It has been said that the winner of a match is often determined before a single shot is even taken. Most serious players, if they are honest about their losses, will agree, at least partially, with that statement. Obviously, if one player is vastly superior in skill and execution over the other, he will win. If both are equally skilled but one has more experience, then he will win in most cases. If both players are close in skill and experience, then the one who has the greatest intention to win is the favored player.
The front part of a match and the front part of each game are the main battlefields for advanced players. Good players know how to keep control of the table if they get it and that makes the front game a fight for control. The very worst mistake to make in the beginning of a contest is to try something that fails and gives control of the table to your opponent. If you are playing a weaker player, the penalty is not as severe—you will get another chance because your opponent doesn’t know how to keep control of the playing field. He will eventually attempt something and fail.
Taking and keeping control of a match is almost entirely a function of shot selection, skill of execution, and self-knowledge. When you bet everything on a shot that you don’t make, you’re operating from false confidence, arrogance, and failing to consider the ramifications of missing. It takes honesty to listen to yourself about a specific shot and to accept and act on that feedback. Proceeding ahead with disregard when you have doubts is never an act of courage. It’s an act of surrendering to the psychological pressure of competition.
In pool, competition is between two people. It can look many different ways, but it is essentially a confrontational experience. Although many purists wish it to be, it is not simply an unadulterated contest of skill. You have to rely on your skills, of course, but the effectiveness of how you employ them is greatly determined by the tenacity and will you put behind it. If you really mean to win when you draw a strong player, you will not attempt shots in the front game where you cannot guarantee the outcome. The penalty is just too great.
Although we can always see the final outcome on the table in terms of shots made and missed, the actual measuring of one’s intention happens in the psychological grabbling between two competitors. When two advanced players meet on the playing field, one player, at some point, concedes defeat to the other.
At the Derby City, I watched a 9-ball match between Earl Strickland and Derek Pogirski of Ann Arbor, MI. Pogirski was not the favored player, but he had a two- or three-game lead and was fully in control of the momentum of the match. Strickland went into his famous “angry and intense” mode and scattered the last three balls of the rack, conceding the game, which was a foul under the rules of the tournament. To my surprise, Pogirski did not call the foul and take the extra game, even though it would have put him on the hill.
I mentioned it to a friend, and he said sarcastically, “Those rules don’t apply to Earl.” I realized that in the moment of not holding his opponent to the rules of the tournament, Pogirski had deferred to him and, at some level, had conceded the match. Sure enough, Strickland took control and went on to win, at which point I turned to my friend and said, “If he ever does that with me, I’m gonna call the foul on him.”
Ah, but the human mind is such an insidious thing. A few minutes later, I got called to a match with Danny “Kid Delicious” Basavich. He challenged the rack repeatedly, and I re-racked more than I should have. Instead of telling him to accept it or get a referee, I allowed him to rack his own. At one point he moved to tap the balls into place, and before the cue ball landed, I said strongly, “Don’t tap those balls!”
He tapped three or four into place, removed the rack, and went to the head of the table. Even though tapping balls was a foul under tournament rules, I didn’t call the foul and take the one-game penalty. I never even realized, until several minutes after the match was over and after a painful walk in the parking lot, that I had conceded the match to him in that moment. Like they say, sometimes the winner of a contest is determined long before the game is over.