Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blind Scotch

OK, I think I've coined a new term using the "blind date" analogy. Blind Scotch is hereby defined as going into a scotch doubles tournament without a partner and matching up with whomever you can find similarly standing around, available, and looking for a partner. I did that today - and while we didn't finish in the money, I met someone new, had a good time, and think we did respectably well.

Today's 8-ball Scotch Doubles tournament at the Las Vegas Cue Club kicked off the new season for the Vegas Billiards Tour. As mentioned in previous posts, I joined the tour last year because I knew there were a lot of really good players in town that I wasn't getting exposed to. I felt rubbing shoulders with them at least once a month would help me improve, and I have to say that it has. Even though I didn't join the tour until Stop #4 last year, I accumulated enough points to finish in the top 25% or so of the standings and qualified for the final event at the end of the year. My goal, of course, is to do even better this year!

Unlike most of the Vegas Billiards Tour events, this stop was un-handicapped... relying solely on the skill level cap to keep the teams reasonably well matched. My partner and I fell a couple points short of the cap, but I think we were close enough to be in the mix. We got off to a rocky start, dropping the first match 4-2 (the race was to 4 on the east side of the bracket and 3 on the west side). I don't think we were all that out-gunned, we each just made a couple mistakes at critical times and perhaps more importantly played a team that appeared to be very familiar with each other's play. My partner and I were obviously at the other end of the spectrum in that regard, having only met minutes before and not even getting much chance to warm up together prior to the start of the tournament.

On the west side of the board, things came together for us and we rolled up a strong 3-0 victory in the first match. Our second match on the west side was against a strong team comprised of the 2010 Vegas Billiards Tour Champion paired up with Ms. oN a miSsioN (who assured me she'd make another post soon so I'm helping her out by putting it on the record).

It was a tough match, going hill-hill, with a defensive deadlock endgame in the last game. Their last ball was blocking a corner pocket, but we had a ball snugged up close to it so they weren't able to sink it from the vast majority of the table without fouling and likely giving us the game and match. We had another ball on the table that we were able to poke around defensively, allowing us to continue making legal hits. I think overall we had the upper hand at that point, but we all knew that it'd come down to whoever made the first mistake.

Unfortunately, my partner fouled while attempting to position our free ball for a breakout on the other ball... giving them ball-in-hand and the victory. He commented that we was glad that he was the one that made the mistake, and since he was the stronger player on our team I can understand his point - he didn't want it to end on a sour note for me, and I appreciate that. Overall, I was happy with our play, and I'd have no problem playing with him again. I got the feeling that he felt the same way, so it's all good.

Oh, and I learned something else today - bloggers live in glass houses - LOL. Shortly after my last match, a very observant onlooker (and good friend) declared that I was guilty of using my old rail bridge as opposed to my new rail bridge for at least one of my shots (not a break shot, since we were following BCA rules and I was therefore opting to break from just off-center of the head string rather than my usual spot near the side rail). The comment was well received, of course. I guess the new bridge isn't quite ingrained yet, and the old one came out in the heat of the moment. I'm pretty sure I made the shot anyway, but I definitely need to queue up some more practice to get that old bridge out of my system.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Them's the Breaks

We are only three weeks into the Spring season for APA and I actually haven't even played many matches in these opening weeks but so far I've managed to log three 9-ball "snappers" during league 9-ball matches and one 8-ball break during an 8-ball match. Time will tell if the trend continues, of course, but needless to say I've been pretty happy with my break lately.

The 8-ball break is particularly significant since it's the first one I've done in a long time (6 months, maybe?) due to pretty much abandoning attempts for intentional 8-ball breaks during that period of time. I stopped trying them because aiming at the second ball in the rack tends to be a riskier shot - it's fairly easy to scratch either by pocketing the cue ball or by hitting the cue ball off of the table. I was getting a good spread and pocketing balls more often than not with a 'normal' break, so I opted to reduce my risk and stick with that.

