Sunday, May 23, 2010

US Open 10-Ball Runner-up, Lo Li-Wen

Filipino Lee Van Corteza took the first place in 2010 US Open 10-Ball Championship, but the second place was taken by a relative unknown to western pool audience, Taiwanese Lo Li-Wen. ("Lo" is his surname and "Li-Wen" the first name.) He's originally from Taiwan but now resides in Tokyo, Japan. According to the AZBilliards forum poster, he recently won the Hokkaido Open and was the runner-up in Japan Open 2009. Finding information about him on the Internet seems to be extremely difficult. There's a result page of him winning the MAG SUMINOE CUP-Kansai 9-ball Open (2010), besting among others none other than the great Ralf Souquet.

(Photo of Lo Li-Wen is courtesy and copyright of On The Break News Group. Used with permission.)

His name caused some confusion for the TAR live coverage as they weren't quite sure how exactly to spell it. "Lo Hi-Wen" seemed to be a popular misspelling of his name. Later to the final, the commentators received a short background story for the guy. He's aged a little over 30 years and has a two-year old child.

Lo's record in this year's US Open 10-Ball was impressive. He advanced in the winner's bracket winning the likes of Marc Vidal Claramunt (9-2), Tyler Edey (9-7), Oscar Dominguez (9-6), and Corey Harper (9-0) in the early rounds. With eight players left in the winner's bracket, he defeated Charlie Williams 9-7. Just recently Lo lost the first round match of the 32 player cup to Williams in the World Pool Masters 9-8.

After defeating Williams, Lo Li-Wen was to face Mika Immonen, who has been a dominating figure in major pool tournaments in recent years. Immonen won the World 10-Ball Championship and achieved an impressive back to back wins in the US Open 9-Ball Championships in 2008 and 2009. However, Immonen's track record didn't help him as Lo sent him to the loser's bracket with a decisive 9-5 win. Lo Li-Wen had faced Immonen also in the World Pool Masters recently, beating him 9-8 in the group stages.

After winning Immonen, Lo Li-Wen had a match for the hot seat, a place in the final two. The match was against Lee Van Corteza, who's also had a lot of success lately. Corteza took out Manny Chau, Mike Dechaine and others in the upper side of the winner's bracket. Lo Li-Wen took the hot seat with a comfortable 9-6 win over Corteza. Corteza eventually fought his way back from the loser's bracket and faced Lo Li-Wen in the final, a race to 13 wins.

The final involved some controversy in the early stages. The pace of the game, especially on Lo Li-Wen's part, was extremely slow. Even the TAR live stream commentators, Billy Incardona and Scott Frost were worn out by the slow speed of the play. When Corteza lead the match around 7-2, the tournament director Ken Shuman took the players to a meeting and suggested the players to speed up their pace. The director said that they would otherwise have to start using shot clocks. Both players seemed to agree with the tournament director's sentiment and they started playing faster. It is unclear why Lo Li-Wen played so slow as his pace in the previous TV table match was significantly faster. He certainly didn't appear to play slow intentionally.

At first, it seemed that speeding up the game made Lo Li-Wen somewhat uncomfortable, but after few nervous shots, he actually started to play better. To my account, Lo stringed around three racks of breaks and run-outs after the talk with tournament director and eventually tied the match at about 8-8. Throughout the match, Lo's break was working effectively. He broke with an open bridge, unlike most others, and with a little less speed, but managed to make balls on the break continuously and controlling the cue ball and the one ball pretty accurately.

The match proceeded evenly and eventually the players were hill-hill, 12-12. Lo Li-Wen broke and was left with a relatively tough shot on the one to the side pocket. He missed the pot and let Corteza make the one and the two only to make a poor position shot on the three. Corteza played a safe, which left a short jump-shot for Lo. Lo missed the pot and Corteza ran out to take the US Open 10-Ball Championship.

Judging from the way Lo Li-Wen played in the US Open 10-Ball, we'll surely see more from him in the future.

