Monday, December 27, 2010

Why Do I Miss?

I'm at the stage of my game that I'm really trying to work on my consistency. I can make shots. I can (and have) made extremely difficult shots like razor-thin cuts from the length of the table and so on... shots that usually prompt TV commentators to predict an upcoming safety. If I'm focusing well, I can sink corner-to-corner-dead-straight-object-ball-in-the-middle-of-the-table shots with high regularity. But yet, I miss shots that I shouldn't more often than I'd like to. So, like many other pool players out there, I'm making a concerted effort to to improve my percentages on 'basic' shots. By 'basic' I mean shots where the cue ball and/or object ball do not hit a rail or another ball. I'm talking about straight-in shots or varying degrees of cut shots. No banks, kicks, caroms, billiards, etc... just the basics.

So, back the original question - why do I miss? Simple question, amazingly complex answer. Any number of things can result in missing a given shot. Unless you know exactly which factor caused you to miss, it's pretty much impossible to correct the problem directly... so the general approach to improving at shot making usually focuses on improving upon the factors most likely associated with inconsistent play and missed shots. For purposes of simplification, I've decided to group the various 'miss factors' into three categories:

Stroke. With little doubt, a smooth consistent stroke is the primary foundation to excelling at pool. You can be a genius at angles, theory, and strategy; but if you can't hit the cue ball consistently, your play will most likely plateau at some level (actual level may vary, but probably below where you'd like). In my attempt at simplified categorization, I consider the stroke to be comprised of several elements including stance, bridge, grip, arm position, follow-through, and so on. In other words, I consider the stroke to be pretty much everything leading up to and including consistently hitting a cue ball exactly where you want to hit it. I've put quite a bit of time into working on my stroke and while there's always room for improvement, I think I've got it to a level that it's usually not a significant factor in my misses (or if it is, I usually know because the shot felt wrong). Because the stroke is so important, it's discussed at length in numerous books, DVDs and other resources. One of my favorite DVDs on the subject is in the set I recommended earlier this month. As I mentioned in my recommendation, the entire first DVD of the set is dedicated to a "perfect stroke." Another DVD that does a good job of discussing stroke fundamentals is Max Eberle's Powerful Pool.

Aim. For my purposes, I consider 'aim' as being the process or act of determining where the cue ball needs to go in order to make a given shot. To me, successfully delivering the cue ball to the point of aim is more a function of the 'stoke' category discussed above... but I certainly agree there's overlap between the two. Aim influences proper body alignment for a successful shot, for example. What I'm really trying to isolate in this category is what many people call "aiming systems" which is one of the current areas of focus in my own game. Improving my stroke definitely improved my game, but I still have some unexplained misses that I can't attribute to stroke problems (or other problems, below), so I'm not entirely certain I'm aiming properly on all shots. Therefore, I've decided to embark on a review of the various aiming systems out there to see if there's something useful that I'm not currently using.

And just what am I using? Good question. I more or less started out with the ghost ball system as I imagine most people did. Through practice, drills, and experience I've developed more of a 'feel' system that a lot of more experienced players develop over time. Yes, I've been able to walk up to a table and pound a long back-cut into a blind pocket without even thinking about it, so I know I have some amount of 'feel' aiming brewing inside me... but the whole 'feel' thing is against my nature... I'm an engineer and therefore tend to seek out something more quantifiable; something I can actively troubleshoot and improve rather than something I just put faith into automatically improving though hours and hours of practice. The problem is, when a 'feel' shot goes wrong I have no quantifiable way of determining why... and that bothers me.

