On Saturday morning, I had the opportunity to speak to Max Eberle, the top ranked player in the tournament. Just before the tournament started, I looked over the brackets and realized that Max and I were in the same bracket. My first reaction was, “Crap! What bad luck!” An instant later, I realized it was actually a blessing in disguise. In order for us to play in a match, I would have to win my first three matches; certainly not an easy task given the caliber of players in the tournament. My draw in the bracket did give me a very specific goal to work towards. Screw the tournament! My mission now was just to win every match until I got to Max! I figured this would be my best chance to get into the ring with a professional. Before the tournament started, I spoke with him a few minutes, and told him that if I got lucky, we would meet again near the end of our bracket.
In my first match, I faced a relatively young local player named Jay. Of course I was a little nervous at the start of the match, but I think I did a pretty good job of hiding it. He did not hide it as well. To start the match, it is customary for players to “lag for the break” to determine who gets the honors of breaking the first rack. Getting the first break is advantageous, as the winner of each game gets to break again on the next rack. The person who breaks has the option of running the table, or controlling the table by playing safeties. Before the tournament began, most players were practicing shot making and stringing runs together. Not me. I was practicing lags! Come to think of it, I believe I was the only player practicing lags! When Jay and I lined up to shoot the lag shot, I wished him luck, then hit my shot. My ball rolled up the table, bounced off the far rail, and then headed back to me. The ball approached the near rail, rolling slower and slower, then gently touched the rail and stopped about an inch off the rail. A nearly perfect lag. Jay’s ball stopped about 2 ½ feet shy of the rail. His only comment to me was, “Wow.” I just shrugged my shoulders and acted like the shot was no big deal, but inside I was jumping up and down! I breathed deeply to try to calm my heart rate and continued my cucumber cool act, running a few balls then playing safe. He would have no clear shot and would usually miss. Then I’d run a few more balls and play safe. As I continued implementing my game strategy, Jay slowly succumbed to his nerves. I eventually won fairly easily with a final score of 8-3.
In my second match, I was scheduled to play a woman from San Francisco named Eleanor. I had never seen her before and had no idea what type of player she was, so I asked a friend for a scouting report. “She’s pretty good!” Still, I wasn’t too worried, as my first match had given me some confidence. As I left the observation deck to walk to my table, my friend called out to me, “Hey, just make sure you don’t lose to a girl!” Great, thanks for the pressure! When I got to the table, Eleanor and I shook hands and shared a little small talk. I was feeling pretty smug. We wished each other luck, then lined up and hit our lag shots. My ball came back nearly perfectly, stopping about an inch off the bottom rail. The macho part of my ego grinned. I think I even puffed my chest out a little and held my shoulders back, chin high. I thought to myself, “It’s a man’s world baby!” Unfortunately, when her ball returned, it stuck to the bottom rail like a fly on glue paper, an absolutely perfect shot! She picked up the cue ball, shrugged her shoulders and shot me a dismissive glance, then walked to the front of the table to get ready for the break. Uh-oh! Not a good sign! She then delivered a sledgehammer break and made a ball, but didn’t have a good shot on the one ball, so she played a safe. After her safe, I didn’t have a direct line of sight on the one ball, so I had to attempt a rail first bank just to try to make legal contact. I successfully hit the one, but didn’t make a ball. She sat in her chair for a moment in deep reflection, then smiled, got up, and ran the whole table. Double Uh-Oh!! I looked up, and my friend in the bar area was grinning from ear to ear. He mouthed across the room, “Don’t lose to a girl!” Great. In game two, she didn’t make a ball on the break. I ran three balls, and decided to play safe. I shot an almost perfect safe. She could not “see” the four ball at all. Evidently, that was no problem for her. She just bounced the cue ball off two rails and smashed the four into the corner pocket. She paused briefly to put a little chalk on her cue tip, then promptly ran the rest of the table. The score: Eleanor 2, Me 0. Triple Uh-Oh!! In my peripheral vision, I could tell someone at the bar was bent over from laughter. I refused to look. From that point on, my strategy changed: I was to avoid her offensive game at all costs. My new strategy was not to run out. To borrow a term from football, every time I approached the table, I was looking to punt. Yes, my strategy was to wear her out and try to put a little chink in her confidence armor. From then on, every time I got to the table, I played through the entire rack in my head, trying to identify the best opportunity to play a rock solid safe. It seemed unlikely that I’d beat her in a pure offensive shootout, so my only option was to try to beat her with a good defense. Then the safety battles began. She’d shoot a safe, I’d return a safe, she’d shoot another safe, I’d return another safe. In safety battles, eventually someone fails to make a legal hit, or aggression gets the better of a player, and you attempt a risky shot. We traded games back and forth, but I eventually prevailed 8-6. Whew! Very scary match!
In my third match, I played someone who was a little younger than me, but we played very similar styles. He won the first game, then I rattled off 4 wins in a row. I eventually held a pretty comfortable lead at 6-2, but he battled back and tied it at 6-6. Finally, I got a break and won the last two games to take the match 8-6. Another win but another match that was closer than the score indicates! I was very very excited with this win, as I now had the opportunity to play Max Eberle, the top rated player in the tournament. I’ll tell you about that match tomorrow.