Handicaps – The Whole Story

Handicaps have been around a long time, and for good reason; they enable players of significantly differing skill levels to compete in a “fair” contest of skill. Pros, or people who want objective and absolute information on their ability will choose to play without a handicap. These contests of pure skill work great for those at the highest echelons of their sport, but mere mortals often find it disheartening to lose every match while they work on improving enough to start winning.

With a fair handicap, two players of different abilities can have a match that each has a fair chance to win. The winner will be the one who plays best, compared to his/her typical level of play. The stronger player can win, but only if she plays hard and doesn’t let up. The weaker player could also win, but not if he doesn’t give it his best. And isn’t that wonderful, a way for any two friends to have a good competition no matter their relative abilities?

Creating handicaps is anything but easy, if you want them to be truly fair. Since everyone’s game varies from day to day, we can’t make a sound judgement without quite a bit of data. To judge if the system is fair, compare the number of wins by the stronger player to the number of wins by the weaker. This should be close to 50-50, with a slight edge (10% or less) to the stronger player. Our system does this quite reliably and has for 10 seasons (9 straight pool and 1 one pocket).

One Older Pool Player to Another

This article is part of Volume 21 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the July 2011 edition of PoolSynergy over at PoolBum.

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This month’s PoolSynergy topic is about older players beginning the game or returning to it from a long absence. As an older player myself, 58 at this writing, I figure I might bring a different perspective from those of younger writers.

The first and most important thing to remember is that your age is not a handicap. If you begin with the idea that your performance is somehow limited, you’re giving up before you start. Quality pool is not dependent on speed, strength or stamina the way other sports are. As such, it’s the ideal recreation that you can play, and play well until you die. I know a number of guys in their 70s and 80s who can beat most players, so don’t hesitate to set your goals high.

Pool is a finesse game. If anything, your age should give you an advantage. One of the biggest mistakes most novices make is to hit the ball too hard. Technique is what delivers the best results, not power. Smoothness and stillness are the keys, and physical aggressiveness is something to eliminate, not to strive for. Mental aggressiveness is something else again.

Attitude is a huge part of success in life and in pool it’s no different. Whether you tell yourself you can or you cant, you’ll be right. So don’t let anyone convince you that your road to improvement will be any more uphill than theirs was.

The next suggestion I’d make is to take some lessons. It’s not expensive and it can accelerate your progress immensely. A good instructor can help you develop sound fundamentals that will quickly get you on the road to proficiency. Lessons will also help keep you from developing all sorts of bad habits that are hard to break. But don’t just take the advice of the first few players you meet who are better than you, even if they are very good indeed. A person can get good using poor technique if he practices long enough, but you’ll gain ability at a much faster pace if you learn the fundamentals the right way. Seek out a qualified instructor.

Those most important pieces of advice are relevant to everyone equally, not just we geezers. What follows are a few tips that will probably be more useful to older players but have value to all.

Bending over the table can be hard on the lower back, especially if you play a lot. Surprisingly, low back pain is often the result of weak abdominal muscles that cause the lower back muscles to over compensate and get sore. If you work your abs a little you can mitigate this problem. A six pack isn’t required, so don’t be put off. Just improve the balance between back and ab strength and you’ll avoid problems.

If you tense up, stretching the muscles in your neck and shoulders can help a lot. While you’re in the chair, bring your chin close to your chest and then roll your head in a circle, both clockwise and counter-clockwise. You’ll feel the tension diminish right away. Two others you can do relatively unobtrusively are rolling your shoulders by shrugging in a circle, and by first pulling your shoulders up as high as you can, trying to touch your ears with them (while keeping your arms down, of course, we don’t want to look like a dork), and then pulling down with them as far as you can. Do each for 5 seconds or more and you’ll be amazed how much you loosen up.

