Monthly Archives: December 2009

Brains over Brawn

Trouble Shot

Today I did work on Nine Ball patterns and identified a shot that kept giving me trouble.  I’ve diagrammed the shot to the left.  This seems like a simple shot, but for some reason I’m having trouble with it.  I either miss the first shot but get good position for the second shot, or I make the first shot but don’t get proper position for the second.  You know what this means…YES!…time for a deep practice session!  I’ll spend at least 45 minutes working on this one shot during my Wednesday workout.

I also plan to spend at least two hours working on a variety of safe shots.  I know that almost all of my opponents in the January tournament will have the ability to run out if the table is open.  I’m guessing that a majority of the players will be more skilled than me, so in order for me to have any chance of winning the tournament, I will have to develop a cunning strategy.  Every single time I come to the table to shoot, I plan to employ the decision making process shown in the flow diagram below.

Shot Decision Process

My strategy will be to play safe shots at all possible times, unless I’m certain I can run the rack.  Most people don’t practice safe shots, so I’m counting on frustrating my opponents to the point that they start attempting risky shots.  This strategy has worked for me before: just let my opponents beat themselves.  Is there honor in this?  Of course!  The rules are the rules and the goal is to win.  There’s certainly no honor, at least in my opinion, in trying to be aggressive and attempt to run difficult racks, only to miss a shot and have my opponent run the remainder of the rack for a win.  Nope, I’m not signing up for that.  Yes, this is the holiday season, a time for giving, but not in the pool hall…RACK’EM UP!

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Man’s got to know his limitations

My wife and I live in Santana Row, a European styled residential / shopping community located in San Jose, California.  We often spend time at a local establishment called the Vintage Wine Bar, enjoying a glass of wine and visiting with friends.  One evening a few weeks ago I was introduced to a former professional baseball player named Sandy.  Great guy.  We were introduced by a mutual friend, who went on to tell Sandy that I played a good bit of pool, to which Sandy responded (paraphrased), “Yeah, I play some pool too.  We should play some time. I bet I could get inside your head, then beat you.” The first thing to cross my mind was an old quote from Clint Eastwood, “Man’s got to know his limitations!” I responded (smile on my face; toothy grin), “Really?  Yes, we should play sometime.” Well, that time has finally come.  Tomorrow we will meet at Santa Clara Billiards for a couple of hours to roll the balls around.  We should have a great time as this is just for fun, nothing serious…unless of course I start to lose!  Heh, heh, heh!  Hey Sandy, if you’re reading this, I’m just kidding!  I also plan to get in a couple hours of practice either before or after our meeting.  I need to work on the three items I identified yesterday to improve my 9 ball game: break shots, patterns, and safeties.  I’ve got a tournament to get ready for, and time’s a wasting…

Practice Makes Perfect…

…but nobody’s perfect, so why practice?  Okay, okay, it’s not that funny but I couldn’t come up with anything wittier – too much eggnog I guess.  So, how’s the practice going?  Good question.  I’ve worked on a few things over the past week, and here’s my synopsis:
1. Rail shots – I’ve developed a lot of consistency on these shots and I don’t miscue anymore.  I almost always make the “reasonable” shots, but table length shots can still be a challenge.  I think my skills have improved to the point that I should move on and focus on other areas that need development.
2. Bank shots – Didn’t work on this very much.  My recent philosophy has been that if you run the correct routes and control cue ball distance appropriately, bank shots and other “gimmicky” shots should not be necessary.  I still believe this, but just to make practice sessions interesting and help mix things up, I’ll still probably practice them about 30 minutes per week.
3. Combination shots – Worked on these a little, and saw some improvement.  Of course, “improvement” is a relative term.  Since I’m primarily working on my 9 Ball game, I still need to work on combinations as these shots come up relatively often.
4. Position Drills – Did a lot of work on position drills.  Getting correct position from shot to shot is the name of the game, so I will definitely spend more time on position drills.  More on this later.
5. Patterns – Did a lot of work on patterns as they relate to 8 Ball.  Patterns are really just a combination of position drills and planning three shots ahead, except that you actually think strategically more than three shots ahead and look at the entire rack; identifying the most efficient way to work the table to get final position on the eight ball.  Probably spent a little too much time on this, since my goal is to improve my 9 Ball game.  Need to cut this out as it is a distraction from my main goal.

