The Yoshihara delusion


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on November 23, 2013

Bert van ManenYou just HAVE to like this story from the seventies: Japanese 3-cushion player Yoshio Yoshihara is witness to the birth of his first child. He is overcome with happy emotions: his love for the newborn and his wife, gratitude for his life and the brightness of the future. That same afternoon, he goes to his billiard room for a game to 30 points, dedicates the match to his son, starts and finishes it in the first inning with a run of 30.

It’s heartwarming and inspiring. And I don’t believe a word of it.

The positivity of the Yoshihara anecdote is rare. A much more common version of the same delusion, where players claim that intense emotion and the power of will brought on extraordinary play, is the revenge performance. We’ve all heard this one. First, someone tells you about the sins of their opponent (unsportsmanlike behavior of some kind, usually). Then, there is the claim: “obviously, that guy was NEVER going to beat me that afternoon /evening / ever again”. Finally, there is the triumphant account of the manner in which the douchebag got his rear end kicked.

These stories are an intricate part of life in the 3-cushion community, and they are often good fun to listen to. Some players even stick to the facts, when it comes to high runs and final score (not many though; 3-cushion players embellish more vigorously than they chalk). But even the honest story tellers seem to have no basic understanding of the way emotion interacts with billiards. You CAN’T play better 3-cushion because you intensely dislike your opponent, or love your wife. You can’t run a 7, ever, because you desperately need to settle a score with someone. I believe adrenalin is essential in weight-lifting. I believe willpower is crucial to marathon running. But we, poor 3-cushion players, are not much helped by either. We need quick & clear thinking, equilibrium and precision, things that don’t mix well at all with a rush of blood to the head.

What about our motivation? Are we not better able to focus for two hours, if honor and revenge are at stake? Yes. But we’ll usually waste our concentration on the wrong things. We tend to play overly defensive in grudge matches, turning them into trench wars. “I don’t care if I hurt, as long as he hurts more”.  Being a universe-loving guru of positivity does not work either, by the way. It will screw up your match tactics just as badly, and your opponent will profit from your naivety. Again, the middle ground is where you want to be, balance is the key word, and every strong emotion is your enemy.

So why do we all tell revenge match stories? There is a desire in us, to find explanations for good and bad play. If only we knew why, we could work on it. We would have a grasp on our careers, be the master of our domain. The truth is, we don’t have a clue. We can’t explain why we play well, EVER. It happens to us. If we practice, it happens more often. A new cue may inspire for a while, then the placebo effect wears off. Lessons from a pro can give us an instant boost, but they can also set us back for a while, and the benefits will only show in the long run. A room or a table we like may turn out to be our worst enemy the next week. Show up stressed and tired for a match, you may do well. Take the afternoon off, practice for a few hours, and the evening could be a disaster. Not even world class players can tell you how they will do tomorrow, and not even their most recent results have any significance.

Take a look at a week in the life of J.P. de Bruijn, the current nr. 23 on the world ranking.

  • 8 November. Loses to Alexander Salazar in the Medellin World Cup: 40 – 36 in 44. JP makes 1 point in his last 14 visits to the table. He averages 0.818.
  • 15 November. Beats van Erp in a Dutch Grand Prix: 40 – 28 in 15, helped by a run of 16. He averages 2.666.
  • 17 November. Loses to Tijssens in the Dutch league: 34 – 45 in 31. He averages 1.096.
  • 18 November. Beats Stitchinsky in the Belgian league: 42 – 15 in 9.  He averages 4.666.

De Bruijn may be on the sensitive side, but he is also a seasoned professional who has dealt with pressure and jangling nerves for 30 years. HE can’t explain how he went from Salazar to Stitchinsky, because if he could, he would not be nr. 23 in the world. He would be nr. 1.

There is of course no video or score sheet for the Yoshihara 30, nor was there a referee. It’s a myth, a story, probably with a degree of truth in it. It’s not going to show up in my best match or high run records.

Do we even WANT to know why we play well, or not well at all? If that mystery were solved, would our sport be better, and would we love it more? Asking that question is answering it: no. We’re on a fascinating quest for the holy grail of billiards. If we found it, we would not know what to do with it.