Controlling the Arena

In the last column I talked about controlling the table and how a contest between advanced players is essentially one of who will take control. Since both players know how to control the table, the match is often determined by who can take control first.

In pool, the issue of control begins with being able to control the destination of the object ball. A player has to first learn how to make the shots. Once that skill is fundamentally established, however, the issue of control evolves to one of controlling the cue ball. When that ability is essentially mastered, the issue of control moves to controlling the table. Once that concept is understood, a player’s perception of control moves to an even wider and broader framework. He is able to “see” the contest in terms of who is controlling the playing field.

This is a tricky thing to see because the playing field, or arena, as it can also be called, includes more than just the players, the table, and the equipment. It also includes the spectators, the tournament director, the bleachers, the television cameras, and everything else that is part of an event. It includes the expectations of the spectators, the fears and hopes of the players, the clash of destinies, and everything else imaginable.
I know this sounds airy-fairy, but there is truth to it. The arena is not simply a collection of people and things. It is a context. It is the context in which the people and the things show up. It is the context in which the contest takes place. If one can affect the fabric of the context, one can control, to some extent, the outcome of the contest. Instead of being just a participant, the controlling player becomes an author of a happening coming into being. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

At the Glass City Open, Earl Strickland was in a match with Troy Frank, and most of the spectators were watching that match or one of the other three or four taking place. Frank was at the table, in control, when a spectator got up from the front row and hobbled across the room to the concession stand, got a bag of chips, and hurried back. A few minutes later, Frank took the chair and Strickland came to the table. Instead of shooting, he started ranting about potato chips and greasy hands. “Why don’t you go and get yourself some chips?” he directed to Frank. “Why don’t we just pass out chips to everyone?”

He continued for a few minutes until every eye in the place was on him. Even though most people couldn’t make out what he was saying, they were straining to do so. He was pulling the strings like a master puppeteer, like he has successfully done so many times before. The entire arena was responding and reacting to him. He didn’t move to take a shot until Frank was laughing, uneasily, in his chair.

It’s absurd to believe that Strickland, who has dominated the most mentally tough pool players in the world for almost two decades, is so weak that he could be distracted by a bag of potato chips. Even so, almost everyone has an opinion about his outbursts, and most consider them a character fault. But have you ever noticed that he only acts like that when the other player has control of the match? Have you ever noticed how often he ends up with control of the match after such an incident?

There are other ways to affect the context of the arena, and not all of them are considered negative. In the same event, for instance, every game won by Steve McAninch, the local favorite, was received with wild and enthusiastic applause by a large group of spectators. Their activity turned heads and impacted the unfolding of the event. It continued throughout the tournament as McAninch continued to win match after match. Eventually, he defeated Johnny Archer after a confrontation between the two of them forced tournament director Scott Smith to proclaim a non-talking rule. That, by the way, is another example of controlling the playing field.

There is one other kind of control in pool, and I’ll be addressing it in the next column. It’s the one where the most value is realized and maybe the only one that really counts in the final evaluation. It’s called self control.
Good luck good shootin’!

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