Monthly Archives: October 2009

Habla Español?

It’s Saturday, the work week is over and the weather is nice here in Puerto Rico.  Time for me to head out into the wild blue yonder.  I plan to spend most of the day practicing my fundamentals and most of the night visiting local pool halls in the area to see if I can find a good game.  To say that my Spanish language skills are limited would be a huge understatement.  As such, I’ve invested a little time this morning to learn some key phrases that may be useful to me, such as:

Yo no hablo español.  (I don’t speak Spanish.)

Quiere jugar?  (Want to play?)

Cuánto dinero?  (How much money?)

I don’t anticipate running into any trouble, but if things get a little unfriendly, I may find the following phrase useful:

Puedo comprar le yo una cerveza mi amigo? (Can I buy you a beer my friend?)

If that doesn’t diffuse the tension, maybe this will:

Puedo comprar le yo dos cervezas mi amigo?  (Can I buy you two beers my friend?)

If things get REALLY nasty, I may need to use the following phrase as a last resort:

Spanish:  No tan es trastornado, yo le pagaré! Necesito para ir al cuarto de baño, pero seré inmediatamente. Aquí, usted puede tener mi palo de indicación como colateral.

English translation: Don’t get so upset, I will pay you!  I need to go to the bathroom, but I’ll be right back.  Here, you can hold my cue stick as collateral.

Rule number one of playing pool on the road:  Always make sure the bathrooms have windows that are large enough to crawl out of!  🙂  Well, I’m off to find some adventure.  Does going solo mean that I’ve gone loco?  If anything interesting happens, I’ll let you know.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

TGIF!  It’s 6 am and I’ve already had my first cup of coffee.  Now I’m about to start my daily fifteen minute myelin building exercise.  If you’d like a detailed description of this exercise, see the drill that I described in yesterday’s post.  Ready, set, go…

Whew!  I’ve just successfully completed my first session.  Although I was able to complete the exercise, it was much more difficult than I had anticipated.  Doing it properly is very mentally demanding, as I actually slow down my stroke to unbelievably slow speeds to make sure that I am doing it correctly.  It’s difficult to maintain such a high level of concentration for a long period of time.  Hopefully it will get easier as I perform this exercise on a daily basis and the proper brain/arm circuitry is reinforced.

Well, I’m off to my day job.  There’s a common saying in the pool world that in order to really play at the highest levels of this game, you need to quit your day job and do nothing but shoot.  I’ve met a couple of guys who literally have never worked an 8-5 job in their lives.   Both have somehow been able to eke out a living by playing pool and the occasional poker game; however, I am certainly not in their league!  I wonder: Is it really necessary to quit your day job to be that good?  I do know of one notable exception to this conventional wisdom:  Steve Mizerak.  He’s the guy who made the Miller Lite pool shooting commercials many years ago, and became famous for the line, “…just showing off.”  Yes, Steve grew up with a pool table and was somewhat of a child prodigy, turning pro at a very young age, but he always worked a steady job as a school teacher.  So, maybe I still have a chance…

Slowly Building Myelin

Well, today is the day I start evaluating fundamentals.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I was not able to bring my cue stick with me on this trip, so I needed to improvise.  Yesterday, I located a K-Mart in Aguadilla and bought a very cheap $30 cue stick: a Minnesota Fats “Hustler” cue.  It is a 19 ounce solid grey graphite wrapped cue with a nylon butt wrap and polished stainless steel joint.  It is light years away from the Searing cue that I normally play with.  It is, however, much better than the other cue they were selling, which had light bulbs built into the handle that were designed to flash brightly when the cue stick strikes a cue ball.  (Seriously, I’m not making this up!)  What a great example of marketing gone bad!

I got back to my hotel room last night, and realized I was very lucky in that the business desk located in my room is exactly 31 inches in height, just within the standard specification for a pool table.  I also was able to secure a Coke bottle in the hotel lobby, so I now have all the items necessary for me to work on fundamentals from my hotel room.  Yippee!