Although I've looked at many of these aiming systems before, I can't say that I've really done a deep dive to figure them out and perhaps more importantly try them out. That's going to be my project for the next few weeks or so. I expect it to keep me busy for awhile. There is some discussion of aiming systems in books and DVDs I already have, and there's also a wealth of information online. Dr. Dave has a page dedicated to aiming, and several of Bob Jewett's Billiards Digest articles discuss aiming systems as well. While reading one of the articles, I ran across a reference to a book entitled "The Secret of Aiming" by Randy Kukla. I wasn't able to find the book searching online, but I just happen to know a Randy Kukla who plays pool (quite well, by the way). The one I know doesn't live in Essexville, MI as Jewett's article stated, but I figured my odds were pretty good it was the same person. A quick email confirmed, and I should have a copy of his book in my hands soon. I'll ask him if he's willing and able to sell it to others as well in case anyone else is interested - please let me know if you are.

Beyond commercially available books and videos and/or Internet resources, there are several folks who advertise some sort of "secret aiming system training" in with fundamentals of pool classes that they offer. By no means a comprehensive list, a few such programs (in no particular order) are: Tom Simpson's "Beat People with a Stick" course, Stan Shuffett's PRO ONE, and Gene Albrecht's Perfect Aim. While I would absolutely love to attend one or more of these courses, it's probably not going to happen anytime in the near future due to higher priority things competing for my $$. I believe a couple of the programs offer or will offer DVDs showing their aiming systems, so I may look into those at some point.

If anyone has input regarding resources I should look into in the area of aiming, by all means drop me a comment!

Other. To be honest, I mainly tacked this category on as a catch all for the time being. I recognize that there are some other factors that can contribute to a miss. Equipment, table conditions, nerves, distractions, as well as quantifiable factors such as squirt, deflection, throw, and so on. I realize some of these factors (such as the last few) can and ideally should be factored into aiming systems, or at least considered during the aiming process... but for now I decided to keep them separate in order to simply things a bit. I'll revisit and expand upon many of these factors at some point in the future. [update] p00lriah made a huge point in a comment that I should have covered better in this section, and that is that you need to keep an even keel and treat every shot the same! Don't get tense on a money ball - and at the other end of the spectrum, treat every shot with respect... even the little simple plinkers. Thanks p00lriah!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

13 Hours of Efren vs. Earl

In-laws visiting and you need to sneak off to the back room now and then to unwind? Kids banging mercilessly on their new toys in a sugar-induced frenzy? Wife still giving you crap about the raw turkey because you thought you set the timer for three hours to remind you to baste it but instead you set the timer to turn ON the oven in three hours?

Go ahead, lock the door and relax. Here's 13 hours of Efren Reyes vs. Earl Strickland at Ridgway's in Hong Kong (1996). Bite-sized 10 minute segments. 9-ball. Winner breaks. Race to 120. $100,000 winner take all.

Happy Holidays. Enjoy.

Above is the first segment to get you going. The full playlist of all 87 clips is here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I got together with a few friends and cut a quick video card for all of you - enjoy!

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

First. Ever. Double. Carom!

League night last night; week #2 of playoffs for my Wednesday night APA 8-ball team.

As you may recall, my Wednesday night team is the one I took over as captain early in the season after the  previous captain had a bit of a falling out with the rest of the team. We rolled to a strong 3-0 victory in the first week of playoffs, so this week would determine first place in the division. Our opponents were a strong, balanced team and I heard they came back from a 0-2 deficit in the previous week to win 3-2, so I definitely wasn't going to take them for granted.

Earlier in the week I was doing a little pre-match 'homework' on our upcoming opponents, and couldn't shake my curiosity about their comeback upset victory (in my opinion, anyway, having played each team at least a couple of times during the season). I wanted to know what happened! So... I picked up the phone and made a call to someone on the team they played the previous week. I didn't know this person extremely well, but I hoping well enough that they'd be open to having a bit of a chat. I figured "what was the worse that could happen" right? Anyway, my instincts were right, and we had a very pleasant conversation. I found out how the individual match ups went and so on... and I got a critical nugget of information about a new player on the team we hadn't seen before. "The kid's rated SL 5 but played like a 7" was the comment that grabbed my attention. "I don't think he missed a single shot, and beat one of our 6's pretty badly." Bingo. I was suddenly very glad I made that phone call.

