How To Train Your Dragon

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One time, only a couple years after I started playing pool, I had a dream. In the dream I was playing a league match which was handicapped, and I was barely a D player who was up against a B. When we started play, I became so zeroed in on the object ball that everything else in the room faded away, and the table seemed very bright. No matter how far away the balls were, they looked so close. I had all of these ideas about how to get position for the next ball, and wherever I imagined the cue ball, it arrived. These ideas just magically materialized in my brain as I glided around the table with a relaxed confidence. In the last game I rolled too far for position and hooked myself, so I elevated my cue and massed the next ball in, running out for the win. After the match, which I dominated, my opponent walked up to me with his outstretched hand and said scornfully, “You’re the best D player I’ve ever seen. Do you want to play a little more?”

And then I woke up. Except that I was never really asleep, and this was not a dream. I had hit the nirvana of pool (Dead Stroke. Dead Punch. Unconscious.) for the first time in my pool career. Me and the B player did play another set, and much to his disbelief, I played like an average D. Of course he accused me of sandbagging, but I could tell my obvious lack of skill was confusing him. Needless to say, I lost the set, he complained to the league director and I remained a D because that’s what I truly was.

So what was that dreamlike trance that I stumbled upon and, more importantly, how do I get it back? That, my friends, is the hook. When heroin addicts speak of their first high, and how they spend the rest of their addiction trying to feel like that again, I know what they mean. I am chasing the dragon of Dead Punch.

Over the years I’ve hit various stages of it, from full subconscious operation to extremely focused relaxation, and every time I’ve tried to study the feeling so that I can recreate it. The following is a list of the things that I’ve noticed when the rest of the world falls away, and it’s just me and whitey:

-My body is relaxed when I’m over the ball. It’s resting on the table with little to no tension.

-My breathing is even and deep; a low diaphragm breathing that expands my stomach. My body naturally exhales right before I deliver the final stroke.

-My eyes move easily from the cueball to the object ball during my practice strokes, and then lock onto the smallest spot on the object ball until the shot is complete.

-My whole upper body feels like one unit. My dominant eye, arm and cue are a single mechanism made to follow straight through the point on the object ball.

-My thoughts about the shot are clear and decisive, but when I get down my brain is virtually empty. There is no doubt or hesitation.

-My arm swings straight through the ball, and I let it. My brain has worked out the speed, and I trust myself.

-Nothing exists outside the four walls of the table. I cannot be distracted and there is no place I’d rather be.

-In my head I am rooting for my opponent. I want their best game, and I don’t care if I win or lose.

I’ve often wondered what dead stroke is, and why it has to be so elusive. I’ve come to believe that dead stroke is merely a peek at your potential greatness; a tease that keeps you coming back for more. People often say pool is an addiction and, like drugs, dead punch gives you a dizzying high followed by a momentous crash back to Earth. It leaves you feeling empty and wanting more, and the only way to fill that void is to play until you experience it again. It’s this feeling that urges players to aspire to greatness despite the lack of money or glory left in the sport of pool. That’s why the best advice I can give you is to keep chasing that dragon, my friends.

 

 

 

 

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Answers to the Most Asked Pool Questions

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In my previous blog post I answered what might be the number one question that I am asked. If you’ve read that, you know that I’m not one to sugar coat my answers. My mentor took a tough approach with me, and brought me to tears many times, but that is what made me the player I am today. Here are some answers to other questions I frequently hear. If I miss any, please feel free to ask in the comments.

I’m playing like crap, and it sucks. Should I take a break?

For the casual player: Yes, take a break! Pool is your leisure time activity, and it should be spent enjoying yourself. Maybe a fresh perspective after a couple weeks off will bring you back to your regular game.

For the aspiring player: Hell, no. Get into the pool hall and stop whining about everything. The game has ebbs and flows, and you need to learn how to deal with them. Some of the best practice you can get is learning how to fight your way out of bad play. Try to learn what it takes to dig deep, and raise yourself out of a funk.

I play better with a couple drinks in me. Should I do a shot before my matches?

For the casual player: Absolutely! Relax and have fun! League night is only once a week.