What should I work on during the coming week?  Let’s keep it simple and just focus on three items:
1. 9 Ball break shots – Do deep practice sessions on this.  Focus on controlling the final resting spot of the cue ball. On the break shot, the cue ball should fully hit the head ball in the rack, jump directly backwards and come to a stop in the middle of the table without hitting any rails.  I plan to do three 30 minute sessions on this.
2. 9 Ball patterns – Break a 9 Ball rack and take ball in hand after the break.  Try to run the rack.  On any shot if I don’t achieve perfect position on the next shot, I’ll re-shoot the previous shot until I get it right, then continue running the rack.  Take notes on all missed shots so that later I can do focused work on problem shots.  I plan to do four 30 minute sessions on this.
3. Safety practice – At higher levels of play, if both players have the ability to run out, in the long run the player with better safety skills will almost always win.  The reason?  It’s all about managing probabilities.  If you are aggressive and attempt to run lower percentage racks, eventually the odds catch up with you.  If faced with a low percentage shot, it’s much wiser to play into a safety and force your opponent to take a very difficult shot.  Lower your opponent’s probability of running out; don’t take unnecessary risks!  I plan to do four 30 minute sessions on this.

Ok, let’s do the math.  If I follow the plan above, this will only be about five and a half hours of practice in a week.  Hummm…doesn’t seem adequate huh?   I keep telling myself that quality is more important than quantity, but this doesn’t seem like enough time.  I guess we will find out soon enough.  My first major test will come the weekend of January 16-17 when I enter a large local 9 Ball tournament.  The tournament will probably draw about 80 or 90 players and the top prize will probably be between $1,500 and $2,000.  Do I expect to win?  Of course not, but I would be happy to make it into the final 16.

The Job Interview

Tomorrow I’ll give you an update on last week’s progress.  Until then, I have a pool related story that I must share.  As I mentioned in my post from December 9, my current employer is shutting down manufacturing operations and my last day of work will be Friday, December 25.  As such, I started looking for another job a few weeks ago.  I work in the medical device industry, and I’ve been somewhat fortunate in that job openings in the medical device industry seem to be picking up.  I recently had the opportunity to interview with a small growing medical device company near where I live.  I’m sure you are wondering: “What in the world does a job interview have to do with pool?” Let me explain.

On the morning of the interview, I arrived a few minutes early.  While waiting in the reception area, I reviewed in my mind the materials I had prepared; you know, major talking points from my resume, key questions to ask about the position, key questions about the company, etc.  I was scheduled to speak to six or seven employees, and I wanted to be prepared.  The hiring manager met me in the lobby and welcomed me to the company.  He showed me to his office and we were off and running.  At one point in the process, I was taken on a tour of the facility.  We walked through several key areas of the building, including the warehouse, incoming inspection area, prototype production area, QA, R&D, etc.  At one point, we entered a very large employee break room / recreation area.  One section of the room had been partitioned to create a gym which contained various cardio and weight machines.  Another part of the room contained a small lunch table with a couple chairs; a nice quiet place to enjoy lunch.  The majority of the room was wide open, no furniture, no support beams, no clutter.  I think you know where this story is headed.  YES!  Right smack in the middle of the employee break room was a pool table!!  YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!  The table was hidden beneath a flexible opaque protective cover.  As we passed the table, I pointed nonchalantly and asked my host, “Hey, what’s that?  A pool table?” (Heh, heh, heh!)  “Yes, it’s a pretty nice one too!” He turned his head and kept moving past the table.  As I passed behind him, I lifted the edge of the cover and stole a quick glance.  I was not able to ascertain the brand, but it appeared to be well constructed and in great condition.  It was an eight foot table with carved legs and felt pretty solid when I pushed against it.  OH BOY!!!  We kept moving and finished the facility tour.

