Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Big Weekend of Pool

I spent most of Saturday (until 1 AM) playing a 10-ball tournament here in Las Vegas. The tournament was part of a local tour. Having never played 10-ball before, I mainly went for the experience and to see some of the very best players in Las Vegas. That said, imagine my surprise and delight to have a decent run and make it into the money - placing 7th/8th out of 51 of the best players in Vegas!

Even though I didn't join the tour until its fourth stop, that finish actually put me within striking distance of having enough points to make it into the final event at the end of the tour. I'm very glad I went and learned a lot just by watching some of the great players there. I even heard someone utter the infamous line "that wasn't so great of a run out, all of his shots were easy." I shot really well the first couple of matches, then struggled in the 3rd match against the person who eventually won the tournament (he was struggling too - it was an agonizing hill-hill match, to be honest). I then had a couple of decent wins on the one-loss side of the board to land me in my final resting place of 7th/8th.

As I always try to do, I came out of the tournament with a couple of "lessons learned"... one of the early matches was the first time I've ever lost a game to the "three foul rule" so I need to be more wary of that in the future. I'll give my opponent credit, it was a very good play on his part. I won the match against him anyway, so the lesson learned didn't cost me too much. My second "lesson learned" was to keep a better eye out for a shot on the money ball(s) when I get ball-in-hand. There were not one but two situations in matches on the one-loss side of the board where I had ball-in-hand and was actually lining up on a shot to sink the next object ball when I realized there was a reasonable combo on a money ball. Luckily, I caught each of them in time... and sunk both combos for wins. If I'm not mistaken, both of those wins were actually match wins rather than just game wins. Playing mostly APA 9-ball, I guess I'm used to playing for points rather than looking for the money ball. And since I've never played 10-ball, I'm definitely not used to looking for the 10-ball!

Last night, I had a great 9-ball match in APA league play. I was up against a higher skill level player whom I've played several times before. The two of us are very competitive, and we always seem to bring out each other's best games. I was shooting well, and managed to jump to a substantial lead. With only two points to go for the win, he missed a very tough thin rail cut shot on the 7-ball, which was about a diamond and a half away from the pocket on the head rail. He inched the 7-ball closer to the pocket for me, but it was still a tough angle (probably around 80 degrees) and a long shot... more than three-quarters of the table. I made the 7, but then watched the cue ball slowly roll the length of the table to its final resting place in the corner pocket for a scratch. Under the conditions, I'm not sure if there's much I could have done differently - I may not have made the shot if I took much speed off the cue ball; and given the thin cut, I didn't have many options as far as English goes. Anyway, my opponent seized the opportunity and pretty much ran three racks while I watched for an incredible come from behind victory. It's always disappointing for the "it ain't over til it's over" maxim to apply to the other guy, but I can't feel bad about forcing someone to play like a pro for three racks just to eek out a two-point victory. Kudos to him!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Welcome to the Zone!

I've been shooting fairly well over the last month or so; really can't complain... but I also can't think of a time recently when I truly felt like I was "in the zone" or "in dead stroke" until Monday night. Things definitely felt different. Shots were dropping with little if any aiming or thought. Straight shots, cut shots, it didn't really matter. Sure, I missed a few here and there, but I'm talking about the ones that sunk and how easily they sunk! Shots that I normally take a little time to line up, etc. It all... just... worked. Banks didn't go so well, but I'll attirbute that to some crappy rails, and I quickly adjusted to that by avoiding banks if possible. I'm usually pretty good at banks, so it seemed a little odd that they weren't working when everything else was. Interestingly, my kick shots seemed to be on even though banks weren't. I successfully got myself out of a few hooks with good kicks - even a couple two-rail kicks!

So now I'm evaluating things a bit and wondering if my practice sessions are starting to settle into my muscle memory a bit more or if this is just a passing phase? Or perhaps I've stumbled across some sort of different level of consciousness that will be the key to the next level of success for me? I remember having such a watershed moment back in high school while playing football. Time will tell, I guess. Whatever it is, it definitely feels different and the results rock. It still seemed to be with me tonight during practice - we'll see how it goes tomorrow night for 8-ball.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Crazy Week!

Wow, it's been a week full of pool! I played every single day/night except Friday and even then I took advantage of the lull in action to get a couple hours of drills in at home.