Higgins Scandal

For those unaware, a newspaper in England released a video that accused snooker world champion John Higgins for accepting a bribe for fixing frames. Now, if you do watch the video, you're going to believe that Higgins is guilty. But if you spend few moments thinking about it, you should realize that it's not a fair "trial" for Higgins. The newspaper does its best to make Higgins look guilty, because they're selling a story. It's not their job to be objective.

In fact, they've already won. They've sold the story.

I'm not saying Higgins is not guilty. I'm not trying to defend him. But I am saying that you can't and shouldn't judge him based on the video. That video is edited and cut, and possibly manipulated, to make Higgins look bad. And by releasing this version the newspaper succeeded just in what they wanted. They sold the story. They don't give a shit about making it fair. They don't give a shit about "cleaning the sport." Their only motive is to sell papers, to sell stories.

To judge Higgins based on the video is sheer stupidity. To watch the video and "buy" the story is a trap set by the newspaper. I'm guilty on both accounts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I Suck But That's OK

I've kept a record of my Fargo results from last autumn, from around when I started practicing again. The good thing about it is that it gives a quite accurate picture of my skill level. Which is a nicer way of saying that I sucked, and still suck. But that's OK, because everyone sucks. The important thing is to reduce the suckage.

And that's the great thing about keeping records. It surely is awesome to see some progress happening. My result graph bounces up and down, which has made it somewhat difficult to say anything conclusive. But today I realized that I need to graph last 10 match averages. And this is what it looks like:

That puts my current 10 match average at around 110 points. In American terminology that makes me a B player. It's not disappointing nor is it over my expectations. It is what it is. That's my current skill level. 

The mistakes I make practicing Fargo are those same silly mistakes I make in matches. Lapse of concentration, general sloppiness, inconsistent preshot routine, stroke variability, mistakes in position play and so on. Even as of lately, I've had frames of zero points in Fargo: meaning that I've missed the first shot of a frame. That's why I believe that Fargo is a good metric for my progress. I don't think my playing skills specific to Fargo have improved that significantly so the progress can be attributed to increasing my skills and consistency. (There are some minor things like adjusting to your own skill level that do increase the average score in Fargo, but I think I've had that covered for most of the Fargo scores shown in the graph.)

My goal, then, is to increase the 10 match average score to 130 by the end of this year. It's not going to be that easy, because of my limited practice time and the fact that I've probably collected most of the low-hanging fruits of my progress. There is most certainly a whole hell of a lot of room to improve, but improving will become progressively harder.

I think I need a better practice schedule. 

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Feeling of a Stroke

This article is part of Volume 7 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. The rest of the May edition of PoolSynergy is at p00lriah's blog. The April theme is Poolosophy - Your Approach to Pool.

I thought I had my "poolosophy" (my approach to pool) nailed when I read Bob Fancher's Pleasures of Small Motions, years ago. For the first time in my career I read a book that explained what has driven me to pool all these years. The title says it all: it's the pleasure one gets from executing small motions of fine motor control. It's the pleasurable feeling of having your body and your arm in control. It certainly isn't the only purpose for my pool hobby, but it plays a big part.

However, it wasn't the first read of Fancher's book that gave me this sense of purpose for pool. I don't remember when exactly I bought and read the book for the first time, but I'm sure it's close to ten years ago. At the time, my pool hobby revolved around playing handicapped weekly 9-ball tournaments and, occasionally, playing in a bar with friends and a lot of booze. So much for improving my skills.


I took the tournaments pretty seriously and I remember being extremely angry with myself after losing a match I thought I shouldn't have lost. I had no real idea of my true level of play, but I considered myself "somewhere in the middle" of the typical attendees of the tournament. There were some pretty good players even though it was a low buy-in tournament. The tournament was pretty heavily handicapped so everyone had a chance.

The thing about these weekly tournaments was that the array of players and personalities was incredibly diverse. Everyone had their own "poolosophy" that ranged from some people doing everything they could to win the game to some other's odd appreciation of "the right way to play the game". I fell mostly to the latter group. I had this strange conviction that one should play the game in what I thought was the "right way". I watched the better players and saw how they made beautiful run outs and amazing shots and I wanted to be like them. That's what I should aim for, I thought.

