February 8, 2018

Are you handicapped?

What a touchy subject this can be! Handicapping in leagues and tournaments, whether from a formulated system or simply as assigned by someone who claims to know, always seems to stir up a storm among players, league operators and tournament directors. But what is the purpose of handicapping and what is its place in pool? There are some who believe leagues and the handicaps that come along with them have been what have “saved” pool. Then, there are those who believe just the opposite, that the leagues and their handicap systems have ruined pool.

If we go back to early in the 19th century, we can find out how the game of billiards came to be called “pool.” One definition of the word “pool” is: a collective bet, or ante. A “pool room” was a betting parlor for horse racing. Billiard tables were placed in these pool rooms so the bettors could have something to do in between races. It stands to reason that the bettors soon began betting on more than just the ponies! And the tables? Soon they were known as “pool tables!”

From its history, the game of pool has come from a dark, seedy, smoky, and somewhat degenerate background. The game of kings? Hardly, not in this country! If you were a person who frequented those early pool rooms chances are you were not soft. Chances are, you were a hustler of sorts. You might have had a job, but you made (and lost) your money in the pool room! It was not a place for women or children and many a man was toughened by the pool room.

As time went on, the game became more public with pool tables being in bars, restaurants, and even game rooms. More and more people started to play. Much like poker, the game itself is innocent and can be played without wagers, but it is not the same! The betting, the wagering, the gambling, is as much a part of it as the balls themselves! A new breed of hustler was born. This, is where the evolution stopped until someone decided to try and tame the game.

Hustlers of yesteryear were a rare breed. The folks who hung around the pool rooms (which were called pool rooms because they had pool tables) were not generally what we would call everyday people. There were the gamblers and there were the players. Sometimes, the gamblers could even play a little bit, too!

The point I am trying to make is, pool will always have that stigma from its early days at the tracks. That is where the modern game originated and became what we know it as today. That history is an intriguing, mystifying, and almost holy part of the game to those of us who have a true passion for pool. It is not a game for everyone. It was never intended to be a “family friendly” activity. Those who played the game played with true heart and desire! They celebrated when they won, and they paid off when they lost.

There was no crying in pool, and if there was, it was part of a hustle! The game was never meant to be fair. The best player or players were supposed to win. Those who didn’t win would go back to the poolrooms to practice, or they would quit! The rules were never changed to give the weaker players a better chance. The hustlers never gave back their winnings due to a guilty conscience. It was a game for people who were tough, thick-skinned folks and were not easily offended by anything! The thought of banning anyone from a tournament because they “played too good” never crossed anyone’s mind! In my opinion, that is the true nature of pool. Just like any other sport or activity, it can be done “just for fun” if that is all one is looking to get from it.

In my younger years I considered myself an avid softball player. I played in local leagues and tournaments and at the time was probably one of the best outfielders and base runners in the area. One day, I met a guy who had played some pro baseball. He had been called up as a closer (pitcher) for the Cleveland Indians. He also had played some softball so I recruited him to play on my team. When he showed up to his first game we decided to warm up with each other. Immediately I realized the difference between what I considered myself, and what he was! I was known for my “cannon arm” which he proceeded to mock making my cannon look like a spring-loaded BB gun! His speed and prowess in the base paths put mine to shame!

He was an all-around better ball player than me! I took the game just as seriously as did he, but his natural ability, talent, and training put him at a much higher level. I respected that. Was I jealous? Well, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t! But instead of turning that jealousy into hate, I turned it into desire. For the few games he played with us, I watched him throw. I watched his swing. I tried to learn as much as I could from him to better my own performance. We didn’t make him throw with his left hand, or bat with one eye closed, he was just better than us and we accepted that.

The correlation I am trying to make here is this: Pool seems to be the only sport/game in which there is no real reward for improving. As players’ skills improve, more and more often they are punished for being better at the game than those who have not tried as hard! It makes absolutely no sense! These guys we watch on Youtube, PoolactionTV, and numerous other streaming sites, have dedicated their lives to this game! To some, that dedication is misinterpreted as a misspent youth, a degenerate, or just plain laziness. While I will agree some of those traits do accompany some pool players, I will never agree with punishing players for playing better! This trickles all the way down to the local level.

Every day I hear about or see tournaments which won’t allow certain players to participate. “No road players allowed!” “No pro players allowed!” I’ve even seen, “No 7s allowed!” Why? This softening of tournaments has to stop! The phasing out of the strong players has to stop! They should be the heroes! They should be the idols to whom the rest of us look up and try to emulate! Sacrificing the integrity of a tournament for participation numbers does more damage than good in the long run. The softer players, the ones who just don’t have what it takes to survive in the pool world, become spoiled. They want to enjoy the benefits of winning without putting in the work to be a winner. Once they get a taste of that, it’s very difficult to rid their mouths of it! In turn, the strong players who are no longer allowed to play become obsolete. General play and skill levels decline. Those who had the potential to be great see what has happened to those who got there, then they no longer want to get there themselves and not be allowed to play!

What is the point of trying to be a better player if, once you get there, you’re not allowed to play anymore? How do you think these strong players got to where they are now? Do you think they emerged from the womb with a champion stroke? Were they born with a knack for One Pocket strategy? Absolutely not! They put in time, countless hours of practice, and countless hours of being beaten down by those who played better than them at the time. They paid their dues in both time, and cash! That is what it takes! It takes heart! It takes dedication! It takes desire! It takes a killer instinct with which only a few people are born! That is what the game is about! Those are the people for whom the game was created! If you don’t have the heart, if you don’t want to dedicate yourself to it, if you don’t have the desire or that killer instinct, you don’t need to play in tournaments! You need to stay in league, collect your participation trophies and patches while you manage your handicap in such a way so as to make it easier to win. Real pool competition is not for you! You are handicapped!

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against leagues! Leagues can be a good thing and are perfect for generating business and revenue for bar and pool room owners (and league operators). Also, league night is a good time to recruit those select few players who appear to have what it takes to graduate to real pool. I participate in a league and thoroughly enjoy my league night (most of the time). It’s a great opportunity for me to share my limited knowledge with beginners and see if I can ignite the same spark in them. Not everyone will want to listen. Not everyone will care. But there will be one or two who want to go farther. They are the ones in whom I am interested! Everyone else? Sure, we’ll cut up, have a good time and enjoy ourselves. It’s league night! But when league night is over, the next time I pick up my cue I will be on a mission! I may not be a great player and probably never will be, but my heart and desire is as big as anyone’s! That’s what it takes to play. I am not handicapped!

 

This is the lag.

Hit ‘em good, my friends!

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Sponsored by Jacoby Custom Cues

Author: Kelvin Greenleaf

Editor: Shaylyn Troop