Friday, July 30, 2010

Real Purpose of Single Person Practice Games

I just realized the real use of single person practice games like Fargo. These are games that you play alone that simulate competition by having varying situations and a score. Practice games are different than other forms of practicing in that they give a real feeling of competition. You can aim for high scores in any form of practice, but that doesn't feel like competition. Playing Fargo does.

If you'll excuse me, I'll digress from the main point for a while.

Practicing is a process in which you try to improve your skills. Typically you repeat something, say some sort of a shot, over and over again until you learn it a bit better. Because you're free to do so, you might fine-tune aspects of your stroke during a practice session. It's basically a stress-free environment to experiment and fine-tune. Part of the process is to just repeat something so that you remember it better. For example, you can practice your cue ball control by setting up a shot and aiming the cue ball to stop at a certain spot. When you isolate a part of the game, it's much easier to gain control over it.

This much should be pretty much obvious.

But what does it mean for single person practice games?

First, it should be obvious that it's not the best way to practice finer aspects of a shot. It's much more efficient to setup a particular shot and repeatedly execute it. The same goes for position play and pretty much any particular aspect of our overall ability. The same goes for executing a longer pattern on the table. It would be more efficient to setup the pattern again, if something fails. With practice games you just play.

This is not to say that playing single person games can't be good practice. They do improve your skills for sure and the heightened concentration typically implies that you're not just banging balls. Or if you can't bring yourself to playing alone, and wanted to do more of that, maybe this type of game encourages you to practice more.

However, the aspect these practice games can help the most is a bit more elusive. You see, the game of pool billiards is all about consistency. For players above certain level, many of the shots are actually pretty easy. In theory. You know what you should do but somehow a lack of concentration, careless preshot-routine, or whatever, sneaks in and you miss a shot. If you could arrange an interview after each missed shot in the pool world, I'd bet that most of the answers would be something like: "it was an easy shot, I don't know how I missed it."

Sure, some of the shots are just too difficult or low-percentage for one's own skill level, but those are not the shots we complain about. When we miss a difficult shot, we just shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves that it just was too difficult of a shot for us. The shots we do complain about are those that we feel we should be huge favorite to be successful at. Now, we often don't recognize the fact that we will miss a shot just by chance even if we should make it majority of the time. If I'm a 90-10 favorite to make a certain shot, I'm still going to miss it one out of ten times.

But the more important lesson here is that most of us regularly miss shots that we should make. And I'm not talking about choking in pressure or anything like that. I'm saying that even in a regular tournament match in which you have just the right amount of pressure, you still miss shots that you later complain that you shouldn't have missed. And the reason you state is some type of lack of concentration.

The beauty and pain of practice games like Fargo is that you make the very same "easy mistakes" in your Fargo run as do you in competition. You start with a good rack or two and then you miss the first shot, because you didn't focus correctly. And since the scoring system gives you instant feedback, the score of zero for this rack, you notice your error painfully clear.

Which brings us back to the real purpose of single person practice games: they offer an environment in which you can practice maintaining focus and concentration. Furthermore, you can experiment with different methods that might help you maintain your focus better. With these games you can practice your consistency. If you're not consistent, you know you need to work on it. And since it is a practice environment, you're free to experiment with different methods and ideas. In a real competitive situation, your focus needs to be on winning the game.

Single person practice games are a platform for experimenting and practicing consistency.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Speeding up One Pocket games by spotting balls

Recent One Pocket tournament at Hard Times had a rule that there could be only three balls in the kitchen. When more balls go the kitchen, you start to spot balls until there are maximum of three balls in the kitchen. You start the spotting from the ball that is nearest to the end rail. This prevents the game from going into an end rail game where both players are just exchanging safeties and should therefore speed up the game, on average. Jay Helfert's post doesn't specify explicitly whether you spot balls after each shot or after the inning, but akatrigger clarified that it was indeed between innings that you should spot balls.

The rule is not a new invention: Freddy Beard has a similar system described on his blog, but I find his rules too complex. "The maximum of three balls in the kitchen and spot balls starting from the ball nearest to the rail" is a simple rule and easier to remember.

Now, I'm not an experienced one pocket player, but I really like the rule. It should be useful in tournament play to prevent for individual matches to last significantly longer than the average match. There's still a lot of safety play, but you can't just start rolling the balls near the end rail to prevent your opponent from running out.

The only real downside I see is that it's easy to forget to spot those balls and it might give the other player an easy shot on his pocket. Say you leave the cue ball near the foot spot and your opponent notices that a ball needs to be spotted and this leaves an easy shot for your opponent. Had you noticed that you should spot a ball before your inning, you wouldn't have left the shot for your opponent.

As can be witnessed from the On The Rail TV coverage, players quite often forgot to spot balls, but from what I've seen it didn't give much advantage to the player that got the ball that was spotted (that should've been spotted before the previous inning).