So what's changed recently? Well, after chatting a bit with Sondra Friestad earlier in the month, I realized it had been some time since I dedicated much more than perfunctory practice on my break. While very little of our discussion about breaking and break practicing made it into the edited version of the interview, she and I talked at length about the importance of a good break and how so few seem to dedicate time to practicing such a critical shot.

We were in complete agreement during that discussion because I remembered doing nothing but breaking for hours on end for a period of time about a year and a half ago... my kids ducking for cover and calling me names every time I sent the cue ball into the family room where they were... but I made some big improvements; got my power dialed up to a reasonable level, and got to the point that dry breaks were more the exception than the rule.

As a result of that intensive practice period, I've got a fairly strong break. I generally clock in at or just under 20 MPH as measured by the iPhone Break Speed app, which I think is pretty respectable. Once I got to the point that I was satisfied with my break, I more or less put it on the back burner while working on other areas of my game. (Hat tip to Michael Reddick for turning me on to the Break Speed app)

After my discussion with Sondra, I decided it was about time to circle back around and focus on my break again for a bit. Since I'm generally satisfied with the power of my break, I decided to put some time into improving my accuracy.

Probably the biggest factor in increasing my accuracy was an improved bridge, particularly when breaking from the side rail as I often do in both 9-ball and 8-ball. The bridge I used to use was a simple two-finger bridge as shown in the first picture to the left. Basically, the shaft glided over the felt on the rail and was loosely guided by my index and middle fingers.

While it's not apparent in the picture, the palm of my hand is elevated and no part of my hand (other than the two fingers) come in contact with the shaft. This is a fairly common rail bridge, but not a particularly stable one. It's extremely easy to move the tip side-to-side by moving the butt of the cue side-to-side, for example.

My improved bridge is shown at right. Notice how I've tucked my thumb underneath and laid it next to the shaft. The shaft now slides alongside my thumb and middle finger, and my index finger actually serves to snug the shaft up against my thumb and middle finger. This seemingly minor change results in a huge gain in lateral stability of the shaft.

With the old bridge, my fingers were only in contact with about 1/2 inch or at most an inch of the shaft (lengthwise) and they created a simple pivot point. I could easily move the butt of the cue side-to-side to freely move the tip side-to-side. With the newer bridge, my thumb and middle finger come in contact with about four inches of the shaft which eliminates the simple pivot point... I get much more resistance when I try to move the butt of the cue side-to-side. This bridge, in addition to some recent concentrated practice, has definitely improved my aim to the point that I'm much more confident in getting a good hit on the second ball (which is generally considered to improve your chances of sinking the 8-ball on the break).

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Agony of Defeat

(PoolSynergy: Team Play Epilogue)

I found it interesting that the PoolSynergy "Team Play" post was released on the weekend of one of our APA 8-ball Classic Tri-Annual team tournaments.

For those who don't know, the APA has three 'seasons' per year - Spring, Summer, and Fall. At the end of each season, tournaments are held for the best 8-ball and 9-ball teams from the season. These tournaments serve as a nice close to the season and are also used as part of the qualifying pipeline to determine which team(s) will be representing a given area at the National Team Championships held in the fall. I imagine there are some regional variations on the theme, so keep in mind that I'm describing how it works here in the Las Vegas area - your mileage may vary.

As the name suggests, tri-annual tournaments are held three times a year. Each team making it to playoffs in their respective divisions earns a spot in the tri-annual tournament. The winner of the tri-annual tournament advances to the annual cities tournament, which is the tournament that determines the team(s) going to team nationals. The first place team in each divisional playoff also earns a berth in the annual cities tournament.

My Monday 9-ball team as well as my Wednesday and Friday 8-ball teams made it to tri-annuals this season. Unfortunately, all three teams lost in the first round.