Walking into the host bar prior to the match, it was pretty easy to spot the new guy. I've seen everyone else on the team before, so he was a new face obviously. But it was more than that. It actually reminded me of a typical bar scene from "Color of Money". Young, cocky, strutting around, obnoxious. Wonderful. I'll refer to our star as Wonderboy.

I lost the coin toss, and the other captain deferred to me to put up first. Having already anticipated this possibility, I had a good idea who I was going to put up - myself, or our strongest female player. After some further thought and a quick discussion with her, I decided to put myself up. The other team matched me up for an even race. I shot quite well overall. I had a couple pocket rattlers here and there, and blew position badly on my key ball once... but other than that, I must say it was a very solid match for me. While I was shooting, Wonderboy was all over the place... checking the line on numerous shots, making loud comments here and there... fidgeting back and forth at the edge of my peripheral vision while I was down on shots, loudly cheering my opponent on, and generally being far more obnoxious than the average (or even above average) league player. I'm not sure if he was trying to shark on purpose, or if that's just the way he was. It didn't matter. I won my first two games quickly and never really felt threatened throughout the match. In the third game, I missed a tough shot on the 8-ball and my opponent was able to run out. We jockeyed back and forth a bit, but I ended up on top in the end. One down.

An observation about Wonderboy. He was the one doing the coaching during timeouts. He was new to the team and a SL 5, yet he gave all the advice while the captain of the team, a very capable SL 6 who did the coaching in the past, looked on. Interesting.

Another observation about Wonderboy... he was drinking... a lot. Both beer and shots. Interesting.

After my match, we were up 1-0 and it was the other team's put up. I already decided I'd throw off with a SL 3 if they put up Wonderboy. They didn't. They put up their captain, a SL 6, so I put our SL 7 against him. A few games later, we were up 2-0.

Wonderboy was still drinking heavily. It was our put up, but Wonderboy was up at the table already thinking he was going to play. I put up a SL 2. Their captain freaked out for a second, then realized it was our put up and he could choose someone else... so he threw up a SL 3. Our SL 2 is a methodical player and she played very well. The match went hill-hill and she narrowly missed a shot on the winning 8-ball. Slow play and a hill-hill match gave Wonderboy plenty of time to down a couple more drinks. We were up 2-1 at this point, and very much in command.

It was their put up, and Wonderboy finally got the call. Much to his chagrin, I didn't throw up a SL 6 like he was expecting. I instead threw up our strongest SL 3 (the female I considered starting the night off with). Wonderboy was not happy about that and actually more or less called me a chicken (I don't remember the exact words he used, but they were slurred in any case). Of course, I could care less. All I knew is that we had to win one more match to take first place in the division... and although I actually liked the odds of our SL 3 beating him given the handicap advantage (and his condition), I was fine with saving our SL 6 for the last match (likely against an average SL 3, which was pretty much the best they had left in the house).

Our SL 3 played extremely well. Wonderboy played surprisingly well too, it was obvious that he had skills... but as expected, his brief periods of brilliant play were peppered with careless mistakes. The match went hill-hill and down to the 8-ball for both of them. Well, almost. Wonderboy scratched sinking his last ball to give our player ball in hand on the 8-ball and the victory. We won 3-1 with a well warmed up SL 6 in ready five for the last match if necessary. It was a sweet and solid win. It was especially satisfying to take out Wonderboy with a female SL 3.

Oh, the double carom thing. Midway through one of my games, I was trying to figure out how to deal with a semi-problem ball near a corner pocket more or less blocked by a couple of my opponent's balls. I studied the layout shown... (the balls aren't perfectly positioned, just trying to give you an idea of the layout). The 6-ball could not go directly in to the pocket and there were no caroms available off of either of the blocker balls into the pocket. But then it suddenly jumped out at me that a double carom off of both balls would not only go, it seemed like it'd go pretty darn easily as long as I hit it right. I'm fairly comfortable with caroms these days and won't hesitate to use them if it's the right shot to take. But a double carom? I've maybe slopped something like that in before, but never intentionally lined up for such a shot in a match. I did a quick ego-check just to make sure I wasn't getting too cocky or something, and my brain kept telling me that it was not only the best shot, it seemed to be a fairly high percentage shot with the blocking balls perfectly positioned. So I stroked and shot it. And my ball dropped beautifully center pocket. I heard Wonderboy  mumble "not much you can do about luck like that" to my opponent... and I just smiled internally and lined up for my next shot. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pool Synergy: 'Tis the Season