Eyesight can be a problem, as it usually deteriorates with age. There are glasses you can get that sit high up on your nose and have lenses that rise up higher than normal, When you lean over you’ll still be looking through the lenses rather than over them as with most glasses. Decot Sportsglasses worked for me. I had some trouble with the anti-glare coating, though. Contacts are even more convenient, but I wasn’t able to find a pair that let me focus well at all important distances and I gave up trying. Others have had great luck with them; YMMV.

Pool is a thinking man or woman’s game that rewards mental effort at least as much as it rewards physical effort. Knowing what to do and when to do it are as valuable as accuracy and speed control. You can learn an immense amount by watching good players and figuring out what they’re doing and why. A very useful exercise is to guess to yourself what they will do on each shot, before they shoot, and try to figure out why they chose differently when they do. If you’re playing against the person you’re learning from, and they’re the helpful sort, they may be willing to answer questions about their choices while you’re playing. If you find such an opponent, treat them well for their help, picking up the time or the drinks.

Watching pool on video is even better, because the pros make excellent choices almost every shot, though you can’t ask the video a question. Reading good books with extensive discussions on pattern play and strategy is another excellent way to build your knowledge, and quickly.

As an older player, you are more likely (though it’s far from a sure thing) to be mature in your ability to control your emotions and be willing to forego a short term benefit for a much bigger long term one. When you combine this discipline and maturity with the knowledge to recognize opportunities, you will bump up your overall performance (winning percentage) substantially. This will be true even as your technical ability to execute at the table improves only slowly. You know from all your experience in all facets of life, that doing the right thing is far more effective and efficient than doing something else, no matter how well done or how much effort was expended. Wisdom will make you a winning player faster than anything else.

Pick a game that will maximize your skills. Nine and Ten Ball are the games that most emphasize and reward strong strokes and great shotmaking, and as such are not the best choices while you’re beginning or just returning to the game. Eight Ball, Straight Pool, and One Pocket are games that benefit most from smooth controlled play and knowledge of the game. One pocket, however, is very frustrating for novices, so save it for later when you can savor its complexity.

Lastly, there’s no substitute for time at the table. No matter how much you know, you have to be able to execute, or you’ll be spending your time in the chair. Listen to your coach, practice your fundamentals, and take advantage of your greater amounts of free time to spend more hours playing. You’ll be kicking butt sooner than you believed possible. And the fact that as an older player you’re likely to be underestimated by your opponents is icing on the cake.

My Favorite Game – Straight Pool

This article is part of Volume 18 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the April 2011 edition of PoolSynergy over at A Journey Into Billiards.

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I like playing all of the popular pool games, 8, 9 and 10 Ball, One Pocket and Straight Pool, but I prefer Straight Pool to all others by a wide margin. I find it taxes all my skills while rewarding creativity and execution more than the others. One Pocket would be a strong competitor for my favorite if it weren’t so heavily biased toward defense. Maybe when I improve enough to run a lot more ball in 1P I’ll change my mind, but I’m not holding my breath.

For those of you not familiar with the game, each player tries to pocket as many balls as he can, in any order but always in a called pocket, earning one point for each one. Games are played to a predetermined number of points, with differing targets for each player providing easy to manage handicapping. One thing that sets Straight Pool (also called 14.1) apart from all other games is the provision to continue play through multiple racks for one game.

When only one object ball is left, the other 14 balls are racked minus the head ball, and play continues. It’s the player’s task to leave the last OB and the cue ball in positions that enable the OB to be pocketed and the rack to be struck with the cue ball, breaking out balls from the big cluster and enabling another shot and continuation of the run.

The game saw its greatest popularity in the golden era of pool, which diminished greatly as television became popular and peoples attention span shortened. This was accompanied by the continued rise in popularity of 9 Ball. Straight is experiencing a comeback of sorts lately, with more tournaments and more top players playing the game, but it is very unlikely to ever rival its former popularity.

In a rack of 9 Ball, once the balls have been broken, if 10 pros looked at the table, nearly all of them would run the rack the same way. In 14.1, it’s unlikely that any 2 would plan the same sequence. This freedom to play the game your way, to emphasize your skills, I find very rewarding.

