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. 


  1. #2 How true... You definitely want to take as few risks as possible with this game. Thanks for a nice post.

  2. I completely agree about Fargo making a good practice game - great post.

  3. I'm working on a web application I can use to record and track my fargo score performance form my phone. It is a work in progress, if your interested, let me know...