For the aspiring player: Absolutely! Not! Unless you are also an aspiring alcoholic, I wouldn’t start relying on drinks to make you play better. It may work in the beginning, but pool is a very delicate balance of clear thought and physical precision. Drinking clouds both of those.

How can I get a sponsor?

For the casual player: You can’t.

For the aspiring player: Sponsorship is only about one thing. ROI. What do you have to offer a potential sponsor? Do you frequently play on live streams or in big tournaments with lots of visibility? Many players think they are owed sponsorship because they play well, but sponsors really want someone who brings visibility to their brand. Connect with companies via email or at trade shows, and tell them what you bring to the table. One more thing to note is that you can start with an endorsement deal. Companies will send you product for your own use, and in return you wear a patch. Real monetary sponsorship is usually only available to the upper echelon of players, and even then you may only get free product that you can sell, and keep the profit. One more thing…your conduct when you wear that patch should be impeccable. No one wants to sponsor an asshole.

Will gambling make me better?

For the casual player: Gamble will probably make you broke-er, but if you enjoy it, do it!

For the aspiring player: Gambling can be good for your game if it’s done the right way. Lopsided matches won’t do much for your game, so set the spots accordingly. Also, if you spend all of your practice time gambling, you may get stuck protecting your money, and not try new things. Like all things in life, it’s about balance.

How many hours a week should I practice?

For the casual player: Practice whenever you feel like playing. If you don’t feel like it, a quick warm up before your league match will do.

For the aspiring player: How many hours do you have free during the week? Can you sneak out on lunch break and hit a few balls? Keep in mind that your pool obsession can have a major impact on family life, so make a schedule that everyone can agree to, and stick to it. I know you want to get better, but it won’t mean much if you get fired from your job and kicked out by your partner. But then again, think about how good you could be!

 

Why You Probably Won’t Get Better at Pool

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One of the most popular questions that I am asked when I’m in a pool hall is, “How can I get better?” My answer is that if you’re asking me this question, then you probably won’t get better. If you think that’s a harsh assertion, let me explain myself.

1. If you’re asking me this question you probably have no idea what your weaknesses are.

If you haven’t assessed your own weaknesses by the time you are asking me this question, there is probably no chance you ever will. The people who constantly improve are the ones who carefully self-assess and work to improve the holes in their games. If you’ve ignored  your weaknesses thus far, then you probably don’t have what it takes to work on something that you absolutely hate until you want to shatter your cue in a million pieces and/or have a nervous breakdown. You’ve probably never felt utterly demoralized and broken down by that one thing that you can’t seem to master, yet you come back day after day and keep grinding. And you’ve also never experienced that moment when it all clicks, and suddenly you have a glimmer of hope, which only makes you double the effort.

2. You want to skip the struggle.

You are asking this question because you want the magic bullet. You want me to say something so profound that your game goes up once my words meet your medial temporal lobe. I can’t tell you how many people I see in the pool hall with gadgets and gimmicks all designed to create a quick fix that will make you instantly better. I see low level players adding an extension to their cue “because Earl does” or buying  different cues in hopes of instantly morphing into whatever champion is using it. These champions didn’t get that way by a gimmick, a gadget or a cue. They got that way because they obsessively spent every moment in the pool room working on the things that they find most unpleasant until they master them.The best players literally shed blood, sweat and tears until they become that way.

3. Your ego is too big

Chances are you’ve asked other players this very question, but upon realizing that your game didn’t magically improve, you came in search of answers from me. Maybe when the other players said your break was too wild, or your position was too weak it sounded like too much work to fix. Or maybe you think those things are already great, and that it must be something else. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked my opinion about something, and then told me they’d rather do it their way. If your mind isn’t open to new ideas, then your ego will forever hold you in lower echelon of pool.

I’m sorry if I sound callous, but this is the reality of improving your game. I’m not talking about the kind of improvement that happens by default if you keep hitting balls. I’m talking about improving beyond your natural plateau. Improvement that people notice and talk about. The kind that makes people ask you what you’re doing. For that kind of improvement, there are no quick fixes. There is no product you can buy. It’s just you facing your weaknesses. Until you work your ass off to make them strengths. And then your old strengths become your new weaknesses. So you rinse and repeat until that shit is squeaky clean.

