It’s all about the break


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on September 11, 2016

Everybody loves the shootout, right? Well, maybe the top players are not too crazy about it. But we, the spectators, are glued to the screen. We’ll sometimes miss a few points here and there early in the match,  we’ll walk the dog if we have to, but not if a World Cup quarterfinal has just ended 40-40 and it’s time for “penalties”, to use the soccer term.

The recent tournament in Guri provided plenty of excitement, and Blomdahl was right in the middle of it. He miraculously escaped in his quarterfinal against Jung Han Heo, who missed on match point six times. The match ended 40-40, TB ran two from the spots and an exhausted Heo missed the break.

In the semifinal, the Swede again found himself in a shootout, this time against Vietnamese Quyet Chien Tran. Another two from Torbjörn, and three from Tran who exploded with joy.  TB was quick to blame himself, saying: “Two is not very good, and often it’s just not good enough.”

We all know that in a long match, the stronger player will be an even bigger favorite to win. The shorter the match, the bigger the part that is played by Lady Luck. I could conceivably beat Caudron once or even twice, in a match to 10 points, if we played ten of those. The only way for me to beat him in a match to 100 points, would be if I handcuffed  his left wrist to his right ankle.

So exactly HOW different are the chances between two players of unequal strength, if you vary the length of the match? The permutations are endless, but the sheet I made should give you some idea. You’ll notice that the advantage a 0.700 player has over a 0.500 player is much more dramatic than the one held by a 2.000 player over a 1.500. Not in the sheet, but also noteworthy is the fact that  the best of five set system we’ve used for over 25 years, produces roughly the same percentages as a 50 point match. Forty point matches are quite a bit less “honest” than best of five, but more honest than best of three (to 15 points). That all makes sense.



We’ve seen a lot of shootouts in the past few seasons, and it’s not a coincidence. The second echelon players have gotten much stronger, thirty or forty guys can no longer be bullied or overpowered. They defend too well, score too heavily  when they get in , and sometimes they lose 40 – 34 and calmly make the missing 6 in the equalizer. I love it when that happens, by the way.

And then, there is the flip-a-coin moment. It’s shootout time, and it’s all about the break shot. You’ve practiced it before the match, but is the table still responding in the same way, or has it changed? If a table changes during a match, nine times out of ten, it has shortened.  Do you want the referee to clean the balls, which will give you a little more length? Or do you NOT want him to, because you want to hold on to your “feel” of the last few innings?

Many break shots in the equalizing inning are missed, because the player hits it exactly as he did during warm-up. And it will often be short, 90 minutes later.

It is very tempting to always explain a shootout win by saying: “X was mentally stronger, he wanted it more than Y.” But the truth often is, that half a roll of the ball, which provides or ruins position, decides about a player’s fate. You can hit a perfectly fine “systematic” break (red to the top left half of the table, yellow to bottom left corner) and be left with nothing. Your opponent can hit a bad break with balls kissing, and he may end up with a prime position. Frustrating, but true.

Referees (and the good ones know this!) should be extremely precise when placing the balls on the spots. A misplacement of the red ball by, let’s say, 3 mm will result in a significantly different break shot. A little anecdote to illustrate that: Caudron was warming up for a balkline exhibition a few years ago, and the table was ridiculously long. He simply couldn’t make the break shot, it kept sliding “below” the yellow. His opponent, the old maestro Mister 100 himself, quickly came to the rescue. He instructed the ref (that was me) to place the red 5 mm below its spot, and the white ball 5 mm to the right of its spot. It was invisible to the spectators, and the natural line of the cue ball was at least 10 cm shorter now.

One suggestion I would like to make about the shootout: under the current rules, the player who has started the match, also starts the shootout. I think it would be better if that was decided by chance (the ref flipping a coin), or by right: the players lagging again.