The run of the ball: we love it, we hate it.


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on August 3, 2013

Bert van ManenAny poker fans out there? I don’t play, but I watch it, can’t get enough. To do well in poker, your game needs to have the correct balance between science and gut, between calculation and intuition. You need nerve, courage, and concentration. A bit of personality does not hurt, and neither does… luck. Sound familiar? Does it remind you of any other sport?

Only a decade ago, many European governments were still so ignorant about the game of poker that they viewed it as a “game of chance”, and wanted to apply laws made for lotteries, raffles and slot machines. The advocates of legal poker had it easy: they could comfortably prove that poker is a game of skill, with luck as a MINOR component. Look at final tables of tournaments, be it in the USA or in Europe: the same familiar faces are there, over and over again.

It’s not very different in the final rounds of billiard tournaments: familiar faces all the time. The analogy will perhaps go further than you first imagined. You could think of the two hole cards as starting positions. View the betting process as attack & defense. A lucky card on the river, turning a losing hand into a winning one? That’s a fluke, of course. Three cushion is also a game of skill, with luck being an additional, minor factor.  What we don’t have, is the option to bluff. 3-cushion players ALWAYS have to show their hand, they can never win on psychology alone.

“If you have a good feel for the table, you will make better decisions.”

A quote from a poker magazine, but it sounds a lot like 3-cushion commentary, right?

This is something you’ll hear poker players say often: “I was running so bad last night”. They are not saying they PLAYED bad. On the contrary. They are saying they were not rewarded for good play. The cards were against them. On the other hand, if they say they were running good, they are not apologizing for the help they got from Lady Luck. They say that their good decisions were justly rewarded. Now does THAT remind you of any other sport?

In billiards, luck is even less decisive than in poker, I’m sure we can all agree on that. But just HOW minor is its contribution to the outcome of matches? Two percent? Five? Ten even? Personally, I am thinking more of TWENTY %, across the board, from 0.4 to 1 average to the world’s best.

Billiard players call it “the run of the ball”, which addresses the element of luck in the game, but it should never be confused with the making of flukes. A fluke is an accident, an incident. Run of the ball isn’t. It is the ebb and flow of a match, it’s a tide that can wreak havoc for a weekend, or for months. If you have it, and the other guy doesn’t, game over. It explains why (for years) Jaspers beats Blomdahl 3 – 0 in sets one week, loses 0 – 3 two weeks later. I have not researched this, but my memory tells me that in the years of their beautiful rivalry, they’ve had many more 3- 0 ‘s and 0 – 3’s in World Cups, than 3 – 2’s and 2 – 3’s. ROTB is the reason a 1 average Joe sometimes beats a world class player, against formidable odds. That does not happen once in a blue moon, we see it half a dozen times in a season. Blomdahl lost 30 – 40 in 35 to Santos Oliveira at the WC last year in Porto, where Jaspers also lost (32 – 40 in 24), to Takeshima. Caudron lost 32 – 40 in 34 to Ahmet Alp in Antalya this year. World champion Merckx lost a Belgian league match 12 – 50 in 23 innings! Complete off-day? It happens, but much more often, it’s the run of the ball. Watch the tape of the TB – Oliveira match: what the balls do to the Swede is bordering on sadism.

Let’s talk about defense. The ROTB is a fickle friend: with just centimeters here or there, a nudge or a minimal kiss, it can turn a perfectly played “carotte” into an unmissable ticky (rail, ball, rail, rail, ball, or sometimes rail, rail, ball, rail, ball) or a very makeable, regular bank shot. Not even the best players have control over these little nudges and half-inch differences.

What about position play? I’ll simplify matters just a little, and say there are three categories of position play: a) place the first object ball in a favorable zone (a corner), to create a “large” ball for the following shot b) place that first object ball in a favorable zone (close but not frozen to the top half of the long rail), to play a “round the table” type shot off that same ball, and c) play a point in such a way that all three balls are open on the table, away from the rails.

The ROTB can mess up your position play so casually and effortlessly, it’s almost funny. a) You play a ball into a corner? You did too well, it’s frozen to both rails, a minimal target now. You can’t play off it, so your angle on the other object ball must be very good. If it isn’t, you’re in trouble. b) You played for second ball position alongside the long rail? Great, but you landed “on top” of the third ball in the bottom corner, and now your cueing is hampered. You’ll have to play off that other ball, the one in the bottom corner, 0,03 millimeters away from yours. c) Tried the sophisticated shot where you bring everything “into the table”? That one ALWAYS has an element of chance in it. I often end up with three balls in a row, the way they plant potatoes. “Almost in a row” would have been great, if I could hit off the ball furthest away from mine. If you can’t “see” that back ball, you’re screwed.

Popular belief says that billiard balls roll favorably for the one who is playing well. That is, of course, a myth. Aramith has no sympathies or preferences, nor can it recognize by whom it was just hit. There is no such thing as a permanently unlucky 3-cushion player: the run of the ball giveth, the run of the ball taketh away.