Here’s the setup: table in the middle of the room, coke bottle lying on its side, the neck of the bottle pointed down the long axis of the table.  I face the opening of the Coke bottle as if it were a cue ball, get into my stance, and go through my mental checklist to make sure my stance and body position are correct.  I then slowly execute my stroke.  The shaft of the cue stick should enter the neck of the Coke bottle and proceed into the bottle without touching the mouth of the bottle.  If my mechanics are solid, there will be no side to side motion; if my bridge is solid, there will be no vertical movement; if my back arm is stroking properly (absolutely nothing moving but the part of my arm from the elbow down), the cue stick will not touch the Coke bottle as it enters and exists the neck of the bottle.  Easier said than done.

Taking a cue (no pun intended) from Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, I’m slowing the action down to an unbelievably slow speed to make sure that the proper neurological circuits are firing.  Don’t want to build myelin in the wrong places!  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can hear Lawrence Welk’s calm steady voice as I slowly stroke the cue stick, “A one and a two and a three…”  I’m building myelin, building myelin, building myelin.  Hummm.  I can tell this is going to get challenging.  I wonder how many times I can stroke, and still maintain the same intensity of thought?  Maybe I should just stroke ten or twenty times, then stand up and say to myself out loud, “Great Shot!,” then get down and do it again.  Focus!  Focus!  Ok, stand up…“see” the cue ball…now get into my stance…review the stance checklist…now slowly stroke, stroke, stroke…focus on the imaginary cue ball…stroke, stroke, stroke…the Coke bottle will tell you if you screw up…stroke, stroke, stroke… “Shut up mind!  I’m trying to concentrate!”…stroke, stroke, stroke…

I can tell this is going to take some time.  After about 30 seconds, I’m to the point where I want to toss my cue stick across the room and run down the hallway screaming like a crazed banshee warrior.  Maybe it’s time for a break?  Speaking of breaks, I think it’s time for breakfast!

The art of playing, without playing

One of my favorite movie quotes of all time comes from a Bruce Lee movie titled, “Enter the Dragon”.  In it, Bruce Lee is traveling to a martial arts tournament on a small boat filled with martial artists.  One of the bad guys approaches Lee, and tries to intimidate him with a display of his martial arts acumen.  When Lee is obviously not intimidated, the thug asks, “What’s your (martial arts) style?” Lee responds, “I guess you could call it, the art of fighting without fighting.” The thug responds, “Let’s see it.” Lee waves his hand dismissively and turns to leave, “Maybe later.”

One challenge that I have with improving my pool game is that I love to play the game too much.  What?  Sounds contradictory doesn’t it?  Actually, it’s pretty logical.  When I get to the pool room, all I want to do is make balls and clear the table.  Although this may be fun, it is not a good way to practice if you want to improve your game, and it really just reflects a lack of discipline on my part!  I have recently begun to wonder if there is a more effective way to practice.  Why not just break down the key components of the game into a few discrete mechanics, each of which could be practiced AWAY from the pool table.  If I’m not at the table, I won’t be tempted to ‘play’.   That way, I can really focus on getting into the “Deep Practice” zone that Daniel Coyle describes in his book The Talent Code.

Sound nutty?  Maybe…maybe not.  In his book, Daniel describes instances where world-class performance has been developed using similar techniques.  He cites several examples, telling stories about the Russian womens’ tennis program and the Brazilian soccer program.  I won’t go into details here, as you can read the book for yourself, but I believe the same techniques could be applied to pool.  Without providing any further explanation, I will just tell you that I’ve made the decision to work on some of my fundamentals without going to the pool room.  Since I’m currently in Puerto Rico traveling on business, I’m not going to have time to go to the pool hall every night anyway.  No problem, I’ll just bring the pool hall to my hotel room!

