Playing to Win
or Trying Not to Lose?
(published in the August Issue 2009)
It is no secret that pool played at its highest level is very offensive in nature. Aggressive play is key to keeping your opponent in the chair and staying in control of the match. If you can win a few games without your foe getting a shot, he won’t have a chance to get in stroke or develop some confidence that he can use to win the match.
Obviously, one does not want to attempt a run-out every chance at the table. You must know your abilities and gauge your chances to complete the run-out. If you believe you’ve got better odds of winning if you duck and wait for a better chance, then you must play safe. This doesn’t mean you have to play passively. You can select safeties that keep the pressure on your foe.
Some safeties are more aggressive than others. Weak, conservative safeties don’t accomplish anything but increasing the games inning total. When a safety is part of a plan, it can almost be considered an offensive shot. For example, you can hide the cue ball while driving your object ball to break out a cluster that will hamper your run-out success rate. You could also position your object ball in a favorable location to be used as a key ball or as a break out.
Some players consider tying up opponents’ balls or blocking a pocket to be good safeties, but I might argue that these are passive safes where they are trying not to lose. It is a fact that failed run-outs leaving the table wide open for your opponent to cherry pick a run-out can be disheartening. Matches can be lost by coming up a little short on a few aggressive outs that end up as ‘gimmies’ to your foe. On the other hand, it is very likely that if, in a race to five, you complete three excellent run-outs and miss one attempt resulting in a gimmie, you could very well win the match convincingly. For example, if your rival makes one run-out and gives you a gimmie, all you’ve got to do is win one game that is a back and forth battle to win the match. Don’t you think you’ve got the edge when it comes to confidence and skill to take that last game for a 5-2 match win?
Staying on the attack and playing to win will defeat opponents and keep your game and game plans improving. Back and forth games where you and your opponent bunt balls around without accomplishing a high quality safety can lead to losses because the outcome may be the result of chance, such as a lucky kick, bank, or jump shot. Have a meaningful goal in mind when shooting a safety. It may not be the correct shot if you cannot answer the question: “What do I mean to accomplish by shooting this safety?” Playing safe may be the right choice if your answer is one of the following:
• I need ball in hand to run this table.
• My opponent is on one foul and I can win this game with two more great safes.
• I need him to kick into that cluster so I can get to my trouble ball.
In a tournament setting, long defensive matches can be draining. They take longer to play so you don’t have time to rest between matches. Sure they can be satisfying to win, but grinding them out doesn’t necessarily cause your confidence to skyrocket. Challenge yourself to be a player who’s got the firepower to run racks, even very tough ones! You’ve got to be a complete player to win tournaments; be judicious and duck when it is prudent, but get out when you have the chance.
Your mental attitude is at least as important as shot selection, execution, and strategy. A key point in the match such as the hill-hill game can create pressure on a player to turn a well played aggressive match into a whimpering final game. I’ve witnessed matches that seem like both players were hoping their opponent would give away the match rather than
relish the chance to grab the victory. It is understandable that a player doesn’t want to make a silly mistake and lose the match on a scratch or an easy miss, but one must not change the style of play that got him to the hill. It is acceptable to take a little extra time on a shot, but it should be played with the same confidence and manner in which it would have been played in any other game during the match.
In the diagram below, many players would prefer to play position for the 9 ball by going forward 2 cushions with high left English to get position in area A.
Under the pressure of a hill-hill score, a player might opt to play more tentatively and play position using only one cushion in hopes of getting to the position area labeled B. This would be a mistake. The player’s logic may be that she hopes not to miss the 8-ball because the one rail position shot requires less spin and she doesn’t have to stroke it as firm. In reality, the position area is smaller and requires a finer touch to get the speed correct for optimal position on the nine ball. A better mental approach would be to examine the shot and shoot the shot with 2 rail position knowing that you have the perfect chance to put away the match and you know it is the right way to run out the remaining balls.
Playing scared is a sure way to slip into a passive game. To become a fearsome tournament player, you must learn to thrive on pressure and expect to play your best pool at key moments. Don’t use stress as an excuse to make mistakes. Players who are feeling timid often think “Gosh, I hope I can just run these balls out before I break down from the pressure.” Or go for a difficult one-nine combination shot instead of a table run just to end the match quickly. This is similar to playing an entire tournament and then splitting the prize money in the final match. You’ve competed all day to reach the finals, so don’t give up now! This is what you’ve come for — a chance to push yourself as a player and see what you are made of. Demand more of yourself, not less, in these situations. Play confidently and with poise.