Watching a match between skilled players, a novice might be fooled into thinking This game is boring, it’s just one easy shot after another. The cue ball control required to do this, however, is anything but easy, and that assumes you know enough to plot a good sequence through the balls which facilitates the aforesaid position play. Its true that with a lot more balls to shoot at, you can often recover from a position blunder, but with more clusters to break and the break shot to plan for, it’s much more challenging than it first appears.

The freedom to shoot any ball at any time causes many who are new to the game into thinking it is too easy for them. If you can run a rack of 8 or 9 Ball, with their constraints on what you can shoot and when, it should be a snap to run a rack in Straight Pool, right? No, the truth is quite a bit different. The table is much more congested than in 9 Ball, and because there’s no smash break, the balls stay much closer together, at least in the early part of the rack. Breaking clusters, and picking off balls in not quite clusters is a big part of the game, coming up multiple times in almost every rack. Youll need pinpoint position and speed control to do it effectively and that assumes you know where to hit the cluster for maximum effect.

Then there’s the requirement to break open each subsequent rack off the last shot of the previous rack. The planning and execution required for this can be prodigious. Missing position on the last ball, AKA the break ball, will likely end the run. Thus, planning for a key ball, as the ball to pocket immediately prior to the break ball, is very important, because it enables you to get excellent position on the break ball with a high degree of reliability.

Negotiating your way through a rack, and never hitting the break ball or key ball is no walk in the park. But if there aren’t balls in good positions for these two functions already, you’ll have to manufacture one or both by moving balls, or ending your run.

Safety play can be very tough in 14.1, because your opponent can shoot any ball on the table. When a rack is new it’s easy enough to hide behind, but each player is trying to break out balls while simultaneously hiding the cue ball to make it tougher to return a safety. Very quickly there are multiple open balls to avoid. Creativity is very helpful here, as is very precise speed and trajectory control of the cue ball and any object ball you move.

You’ll probably find yourself shooting over balls and using awkward bridges in very congested parts of the table far more often than in other games, but learning to play these shots well and with confidence enhances your self-esteem at the table, and makes you a better overall player.

Because of the heavy congestion in the foot end of the table, the ability to make combinations, billiards, caroms, and rail first shots are skills that are rewarded much more often in SP than in other games. Using throw to make balls that don’t look like they’ll go also comes up surprisingly often, especially when your position skills aren’t quite pinpoint.

Probably the most satisfying shot, for beginners through intermediates at least, is finding a dead ball in a densely congested pack, and firing it in while breaking up the remainder of the pack. Extensive knowledge of all the specialty skills contributes to your seeing these shots, and to knowing how to shoot them. I never tire of shooting these satisfying shots. As I’ve gotten better and more patient at the game, I am able to delay gratification and shoot them at the most opportune moments rather than right away.

I enjoy the longer stints at the table, which can help in getting into the zone. I also like the challenge of working to improve my high run. If you haven’t given Straight Pool a serious examination, I urge you to go for it. The rewards are well worth the effort. For guides to approaching the game, I recommend Ray Martins 99 Critical Shots in Pool, along with Phil Capelle’s Play Your Best Straight Pool.

Why Pool is Irresistible and So Satisfying

This article is part of Volume 9 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the July 2010 edition of PoolSynergy for other great articles over at Angle of Reflection.

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I love pool. It was love at first sight, too, but it was the kind of hot, passionate love than burns itself out quickly. I first picked up a house cue in my sophomore year at Rutgers and from the first game I was smitten. Tennis was my game back then, and hitting the ball while on the run was initially so much harder than before I began to play I didn’t think pool would hold my interest. I was so very wrong. Pool was a siren.

Pool is Irresistible, like Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Pool is Irresistible, like Jessica
Jessica a Classic Siren

I played 3 or more times a week, several hours at a time, for 2 semesters. I played 8 ball and straight pool and I couldn’t get enough.