Tomorrow, I’ll work on two aspects of my fundamentals:  Stance/Body position and Shot Execution.  For further explanations of these fundamentals, see the tab on my blog titled, “Fundamentals”.  In order to pull off a practice session in my hotel room, I’ll need to gather the following items:  (1) A table approximately 29-31 inches high (the regulation height for the surface of a pool table), (2) a cue stick (not sure where I’m going to get this since I couldn’t bring mine on this trip), and (3) a Coke bottle.  A Coke bottle?  Yes, a Coke bottle.  With these items, I will try to perfect the art of playing, without playing.  More on this tomorrow.

Honesty is the Best Policy

I must admit that I had a ball writing yesterday’s post while flying to Aguadilla.  After the plane landed and taxied to the terminal, I released my seat belt, jumped up, and ran down the aisle high fiving the flight attendants and leaping luggage like O. J. Simpson.  But now that the adrenaline has tapered off and I’ve had a good night’s rest, I’ve come to the sobering realization that I might actually need to do some work instead of just flapping my jaws.  Okay, okay, let’s get serious.

Every great journey has a beginning.  If you are serious about improvement, you must be brutally honest and ask yourself the following question: “How good am I right now…really?”  Without an accurate assessment of my current skills, it will be impossible for me to put together an effective training program.  In a general sense, all pool playing skills can be divided into two main camps: (1) shot making skills, and (2) cue ball control skills.  The type of practice that will be required to move my game to the next level can be determined by conducting an accurate assessment of my current skills in each of these areas.  When most people first learn to play pool, they only concern themselves with shot making.  In other words, when it’s their turn to shoot, they just try to make balls in pockets.  What they soon discover is that every time they make a shot, the next shot gets harder, and the next shot harder still, until finally there are no more makeable shots.  Shot making skills are certainly a base requirement for good play, but if you only focus on shot making, your game will suffer tremendously.  To take your game to the next level, you need to be able to control where the cue ball ends up after you make each shot.  By mastering this latter skill, you can control the difficulty of the next shot that you take.  Ideally, you should be able to run the table by making every shot an ‘easy’ shot.

Enough talk, let’s get started.  How would I rate my skills today?  First I’ll consider shot making skills.  There are several ways to assess shot making abilities.  I won’t go into the details here, but if you are interested, here’s a link to Bob Jewett’s website in which he provides many articles and tools that allow you to  evaluate your shot making skills.  Based upon assessments that I’ve completed, I’d say that my shot making skills are very strong.  If I am presented with an open shot, in other words, a shot where there is no obstruction between the cue ball and the object ball, and there are no obstructions between the object ball and a pocket, I can almost always make the shot.  I guess I got lucky in that I was born with very good vision, probably around 20/10.  For me, pure shooting is really just an exercise in good vision and the application of physics, assuming that my fundamentals are solid.  As such, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time working on pure shot making skills.

Next I’ll consider cue ball control skills.  This is an area where things get a lot more interesting and much more complicated.  Again, I won’t go into details here as there are many tools to evaluate your cue ball control skills, but suffice it to say that this is an area where I have lot of room for improvement.  In future posts, I’ll go into a little more detail and describe some of the drills that I plan to include in my repertoire to help build up my cue ball control skills.

Before I wrap up for the day, I need to share one more thing.  A HUGE underlying assumption in the above analysis is that I already have very solid fundamentals.   Bad assumption! Since I don’t want to take anything for granted, I am going to spend a good bit of time in the next few days reviewing my fundamentals to assure that they are rock solid.  I need to make sure that I have a solid platform upon which to build and refine my shot making and cue ball control skills.  If I find any weaknesses in my fundamentals, I will need to correct them first before moving on.  More on this tomorrow.