 

Ginky

“I want to let you know if you don’t already, you are a Champion!”

I don’t know what possessed him to write this letter, but it is dated 2/28/05. It was a time in my career when I was just starting to achieve success, and it seemed like everyone around me was breaking me down. We were on a 9 ball team together, and we ended up winning that season. At some point, he brought this letter to me. I think he saw the pain that all of the adversity was causing me, or maybe he saw my self-doubt (something I never, ever saw in him), but whatever it was, it meant the world to me. I carried it in my case for years until I became afraid of losing it. Very recently I told him how much it meant to me and he told me that a great player once wrote the same kind of letter to him.

“Don’t ever quit. Maybe you lose, but don’t ever just give up.”

I have so many memories with him: A road trip to Turning Stone, scotch doubles death matches, him watching me demolish a very good player and rooting me on the whole way, playing on nine ball teams together, listening to his crazy jokes, commentating the final rack of a tournament over the phone to him, practicing for hours, then going to eat, then back to practice…I really can’t believe my friend is gone. I’m just happy that he left me this little piece of himself.

“I want you to reread this letter. Words you might forget, but you’ll always have this letter to look back on.”

And I will Ginky. Thank you.

I’m back!

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to focus on making pool a career again, and practice is probably only half of that equation. I have been so busy with life that I really haven’t put much effort into the business side of pool. I’ve been practicing more than ever, and that is starting to show in my higher finishes, but looking for sponsors, booking exhibitions and, as you may have noticed, updating my blog, have all fallen off my radar in the last 6 months or so. I’ve been practicing a lot, and competing more than ever so I really have no excuse. I will do my best to change that.

Anyway, I just got back from the WPBA Masters in Michigan where I had my highest finish since I took a year off. All that practice must be paying off, right? Well, if it is, it certainly didn’t show in my play. I mean, I played downright awful. I struggled with controlling my cueball, I struggled with pocketing, I struggled with staying composed. All in all it was a disaster, but I was lucky enough to draw opponents who were in the same throes of inconsistency. The funny thing is, in the past few events, I’ve been playing great and losing. Maybe this was payback for that? Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

In the meantime, I’m going to do a serious self evaluation to try to figure out why I self destruct from time to time and how to rescue myself when I’m drowning in poor play. I’m going to work on the flaws in my physical game and try to make them strengths. I’m going to start working out again because a strong body equals a strong mind for me. I’m going to compete as much as possible and watch Accu-stats matches. And yes, I’m going to update my blog regularly, and be as brutally honest as I possibly can because there is something cathartic about putting all of your fears and insecurities into a post and sending them out into the blogosphere.

Valley Forge Expo 2010

Ah, the Valley Forge Expo! Thousands of pool players converge for a long weekend of pool, pool merchandise, pool players, and to display what is, quite possibly, the greatest array of funny tee shirts ever to be housed in one building. These were my top 3. (Photo props to Erin Mc Manus for hunting down the guy in the middle.)

One of the coolest things you can ever see, that will make all the hard work worth it, is a giant picture of yourself in your sponsor’s booth. (Photo props to Justin Collett)

I mostly did the usual stuff while I was there…ran into old friends

Signed some autographs

Stopped by my friends’ booths

Took some abuse from a gleeful New Yorker

Unleashed some abuse on an innocent bystander

Signed a cue ball

Tried out some cute clothes

Attempted my first big masse in front of a crowd

And did I mention that I played in a tournament? I finished 7/8. I ended up losing to that annoying chick sitting in the upper left corner.

Thanks to Henry Balincongan for the last 8 photos!

WPBA San Diego

As I sit here in my room slowly coming out of my funk about playing so poorly in this tournament, I feel like I’m ready to put some thoughts down on virtual paper.

For whatever reason I never really got started in this tournament. I felt completely uncomfortable at the table and not aligned properly over some shots. This was a bit surprising to me because, in general, I’ve been playing great pool back home. I was more physically prepared for this tournament than any other since I started playing again, so that only leaves one thing to work on, the mental aspect of my game.