Happy Holidays everyone, and welcome to the special holiday edition of...
This month, our lovely hostess Melinda asked that we write about our favorite pool related book and DVD with the thinking that they'd make good Christmas gifts (or gifts for any other occasion in the near future, for that matter).

As you may already know, I'm an avid reader and have accumulated a large library of books on various pocket billiard subjects including general technique as well as specific strategies for games such as 8-ball, 9-ball, etc. It's frankly very difficult to pick a single favorite book because there are so many good ones. If someone asked me for a suggestion, I'd probably dig a bit deeper about what they were looking for in order to narrow the field a bit before making a suggestion.

In thinking about what I was going to cover for this article, though, one book stood out for me in many ways - it's broadly applicable to pretty much anyone playing pocket billiards so you don't have to worry about knowing whether the person you're getting a gift for plays 8-ball, 9-ball, one-pocket, straight pool, or whatever... and, in my opinion, it won't be one of the first books a billiards player will buy themselves, so the odds are fairly good they won't already have it early in their billiards book collection process. It's also fairly inexpensive, so it makes a good stocking stuffer or something you can give to numerous people (like every member of your team if you're into that kind of thing). For the above reasons and others, I've already given it as a gift to more than one of my pool-playing friends.

For the reasons stated above and others, Pleasures of Small Motions is always one of the first pool-related books that comes to mind when someone asks me for recommendations. Few people will argue that there's a large mental component to the game of pool, and this book definitely helped me sort that out. Written by an avid pool player who also happens to be a psychotherapist with a Ph.D in philosophy, this book is obviously a labor of love by someone who knows what they're talking about (re: both pool and psychology). After seeing the subtitle "Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards," I expected it to cover things like attitude, confidence, focus, concentration, and so on... and indeed it does. In fact, it gave me a whole new understanding and appreciation for the word concentration. The book goes well beyond the obvious topics though, covering various aspects of the inner workings of the mind and body and how thoughts are translated into the mechanics of playing pool including what can go wrong and why. It also covers some things that I hadn't really considered, such as the importance of rhythm and proper separation of conscious and unconscious control. In my opinion, this book is an absolute must-read for any competitive pool player. And it shouldn't just be read once, it should be reviewed on a regular basis.

Like many others, I've discovered that DVDs are incredibly useful training aids in the sport as well. Pool is a sport of physical action, obviously, and you can't fully appreciate the various techniques from printed word alone, even with the accompanying drawings and photos. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be hundreds of thousands. It really helps to see things play out in video. There are several good videos out there, but I was asked to pick just one...

First off, I wish to acknowledge that my DVD selection might raise a few eyebrows given that it's produced by IPT and Kevin Trudeau. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you're wondering what could possibly be wrong with a DVD produced by an ex-car salesman, doctor-posing convicted felon who founded the International Pool Tour only to skip town without paying winners after a tournament in 2006 thereby landing a big sucker punch to the sport of pocket billiards that we still haven't recovered from? Maybe I just like living on the edge. Sifting through some of the background material on Kevin, I kept thinking to myself that there must be another side to these stories... until I ran across his clean desk policy and realized he's simply from some sort of alternate universe. Seriously? A company policy that requires everyone's desk to be perfectly clean at all times? How the heck do you get anything done with a perfectly clean desk? By the way, Kevin, your memos need some cleaning - I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors. You might consider consulting that dictionary you recommend in Policy #8.

Anyway, this isn't about Kevin Trudeau trying to peddle some sort of miracle cure, it's about learning how to shoot perfect pool from Mike Sigel... and in that context it's a great video in my opinion. It's also a heck of a steal (no pun intended) right now on sale for $11.95 at Seybert's Billiard Supply.

