Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Winning

There's a long discussion thread on AZ Forums titled "Secrets!" that contains a lot of great nuggets of knowledge and a lot of the usual off-topic bickering, but there's one particular post that struck a chord with me. It is titled "the greatest secrets of all" and it's written by ShootingArts.

A quote:
The greatest secret to winning in any form of competition is to try to win. If you pour everything you have into getting to first place, not beating one particular person and not accepting there are some people there that you can't beat, you will score some firsts. Winners find ways to win, also rans find ways to not win. I have competed with thousands of people over the last forty years and change and I know most aren't competing for first place in their own hearts and minds. It gives those that are a huge edge, even those of us just hanging on the top players' coat tails.
It sounds obvious but I bet most people will not translate this into concrete action.

It's one thing to learn to shoot pool and another thing to learn to win.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Paradox of Self-Confidence

Most pool billiard advice say that you need to have self-confidence. It's a broad topic, which has many applications to one's game. But there's one particular aspect that I've come to realize lately: you really need to have confidence in your game even if your skills don't allow for it.

Let's say you're trying to make a ball that you know you are able to pocket just a little over half of the time. Let's also assume that the shot you've chosen is the correct one. The percentages favor the shot even if you're not going to make it close to 100% of the time. (You're often faced with such shots.)

This uncertainty, this knowledge that you going to make the ball only say 60% of the time, only goes into the decision before you bow down to shoot. Before the decision, you should make a realistic estimate of the probability that you're going to make it and decide whether the shot is going to win you the game or the match. It is difficult to estimate this probability truthfully, but it's not impossible. I bet that most players are on the right ballpark in their estimate. Most players are likely to be a bit too optimistic but hopefully not too much.

But after you've decided on a shot and you're going to execute it, you have to forget all this and be absolutely confident that you'll make the shot as you've imagined. Just know it in yourself that you'll make it. Trust yourself completely.

This isn't superstition or some vague positive psychology. I'm saying that it is a simple matter of not allowing distracting thoughts during the execution. "I might miss this shot," is one of the worst thoughts that you could possibly have during a shot. If that enters the mind, you probably will miss the shot.

The only real alternative is to have total confidence in yourself. It's not enough to say to yourself that you will make the shot. You have to know it. You have to feel it.

If you've managed to do just this and you've been realistic in your estimation beforehand, there's a funny paradox in it, because you have to believe in something that clearly isn't true. When you are shooting the ball, you have to believe that you will make the ball 100% of the time even if you have estimated that you will make the ball 60% of the time. This is the paradox of self-confidence.

Now, most of the time most of this happens unconsciously. You're in the flow and you're just shooting. You have the confidence in your shots all the time. But every now and then comes a shot that you aren't quite so sure about. You try to decide what's the correct shot —as you should— and this process leaks into the execution of your shots and suddenly you don't trust yourself anymore. Sometimes this uncertainty is all over you and can't get your game going at all. This is when you need to realize the importance of self-confidence and exactly when you need to use it for your advantage. You don't want to delude yourself thinking that you're Shane Van Boening or Mika Immonen when deciding what to shoot, but I think you do have to delude yourself in just such a way when you are actually shooting.

You have to feel that you'll make the shot, however difficult it is.

If you nevertheless miss the shot, as you do every now and then, you just need to recognize the percentages and move on.

Monday, August 15, 2011

10 Things I Learned by Playing Fargo

This article is part of Volume 20 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. The rest of the August edition of PoolSynergy is at Samm Vidal's Pooltipjar site. The July theme is "10 things."

For couple of years, my primary practice game has been Fargo. I like the game because it forces me to focus on each and every shot. Missing the first ball of the frame is a disaster point-wise. Also, the game brings up positions and shots that come up often in the most popular games. I think playing Fargo practices basic pool skills effectively.

Now, having played around 80 complete Fargo sets over last two years, I've learnt few things about pool in general and about my own game in particular. This post lists 10 of such tidbits.

To recap the rules of Fargo quickly:

Break the full 15 ball rack, spot any balls made on the break and start potting balls in random order. You start with a ball in hand. You get one point for each pocketed ball. At any point, you can switch to rotation and you get two points for each pocketed ball. You can't switch back to the random phase. The frame ends when you are unable to pocket the ball you've called. You play 10 such frames.

The beauty of the game is that it's scales from the complete amateur to the touring pro. It's not too hard or too easy for either group. The better pool player you are, the more you score.

Anyhow, the 10 things.

1. Breaking clusters, with control, is difficult.

If your typical Fargo score is well over 100 points, you often find yourself breaking clusters and dealing with problem balls with the ball in hand you start with. If there are clusters, you should probably try to break the them immediately. Now, breaking a cluster, in and of itself, is pretty easy. Just hit the cluster pretty hard and hope for the best.

Or so you think. The number of times I've screwed up the cluster breaking shot.. Geez. It is so easy to glue the cue ball into some ball, to miss the shot itself, to not actually break the cluster and so on. To be successful, you need to know exactly what's going to happen and you still might be surprised. Dealing with clusters most often requires finesse, not power.