As I previously wrote, Sunday was the most demanding day of the week for me. Monday was a normal 9-ball league night where I was put up against a tough opponent who had recently been 'downgraded' in skill level (I seem to be bumping into that a lot lately). She shot very well and jumped out to a quick 9-1 lead on the first rack, but then I was able to chip away steadily at her lead to bring it down to the wire. She actually sunk the winning point when I still had two points left, but she also scratched on the shot giving me ball-in-hand and the victory. I dodged a bullet on that one!

Tuesday night I participated in APA qualifier boards for regional tournaments to be held in October. I made it to the finals in two 8-ball boards, but unfortunately lost both matches in close games. I managed to qualify in 9-ball though! This is a little surprising, because I consider 8-ball to be more my game than 9-ball... but it's good to "go with the flow" and go with whatever is working. This qualification will give me motivation and opportunity to improve my 9-ball game.

It's really not my intention to give you a blow-by-blow of my play every week, so I'll spare the details of the rest of the week other than to say our handicap advantage didn't carry us through the whole 9-ball doubles board this morning. We handily won our first match and were in the lead in the second match (only needed three points to win!) but hit a wall... we got hooked over and over again it seemed and the other team was able to put together a nice comeback. Very disappointing for us of course, but we really can't fault our play... I think we did well. Sometimes the rolls just don't go your way.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Take Care of Yourself!

Loong tournament day today - singles qualifiers for APA Regionals (leading to Singles Nationals). I wasn't as  prepared as I should have been; I seriously underestimated how long I would be there. I made it to finals in both 8-ball and 9-ball and lost the final matches on both.

My performance had significantly degraded by that point, and there's really no excuse for it. I simply let the qualifications slip though my fingers because I was hungry, thirsty, and plain worn out... all things that could have been prevented by keeping myself properly hydrated and eating at least something! I didn't really think about it until I went home and drank and drank and drank and realized how dehydrated I really was. I even had a bit of a headache by the time I got home. Keeping hydrated in particular is important in the dry desert environment of Las Vegas. If you allow yourself to get dehydrated, it DOES affect concentration and fine motor control. It's important to keep nutrients flowing for the same reason.

On 'big' tournament days, I usually bring along bottled water and protein bars to fall back on if I'm unable to get away to get something. I didn't take any supplies along this time and paid the price.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Skill Levels and Handicaps

I had a very interesting and unusual 8-ball APA league match last night. My captain sent me up against a guy I'd played in the past and beaten, if I recall correctly... but the thing that got me was a comment my captain made as I went to the table, "by the way, he's a three now."

I thought to myself, "wait a minute... did she just say THREE?"

I casually wandered back to the score sheet and took and look and sure enough... a 3.

The last time I played him, he was a five and I was a three. I imagine he felt the handicap that night because he told me after the match that I wouldn't be a three much longer when he congratulated me. Now, the tables had surely turned with him being a SL 3 and me being a SL 4.

I saw him practicing prior to the match, and he sure seemed to be moving the ball well and making shots and so on... pretty much what I'd expect to see for someone in the SL 4, 5, or even 6 range. In other words, he didn't appear to be shooting like a three... he didn't seem to have a physical handicap like he might have if he had been in an accident or had a stroke or something. I knew this guy well enough to know that he didn't typically participate in tournaments or anything that would give him reason to try to manipulate his handicap and I also knew him well enough to think that he wasn't really the type to do that anyway. So curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to ask.

I asked casually, "Hey, weren't you a 5 last time we played?"

He responded in a soft tone, "yeah, I was."

"What happened?"

"I don't know, I've just been losing a lot lately... and I didn't play for a couple of months as well."

"You look like you're shooting pretty well to me... good luck!"

"Thanks, I'm trying to snap myself out of it."

He seemed genuine, and even a bit frustrated and low on confidence. I was still a bit baffled about the whole thing, but wasn't upset or anything. I couldn't think of a better match up for him - we had higher and lower skill level players available on our team, but a higher SL player would have faced an even tougher race and a lower SL player probably wouldn't have much of a chance of keeping up with him. I knew I had my work cut out for me, but I just decided to do my best and concentrate on my game if nothing else. I didn't have a high expectation of winning, to be honest... but not in a defeatist kind of way, if that makes sense.

