This past weekend was Behind The Rock Tour’s first “198” Tri-Annual Tournament.  I love big tournaments.  I love the buzz, the pressure of the competition, the do-well-or-go-home sensation.  Sadly, for as much as I enjoy the big events, I often do poorly for the simple reason that I let my brain interfere with my stroke and strategy. If you’ve read some of my prior posts you’ll recall that I have a soft mind; any small distraction is enough for me to lose focus, to lose intensity, to lose my stroke.  Because I never remember all this, I was excited entering the day.

The tournament is set up into three stages of competition.  Stage 1 is the opening round consisting of two matches for each competitor.  Their best aggregate score of the two raw scores plus handicap determines which shooters to go to the next stage.  Stage 2 is the Sudden Death Round where competitors get one match to prove they are worthy for the final round.  Because there is only one shot to get through, it is intense!  The Finals Stage gives each competitor two matches to prove they are the best of the tournament that day.

This tournament was a great experience for me personally for the simple reason that I felt I overcame a particularly difficult circumstance.  Not the circumstances of competition or individual competitors, but the distractions that applied to me personally.  This weekend, I had every opportunity to succumb to the “noise” around me.  In fact, it was a problem during most of the day, but for the few key seconds of every shot, I was able to block it out and perform at a winning level.

In Stage 1 I started with a very good score of 84, almost 20 points above my average.  I was feeling good about it.  Unfortunately, right at the end of the match I made an error in judgment, inadvertently interrupting a couple other players at a crucial point in their match; one of them suffered, the other didn’t.  I felt horrible for causing the break in concentration, and it affected me all the way through the next match.  As a result I did poorly finishing with a score of 52, well under my average. But with my first score, I was able to sneak through the first round to get into the Sudden Death Round.  So did the player I accidentally “sharked.”  I was relieved beyond description.

And at this point, someone walked into the bar who I’ve had professional dealings with over the last year or so; mostly they’ve been challenging.  For whatever reason, her personality and mine have, to put it softly, just clashed – like steel swords smashing against each other.  If she’d behaved like as if it were a regular workday, things probably would have been fine.  But she was drinking in a bar in the middle of a sunny Saturday making her loud and uncharacteristically open about her life in her conversations with others at the bar.  For hours on end I heard her every word and I was learning a lot about her personal life.  It was incredibly distracting. 

It was nearly impossible to block her out, but I did it.  Every time I stood at the table I could hear her voice ringing off the walls, but as I leaned over the table, her presence wilted, and by the time I was in position ready to stroke, I heard nothing.  I saw nothing but the cue ball, the object ball, and the stroke I needed to deliver.  After the ball fell into the pocket and I stood up, I could hear that voice again.  I was able to block out the voice and the face for those crucial, vital seconds when I needed to deliver.  It was liberating.  My Sudden Death score was 118!  It put me into the finals.

My main distraction never left the scene, but with every match, every game, every ball, I blocked her out for a few vital seconds of each shot and I delivered the performance I needed to.  In my first match of the final round I shot another great score, this time a 112.  Two matches in a row scoring over a hundred, in spite of a personal handicap!  I felt I’d won, not the tournament, but I’d won the internal mental game I’ve struggle with every day in my life.  With that inner satisfaction of slaying my mental dragon, I coasted in the last match ending with a 66. 

In the end, the 112 score was enough to win the “Open” side of the tournament.  I’m certainly proud of that accomplishment. More importantly, though, I’ve cleared a major hurdle.  I feel like my pool life has changed.  I can concentrate.  I can block out the distractions.  I have the ability to focus.  Looking down the road, I see a lot of doors opening ahead of me.

 “220” Game –            Old Average: 47.15    New Average: 43.70               Goal: 70.00

“198” Game –             Old Average: 68.21    New Average: 73.70               Goal: 90.00

After several weeks of sub-mediocre performance, I finally busted out last week.

My first match was in “198”. I did OK. Not dazzling, but managed to score above my average. It felt good.