The student union where I played was open, airy and brightly lit, characteristics I still appreciate but rarely see. A few of the best players would gamble on 9 Ball constantly, and when one guy lost so much he not only had to sell his cue he had to drop out of school, it had a profound effect on me. There was a lot of sleaze in that group, with hustling and laying down being common practices. I stayed well clear of those guys, but I saw more than enough to taint the game I loved.

On the positive side, what got to me was the cognitive dissonance between the apparent simplicity of the game and the actual endless complexity within it. The basic physics was alluring (I had just changed my major from physics to philosophy, but the Newtonian mechanics of the balls was captivating). Understanding things like how the paths of the balls could be so dramatically affected by top and bottom spin was intellectual, but the game had a strong emotional component to it, too. Knowing exactly what was going to happen, and then watching it unfold before your eyes, was so satisfying I just had to have more, and more. But of course I wasn’t a particularly good player, and that satisfaction didn’t come on every shot. My youthful enthusiasm was accompanied by an immaturity and temper when things didn’t go as expected. Knowing wasn’t enough, you had to execute.

The strategic opportunities in games like 8 Ball and 14.1 were prodigious, and since I fancied myself as a pretty sharp guy, I thought this was the game for me. A good hook could be almost as satisfying as a great shot. Sadly, my execution wasn’t up to my creativity, and I started fighting with my pool mistress.

My fling with pool didn’t last. By the end of that sophomore year, I was burned out; I broke up with pool.

I transferred to Boston University for my last two undergraduate years and since pool was inconvenient, and I was much busier with studies and work than in previous years, I didn’t play any pool at all. Once thoroughly out of the habit, I never thought about it again until 2005. One day I noticed an old cue from my college days hanging in the back of my closet and within a week I found myself in a pool hall in St Petersburg.

celine dion photo. pool is irresistible
Celine Dion
Celine Dion

I got a table by myself and started hitting balls. Within 10 minutes I was overtaken with long forgotten emotions; I knew that I would never again quit this game. I was just like Celine Dion’s singing of Jim Steinman’s classic, It’s All Coming Back to Me Now. Everything was forgiven, I just had to experience those feelings again. The song still gets to me; play it to feel what I mean.

I’ve been playing regularly for almost 5 years since then, and have loved every minute. Sure, I’ve been irritated on a number of occasions, but I think because I’m older, and I like to think wiser and more mature, that this time the love will continue to grow stronger over time and not die out. Much like the love I have for my wife. It burns more brightly today than ever before, even though we’ve been married 37 years.

Links to all past editions of PoolSynergy are on the PoolSynergy – History and Schedule page.

My Previous PoolSynergy Posts

Thinking Your Way to More Pool Victories
My First Big ‘Aha!’ Moment in Pool
Three Outside Influences on my Pool Education
Some of My Favorite Pool Players
10 Reasons Why Gambling is Bad for Pool
Attitude is Everything
Poolosophy: Pool Student’s Approach to the Game
Fixing Pool – An Outsiders View

Fixing Pool – An Outsider’s View

This article is part of Volume 8 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read it, be sure to check out the rest of the June 2010 edition of PoolSynergy for other great articles over at Untold Stories: Billiards History.

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This month’s PoolSynergy topic is How to Fix Pool. I admit right up front that I have no claim to expertise in this area. I’ve never even run a major tournament, let alone a tour. I have run a league, but a small one. But I have read hundreds of posts on various forums from those in the business & who are knowledgeable about the issues, so that obviously makes me competent to solve this seemingly intractable problem. 😉

Jake didn’t provide a specific definition for what he meant by ‘fixing’, but it’s pretty clear in his intro post that prize money is a good working definition. To fix pool, then, is to bring the purses of events up high enough that touring pros can make the kind of money made playing golf or tennis.