Several things impress me about this DVD set. It's very well organized into a series of progressive drills intended to perfect your stroke and shot making ability from the ground up... the entire first DVD is dedicated to perfecting the stroke. You don't even get to hit an object ball! These drills epitomize the myelin-producing deep practice discussed in The Talent Code. The second DVD focuses on shot making, and the third focuses on other aspects of the game. Also included is a set of cards summarizing the drills that you can stuff away in your cue case for reference at the pool hall. The first DVD alone is easily worth the sale price at Seybert's.

Sigel discusses a couple of things that some folks don't agree with (such as using outside English on every single cut shot) but he explains his reasoning and it's certainly up to the viewer to balance Sigel's methods and advice against that of others to find what works for them. One thing you'll discover about Sigel is that he really strives for consistency - not just in the usual things like stance and stroke and so on, but in other areas such as cue ball speed and English applied for given shots. Indeed, one of the drills is dedicated to developing a consistent 'default' cue ball speed. Siegel's approach is one of simplification - if you use an ingrained 'default' speed the vast majority of the time or if you always use the same English for every single cut shot (as examples), the amount of complexity that your brain must process to get an imprint of shot and cue ball behavior is significantly reduced.

Contrast that with players who are constantly varying the speed of their stroke, the amount of English applied, etc, etc. Their brains have to figure out how all of those different variables combine to produce varying degrees of squirt, throw, deflection, curve, etc. And if multiple variables change from shot-to-shot, it's nearly impossible to match up the change in behavior to the individual variables in a cause-and-effect basis. Even if you're not trying to figure it out consciously, your brain is trying to sort it out subconsciously.

With my background in software engineering, this focus on simplification really struck a chord with me. I know from experience that by far the most software bugs reside in the most complicated, mangled code. For that reason, the best programmers go out of their way to produce simple, clean, elegant code for a given solution. In the software world, simple is genius. This focus on simplification is clearly Sigel's key to consistent play. This DVD set is a good value all the way up to the list price of $59.95... and it's a complete no-brainer at Seybert's sale price.

Be sure to check out all the other great December PoolSynergy articles!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quick Update

I know all four of you have been sitting on the edge of your seats wanting to know how the APA season is wrapping up for me *cough* *cough* so I thought I'd give you a really quick update anyway.

Monday night is my 9-ball night and last night was our last night of the season. We were in first by a comfortable margin going into the night and had a decent (66-34) win, so I dare say we'll stay in first. I led off the night for us with a 14-6 win. 9-ball's been really good to me this season - not really sure why I'm doing significantly (and consistently) better in 9-ball than 8-ball, but I'm not going to complain. I lost only one match all season, and ended up #2 on the top shooter's list behind the guy who squeaked out a victory against me. He was undefeated going into this week (haven't heard how he did this week).

Wednesday night (8-ball) we won, but didn't win by enough to lift us out of the tie for third place. Unfortunately, we were tied with a team (I believe the only team in the division) that comes out ahead of us in a tiebreaker situation, so that dropped us out of the playoffs. In a somewhat odd twist of fate, we won the wildcard berth... so we're back IN the playoffs. Yes, pool gods exist, and they like fucking with us. We play this week against the first place team who we seem to have a handle on (we're undefeated against them, beating them in one of the matches 5-0). Hopefully the second place team (who we also do well against) will take out the third place team (who we struggle against). If things don't go to plan, we'll just have to cope... and we will!

Last Friday night (8-ball) we had a bye for the first round of playoffs since we were in first and it's a small division (only 4 teams). I guess some people actually do other things on Friday night? WTF? Anyway, I haven't heard who we play this Friday... but it's one team or the other. LOL

Sunday (Masters) we lost badly enough to cement our position in last place. What do they say? Oh yeah, it was a rebuilding season, that's it! We have some solid players, things just didn't go our way this time around.

There you have it. Back to regularly scheduled programming.