My next match was in “220”. My partner struggled early, and was pretty quiet as a result. While I was sympathetic to his struggling game, his quiet frustration kept me from being distracted. I simply focused on staying mentally quiet. My first few games were uneventful, no run-outs but the table was breaking well. I finally caught a gear in the fourth game and cleared the table to score a cut game. (Yay!) In the next game my break dropped two and all the other balls were well-positioned. I could have executed the option and gone for the 1-ball, but it required a really good shot. I elected not to use the option, but ended up running out for a snap game. (Woo hoo!)

It is really satisfying to be in that comfortable mental zone where the problems on the table don’t really feel like problems; they are just challenges that need to be overcome. As an example, I short-stroked one shot and didn’t get the cue ball nearly far enough out to where I wanted. In my mind I did not panic. There was no internal yelling or name-calling, it was just a calm, “OK. That’s not what I wanted, but here is the new shot.” I knew I just needed to execute a harder cut shot and make sure the speed was right so I didn’t hook myself. I’ve done this shot before, so I knew I could manage it. I was mentally comfortable; I had a quiet mind focused on the task.

So in the sixth game, I break and drop a ball and I get to running balls. I hook myself halfway through (D’oh!), pull out my jump stick and make a good shot to keep the run going. My partner, bless his soul, kind of gets excited, and chats it up some. Not a lot; just a little, but my ego responds, and I can feel my head beginning to ease away from the table. Fortunately, I was close to finishing the table and I managed to get out for another snap game. (Yesss!)

Game 7 opens well; I drop a ball on the break and get to pocketing balls. Things are looking good but then I hook myself again (Dang it!). I break out the jump stick and manage another good shot. My partner is now a little more excited. “Wow! TWO jump shots in one match!” he says to another fellow who’s watching. I appreciate his excitement and my ego responds a little more. My focus is now only at the edge of the table, not on it. I manage to drop a few more balls, but end up dogging the 9-ball, missing out on three snaps in a row.

When I go to put my stick down, my partner is excited for me, smiling and laughing, and comes over and shakes my hand and says, “Congratulations! Wow! That was impressive! You have a score of 75!!! You are definitely in the money now!” In my head I know we still have four games to go, but he’s making it feel like I just finished a great match. The other fellow says, “You got a good score going.”

Well, of course, now my formerly quiet mind is buzzing with the excitement of fellow competitors, probable money, and the imaginings of a potential career score. As a result of all the extracurricular thinking going on in my head I lose my quiet mind. My scores for the remaining four games go: 2, 3, 2, 1. (Nice.) My final score for the match was in the mid-80’s. That’s a great score for me and I’m happy, but it ends up being a really good learning experience. It shows that when the breaks are good, I can do well. I also experienced that very amazing place of “higher performance” in the middle of the match. I want to go there again soon!

There are actually two lessons here. First, it is clear I need to be mentally stronger. I found my “quiet mind” that allowed me to excel, but I let outside stuff completely erode it. My ego allowed me to pay attention to the excitement over me when I really needed to keep my focus on the table. I have to quit thinking about what people think of me and stay in game in front of me. I had the focused mind and I let it be pried away. It is frustrating to literally watch it slip away. More frustrating to me is that I could not get it back.

The second lesson is, unless you are sharking, it is really more appropriate to discuss another player’s game AFTER the game and not in the middle. Hold the comments and congratulations for the end when potentialities are gone and realities rule. It’s fine to quietly acknowledge a nice shot, but leave the exuberance and ebullient demonstrations for the finale. Those of us with weak and addled minds would sincerely appreciate it.

“220” Game – Old Average: 46.65 New Average: 47.15 Goal: 70.00
“198” Game – Old Average: 67.69 New Average: 68.21 Goal: 90.00

I read recently about the International Olympic Committee dropping wrestling from future Olympic competitions beginning in 2020 and it made me sad.  It’s wrestling season here in the Pacific NW and sports pages are awash in images of hardened, wiry high school lads dressed in their tights, boots and headgear.  The photos range from headshots of competitors to full-on competition action.  I feel deep sympathy for those kids because with the IOC’s decision, their passion and effort and glory will likely not carry past their high school years.  The IOC has effectively taken all opportunity for future competition away from them.