A good start at finding a workable model for a successful professional Pool Sport would be to look at all other successful professional sports to see what they have in common. Here’s my list:

  • One clear set of rules, used in every event in every location.
  • Multiple games can be played successfully, like in tennis with singles & doubles, but each game can have only one set of rules.
  • Every match has at least one official, whose rulings are final.
  • One governing body, comprised of all, or a subset of the owners/promoters.
  • One group representing players that negotiates with the owners/promoters.
  • There is a schedule of events published well ahead of time. All events are held on time.
  • Prize money is high enough to not only entice all the great players, but to entice others to practice hard to earn their way in.
  • Prizes are guaranteed and always paid out in full.
  • No one involved in the sport in any official capacity, promoters, players, officials, can gamble on pool.
  • There must be a complete separation between promoters and players and officials. No person can play more than one role.
  • There must be sufficient fan interest to interest sponsors.
  • In person fans are more important than TV or streaming video fans, but all are important.
Shane at the Mosconi Cup
Shane at the Mosconi Cup

Fixing pool will have to be done at the Promoter level, rather than at the player or fan level. Of the three, promoters are the alpha dogs, because both the players and maybe the fans will follow them, but they will not follow the others unless they can make a profit.

Promoters have by far the most at stake, having to raise a lot of money, work their butts off for months or longer to plan, organize and implement a major enterprise. They are business people first, pool addicts second. If not, they quickly become second raters, or worse, contribute to the malaise, and perpetuate the idea that pro pool is a loser.

There is no dearth of moneyed entrepreneurs in this country willing to take a risk to own a major professional sports franchise, or even the opportunity to build one from scratch. But there has to be a decent chance to make some money, or none will be interested.

Big picture, what’s needed are promoters, players, fans and sponsors. Fans, though, are the key. Without fans there will be no sponsors and no opportunities for promoters to make money. Without a large fan base, prize money is limited to entry fees and what a few sponsors will contribute. Sponsorship today tends to be limited to companies within the pool industry because non-industry sponsors don’t see a way to gain from their contributions.

Mosconi Cup Celebrant Corey Deuel
Corey Deuel Celebrates at the Mosconi Cup

Players will go wherever the money is, and I believe as soon as there’s economic viability, financially strong entrepreneurs with integrity will step in to do the promotion. The problem that needs to be solved is fans.

One way to raise fan interest, which in most events is lackluster at best, is to steal a page from the Mosconi Cup playbook and make Pro Pool a team event. Teams can play a number of individual games, maybe some scotch doubles, maybe a mix of different games, but each overall match-up between teams would have the same format.

There was more fan involvement in the Mosconi Cup matches than in other events. The excitement at those matches was palpable. From the fist pumping of the players excitedly celebrating their wins to the roar of the crowd, to the back slapping from teammates in enthusiastic team spirit, these matches had something special. The players and fans were involved emotionally, viscerally. Every game in every match counted. That is what we need to find a way to have more of, and I think a team format can do it.

With teams you root for one side or the other and you’re involved in every game of the tournament. In tournaments today most people only get interested when their favorite player is in a match.  Their interest also piques from the semi-finals on.

So that’s what I think is needed for pro pool to be fixed. What can you do to help it along? You can go to events in person. If you can’t go then watch the stream, but being in the crowd is by far the best. Objective numbers of fans will drive money better than anything else. Sponsors and Promoters are businessmen, not philanthropists. If there is an opportunity to make money, they’ll be there with bells on; if not, they’ll be somewhere else. It really is as simple as that.

Links to all past editions of PoolSynergy are on the PoolSynergy – History and Schedule page.

My Previous PoolSynergy Posts

Nov 2009 – Thinking Your Way to More Pool Victories
Dec 2009 – My First Big ‘Aha!’ Moment in Pool
Jan 2010 – Three Outside Influences on my Pool Education
Feb 2010 – Some of My Favorite Pool Players
Mar 2010 – 10 Reasons Why Gambling is Bad for Pool
Apr 2010 – Attitude is Everything
May 2010 – Poolosophy: Pool Student’s Approach to Pool

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