My Wednesday night team (the one I'm captain of) was the most recent loss so it's freshest in my mind. It was a heartbreaking loss that literally went down to the last match, last game, last ball. My player was left with a very difficult cross-over bank shot into the side pocket. He appeared to have executed it perfectly and the 8-ball headed towards center pocket. Unfortunately, the cue ball rebounded off the end rail with perfect timing, speed, and direction to deflect the 8-ball from its original path just before it reached the pocket... resulting in a miss and leaving his opponent a fairly easy shot for the win.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this particular loss was that I honestly think we were the better team... and I'm not saying that just because it's my team. I think anyone who has been playing this game for awhile can tell the difference between flat out being out-gunned and losing a match that you really should have won. This one, in my mind at least, was clearly the latter situation. We started off in good shape with me taking one of their top two players out of the equation... and then we struggled. Scratches, poor positions at critical times, etc. Uncharacteristic things that wouldn't happen 8 or 9 times out of 10... but they happened with regularity that we couldn't overcome in the end, and all added up to an eventual loss for us.

It's human nature to walk away from something like that wondering what we did wrong - and I think it's healthy both as a team and as individuals to do a little self-evaluation to figure out where improvements can be made for next time... as long as it's done constructively. If you're not careful, you can "what if" yourself to death and lose confidence as a result... confidence in yourself, and in the team. Don't do that unnecessarily! Perhaps the worse thing you can do is to contribute to teammates losing confidence in themselves, as Melinda pointed out in her PoolSynergy post.

It's one thing to recognize and deal with a problem if you really have a problem. Yes, sometimes that's necessary, and it can be a fine line at times. But a loss doesn't automatically mean you have a problem. You will always lose... at least once in a while. Obviously, the key is to keep those losses to a minimum.

Like most sports, pool is a game of percentages. If you have the data available, you can assign probabilities to every match, every game, every shot, and every safety. I live in Las Vegas and work for a gaming company. I'm very familiar with odds making and probability. All you can do is play the percentages to give yourself the best chance of success. We've all heard it: choose and shoot the highest percentage shots, play safe when you don't have a high percentage shot. With a team, go with the highest percentage match ups (if the format allows, of course). Problem is, there is pretty much nothing in pool that carries a probability of 100% and sometimes things just don't go your way.

I had and still have full confidence in the lineup I chose today. I feel we had good odds with every single match up, and I'd be perfectly comfortable using the same lineup tomorrow against the same team. That said, this is the first time I've ever seen our opponents play so there's a possibility I'd use the newly-gained knowledge to make an adjustment or two next time around... but nevertheless I stand by my assertion that I'd be comfortable playing them the exact same way.

We have a strong team, and we'll do well in the long run as long as we keep things positive and continue to grow together as a team. We're already qualified for the annual cities tournament as a result of taking first place in our division last season, so we didn't need the tri-annual win for that reason. Sure, it would have been nice... but the tournament experience was good and I'll consider it a warm-up for the cities tournament.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

PoolSynergy: Team Play

Back in September I suggested the "Team Play" theme to my fellow PoolSynergy writers after noting the dearth of instructional materials covering the team aspect of pool. I was looking for tips on team play because I had just taken over as captain of an APA 8-ball team and found, as you might suspect, that the vast majority of information in print and online focuses on the individual aspects of playing pool. A good number of players compete in a team environment, however, and I felt some coverage on this aspect of pool would be very well received... and my fellow bloggers wholeheartedly agreed!

They agreed so much, in fact, that they elected me to be the host of the theme - WTF!? So here I am, and here we are... and as usual, we have a great lineup of posts related to Team Play:

p00lriah tried to convince me that he wasn't a team player. ha! i didn't believe him for a minute of course, and he proved me right by pulling through for the poolsynergy team by once again being the first person to submit his article! way to go p00lriah! i don't know how he does it... perhaps it's the efficiency gained from not using the shift key? read on as he makes a spectator of himself.

Melinda (akaTrigger), who very modestly describes herself as "a pool player from Texas" (maybe because Texas Tornado was already taken) bares her soul with some painful memories from a BCAPL championship run long ago in hopes that she can teach what NOT to do as a captain.