 I’m sure they gave it due consideration, but there are a lot of reasons the IOC should not have dropped Olympic wrestling.  For one, wrestling could very well be the most basic form of human competition, the ultimate measure of domination.  There’s no proof of it because the media hadn’t been invented yet, but I imagine it harkens back to before Neanderthal times.  For another, where else would someone who doesn’t have a wrestler teenager get their fill of high-level wrestling except during the Olympics?

 In my mind, the IOC has made the most baffling and egregious error in the nearly 3000-year history of Olympic competitions.  It has been speculated that the IOC was swayed in their decision by the most basic of motivators – money, and that smacks of corruption.  There is plenty of international coverage over this mess they’ve created, and since this is beyond the scope of this blog I’ll just leave it here, let the reader do their own investigations, and move into what I really wanted to say.

 As I look at the sports world in general, I see a lot of issues.  Corruption, performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), money, and so on taint the amateur to professional ranks.  As a result of athletes breaking the rules, records have asterisks next to them, courts are full, entire sports are tarnished, pure competitors are not given the recognition they should enjoy, and grand jury investigations are constant.  So many issues and they all seem to be related to money. 

 Right now, sports are generally divided into two categories:  amateur and professional.  But the lines between them are either blurry or non-existent, case in point: high profile college sports.  My solution is to stiffen the rules in all levels of all sports to get back to pure competitions based on a level playing field.  Then I’d add one more category to the sporting world called the “Entertainer” level.  My solution falls out like this:

 “Amateurs” can only compete for medals and trophies.  They cannot win money; pure passion is their motivator.  (When I was a kid this used to be the fundamental rule, but this has been abused considerably over the decades.  Amateur organizations need to stiffen their backs and hold competitors to this basic rule again.)  Amateurs can receive sponsorships for their competition efforts only, such as clothing and equipment, but they cannot enjoy any other financial perks.  If there is any violation of these basic laws, they are booted up to the “Professional” level.

 “Professionals” compete for money and trophies, but the money is limited to what might be considered a very good wage for the average family, say no more than $50,000 to $100,000 for first place; no more $10 million dollar payouts.  Love of their sport, respect for their body, and a desire to make a decent living will be their motivators.  They can receive sponsorships from their competition efforts only, again limited to clothing and equipment, but they can wear logos, like PGA players.  They cannot use PEDs or enjoy any other competitive advantage except the skill and discipline they bring to their competitions through training.  If there is any violation of these basic laws or the laws of their competitive ruling organization, they “graduate” up to the “Entertainer” level.

 “Entertainers” get it all, they compete for whatever anyone will offer, and more importantly the lid is off – there are no restrictions.  They can abuse their body, they can use special equipment, they can do anything they want to get the upper edge.  The basic rules of competition are the same as their brethren in the “Professional” ranks, like field of play dimensions and how the game is played, but everything about their individual person or the equipment they use and how they use it is their own business.  Performers cannot get kicked out of this league.  It’s kind of like “Mad Max” for sports.

 There is a healthy portion of the viewing audience that will go for this Entertainer-level of competition to support it because the average population likes to see the grotesque and the unusual.  Purists will tune into the Amateur and Professional competitions, and sponsors will need to choose where to put their money based on the values they hold dear.  But the mass market viewers and sponsors will probably go for the Entertainer levels of play; like their predecessors from a couple millennia back in time at the coliseum to watch gladiators battle or Christians fighting lions or public hangings. 

