Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Make Pool a Serious Hobby, Reverse the Aging of Brain

First, watch this 26 minute lecture:

Michael Merzenich: Rewiring the Brain

Modern neuroscience gives us the perfect reason to constantly strive to do better in our skills: to reverse the cognitive decline due to aging. We're used to thinking that with age comes the decline of cognitive performance, but recent studies are beginning to show a radically different story. We can reverse the aging of the brain, but it requires a certain type of lifestyle.

Merzenich gives a summary of a "well-ordered older life" in one of his slides:

  • Continuous new skill acquisition. 
  • A rich variety of ongoing new experiences. 
  • Continuous "content acquisition" (what most would define as 'learning').
  • A re-connection with the real world. 
  • A positive, joyful, inquisitive temperament, i.e., FUN!
  • A serious approach to new learning, and to life. 
  • And often, necessarily, a regular schedule of exercise at the 'brain gym'.

It's not enough that you play a complex game like pool-billiards, but that you constantly challenge yourself in your hobby and do it seriously too. As Merzenich says, don't go on autopilot in your life. If you've found a hobby that you love, make it a life-long journey to constantly learn new things and to re-fresh and fine-tune your current skills. (Think of a concert violinist, who has to practice each day just to keep his/her job.)

This new research in neuroscience should give us plenty of additional reasons to improve ourselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unfinished Thoughts About My Pool Stroke

This blog entry, I'm afraid, won't make much sense to most people, but I feel I have to write it to myself. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, feel free to skip this. This topic is something that I find difficult to describe to myself, let alone others. I will publish this thinking that maybe someone has struggled with similar issues and finds comfort in my words.

I find it harder and harder to verbalize what I've learned about my pool stroke. Looking outside, my technique isn't perhaps too pretty and might improve from number of changes. Setting that aside, I've had to make a long and painful journey into the inner side of my pool stroke. This was originally inspired by reading Timothy Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis. For some reason, I've found it amazingly difficult to let my unconscious completely control the execution of my shots. I believe that's how I should do it, but it's not easy to do just that in practice.

When I am able to sidestep conscious thought from the execution, everything becomes much easier, much more fluid and consistent. My arm feels relaxed in a way it never does. This seems like an exaggeration, but that's how I think every time I'm able to reach this state. Nowadays I think the parts of my pool stroke execution are there to serve this purpose: for me to be able to be execute it without conscious deliberation. I don't pull my arm back slowly because someone says that you should do so. I do it because that's how it's easier for me to let my motor control execute it.

For an example, I "aim" at the trajectory of the object ball. The very last thing I focus on is the trajectory of the object ball (assuming it's not a kick shot). I don't try to find a specific point in the object ball to aim to. When I'm able to do this, and nowadays it's easier than it was a year ago, the aiming is most of the time "easy" for me. Obviously I can't make every possible cut and I'm not a flawless potter anyhow. But when the stroke feels good, I just know I will make the ball most of the time.

Note that this isn't an aiming system as such. The only thing I rely on is that my unconscious eventually figures out whether I'm on the right line of aim. I trust that if I'm able to let my unconscious to execute the shot, then it eventually will figure out the aiming line.

The other key aspect of the execution is something that has been on my mind on and off for months now. It's even harder to verbalize than my "aiming method." Yesterday, as I was practicing, I once again noticed that it makes as much of a difference as my aiming method. This "thing" is a feeling of sharp or crisp stroke. As opposed to my arm "just moving." I guess it relates to how my muscles contract during the execution. I have no good mechanical description of the difference of such stroke compared to how I have felt. In my notes, I have repeatedly written down something like "hit the trajectory," trying to emphasize how the "correct" stroke feels to me.

The amazing thing is that if I'm able to find this mode, my arm quickly starts to feel much more fluid and relaxed. As I've said before, to myself and to others: the relaxed feeling is the consequence of an execution that happens unconsciously, not the other way around. Of course, I need to keep my arm relaxed during practice strokes. But the relaxed feeling of the stroke is a balance of the muscle contractions that only my motor cortex is able to figure out.

Obviously I have to ingrain this knowledge through repeated practice so that I don't need any verbal instructions to myself. Partly I have been able to do so already, but it seems it takes a lot of time. And sometimes I lose my pool stroke anyhow and I have to need remind myself how to get into this zone again.

I'm beginning to think that most things about pool stroke technique should be there to serve a particular purpose. Sure, you can give 20 item checklist about the stroke, but if you use them only because someone said you should do that, I'm afraid they are of no particular use. I'm trying to incorporate things into my stroke if they have a specific purpose. That's a bit of a simplification, but that's the general feeling I now have.

Thinking all of this, I feel like I have a design flaw in me. It shouldn't be this hard to just let the body do the work and ignore the conscious mind. But that seems to be the case and I need these complicated ways to reach a simple goal. In fact, the late David Foster Wallace postulated that maybe the best athletes are built the way that they aren't distracted by the conscious mind all the time. I feel like this is my biggest obstacle at the moment. That said, if I can "win" the battle of focus in my mind, it only means that the journey has begun.  I would still need to learn the skills proper.

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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Don't Believe Everything They Say

This article is part of Volume 19 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. The rest of the July edition of PoolSynergy is at PoolBum's site. The July theme is "Advice to older players who are taking up the game or coming back to it after a long hiatus."