2. Combinations are risky.

Like the first point said, you often deal with problem balls with the ball in hand you start with. However, you should not start with a combination. Unless the object ball is practically in the pocket already. The combination has to be almost dead sure. 

This is not some deep pool truth that no one knows about. But it's a truth that you sometimes forget. It's not one or two times that I've started with some non-obvious combination only to find myself frustrated after missing it. If I should average over 10 points a frame and I miss the first shot, it's a pretty bad ending for the frame. 

The thing is that if you're an amateur playing  9-ball against another amateur and you have the chance to make the 9-ball with a combination, you should probably try to make it, because the percentages are in favor. This is because you aren't "punished" if you miss the 9-ball. But when you play against decent players, this isn't necessarily the case. If you go for low percentage combinations, you will find yourself in trouble. And the percentages drop faster than you might think. That's why you see professionals going for combinations only when it's absolutely necessary

3. Confidence is easy to lose.

Way too typical pattern for me is that I start with decent results, make a stupid mistake or two and then I find it difficult to keep up with the good results. I just don't trust myself anymore in that set and the scores start to drop.

4. .. and difficult to recover.

If you start doubting yourself, this self-doubt becomes the reason why it is difficult to go back to the relaxed, confident player you were. A chicken and egg problem if any.

5. You have to KNOW where the cue ball goes.

One big difference with Fargo and rotation games like 9-ball or 10-ball is that it's easier to control the cue ball. (Unless you switch to rotation almost immediately.) It's bit like straight pool in this sense, but as the balls are spread more widely, Fargo is even easier. Typically my target is to play 8-12 balls in random order and the rest with rotation. Which means that most often I don't have to do any tricks with the cue ball. I do have to be precise, but I don't have to fly the cue ball all over the table in most shots.

However, if I don't plan the position exactly, the chances are that I will get into trouble. Even the simplest position has to be played to perfection. Not that I'm able to execute perfectly each time, but I have to try my best.

6. .. otherwise you probably will scratch.

When I'm not quite sure what to do with the cue ball and I get the funny feeling that I might scratch, that's what usually happens. Trust that belief. Come up with a plan that doesn't involve a scratch, if possible.

7. The size of the pockets makes a big difference.

Most of the sets I've played have been on quite similar tables. The table I've been playing the most is nowadays closest to a typical Diamond ProAm. But I've played couple of sets on particularly sloppy tables and those sets are definitely on the high side. The difference is significant. I haven't made it my goal to quantify this difference, but it's there.

8. Measuring improvement is hard.

One of the main motivations for Fargo is that allows for measuring one's improvement. Fargo scales well. If you improve, you will see it in your Fargo score. That said, you probably need something like 10 game average to get a good sense of your real skill level.

9. Improving is hard.

Fargo has also taught me that it's not easy to improve. (It takes a lot of practice. (Doh!))

The difference with Fargo is that this fact is easy to visualize: long flat line of similar results.

10. With games like Fargo, you learn about yourself.

I get tense easily. (I'm not talking about nervousness, though I do get nervous in important situations. Like everyone does.) It creeps up unnoticed and eventually my body and muscles aren't relaxed anymore, which makes shooting much more difficult. Obviously, once I realize this, I can't just choose to be relaxed, but there are things that I can do. If I don't notice the change in my body, I just get frustrated for bad results. I've realized this before, but with Fargo and declining scores during a set has made it obvious to me. It is easy to see from the scores that that's what really happens and now I can figure out how to combat it.

Bonus feature

As a bonus, I will embed a link to a video of myself playing a frame of Fargo in which I break some of the principles I described above. (Almost scratched once and played a combo, though pretty easy one.) I realized that I've never shown a video myself playing. Here it is. 

Take care. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Elusive Pool Stroke

Let's call it The Pool Stroke.


These are the rules I know. (There might be more.)

  • It can be found, but it cannot be forced.  
  • You can use it, but you cannot command it.
  • You can ask it, but you cannot demand it.   
  • You can't hurry it. (Though if you hurry, you might accidentally find it.) 
  • It cannot be described, but you can recognize it.
  • You cannot give it instructions.
  • You can observe it, but you cannot interfere. 
  • The more you practice, the easier it is to find.
  • The more you practice, the more it can fine-tune itself.
  • The better your technique, the better it can fine-tune itself. 
  • Though it can work with a wide variety of techniques.     
  • It's of you, but not yours. 
  • It finds the perfect looseness for you. 
  • There's no one to blame, when it misses. It's just fine-tuning itself.
  • No one can take credit for it, when it succeeds.   
  • The conscious mind cannot control it. The conscious mind is best to keep somewhere else.
  • You can give commands to the conscious mind. Like for example, where to keep the focus. 
  • Incidentally, focusing on something is only there to keep the conscious mind from interfering.
  • You need to figure out what your conscious mind should be focused on. But don't fool yourself thinking that it is you that executes The Stroke then.  
  • If you don't trust it, you lose it. 
  • When you think you've finally figured it out, consciously, you lose it.

Almost forgot the most important thing: if you manage to find The Pool Stroke, the mastery of the game has only begun.