You see, the tournaments were almost always 9-ball with handicaps, so they were effectively a race to something like three or maybe four games. A lot of the players there, me included, were pretty low-level in their skills and I would estimate that most averaged like three or four ball run outs. It was basically guaranteed that when a player broke, pocketed a ball or two, landed on the next ball, that they would not run out. Recognizing this fact, many of the players opted to try low-percentage combinations and caroms or making three fouls for the opponent. (Which were, in hindsight, often the right choices for them, just based on the probability of winning the game on such strategy compared to the chance of running out.)

I would become extremely annoyed about this type of play. The matches that I lost commiting three fouls or with the opponent fluking the nine ball were infuriating. I got so annoyed by this type of play that actively refused to play in such way. If I had a ball-in-hand, I would almost always try a run out, even if the nine ball combination was pretty easy. Even to this day, I'm pretty uncomfortable shoot game winning combinations even though my attitude towards them has changed.

I remember having a somewhat conflicting feeling about pool with the Fancher's book's message and the constant frustration I felt at the table. Pool felt great when I did manage to play well and make good run outs, but being relatively poor with my skills, those moments were pretty few and far between. And even when I felt good about my game, I was always afraid that the deciding match would degenerate into "crapshoot".

To be fair to Fancher's book, there's nothing conflicting about his message. It was just that all these ideas melted in my head into this strange, irrational concept of how pool should be played. And while I enjoyed playing pool, it generated unnecessary frustration way too often.

Fast forward some years. Got married to a lovely girl, got a couple of lovely kids with her. Kids grew up few years and I had again the chance of spending some time on the pool table. I started by playing in the local weekly tournaments (in the town where we moved to after having the kids). I knew I wanted to play pool, but I had these frustrating memories of my past "pool career".

It was after the last summer that I re-read Fancher's book. There was nothing new in particular, but it slowly convinced me to actually spend some time practicing. I always knew the value of practicing, but for some reason I never quite translated this knowledge into actual time on a pool table on my own. Doing the most basic drills imaginable.

The start was pretty slow, in terms of pleasure of the practice. Like most pool players, I thought I disliked drills. The idea of executing these boring drills, over and over again, seemed kind of unpleasant. But after few weeks of pretty fixed practice schedule, I started to get this new type of satisfaction from the drills. Enough repetition of straight-in shots (of all kinds) gave me a whole different feel for my stroking hand and the whole body.

I realized that I finally understood, on a personal level, what the pleasures of small motions really meant. While I always could appreciate the feeling of a good stroke, this constant evolving and fine-tuning of my billiard stroke brought it to a new level. The words "relaxed" and "smooth" as related to my stroke got whole new meanings every other month. I had tensions in my arm and in my body that I never knew about. And these tensions of course made me miss shots that I thought I shouldn't. In short, I started to enjoy playing a whole lot more.

This newly found relaxedness transformed my competitive play too. It is hard to measure one's performance based on handicapped weekly tournaments, but I feel like I've played more consistently and managed to win more games. It has also helped with my choking on key balls of a frame or match. I'm still somewhat nervous on certain situations, but with the new confidence on my stroke, I know I can make the shot nevertheless. I trust my arm and my body nowadays.

So my poolosophy is to enjoy the pleasures of small motions through practicing. I hope it translates into some competitive advantage and I'm certainly going to attend tournaments in the future. But to me, the important thing is how the stroke feels. Right now, it feels very good.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reflections on Recent One Pocket Action

We managed to arrange some local one pocket action. We had four players (including me) and we ended up playing for roughly four hours. This was my first real one pocket experience. I had played couple of practice games, but this time we had a little bit of money on the table. It's not that I can't play seriously when there's no money involved, but the money did make the game a tiny bit more serious this time. It felt like a mini-tournament.