He won the lag, broke, and nearly ran out. We were off to the races! I had a decent run of 5 balls or so, then rattled a pocket. He ran out and sunk the 8 to go on the hill in the 3-2 race. In game two he broke dry and I ran a few balls but realized the layout didn't support a run out, so I played a safety when the opportunity arose. It was an OK safety, but did leave him a bit of a shot. He made the shot, ran several, then missed. I ran a few more and missed. He got to the 8-ball first... and then scratched on the 8! I broke and game three was pretty similar to game two with both of us having decent runs and him beating me to the 8... then scratching again on the 8-ball to put me on the hill!!! I couldn't believe it... and neither of his scratches were  something he could have done on purpose (in my opinion)... there were rails and ball deflections involved in both of them... it was crazy!

But in any case, I found myself on the hill and about to break... and seemed to have karma on my side. I went for an 8-ball break and got good movement on the 8, but it didn't drop. It was a good break spread-wise, and I dropped two stripes so I was hoping I could run out - the only real challenge was the 8 being frozen to a solid. I indeed ran out except for the 8... which I tried to break out during the run, but missed. So I played a quasi-safety to break out the 8 and put it in better position, figuring I'd probably get another turn due to the layout of his balls. I did get another turn, and blew it! Ugh. But I improved the position of the 8 in the process. I got a second shot at the 8 and sunk it, winning the match.

Four games... 9 total innings... I played two defensive shots and he played one - and I burned an extra inning on the 8 in the last game so it certainly wasn't a typical match against a SL 3!

It was one of the more bizarre situations I've had in a long time - but I didn't let it get to me, concentrated on my game, and ended up prevailing (with luck on my side for sure). As we've heard many times - it ain't over 'til it's over.

I guess in closing I have a chance to badmouth the APA handicap system but I won't. All in all, I think it's a good system and meets its goal of allowing so-so players to compete with better players and vice-versa. It's not a perfect system for sure, but I certainly don't have any brilliant ideas to make it better. I know from experience that the APA is very sensitive to the possibility of "sandbagging" - particularly at high-level tournaments. They do what they can to keep things fair, and I appreciate that.

I know for sure that I've been the beneficiary of a favorable handicap as well. As I've mentioned before, I do tend to be pretty inconsistent at times. As a result, I have been accused of sandbagging myself. I honestly have never ever tried to manipulate my handicap. I also don't try to second-guess the magical APA computer. In situations where I'm asked to declare my SL, I declare it as I know it to be in the computer. I play my game and play to win, period. Sometimes it goes well... sometimes it goes extremely well... and sometimes I stink it up big time. Next Saturday I'll be hitting another Team Nationals qualifier tournament (9-ball) with what should be an extremely favorable handicap... so we'll see how it goes.

Monday, June 7, 2010

There Just Might Be A Future In Defense

I'm at the stage of my game where I'm having to pay more attention to defense. Instead of just "sinking balls faster than the opponent does" or "oh my gosh I missed, but I'm not playing against someone who can run out" I'm having to work defense into my game more and more.

I knew the time would come... and thanks to my voracious appetite in reading, I have a pretty good handle on strategy and defensive theory but I've often fallen short on the execution side. Of course, many defensive shots are very difficult to pull off... often more difficult than a typical offensive shot because you need the softest of touch at times, or very VERY fine control of cue ball position because there's such a small window in which to hide it. And, as I'm sure many of you out there know, bungling a defensive shot sucks. Sucks really bad. When I choose a defensive shot over an offensive shot that I felt I had a 50% chance of making and then screw up the defensive shot I find myself regretting the choice even if it was "the right thing to do." The answer of course is practice, but how many people spend much time specifically on defensive shots? How much time do you spend on defensive shots?

