marko Salonen ja Henri Toivo. Ottelu oli Storyn hallintaa. Rosendahl ja Riipinen voittivat omat pelinsä (8-2 ja 9-6) ja Castanedankin peli oli tässä vaiheessa jo 97-30. Tiukemmalle Story joutui puolivälierässä Hyvinkään HyvBk:n Miikka Hirvosta sekä Makkosia Marko ja Petri vastaan. Ottelu päättyi 2-1 Storylle. Riipinen voitti ysipallossa ja Petri Makkonen straight poolissa. Rosendahlin ja Hirvosen kasipallo-ottelu päättyi lopulta 8-7 Rosendahlille.

Lopulliset mitalisijoitukset:
  • 1. Story Pool, Juan Castaneda, Tuomas Riipinen ja Jesse Rosendahl.
  • 2. Galaxie Cue Sports 2, Teppo Rantanen, Mika Määttä ja Kauko Keskinen.
  • 3.-4. Galaxie Cue Sports 1, Jimmy Wikman, Einari Autero ja Toni Valkila.
  • 3.-4. LP-90 3, Jarno Toivonen, Marko Salonen ja Henri Toivo. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Most Important Thing: Belief in Yourself

Talent is overrated. Way overrated.

It seems like a strange thing to say in these times, because last decades have been all about the individual and the individual's talent. We've become obsessed about child prodigies, super-talents, people that "just seem to have it in them." The research, however, is beginning to draw a slightly different picture on the whole subject.

This is not to say that there are no individual differences. There are. This is not to say that anyone can be the best in the world. That's impossible. (By definition.) Neither it is the case that the whole story is known. But what research suggests pretty much contradicts the common knowledge. The short version is that talent is overrated. The longer version I try to present in this article.

Note though that this is not some tree-hugging hippie philosophy of "everyone being the same and equal." All this is based on research. I wouldn't mind if it was the other way around. If that was the case, then I would advocate and preach an opposite message. But I think it's fair to say that the importance of talent as represented by common knowledge is mistaken. Furthermore, I think it has very important consequences for the individual.

Research in the area of expertise has been popularized by a guy named K. Anders Ericsson. He and other researchers were determined out to figure out what made some people experts in their respective fields. The findings can be summarized in two words: deliberate practice. Or four words: shitloads of deliberate practice. There are pretty much no exceptions to this. Even those that have historically been classified as exceptional child prodigies, like Mozart or say Judit Polgar in chess, turn out to have been practicing a huge amount before they really blossomed in their thing.

Now, you can argue, justifiably, that these people who have practiced countless of hours (and then some more) are more talented too. (Maybe they are more talented in practicing, who knows.) And it is probably true, to some extent. But it brings up bizarre comparisons. You look at yourself and think "well I'll never be the best" and compare to someone who already is there and forget the amount of work they've done. It's like you could simulate in your mind your skill (or lack thereof) after thousands of hours of practice without actually doing the practice.

The bottom line is that the only known correlation to expertise is the amount of deliberate practice. Why assume other correlations like the inborn talent when research has not found any? So long as you don't actually practice for years, who knows what your potential could be. To be fair, it is likely that there are inborn and perhaps learned characteristics to do in fact determine whether you can become an absolute top player, but I can guarantee that you can become a pretty fucking good player in pool if you practice, deliberately, for years on. Most pool players never know, because they never practice for long periods of time and deliberately.

The message that an individual should take home from all this, I think, is to not worry about whether you have it in you or not. The only way to find that out is to practice shitloads. In the process, you will become better. Not probably a top player, but certainly the best you can be. There's incredible amount of potential to be filled anyhow. Where exactly it would land you, no one knows. But you can't stop before you even started, just because you're afraid that you can't make it to be a really good player. You can. Believing that you aren't constrained by fixed, inborn characteristics will help you become the best you can.

Coincidentally, this is what another researcher, Carol Dweck, has found in her studies. She has studied what the difference in one's beliefs makes to one's current performance. She divides people into those who believe that "they either have it or don't", aka. the fixed mindset, and people who believe that it's the hard work that determines whether they succeed or not, aka. the growth mindset. Unsurprisingly, people with growth mindset actually perform better. When they fail in something, their response is "well, I have to try harder." In contrast, people with fixed mindset respond to failures by thinking they aren't talented enough.

This can be replicated very easily in for example classroom setting by conditioning one group to think in the fixed mindset and the other group to think in the growth mindset. Then they put all to fail in a test and see how they fare in the next one. Just a simple conditioning like this makes the fixed mindset people to not try at all in the next test. They think that failing is an indication of them being inferior and they do all they can to avoid failure. The growth mindset people think that failures are good indication of where they should be concentrating on. They think they should just try harder.

Dweck has a popsci book about her research called Mindset, which contains solid advice about the effects of one's mindset. The book to me seems a bit too touchy-feely, but it's based on solid research nevertheless.

So, all in all, I think we should all stop worrying about our inborn restrictions. One, they are not so important as we tend to think. And two, those worries are hampering our progress anyhow.

[Although I'm not part of Pool Synergy, I figured I could follow their theme and write an article what I think is The Most Important Thing.]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sleep more, perform better

These are the facts. One, your performance decreases the more sleep deprived you are. Two, your learning is hampered if you don't sleep well.

For those unaware of how sleep debt works, here's a short, simplified explanation. First, everyone has pretty much a fixed daily sleep need. This sleep need varies individually: some need only five hours of sleep per day, some people need nine, most fall somewhere in between. When you sleep more than your daily sleep need, your sleep debt is decreased and vice versa when you sleep less than your daily sleep need. The more sleep debt you have, the more tired you feel.