Fast forward: At the end of the four hour interview the hiring manger asked me, “So, what questions do you have for me?” I had prepared many questions to help me gauge the strength of the company, their vision, mission, objectives, growth plans, opportunities for improvement, etc.  I paused for a second, and briefly contemplated a whole new set of questions, such as:

  1. What brand of table is it?
  2. Is the slate ¾ inch or 1 inch thick?
  3. Are the rails bolted directly into the slate or into the wooden frame?
  4. Any chance you could recover it with Simonis 860 cloth?
  5. How tight are the pockets?

But alas, the rational part of my brain took over, and I proceeded to only ask the questions that I had prepared.  How much fun would it be to work for a company that keeps a pool table in their break room?!   😉

Planning for success

I just looked at the calendar and realized today is December 12; over ten days since I last practiced.  I wrote a post three days ago, humorously (at least I hope so) coming up with excuses for my slackness, but I still haven’t managed to make time to get to the table.  What the heck is my problem?

It actually is true that I’ve had some distractions lately, but none of them constitute a valid excuse.  What I need is some discipline.  If Nelson Mandela could sit in solitude in an eight foot by eight foot concrete prison cell for 30 years, then come out and accomplish what he did, what possible excuse do I have for not being able to master the pool table?  (Yes, I saw Invictus last night.)  I need something or someone to kick me in the rear and hold me accountable.  Hey, wait a minute, when I first started this blog, wasn’t that my original stated purpose?  To publish my daily progress so the world at large could hold me accountable for sticking to my plan?  Yes, I guess that’s correct.  (I just had a troubling thought: what type of person sits at his kitchen table at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon writing this sort of stuff, then publishes it for everyone to read?  Am I suffering from some form of psychosis with delusions of grandeur?  Hummm.)

Upon rereading the previous paragraph, looking for spelling and grammatical errors, and Googling psychotic disorders, I just realized what’s missing.  THE PLAN!  I never actually established any sort of plan.  Sure, I have lots of technical knowledge, and I was motivated by Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, but where’s the Plan?  I never came up with a Plan?!!!!

Dummy!

(Pregnant pause…)  Ok, I just skimmed The Talent Code again, and here’s a breakdown for those of you who are too lazy to read the book, and would rather rely upon the Reader’s Digest version of the Reader’s Digest version of the Reader’s Digest version of the Talent Code:

The secret to talent development:

  1. Deep Practice (Building Myelin)
  2. Ignition
  3. Master Coaching

That’s it.  For now, I’m going to focus on deep practice sessions.

The secret to Deep Practice:

  1. Chunk it up. See the whole picture; break it up into chunks; slow down the action.  Focus on fundamentals.  Play on tight tables.  Remember, precision is everything!
  2. Repeat it. At least 5 days a week, 2 hrs/day max.  Deep practice is exhausting.  Most people, regardless of the sport, can’t maintain deep practice for more than 1-2 hours.  Most practice beyond this is relatively non-value added and may actually detract from skill building because you fatigue and start developing bad habits.
  3. Feel it. Work at the edge of your abilities.  This is uncomfortable.  What I’ve learned from pool is that my brain almost always (99.5%) knows when I’m going to miss a shot before I pull the trigger…I just get impatient and refuse to listen.  Listen to your brain you Dummy!  Pool is not a race!!!

Here’s my initial Plan:

The Month of December 2009

Sunday – Day off / Planning Day.  Activities include:  (1) Review progress made over previous week.  (2) Plan next week’s schedule.  Options include: Make current drills harder, add new drills, etc.