Up until recently, I admit I have spent very little time on my defensive skills. Sure, like I said earlier, I study the theory... and I'll try defensive shots in practice games... but as hinted at before, I've often shied away from taking a defensive shot in an important match when I probably should have because the confidence simply wasn't there. Give me a tough offensive shot with a true 30% chance of making versus a semi-tough defensive shot and I tend to bite on the offensive shot more often than I should. Why? Well, there's the whole confidence factor in defensive shots because I haven't been practicing them until recently... but I've also been guilty of being over-confident on my chances of making the offensive shot. See, most of us tend to inflate our chances of making a tough shot because we haven't actually documented past results on paper and we're better at remembering our successes on similar shots than our failures. It's human nature. How many times have you said to yourself "I know I can make this shot - I've made it before!" when it's some kind of crazy kick-off-the-tip-of-the-pocket-corner kind of shot? Never mind the twenty times you missed it... you remember making it that one time so you know you can make it! So the 30% shot I mentioned a bit ago was maybe built up as a 60% shot in my mind because I didn't know any better... the odds seemed decent, so I took the shot... and missed. Don't get me wrong, confidence is good... and I'm definitely not suggesting that you should drive yourself crazy ruminating over whether you can make a given shot. It is possible to be confident in knowing "I can make that shot 40% of the time" because you've tested it and you know that's your percentage. If that's the best shot you have, by all means give it your all. If there's another option with a better percentage, consider taking it (depending on other consequences such as position and so on).

What should we take away from this?

1. Build your confidence in defensive shots by dedicating quality practice time to them. Set up common defensive scenarios and patterns and work on them! If you see a good defensive shot in a match on ESPN or YouTube or whatever, try setting up the initial conditions and duplicating the shot. The more confidence you have in your defensive abilities, the more likely you'll use them when you SHOULD use them.

2. Know your shot percentages. I mean, really know them. Set up some of the more difficult shot scenarios like a tough cut or kick or whatever - try it several times and record the results. Having an honest idea of your percentages will help you make better choices in the heat of a match (and it'll allow you to track progress as you improve over time).

This topic came to mind for me today because I have been thinking about and practicing defensive shots more lately, and I actually had a few defensive successes this morning. I was in two tournaments - one was a qualifier for 8-ball Doubles at APA Team Nationals this August, and the other was a qualifier for 8-ball Regionals (leading into APA Singles Nationals next year). I/we didn't qualify for either, unfortunately... but I was extremely pleased with a few of the defensive shots I made today, which is something new for me! In the past, killer offensive shots were always in the headlines of the "highlight reel" bouncing around in my brain after a match... but today, although I did make a few very good offensive shots, I'll have to say the defensive shots made the headlines. In fact, my doubles partner commented on one of my defensive shots as being "an ESPN shot" - and that has definitely never happened with me before! It was a tricky shot with a small window for success and I nailed it! I even intentionally chose the defense over an offensive option - so there's hope for me yet!

Friday, June 4, 2010

My Equipment

Given that I'm still very much in the "lay out some background" phase of this blog, I felt it'd be a good time to give some details about my equipment... what I'm using now as well as how I got here.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I've only been playing consistently/seriously for about a year and a half now. There's a minor sidebar to that detail: I played fairly seriously for a period of time (about a year) some 25 years ago while I was in the Navy. I was in Orlando, FL at the time, attending the Naval Nuclear Power School (NNPS). I bought my first cue back then, and remember marveling at the silky-smooth feel it had compared to a standard bar cue. I don't recall many details of that cue, other than it was simple but decent maple one and fairly heavy: 21 oz. Like NNPS in Orlando (and the entire base, actually), that cue disappeared... it was stolen during my move from Orlando to my next stop in the Navy's nuclear training pipeline: the S1W training reactor in Idaho. The loss of the stick, along with a change in venue and the appearance of other bright shiny objects (I really got into pistol shooting in Idaho) put my pool shooting days on the back burner for, well, 25 years or so.

Fast forward to the new millennium. I met a girl at work... cute brunette, sassy attitude, gorgeous doe-like deep brown eyes, and we seemed to hit it off pretty well. I remember one conversation with her in particular - at a company-hosted party at the Moon Nightclub here in Las Vegas. We were out on the balcony at the top of the Fantasy Tower of the Palms Casino with the lights of the Vegas Strip sparkling below us. As I gazed into her eyes, she stated quite matter-of-factly that she "could easily play all night with me" and I felt something stir deep down inside. She was talking about her passion for pool, of course, and it brought back memories of the good times I had in Orlando some 25 years prior. She told me that she was playing in a league (APA) and encouraged me to check it out. I hung out while her team played a few times, then decided to dive in. I literally bought my 'first' cue the day of my first match as an APA member.