On the bright side, I’m not quitting, giving up, or getting down on myself. I just feel frazzled and unfocused out there. I fight myself tooth and nail to stick to my preshot routine, but I don’t always win. The answer I’ve come up with is this…I need to compete more. I need to compete until I fight back that giant hive of bees buzzing in my head while I’m trying to shoot. This is a tall order for me because weekends are Mommy time, but in another way this is the best time for me to do it because Max is not in school yet and we have all week together. The other positive is that I’ll have more stuff to blog about.

My Top 4 Most Embarrassing Pool Moments

I’m not a funny person, but there’s nothing that brightens my day more than people who make me laugh. My closest friends are the one’s who give me a steady stream of things to cackle about, and in return I give them a great audience, and if they’re really hilarious an occasional snort. I can’t even believe I’m about to do this, but I love to laugh. Even if it’s at myself.

1. Hocus Focus

I’m known as a player with extreme focus. One time during a pretty big APA match I was lining up a fairly easy triple combo. I checked the spot on the first ball, backed up, checked the spot on the second ball, backed up, and fired it in! Only problem was I needed to go back one more ball. I shot an object ball as the cue ball.

2. How To Cool Off During a Match, JBar Style.

One time I was playing a WPBA match in which I was really struggling. I was losing 7-2 in a race to 9 and I just couldn’t seem to get it together. As I was in the chair I told myself that the next opportunity I got I was going to get it right. I poured myself a big glass of ice water and took a swig. This was my chance. I got up, strutted confidently over to the table,lined up the shot, and drilled it right into the rail. Disgusted, I sat down hard. My shoulder bumped the table and that huge glass of ice water tipped over right into my lap. In the arena. At a WPBA event. The best part of this story is what I did next. I didn’t take a break. I toweled off as much as I could and raged back to 8-8. I ended up losing the match, but next time I need to cool off I may just dump some water on myself.

3. My Eyes Are Up Here

I need to take a deep breath for this one. Back when I did the bikini shoot for FHM they had me on the pool table twisting and turning in unnatural positions for hours. I finally got a break and hopped off the table to a very sweet young male intern. He was responsible for getting me water or food or anything else I may need. I went over to him and grabbed a bottle of water. We were chit chatting, but I noticed that he was kind of looking around the room. He said, “I have to run, but do you want me to grab your robe or anything?”. I said no. After he walked away I looked down. Let’s just say that there wasn’t only one set of eyes on him. Oops.

4. The Whiff Heard ‘Round the World

Oh yes. Seen by thousands, perhaps millions of people worldwide. I whiffed the break on ESPN. To make matters worse it got picked up by a tv show called “Question of Sport” in the UK. In the same year, I was traveling all over the UK doing exhibitions in Riley’s pool rooms. If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “Hey aren’t you the girl who…” I could probably retire. Here’s a photo just in case you missed it.

I hope I got a few snorts out there somewhere!

WPBA Championships

I was kind of dreading the WPBA Championships because I really felt unprepared for it. Things came up, I missed a few precious practice days, and when I did play it was a big struggle. The trip was bought and paid for so I just had to suck it up and go. When I got to Florida I hit lots of balls, got a really good piece of last minute advice from a friend, and voila, the magic finally happened.

I didn’t have a great finish in Florida (though 17th isn’t terrible these days) but I played well, sometimes really well, in every match but one. Of course that one was streamed, but I still managed to grind it out and win 9-5. In another match I was faced with a tough out at double hill. I came with the shots and closed the match but the best part was, instead of being filled with fear, I was exhilarated…I KNEW I was going to get out. It’s been so long since I’ve had that feeling.

It only took me the entire season to feel like myself, just in time to go back into hibernation until next season, but the great part is I have something to grab on to. I know it’s still possible for me to feel good in the arena. I know I can face down the demons at 1 am in a double hill match. I know I can keep a positive outlook when the rolls aren’t going my way. But best of all, I can finish the year in the top 32 despite everything.

And I got to do it all with some great friends.