I've played with the rule couple of times now and we didn't notice any particular problems with the rule, apart from the problem of not remembering to spot the balls. One time we had to spot like four balls at a time, because we forgot the spotting rule for several innings. It didn't give either one advantage though. On the whole, we didn't have to spot balls all that often, because we play a bit too aggressively compared to our skill level. That said, if we wouldn't have spotted balls, they probably would have ended up on the end rail, out of play mostly.

I think the traditional rules are fine too, but I think this is a good way to speed up the game in tournament play and to make sure that no individual match drags the progress of the tournament.

Can anyone see any other pitfalls with the rule?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Pool Story

This article is part of Volume 9 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. The rest of the July edition of PoolSynergy is at Michael Reddick's blog Angle of Reflection. The April theme is "What's Your Story?".

When I try to think how I got started with pool, I'm unable to trace it back to any single memory. Instead, I just remember various moments and places along the path. None of these contains a single moment that got me started, but all of them —in their own way— have been elemental to my pool story.

The earliest memories I have are from my teens, back from the days when I used to play table tennis seriously. Our team practiced in a hall that was built for nearby school as a temporary sporting facility while they had their own built. Needless to say, it was not exactly state-of-the-art as far as sporting facilities go. In fact, it didn't even have a bathroom. It's still in use, it seems, but nowadays it's mainly used for floorball.


It was built near a larger sport center that had, among others, a swimming hall, ice-skating hall and a bowling center. One of the buildings had pool hall, not surprisingly in the bottom floor, beneath the ground if I remember correctly. We used to visit that hall once in a while and I can still remember the excitement and wonder I had watching others play the game. It seems the pool hall still exists. Maybe I should visit the place next time I'm around.

That was about 20 years ago.

Forward some amount of years and enter darts. I have no idea where it started, but me and couple of my friends started playing darts quite intensively. We never got around to play darts competitively, but we managed to practice enough to become pretty good. However, it was with the same lot that we had the idea to play pool billiards.

Now, I still have nothing against darts as a sport, but I guess we were at the most unrewarding point of our development as darts players, meaning that we had become pretty good, but it was going to take a whole lot more disciplined practice to advance to actual good. So throwing darts was pretty frustrating at that time and playing pool offered a somewhat similar, but a more rewarding hobby.

We didn't have a pool hall real near us, so it took quite the arrangement to get to play, but when we got there, we used to stay for hours. None of us got any formal training or advice. We just played. Most of the time there were exactly three of us and only two of us played at a time. I remember waiting anxiously to get back to playing when it was my turn to wait. I think we mostly played eight ball and sometimes those frames took ages.

Unlike darts, we didn't really have any yardstick to compare our level of play. We just played. And enjoyed. Sure, like in any competitive sport, you get frustrated, but compared to the frustrations we experienced with darts, pool billiards seemed somehow more enjoyable. It's not to say pool billiards is better than darts, but I guess it was better suited for us, at the time at least.

We used to play in a place that had quite a few regulars one of which approached us to give advice on our play. I don't know what our problem was, but we were quite dismissive about his advice. He was obviously a better player then any of us, but we just wanted to mind our own business, which, in hindsight, was quite a bad decision.

Pool remained a recreational hobby for us, but we played quite irregularly. The situation remained similar until one day, around ten years ago, another friend of mine got couple of thousand Finnish marks to spend. He decided to buy a pool table with the money. They had a place for the table, in a private club, and soon enough I joined their club. I was friends with some of the lot, but my main motivation was the pool table. I was eager to practice alone. Unfortunately, my practice methods and fundamentals weren't quite in shape, but sure enough I got better, slowly. Practicing wasn't the pleasure as I've managed to transform it nowadays, but I got some hours in.

Then one day another acquaintance visited the place. He was a better player than me, but I remember managing to hold my own against him at that time. I don't remember what the exact score was, but I won some and he won some. I guess that inspired him to hint about a weekly pool tournament held nearby. It was at a bar, Pub Ysipallo (Pub Nineball in English) it was called. They had four tables and the place itself was a regular pub, far from fancy or "polished".

I needed to build some courage to enter the tournament. I knew I wasn't that good and somehow I thought I would embarrass myself. Fortunately, the atmosphere and the players organizing the tournaments were extremely nice and kind. Still, I remember being extremely nervous and tense for the first match, but I managed to win some frames, maybe even a match.

It was the players and the atmosphere that brought me back to the weekly tournament, week after week. There were quite some characters in the bunch, and I didn't necessarily every one of them, but it was a fun company and became good friends with some of them. I did practice some, but it was mostly these tournaments that kept me playing. I wanted to become a better player, like most of us, but didn't want to do much about it. I just focused on enjoying myself in the tournaments.

Even though now, years later, I have a different agenda with my pool career, I still fondly remember the times at Pub Ysipallo. The place is no longer called that and they don't have the pool tables anymore. (And in fact, most players hated the tables; they were a bit clunky and not in the greatest condition either.) But that's the place and those are the people I go back to in my memories of my pool story.