This tiredness is somewhat masked by circadian alerting and external stimuli. Circadian alerting is a biological process, which makes you more alert starting in the morning and starts to make you really drowsy in the evening. External stimuli are things like caffeine and states of mind like being excited. Below is a picture that graphs your sleep urge during different times of the day. (Think of "sleep urge" as the reverse of alerting.)

Now, this system of sleep debt is automatic. Just like a thermostat controlling the temperature of a room, your brain just starts to make you more sleepy when you gain sleep debt and more alert when you decrease it. You can't consciously decide to sleep less. Eventually the sleep urge becomes so over-whelming that you can't fight it anymore. If you've ever seen those documents about people who have tried to stay awake for as long as possible, you know what I'm talking about. After a couple of days of being awake, they start to grow more and more tired. (Though in fact these people who stay awake for long periods start to develop microsleeps in which the they fall asleep for just couple of seconds every now and then. Typically they can't even notice these sleeps by themselves.) The research in sleep deprivation shows that this same happens even if you miss just half an hour sleep per day: it just takes a lot longer to become so sleep deprived that you start to fall asleep during the day.

The jury is still out whether this sleep debt system is in fact one-to-one between the amount of sleep that you've lost and the amount you sleep more later. That is, whether your daily sleep amount converges with your sleep need in the long run. The evidence suggest that this is the case. So you can't decide to sleep less, because your natural sleep urge just makes you sleep more later.

But for the serious student of pool, or any other discipline for that matter, the lesson isn't about whether or not you can sleep less. The serious student should make it a priority to sleep as much as possible.

Whether or not you can "cheat" the system by constantly sleeping less, the fact remains that your performance increases in all aspects when you constantly sleep as much as you can. Veteran sleep researcher William Dement describes this in his Google Personal Growth series talk. Dement shows graphs from studies in which Stanford athlete students are put to sleep extension programs and after couple of weeks of sleeping as much as they can, they start to perform better in all aspects of their discipline. They run faster, they shoot baskets more accurately, they jump longer and so on. It's pretty amazing if you think of it: these are people who aim to be professionals in their discipline and their performance increases just by sleeping more. They thought that they knew how good they were, but after a couple of weeks of extensive sleep, they performed better.

But there is even more to it.

Recent research also suggests that sufficient sleep is necessary for efficient learning. If you practice a fine motor task, like for example pocketing balls with a stick, you have to sleep during the next night or else the practice is completely forgotten. In fact, your fine-motor control is refined during the sleep. You learn during the sleep! The better you sleep at night, the better you learn. If you don't sleep next night after a practice, you don't learn anything. Matt Walker describes this line of research in his talk.

How do you make sure that you get enough sleep?

If you've taken seriously what I've said, you might be wondering whether or not you are sleeping enough. The short answer is that if you don't feel tired during day-time, you are getting enough sleep. If you do feel tired say one hour after waking up in the morning, you are probably sleep deprived. Note though that there is a dip in alertness in the afternoon, which you can see in the graph above. So even if you are sleeping enough, you might still experience afternoon drowsiness and this is just because there's a dip in circadian alerting. But all in all, the best indicator of sleeping enough is your day-time alertness.

If you are sleep deprived, however, the correction is simple: start sleeping more. The research has shown that you can't sleep too much, contrary to the popular belief. If you just sleep as much as you can, eventually your sleep debt decreases to zero and you start feeling less and less tired. (And you start perform better, as discussed earlier.) But you can't sleep away your whole sleep debt in one go. Even if you're extremely sleep deprived, eventually the circadian alerting kicks in and you wake up.

The best way to make sure that you get enough sleep in the long term is to set up a fixed time to go to sleep, say 10 p.m. in the evening and to sleep as long as you can in the morning. There's some flexibility to the exact time you can go to sleep, but not much, maybe an hour or so. This type of arrangement ensures that you are able to fall asleep predictably. If your sleep schedule is chaotic, you might not be able to fall asleep even if you're extremely sleep deprived. Yes, this means that you shouldn't be pulling those all-nighters at the pool hall.

In summary: if you want the best performance out of yourself, you should stick to a fixed sleep schedule and sleep as much as you can

(You need to avoid alcohol too, because it decreases the quality of your sleep significantly.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Practicing straight shots

Practicing easy, straight shots is not only about learning to shoot straight, which is important also, but to refine the motor image that is involved in a billiard stroke. By motor image I mean the learned patterns in your head that turn into a pool stroke on the table. It's an image in the sense that the components of the stroke are stored and described in your head, similar to other information stored in your head, like for example visual images. The difference is that there is no easy way to describe the image, other than playing it out on the table.

This in turn means that it's practically impossible to describe how a good stroke feels. The hand that executes the stroke should for sure be relaxed and loose, but there is no way to accurately describe just how relaxed or loose the hand should be. Everyone has to find out this for themselves. Sure, if someone has an incredibly tense arm, you can notice that as an observer and suggest that he has to loosen up. But to find the exact looseness is up to oneself.

The idea is then that on a practice table, hitting straight shots gives you the freedom of examining your own body during the shot. You can observe how different parts of your body feel during the execution. If some part feels tight, you can try loosening it up and see it changes the overall feeling. By carefully observing different parts of your body during this type of practice, you might find out that you been overly tight in some surprising part of the shot and might notice that you can loosen it up.

Further, it is only during practice sessions that make this refined motor image stay in your brain. When you repeat the slightly improved shot (or just your plain old shot), your motor image gets re-wired in your brain. This image is what your actual stroke in say competition is based on. It's not an exact instruction, but rather a series of patterns that your brain tries to follow when you actually execute the shot. But it does contain attributes like the looseness of your shoulders, for example, and the only reliable way to refine those attributes is on a practice table.

So when some pro says that he used to practice straight shots, it was not only about the straightness of the shot, but to observe and refine his body during the execution of his stroke.