Anyhow, being that I'm a complete newbie when it comes to one pocket, I was expecting to be confused most of the time. And I sure was. Not so much that I didn't have a decent chance at winning, but I often found myself in a situation where (a) I didn't know what to do know (b) most options required a skilled shot. I find it ironic that some people think that one pocket is boring. To my opinion, not knowing what to do, having huge amount of strategic choices and having to execute very difficult shots is the exact opposite of boring. Sure enough, you aren't pocketing balls all the time in one pocket, but I find it exciting and inspiring that I have no idea of what to do in a given situation.

All of us four happened to be pretty equally skilled, the matches very pretty even all the way through. I had the least actual one pocket playing experience. My inexperience did make a quite big difference as I made couple of really poor shots in situations where an safer option would have been available. Those mistakes were really gross. One was selling out after the opponent's break shot. I was trying to clear balls out of his pocket, but I didn't control the cue ball and left him a pretty open table. He didn't run out from that, but made like five or six balls (if I remember correctly). The other was an attempt to de-pocket a ball when my opponent was on 7 points. I should have had just pocketed his ball and followed the cue ball into the pocket and kept myself alive in that game.

I recently read most of Jack Koehler's Upscale One-Pocket, but I still managed to make mistakes that resulted from not following Koehler's advice. One of his suggestions is that, in general, you should use kick-shots primarily for moving balls, not pocketing them. Especially if you aren't experienced with kick shots. I saw this principle in action many times. It is just too easy to miss the object ball too much with a kick shot and possibly give the opponent an easy shot.

Those slow, soft kick-shots are quite rare in rotation games and in 8-ball. Usually kick shots are just trying to clear safeties in those games and most often they are hit with some significant speed. In one pocket, kick shots typically require more finesse and I personally don't have much experience with those shots. It's often too easy to sell out with them.

In general, I think I wasn't careful enough at all. There were situations where I didn't know what to do, but there were some pretty easy, simple safeties that I didn't execute carefully. I left too many easy short-rail banks. There's a huge difference in leaving a bank where the opponent can or can't control the cue ball. If the bank has just a bit too much angle, making the ball becomes somewhat more unlikely and the cue ball control is that much harder.

All in all, it was a nice experience. I won one match and lost the other two 2-1 and I was happy that I didn't get completely slaughtered. I hope to get more one pocket action going in the future. We have a bigger tournament in the start of June. Like one of the fellow players yesterday said, the chances of winning that tournament are effectively zero for all of us. The skill difference is just that big. But I hope it will be a nice experience.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thrown Into Throw Effects

We had a pool trip to our neighboring country, Estonia, just recently. The trip obviously involved a lot of pool playing, but it wasn't too serious. It was more like a regular vacation. Me and my wife won the mixed doubles competition, which also happened to be the first official tournament for my wife.

Anyhow, one of the attendees to the trip was someone (among others) whose game I respect a lot. So I tried to fish for comments and criticism on my game and one of the valuable comments he gave was that my shot selection is too limited. I tend to go for draw shots, even when a follow shot would be more appropriate. I'm particularly prone to use outside English with my draw shots and often a whole different shot would be a better choice. The comment felt obvious in hindsight, but without someone saying it to me, it probably wouldn't have occurred to me. So I'm grateful for that.

What I realized later was that one of the reasons that I have a limited shot selection is that I've never approached throw effects systematically and often the shots I avoid involve inside English. In certain shots, you should compensate pretty heavily for the cut-induced and spin-induced throw. The most natural compensation is the use of outside English, which often negates the throw effect completely, making it unnecessary to compensate with the cut-angle. I think the reason of my shot selection bias is partly because I've grown to trust shots that involve outside English. Some shots just seem harder for no obvious reason. I think the underlying reason is often that they involve heavy throw effects. My brain has registered that I've missed a lot of these types of shots and that's one of the reasons I've avoided them.

Now, since these throw effects are very much real and pretty significant at times, it follows that every good player already compensates for them, in some way or another. Many players probably know that there are throw effects, but in practice they compensate the throw by intuition, by feel. And there's nothing wrong with that, because ultimately you have to compensate by feel anyhow. But the point that Dr. Dave makes is that this intuition can be guided and taught so that you learn quicker. That's my intention.