Monday – Deep Practice: Rail shots and other trouble shots

Tuesday – Deep Practice: Position drills

Wednesday – Deep Practice: Bank shots and Combinations

Thursday – Deep Practice: Position drills again

Friday – Deep Practice: Burt Kinister’s 9 pointed star practice routine.  If you miss a shot or lose perfect position on the next shot, stop shooting!  Reset the previous shot and shoot it again.  Repeat it until you get it right.

Saturday – Day off / Coke Bottle practice at home

So there.  Now I have a plan.  No more excuses!

Excuses Excuses…

Today is Wednesday, December 9, and this is probably the most A.D.D. post that I’ve ever written.  As you can see from the date on my last post, a week has passed since my last entry.  Worse yet, it has been over a week since I had the opportunity to practice at a pool table.  Hold on, let me rephrase that last sentence: It has been over a week since I last made time to practice at a pool table.  How is it possible to go from such an emotional high as I described in my posts from last week, to where I am today?  I sat here for over a week replaying those events in my head with a smile on my face, but now I’ve shaken my head and realized that a week has gone by and I haven’t taken any additional steps on my journey.  Oh sure, I could give you a thousand good reasons why I haven’t practiced in over a week.  That’s what we intellectuals do, right?  There’s always a reason for what we do, even if the reasons aren’t really valid.  Sure, I could tell you about the stray cat (more like a bag of bones) that I found outside my office a couple weeks ago; the subsequent dash to the vet’s office to see if it could be saved, bringing it home and giving it water and food, trying to explain to my wife and my current cat why bringing this stranger into our home was the right thing to do; but that would just be my attempt to distract you from the fact that I haven’t practiced in a week.  I could also tell you about my company, how we are shutting down our manufacturing operations this month, and how tough the job market is right now; but again, that would just be my attempt to distract.  The reality is, I simply haven’t made time to practice in a week.

Why?  Is it fear of failure?  Is it fear of success?  Maybe over the years I’ve developed an affinity for toiling away at the table for hours, laboring in vain to squeeze out one short minute of success.  Maybe my brain had been programmed to believe that anything good in this life can only be achieved as a direct consequence of hours and hours of grueling effort.  Maybe Daniel Coyle’s concepts have actually had a bad influence on me.  By implementing the concept of deep practice, I’m seeing results too fast: I’m getting spoiled.

"Please take me home with you!"

Nah, that would just be another attempt by me to justify my absence.  Last night I watched The Color of Money again for the four hundred and fifty-third time.  It’s a good thing that DVDs don’t wear out.  I will definitely make time to practice today.  Do you think I need to see a shrink?  Oh, by the way, here’s a picture of Lilly (the bag of bones).  Just take a long look at her.  Who could say no to those pleading eyes?  Yes, that’s right, keep looking at her: maybe you’ll forget that I haven’t practiced in a week.

Eureka!

I recently experienced a set of events so profound, which excited me so much, that it took me a full two days to calm down enough to allow me to sit and write about it.  Where do I begin with this story?

In Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, Daniel describes a curious phenomenon that he refers to as the HSE (Holy Shit Event).  If you’ve read chapter 4 of his book, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  The HSE is the feeling you get when a person who is “just like you” suddenly displays a quantum leap in skill level.  It’s the feeling of, “Where did that come from?”  Daniel describes the scene well:  A person in the process of developing talent is being watched by an outside observer, and the outside observer, while watching, is “…dumbstruck, amazed, and bewildered, while the talent’s owner is unsurprised, even blasé.”

I experienced a mini-HSE event on Monday afternoon, then another one on Tuesday.  As described in my blog posts from last Friday and Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about shot making fundamentals and practicing away from the table (see October 28 & 29 posts).  This Saturday, I conducted a two hour deep practice session at Santa Clara Billiards working primarily on my stance, stroke, and bridging as they relate to rail shots (see my November 28 post).  The Saturday deep practice session was fantastic, and I thought about it all day Sunday.  On Monday, I stopped by Edgie’s Billiards in Milpitas, CA with the intention of doing another hour of follow-up work from the Saturday session.  When I walked into the room, guess who was already waiting for me?  Mike! (See my post “Eating Humble Pie” from November 16).