The Power of Positive Thinking

The Boeing 737-800 is a great plane for most travelers, enabling you to get from city to city in a reasonably economic and expedient fashion.  I’m currently sitting in a 737, traveling from San Francisco to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico via Newark, New Jersey.  Total flight time: twelve hours.  Although the flight crew is courteous and the food surprisingly good (bagels and butter and beer, oh my!), there is one major drawback to the 737:  No pool table!  Not only that, but in this post-911 world, I’m not even allowed to travel with my cue stick!  Sure, I could have stuffed it into my checked luggage and waited at baggage claim to see if it would ever show up, but who in their right mind would ever allow a cue stick to be tossed around by an airline baggage handler, much less trust that it wouldn’t just sprout legs and run off, never to be seen again?  Not me.

As the miles tick by and I sit in my cramped seat hacking away at this keyboard, I think about the enormity of the task that lies ahead of me.  I’ve just publicly announced that I’m going to become a professional pool player in two years.  I have no idea how long or arduous the journey will be, as I do not personally know anyone who has completed this journey.  Sure, I’ve met and spoken to several professionals, but I did not have the opportunity to witness them transform themselves from beginner to professional.  I must admit, I can hear a subtle seductive voice whispering softly in my ear, “You’re nuts!  You’re going to fail!  As soon as this plane lands, you need to log onto your WordPress account and delete the previous post.  At this point, it’s unlikely that anyone has read it.  Don’t risk the embarrassment associated with setting a goal and failing.  Just delete the post as soon as you land, and no one will ever know.”

Hummmm….I certainly understand that logic.  Why put myself out there and risk falling flat on my face?  Why not just quietly toil away in some dark nondescript pool hall until I think I’m ready for the big time?  I keep asking myself, “Should I just delete the post, and return to my cocoon of warmth and safety?”

Consider this.  After Lance Armstrong won his battle against testicular cancer, did he roll his bike up to the starting line of the Tour de France and mumble sheepishly to himself, “Well, I hope I can do good and not embarrass myself.” NO! He boldly took his place at the starting line and barked to everyone within earshot, “I work harder than anybody else here!  This is my race and nobody’s gonna to take it from me!” When Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate in game three of the 1932 World Series, did he let out a sigh and quietly whisper to himself, “Well gee, I hope I don’t strike out.” HELL NO! He stepped to the plate, raised his bat and pointed to the spectators sitting in the center field bleachers, then promptly ripped a curveball 490 feet directly over their heads, exactly to where he had just pointed.  What chutzpah!

So…do you think I’m going to delete my post from yesterday?  HELL NO!  Damn the torpedoes!  Full Speed Ahead!

The Journey Begins!

Today, I am kicking off an ambitious two year journey.  My mission: to transform myself from an amateur to a professional pool player.  “Two years?  Are you stupid or something?”  Well, stupid is as stupid does.  I’ve been told by everyone that I’ve spoken to that there’s no way I can progress from my current skill level to the level of a professional in two years.  So, to the professional pool players and BCA certified instructors that I’ve spoken to over the last few months who told me it absolutely couldn’t be done, I would like to say the following: “THANKS!”.   By telling me it can’t be done, you have ignited a spark and fanned the flame.  Now I’m motivated to attempt the impossible.

Why did I choose two years as my goal?  I recently read a book by Daniel Coyle titled The Talent Code. In the book, Daniel explores the fundamental elements that contribute to the development of world-class talent, and the biological changes that occur in the brain that enable excellence.  According to Daniel, the overall process of developing world-class talent takes about seven years, assuming the person has sufficient motivation, access to solid coaching, and the ability to apply what Daniel refers to as “Deep Practice”.  After reading the book, I thought to myself, “I have the motivation, I have access to some of the most talented and knowledgeable coaches available in the US, and I have the ability to focus very intently on a single task.  If the roots of world-class talent are really available to anyone, why not me?” I also thought to myself, “Seven years?  I already have a solid understanding of the underlying physics, why not just do it in two?” Naivety…I LOVE IT!

I decided it was time to act.  After reading and studying the game for well over a decade, I have accumulated an immense amount of technical knowledge.   No more excuses!  It’s time to get to the table and deliver some results!  And so it is…with a cue stick on my back, a pep in my step, a heart of courage, and my head held high, I’m off to the undiscovered country!