A business associate told me upon learning of our common interest in the game of pocket billiards or pool that having proficiency in the game of pool is a sign of a misspent youth. Playing pool meant time spent inside pool halls or recreation halls trying to master a game of sinking multi-colored balls with a long skinny stick in one of six pockets on rectangular tables covered by usually green cloth instead of doing homework, reading books, or preparing for an exam. I agreed with him and we proceeded to share stories of wins, losses, embarrassments, triumphs, lessons learned and interesting people met along the way while wasting time playing pool.
With white hair now more than black on my scalp, I now recognize that it is wrong to say that playing pool was misspent time during my youthful days. It is fun to say it and is a great way to connect with a stranger much in the way the game of golf is a bridge to many social connections. Yet, many lessons I have learned in 18 years of formal education plus more years in corporate training programs all apply in the game of pool and its social dimension.
Basic concepts l learned in Geometry such as angles, proportionality, inductive versus deductive proofs, and vanishing point perspectives are necessary to play the game proficiently. Many great players of the game rose to the top of the sport without formal education in Geometry but through their skills in observation, experimentation, and intuition, and offered expertise and innovation in their own unique ways.
Another aspect of pool play at more advanced levels is an application of a concept taught in Operations Research. Critical path analysis allows an analyst to examine what path a process must follow to achieve optimal results. Once this path is known, the process is reversed to the known starting point. In Game Theory, Nim games (or coin elimination games) produce what are called optimal first and second moves (if the first optimal move is not played) that guarantee a win. (Incidentally, a 7-year-old unbeknownst to me used the concept of optimal first moves to repeatedly beat me in a Nim game. That series of losses to that 7-year-old led us to producing a matrix of all possible optimal moves given any number of remaining coins during a game.)
Masters of the game of pool are experts in the application of critical path analysis and optimal first moves. Running the table typically requires choosing a path that will lead to easier shots or position play. Sometimes balls clustered together must be broken apart to set up shots. Players who are able to prepare for break-up shots usually generate resounding applause from knowledgeable and appreciative audiences.
Their use of these strategies are not dissimilar from chess grandmasters thinking through multiple moves in advance before making a move. Strategic game application in pool games is actually more complex than in chess since the concepts of critical path analysis and optimal first move require precise execution as well. The applications are not just conceptual - the ideas need to happen on the pool table as envisioned.
The sport of pool is also a great example of Post-Modernist thought in practice. There are many varied games in the sport of pool. 8-ball is commonly played among recreational players; 9-ball and 10-ball are the most popular among professional pool players in televised or live-streamed tournaments; snooker is dominant in the British Commonwealth nations; 14-1 or straight pool was the game of choice in America during the 1950s as the great movie The Hustler with Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie portrayed. In other countries, different versions of the game of rotation (the lowest numbered ball must be hit first) are most commonly played. The game of pool has many perspectives and personalities.
61 point Rotation was the game of choice in the Philippines when I was first exposed and became fascinated by the game of pool. Here in America, 61 point Rotation was known in the 1960s and 1970s as Chicago pool. Why 61 points? Fifteen object balls each numbered from 1 through 15 are used. As mentioned before, the lowest numbered object ball must be hit first. Since the sum of all the numbers on the object balls is equal to 120, the player that accumulates 61 points or higher wins the game. It is possible to have a tied game with each player accumulating 60 points. If no balls are sunk after the break, a run of sinking object balls from 1 through 11 accumulates 66 points. A little proficiency in silent mental addition helps in making strategic decisions in rotation. (Some games like One-pocket - yes a player can use only one pocket to sink balls in! - use negative points for scoring.) The congestion caused by 15 object balls, a long run of 11 consecutive balls, and multiple paths to winning, the 61 point Rotation game is more well-rounded and complex than 8-ball and 9-ball.
Another difference in the game of pool as played in the Philippines compared to the US and Britain is the physical movement. In snooker, the dominant style is very rigid with an almost robotic mechanical setup and progression of movement. Steve Davis, a dominant snooker player in the 1980s is an exemplar of this style. Many American players play with a very controlled movement style as well. Buddy Hall perhaps is best known for the economy of movement in his stroke and cue ball control.
In contrast, many, if not the majority, of the great players in the Philippines that I watched and learned from played with a very loose and fluid almost seemingly uncontrolled range of movements. Picture using a manual meat grinder where the hand pushes the handle in a circular motion instead of a piston going back and forth along a level plane. In the movie The Color of Money - the sequel to The Hustler with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, American pool player Keith McCready played the part of Grady Seasons - a tribute to another great American pool player Grady Matthews. The set-up and motion (and personality) of Keith McCready is reminiscent of the great pool players I watched in the Philippines - fast, loose, seemingly uncontrolled at times - just like Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler.
The period from the late 1980s and the early 1990s is now dubbed in the US and world pool scene as the Great Invasion of the Filipino pool hustlers. Up and down the US, lone or small groups of Filipino hustlers that I saw in dingy pool halls in Metro-Manila were beating big name local pool hustlers in whatever local game was being played. Their notoriety led to these hustlers to use fake names to enter local pool tournaments and money games. But the arrival of mass commercialization of the professional and amateur pool leagues, videotape recordings of matches, and then the internet and YouTube led to the recognition of the Filipino pool players as a dominant force in the world scene. Their faces and names became known to the global pool scene.
What is revelatory is the driving force that propelled this intrepid group of invaders from a developing country into global fame. It was not their articulate speech or glamorous or photogenic TV persona but simply their mastery of a simple game each with their unique unorthodox styles or range of movements. Sport commentators now regularly say that the Filipino players brought a very different aspect of precision and control to the art of kicking (to use a cushion to hit the object ball where the direct path is blocked by another ball), banking (to make the object ball bounce off a cushion on its way to sinking into a pocket), and safety play (to place the object ball and the cue ball such that there is no direct unobstructed path between the two balls). In addition, many of the Filipino players brought with them a more circuitous style of cue ball control and position play. They were not afraid to use more cushions and english (to spin the cue ball forward, backwards, left, or right) to set up for the next shot. These aspects of their once novel approach to the game are now commonplace among the elite in today’s global pool scene. In turn, many of the younger pool players in the Philippines have adapted the economy of cue ball control and physical movement from the global elites of the sport. There has been a global transfer of technology even in the simple game of pool.
The authority of the great Filipino pool players was not from their fancy education, training camps, or well-rehearsed and scripted personality and public profiles. Their authority was in their demonstrated results. Their popularity was in their humility. As the great Efren Reyes is frequently quoted saying: “I got lucky”.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the experience of these once intrepid Filipino pool players. Authority does not come from fancy degrees or use of specialized jargon. Expertise is not limited to a particular field of study. Knowledge and skills are transferable and in some realms easily adaptable. Concepts learned from Geometry, observation, intuition, inductive and deductive reasoning can also be learned from experience and from competition. One does not need a PhD to establish authority. One does not need to showcase fancy terminology. One need only to show results. And some humility helps as well.