The Eureka Shot

Mike asked if I wanted to play a few games.  I had originally intended to do some deep practice work that day, but I didn’t want to be antisocial, so I accepted.  I broke the first rack but didn’t make any balls.  Mike made a couple balls, calculated that the table was too difficult to run, and decided to play a safe and leave me with a very difficult shot.  The shot that he left me is diagrammed to the right.  (There were other balls on the table, but they aren’t relevant for this discussion.)   I stood from my chair, walked to table, and an eerie calm feel over me.  I thought, “Hummm. This shot looks familiar doesn’t it?” It was almost the exact same shot that I had practiced on Saturday; it’s my “new friend”!   I carried out the exact same pre-shot routine that I conducted during my deep practice session; focusing on the approach, foot positioning, stance, level cue, rock solid rail bridge, smooth calm stroke, and then I pulled the trigger.  Cue tip and cue ball collided, the cue ball traveled up the table, cue ball and object ball met with a gentle click, the object ball rolled slowly up table at “pocket speed,” traveling to the far right corner pocket without touching any rails and with just enough energy to barely fall into the pocket.  A perfectly executed very difficult shot!  But here’s the funny thing: I wasn’t at all surprised; I was just doing what I had practiced on Saturday.  I stood up without saying a word, walked around the table, and kept shooting, and shooting, and shooting.  An hour later I looked up, and I was leading 8-1.  It wasn’t until I started unscrewing my cue stick that I realized that I had just played a nearly perfect match.

I know there will be good days and bad days.  I had a couple bad days recently, but after the Saturday practice session, it seems that I’ve somehow magically rewired my circuits.  My arm and body seem to be listening to my brain much better than before, almost on autopilot.  I had difficulty falling asleep Monday night.  When I woke up on Tuesday, it seemed almost like a dream.  I thought to myself, “Is it really possible to turn yourself around that quickly?  Surely not.  Probably just a fluke”. I was itching to get back to Edgie’s and practice more.  When I arrived the next day during my lunch break, Mike was not there, so I warmed up and hit practice shots for thirty minutes.  Everything seemed fine.  Everything was clicking.

Then for fun, I did something that I know I’m not supposed to do.  I grabbed two handfuls of balls, threw them out on the table, and started practicing run outs.  Usually when I practice run outs, I throw five or six balls out on the table, then try to pocket them in numbered order, similar to a game of nine ball.  This is one way to judge your progress and ascertain where you are in your skill development, but not necessarily the best way to practice.  I can usually run out about 40-60 percent of the time with six balls on the table, depending on how seriously I’m concentrating.  I looked at the spread in front of me, and realized that I had thrown out eight balls instead of six.  I have occasionally run out eight balls, but the percentages are very low, probably in the range of 2-10 percent.  “Oh, what the heck,” I thought.  I approached the table and started shooting.  I ran the table.  “Hah!  Bet you can’t do that again!” I chided myself.  I threw out eight more balls, and started shooting in order.  I ran out again.  A slight increase in heart beat.  A shortness of breath.  I threw out eight more balls.  I ran the table for a third time in a row.  Unbelievable.  I threw out eight more.  When the balls settled, two of them rolled up next to each other to form a cluster.  I was unable to break the cluster during my run, so I couldn’t run the fourth set.  I threw out another eight, and ran it out.  Now I’m freaking.  I stopped, sat in a chair, and looked around.  No one else was in the room, except for a handful of three-cushion players who weren’t paying me any attention.  I looked at my watch.  My lunch break was over, and I had to go back to work.  I guess it’s better to quit while I’m ahead.