As you might imagine this first cue was pretty much an impulse buy, although it turned out to be a fairly decent one. I walked into a smallish billiards shop less than a block away from my team's home bar (The Brewery) to see what they had. Having been away from pool for so long I really had no idea about brands and so on, so I just focused on something that had a good feel to it, looked decent, and was priced reasonably. I settled on a 20 oz Cuetec. I have no idea what model it is, but it's a fairly standard mass produced one... as I recall, I paid somewhere in the ballpark of $100 for it. I've already run into a couple of people with very similar models (similar enough that we've accidentally swapped cues at times). It doesn't have any of Cuetec's higher-end shaft technologies, just a basic fiberglass-sheathed shaft. This cue worked well for me, but it didn't take very long to realize there was some room for improvement on the tip. Doing a little research online, I decided to go with the Tiger Everest tip. The Everest was a notable improvement over the stock tip in terms of being able to move the cue ball and at least attempt to work on better position play. Somewhere along the way, I picked up an extra shaft for this cue and decided to try out the Tiger Sniper tip on it. In comparing the two tips over time I developed a preference for the Sniper and have since standardized on it. This is the cue setup that took me to the 2010 APA Singles Nationals, so it could obviously get the job done.

Next up was a break cue. Again, doing a little research online, I found that there were two very different schools of thought in a break cue. Some prefer a heavy "power" stick that weighs 21 oz and beyond (a friend has a modified Predator break stick that weighs in at 23 oz) while others prefer a lighter "speed" stick that (in theory, at least) allows you to stroke the stick at higher speed prior to impacting the cue ball. This latter school of thought really intrigued me, but I unfortunately didn't have any immediate means of trying before buying since I didn't know anyone with a light break stick. So I went on faith based strictly on several online reviews and bought a Fury Jump/Break stick with a phenolic tip. I ordered an 18 oz stick, but it actually weighs in at 17.6 oz. I'll admit it took a little getting used to... and I still miscue every once in awhile (luckily not a big deal in the APA)... but I have to say I've been very pleased with the results. I dropped the 9-ball on my very first league break with it... my opponent re-racked, and I dropped the 9-ball again on the very next break! I've dropped as many as five balls on a 9-ball break, and I've done that three times now in the time that I've had the Fury (less than a year). I've also used it successfully as a jump cue. Needless to say, I'm quite pleased with that purchase. The only unfortunate thing is I found out about the BCA phenolic tip ban after I bought it... but given that I'm not in the BCA yet, I'll deal with that when the time comes. I've noticed that some cue manufacturers have offered replacement shafts for their cues to help deal with this issue, but I haven't specifically checked whether Fury does this yet or not.

More recently, I went to the BCA Nationals here in Las Vegas to check out the vendors. My original mission was to get an advanced shaft for my cue. I tried out several advanced shafts at the vendor's booths; including the Cuetec R-360, the Predator 3142, and the Tiger X-Ultra. I have to say that I really fell in love with the Tiger. To me, it had the best feel and feedback, and it already came with the Sniper tip that I was accustomed to. After talking to the crew at the Tiger booth about what it would take to get an X-Ultra shaft for my existing cue, I decided it would be a bit more hassle than I really wanted to deal with. Don't get me wrong, they were very helpful and very willing to help me out... but they didn't have a shaft on-hand that would fit the Cuetec, they wanted me to bring my butt in so they could measure it and I didn't have it with me (my cue butt)... and I wouldn't be able to walk out the door with it... they'd have to ship it to me. Thinking through all that, I decided to get a whole new Tiger cue that was all designed to work together from the start, and I'm absolutely loving that decision! I bargained with them a bit and got a good deal on a limited edition 19 oz TPC6 Professional Cue with the X-Ultra shaft, their killer Stack leather wrap and of course the Sniper tip. I used it the very next day at an un-handicapped APA Masters match and won, so I was off to a great start with it right away! If you've been keeping track, you'll notice that I went lighter with each successive playing cue that I've purchased. I definitely think the 19 oz cue gives me a lighter touch on the table, and that was one area that I've been working to improve.