 The possibilities are interesting to consider.  Imagine Entertainer-level golf where 500-yard drives are the norm.  Or unlimited speeds for NASCAR racing.  Or 7-foot NBA players swishing 30-footers, oh wait – they already have that!  How about giant human specimens bowling using an overhand delivery?  Maybe 200-mph serves in tennis?  Allow a level of play where the restrictions can come off and let science and technology and human greed rule this level of ultra competition.

 Instead of spending so much effort on restrictions and managing competitions, simply allow a place for rule offenders to go, set up a free-for-all competition, and let the people who are willing to spend the money decide how unlimited sports can entertain the world.  (Oh, and these Entertainer-level sports leagues must be international.  There’s no sense in restricting location either.  The USA doesn’t need to own it all.)

Let the games begin!

Above average week last week for “198,” but below average for “220.”

“220” Game:  Old Average – 49.65  New Average – 49.05  Goal Average – 70

“198” Game:  Old Average – 67.11  New Average – 68.10  Goal Average – 90

A few weeks ago I was bored at work so I checked into the BTRT website looking for something interesting to brighten up my day.  I found under the “Blogs” tab a heading called “Free Stuff.”  Well, not one to pass up anything free (I’m also known as a “hoarder”!) I clicked on it to see what stuff I could pick up for nothing.  Lo and behold, it is Deby W’s blog offering tips to “220” and “198” players.

At the time, the one that caught my attention was “Tips for Breaking Playing 220.”  While I hold the record for making the most balls off the break in a match (TBB), I wondered if there were some tips for breaking patterns that might help improve my scores.

TNR_10ball_crop

The photo above shows Deby’s recommended pattern from the blog with the two and three balls behind the one, and the four and five in the middle of the bottom row.  I’ve always racked the two and three on the bottom row and the four and five behind the one ball.  I’d never tried it like this, so in my next match I laid the balls up like this and gave it a whirl.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I sucked.  I was hitting the one ball OK off the break, but I struggled getting from the two ball to the three ball where they were parked near the two side pockets.  Either they were sitting on the rail or other balls were in the way.  I shot a 33 in “220”and then figuring I needed do better I played another match and shot a 43, not good enough to make any money, but good enough to significantly lower my average.

Last week I went back to my old way of racking the balls, with the two and three balls swapped with the four and five.  When I hit the break square (from the middle), the two balls behind the one ball slide quietly toward the side pockets and the two middle balls on the bottom row bank off the bottom rail then mosey up to the corner pockets where I’m standing.  The six and seven balls bounce off a bunch of rails, but if I hit it right, they don’t hit anything.  The 8, 9, and 10 don’t do very much but spread out laterally.  I’m usually left with the 1-, 2-, and 3-balls up at one end of the table, the 4- and 5-balls near the side pockets,  and the 6- and 7-balls at the other two corners.

I like the 2- and 3-balls at the corner pockets.  I feel the side and the end rail at the corner pockets give me more options for controlling and positioning the cue ball.  Using the other rack pattern that leave the 2- and 3-balls near the side pockets, I only have the one rail to use.  Using my rack pattern, when I clear the 1-, 2-, and 3-balls, I’ve usually opened up one half of the table and can work on the 4- and 5-balls which should be sitting near the side pockets.  Sometimes I have to avoid the 6- and 7-balls, but often they are down near the other two corner pockets.

The result last week was that I shot a 61 and took first place in last week’s BTRT tournament.  It was nice to see the old patterns again that I’ve grown used to over the months.  But I felt good about at least trying something new to either learn something or justify what I’ve been doing.

Deby’s post on breaking for “220” is good because there is some valuable information in there.  It should be read.  Beyond her post there isn’t much other guidance out there offering alternatives to her racking pattern.  If you are looking to try something new to maybe help your “220” average, try my pattern and see if it helps.

“220” Game –            Old Average: 49.35    New Average: 49.65               Goal: 70.00

“198” Game –             Old Average: 67.00    New Average: 67.11               Goal: 90.00

Last summer I played in a golf league.  Every Monday night at 4:30 our team would lace up the spikes, grab our clubs, buy a beer (or several), and tee off against another team for 9-holes of pretty friendly competition.  At first, the averages and handicaps started high, but as we shook off the winter rust and settled into our old forms and habits they eventually fell, settling at a plateau that was pretty similar to where we all left off at the end of last year. 