So you are an older player picking up the game of pool billiards or coming back to the game after a longer hiatus. My first advice: don't believe everything they say. It might be a little strange thing to say from the get-go as more experienced players certainly know a lot more than you. However, it is my experience that it is very difficult to translate this knowledge into useful advice. In fact, it is difficult to separate the useful knowledge from harmful knowledge.

The advantage that you have acquired with age should be some amount of wisdom and knowledge. Let's be honest: most young people are a little bit naive. Most of them are not that cynical and they still believe all sorts of silly things. With age, you should have learned to be somewhat skeptical. Use this as your advantage.

I'm not saying that you should question everything. I'm saying that some of the advice that you will hear or read will be actively harmful for your development. Not because the person saying wants to harm you, but because the person has false beliefs. Or the beliefs apply to them but not universally.

They might think that some inconsequential nuance of their knowledge is the most important tidbit, but applied to your situation it might even be detrimental. For example, people have strong opinions of stroke technique. Now, most of those opinions are probably correct --to some extent anyhow--, but some might not be that relevant and too difficult to apply to your particular style.

It's impossible for me to debunk every false belief that might be circulating in the pool community. And certainly I don't claim to know it all either. Neither I'm saying that you should try to debunk everything everyone else is saying. But it is my feeling and belief that you will encounter some incorrect and strong beliefs that you just need to shrug off and ignore.

One particular belief I have in my mind is the confusion over talent versus practice. I think it's safe to say that most people believe that talent is at least as important as practice. "Some people just have it in them." Or something similar. I don't think the belief is incorrect as much as it is the wrong "question" in the first place. I think you should mostly just ignore whether you have enough talent. If you want to become better, you just have to practice. How good you become after you practice thousands of hours is a question that you can answer after the journey.

Obviously you shouldn't delude yourself either. If you start playing when you're 60, you're not going to be the next Shane Van Boening. But it is my feeling that a lot of players would enjoy the hobby a lot more if they took it as an intellectual journey too. To figure things out by oneself. You'll be surprised.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pool Billiard, Or Lack Thereof, in Madrid

Summary: the two pool billiard halls in Madrid easily found by googling, Shooters Bar and Masterpool, do not exist anymore. I don't know about others.

I just came back from Madrid, the capital of Spain with over 3 million residents. It was just a regular holiday with my wife and a friend. And also a get-together as my wife's brother lives there. The big event during our visit was the Madrid Orgullo 2011, which is the gay pride happening of Spain. It gathers a huge amount of people to the center of Madrid.

Gran Vía during the Orgullo Festival. 

But anyhow, one slow Monday morning I decided to take a look at Madrid's pool halls, maybe for some cheap action. Or so I thought. The two pool halls I found by googling do not exist.

There is supposed to be a bar called Shooters near the main street, Gran Vía, couple of blocks from the hotel we stayed at. But, as far as I could tell, it was no more. I swung around those streets and didn't see anything resembling a billiard bar. I do in fact remember seeing the place two years ago, when I last visited Madrid. But I think Shooters Bar Madrid is closed down now.

This was supposed to be a picture of Shooters Madrid,
but as there is no such thing, here are some tapas.

OK, no problem, I thought, at least there's the other place. Masterpool.

Wrong again.

The place isn't as close to the center as Shooters used to be, but thanks to Madrid's awesome Metro system, it didn't take long for me to arrive at Calle del Doctor Fléming. Only to find out that the place has been closed. And this time, I could take evidence with me.

"For rent."


View of the inside.

So, no pool for me in Madrid.

There might be other pool billiard halls in Madrid, but, as far as I know, these two are closed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Thinking Too Much

I think too much.

No, I don't mean in general. What I mean is that during the execution of a pool shot, too many conscious, verbal thoughts enter into my mind. Thoughts that try to be "helpful" in some way. These thoughts either distract the shot completely or at least take away the smoothness of the cue arm action.

Now, at first, it sounds like not having conscious thoughts during the shot is like not trying to think of a pink elephant. As soon as you try not to do something, it just becomes impossible. But this is not the case with my problem. Yes, I do have to focus my attention on something. I cannot not think. But what I can do is to focus on something that doesn't generate conscious verbal thoughts.

I realized this again the other day, when I decided that I should not think so much when playing pool. After reading The Inner Game of Tennis, I've realized the importance of letting the unconscious self execute the shot, but I haven't had a way to consistently make this happen. This time I used the trick of focusing my attention to the trajectory of the object ball. That is, the path the object ball is going to take after the hit. It's not an aiming trick as such. My sole purpose is to keep my attention on something non-verbal. I don't try to keep my arm relaxed, say, but I let it be relaxed.

When I'm able to stabilize my focus like this, shooting feels easy. Easy as in not requiring a lot of effort. I still don't make every ball or every position I intend, but I seemed to improve the percentages too. I was able to improve my long time Fargo score average with a significant margin. But that's just a single instance, it might have been a fluke.

Now, if this turns out to be a permanent improvement, it still requires a lot of actual practice. Whatever improvement I might be able to make is only helpful insofar as it speeds up the learning process. If my motor execution improves, I still need to practice the actual execution of different types of shots.

Another concern is that I've often come up with similar insights, most of which have since lost their original impact. But I'm beginning to think that this is what practice is for. Learning not to think.