Jake Dyer, our resident pool historian, dips into his substantial pool of knowledge to highlight some great players from the past (and present) who may, ummm, struggle in a team environment. He also shares a great potential future direction for team play. Check out his post here.

Gail (aka G Squared) takes on the Team Play topic Letterman style with not one but two Top Ten lists to help feed the team player in YOU. Unlike Letterman's lists, Gail's are good for much more than laughs! Join me as we take a close look at her genes to see what makes a top-notch team player tick.

John Biddle, award-winning Pool Student and our esteemed founder of PoolSynergy, shares his thoughts on the Benefits of Team Play.

St. Louis Johnny, the only person I know who has successfully launched a cue tip over 50 feet, feels team captains can take a lesson from Dalton. No, not Shannon Dalton, the "I thought you'd be bigger" Dalton, but the character played by Patrick Swayze in Road House. He has a simple but effective motto: "Be nice"

John Barton, of JB Cases, brings an international flair into the PoolSynergy fold by sharing his experiences of team play in Germany. "Despite being thought of as an individual sport, pool does provide a great binding platform for people to enjoy it competitively as a team." Check out John's experiences and thoughts here.

Billiard Coach Mike Fieldhammer lends a bit of a philosophical view to Team Play with an evaluation of intangible rewards of being on a proper team.

And wrapping up this month's collection of articles is my own contribution to the theme in which I discuss some  thoughts and observations about general team dynamics before moving on to an interview of the captain of the 2010 ACS Women's Open 8-ball Championship team.

PoolSynergy: The Making of a Championship Team

Happy New Year everyone, and welcome to my edition of...
This month, I'm the host for Volume 15!

Even as I originally proposed this month's PoolSynergy topic back in September, I knew that it'd be best to reach out to someone else who had more experience and success with pool in a team environment. The plain fact was that I didn't (and still don't) have a whole lot of experience with pool from a team perspective.

Through my own observations and experience in several other team sports, I was well aware that a coach (or captain) can make or break a team. We've seen time after time that some coaches manage to mold a group of average players into a championship team while other coaches fall short... despite having more individual talent available to them.

Being the leader of a team is more of an art than a science. You need to know the sport well, of course... the rules, the strategies, and so on but I think that's the easy part; the part that many people can learn (although it's clear some don't put in the effort to do so). The hard part, in my opinion, is to bring the players together as a cohesive unit to properly execute the strategies. This is where psychology and sociology come into play. Team dynamics.

As a coach or captain, you need to know your players' personalities, capabilities, and needs. Every player is different. Some like to be cheered on, some don't. Some perform better under pressure than others. Some play well against players of the opposite sex and some don't. Some will openly tell you when they're not confident with a situation and some won't. Some of the players who tell you they're not comfortable with a situation will kick butt in that situation anyway... while others will leave you wishing you heeded their warning. Some players need more warm up time than others. Some are fine with going up first, some aren't. These are just a few examples of the many, many factors that a good coach or captain will be 'tuned' into - and don't expect your players to tell you their thoughts or even the truth about some of these things. I'm not suggesting they'd intentionally lie to you (although some might in certain situations), but their perception can differ from reality. By all means, get their input as appropriate, but that alone will rarely be the only factor on which you base a decision.

I believe the 'art' side of coaching is very difficult to teach or learn in the usual sense, but developing an awareness of subtle factors like the ones I mention above is a good step in the right direction. Great coaches often know their players better than the players know themselves and use that knowledge to lead their team to success. The very best coaches extend this 'sixth sense' beyond their own team to players on opposing teams as well.

Anyway, back to my original point about wanting to seek out wisdom from others who have been successful with pool teams, I'm very fortunate to have access to a few folks in the local Las Vegas area that fit that description. I was extremely fortunate that a real gem amongst those folks, Sondra Friestad, agreed to spend some time discussing her thoughts on the care and feeding of a championship team:

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