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.

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