 It was fun to be out there on those sunny Monday afternoons, swilling beer, smacking the ball, telling stories, and looking forward to the “19th Hole.”  So much so, that we’d kind of forget that we were in a competition ultimately playing for a first prize of over $1,000 for the winning team at the end of the season.  After the first couple months, we had all become a little complacent.  We were all in a bit of a rut.

 The middle of summer is when those fund-raiser scramble tournaments start coming up.  I probably play in half a dozen or so a year, and by chance, I was invited to one with some reasonably competitive guys who played at my caliber.  We knew with our team we had a shot at scoring well, so we worked at scoring that day.  We took second place in the one-day tournament and took home some loot for our effort.  It was good to be on the podium again!

 The next time I showed up for the Monday Golf League, I noticed I had just a little more desire to do well, a little more focus, a little more intensity.  The drive and competitive juices from the scramble tournament a few days earlier carried over, and as a result my average rolled off that plateau that day and my handicap started falling over the rest of the season.

 Last week, I showed up at the pool room for the weekly Behind The Rock Tour tournament night.  I bought my beer, hit some balls early to warm up, and signed up for the regular matches.  I shot OK in “198” then did poorly at “220.”  I did bad enough that I figured I needed to play another to redeem myself.  It didn’t happen.  Overall, it was a pretty blasé night for me.  I was going through the motions.  Things felt OK when I was down on the ball, but there just wasn’t that vision or drive or that something that forced me to focus and pocket the balls the way I know I can.

 The next day, DW emailed me and said “I think you need to spice up your pool life. Having a date once a week with BTRT is getting boring. You need something to spike your interest.”  I laughed and replied, “What?  Gamble?  Play One-Pocket?  Another room?  Get some instruction? Scotch doubles?  Play a tournament?”  And with that last sarcastic entry it struck me: I had done just exactly that to accidentally spark up my golf game six months ago – and it worked.  She was right: I need to do something different now to keep me fired up for the benefit of my pool game.

 “Variety is the spice of life,” as the saying goes.  I think that applies to everything.  So my suggestion is that you try something different.  It might just be the kick in the pants you need to improve your game.  Change up your competitions to get and keep that fine edge, to keep that interest so you can look forward to working on your game and improving.  To keep the fire in our bellies, we all need to mix it up!

 “220” Game –   Old Average:  50.45      New Average:  49.35      Goal Average:  70.00

 “198” Game –   Old Average:  68.33      New Average:  67.00      Goal Average:  90.00

This week I didn’t feel like I did so good. I shot a 54 in “198” and a 46 in “220.” I know I won’t get into the money with either of those scores! I was kind of moping around afterwards and DW said, “At least it must feel good that a crappy score for you is in the mid-40’s now. That is a lot higher than a year ago!”

I thought about that. It’s true; I’ve improved. When I started, my average was a miserly 28. Scores in the 30’s were a delight. A year ago my average “220” score was 34, and scores in the 40’s made me happy. Today my average hovers around 50 and if a score doesn’t venture into the 60’s I’m disappointed. The numbers demonstrate I’m improving.

Today, I break better. I shoot sharper. I control the white ball better. Now I look at managing the table, instead of looking to just put balls in holes. I fight the table less. I anticipate ball routes better. I see patterns better and plan better. Oh, sure, I still miss shots I shouldn’t and struggle to put the cue ball exactly where I want, but overall my runs clearly go a little farther than they used to.

The other thing that has grown is my knowledge. My understanding of the culture, the etiquette, the history are deeper. I know more about the equipment, the environment, and the conditions that affect performance. I know that there are a thousand solutions to every table spread and that none is right; that the solution depends on the moment, the skill and mind of the individual. I’m comfortable walking into a room now. I’m not afraid to ask questions because I know that everyone struggles with this game.

I’ve also learned I have a key limitation. For all the physical skills that are getting better, the one thing that hasn’t grown much is my emotional maturity; the internal control. For instance, as my scores have improved, so have my expectations. When I don’t perform up to those expectations, I get frustrated and disappointed in myself. That affects my time at the table. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, my concentration and focus are weak. It doesn’t take much more than a little whispering on the next table for me to abandon what’s right in front of me. I need to be able to control what goes on in my own mind if I intend to elevate my game. I need to learn to accept minor failures. I need to control my emotions. While I start every match with confidence, I need to understand that confidence is not made of thin glass that shatters with any setback. I need to learn mental strength and tenacity. I can’t control what happens around me, so the ability to control what happens between my ears will allow the next quantum leap in the improvement of my game.

Maybe I didn’t do well this week, but there IS a silver lining. If I step back and look at the big picture, it’s clear my pool abilities have grown significantly through my participation in the BTRT. At my level, there’s no other league or tour or other pool-based vehicle/venue in the world that can clearly measure or demonstrate that improvement. I have a long ways to go, but I am getting better. The numbers prove it!

Old “220” Average: 48.90
New “220” Average: 50.45
Goal “220” Average: 70

Old “198” Average: 70.80
New “198” Average: 68.33
Goal “198” Average: 90

My life is a long series of flukes. Not the fishy kind – like on the back end of a whale, but the accidental kind.

I can’t say I’m ridiculously successful because of them, but admittedly I’ve been pretty lucky because of them. Not lucky in the lottery or raffles or things like that. In fact, I think I’m pretty unlucky when it comes to things like getting free money or prizes. I never win raffles. I’ve never walked out of a casino with more than I walked in with. Some might say that’s just because I’m stupid when it comes to gambling. Which might explain why I’m constantly being asked by my buddies to play a little poker.

My flukes are more like being in the right place at the right time. A good example is my wife. I met her in my last year in college. By a fluke, she lived right above me in the apartment my buddies and I lived in. Through another weird fluke, she seemed to tolerate my odd behaviors and embarrassing, stupid comments. By a couple more awesome flukes, we ended up with two healthy, smart, good looking kids.

I like to be active, be involved in stuff, so I’m often exposed to “circumstances.” But by a series of flukes I’ve never seen the wrong side of prison bars, never been in a bar fight, never seen the business end of a gun. Some would claim I’m an unabashed coward – I can accept that. I’ve never been in a serious accident, never been badly hurt, never been in a life or death situation. (These may be flukes, but I’ll still knock on wood here. No reason to tempt fate at this point!)

How does all this relate to pool? Well, by the grace of two giant flukes, my name sits in front of two world records on a worldwide pool tour. They are listed on the Behind The Rock Tour (BTRT) website. “Total Balls on Break” (24) and “High Aggregate Score” (213) have my name next to them. The TBB record had a “sub-fluke” associated with it because it happened to occur when I was being recorded, so you can see the video on the BTRT website.

Do I deserve either of them? Candidly: Nope. I haven’t even come close to matching either of them since. At the time, both of the records were set when I had a “220” average of less than 40. Only a fluke could allow a guy with my sketchy skills to shoot a raw “220” score of 106. As a demonstration of my real skills the record shows I’ve only broken 70 a few times since then. As for the TBB record, that was just dumb luck, another fluke.

Records are meant to be broken. While they are only flukes, the records are currently mine, and I’m kind of proud of them. They are my flukes. So when they eventually do get broken, I hope they are done by worthy people whom I appreciate. For now, you can add both of these records to the long list of flukes that have defined my life.

I suffered a couple poor performances over the holidays, but I did well in the first week of the new year.

Old “220” Average: 50.44
New “220” Average: 49.80
Goal “220” Average: 70

Old “198” Average: 70.98
New “198” Average: 68.33
Goal “198” Average: ??