Monday, June 8, 2009

A Foregone Conclusion

My pool team qualified in February of last year to play in what’s known as the “Cities” tournament this past weekend. Over 70 of the best teams from all around this part of Florida converged on the local Moose lodge to compete for a chance to go to Las Vegas in August to play in the national team championships. The tournament was set up as a double-elimination format, 5 boards, 16 teams per board. The league sends the winner of each board to Las Vegas, paying for air fare and hotel for the week of competition. It’s a huge prize and an incredible opportunity that everyone covets.

Losers on each board move to the loser’s bracket, where they compete with one another until only one remains. The winner in the winner’s bracket eventually plays the winner from the loser’s bracket. Here’s a simplified double-elimination board, showing only four teams:


The winner of Round 1 moves to the right side winner’s bracket. The loser of Round 1 moves to the left side loser’s bracket. In this example, team L2 won in the loser’s bracket, competed with the victor from the winner’s bracket and eventually won the tournament. In our tournament, winners would have to play 5 rounds, and losers would have to play 6 rounds.

Each team consists of 5 to 8 players. Players are handicapped by the league, and are assigned a skill level from 2 to 7, with 7 being the highest. The handicap is used in a lookup table to determine how many games you must win to beat your opponent. For example, when a 4 plays a 2, the 4 must win 4 games before the 2 wins 2. This is called a “4-2 race.” It’s not always equal to your handicap. For example, when two 5’s play, it’s a 4-4 race.

In competition, each team must put up 5 players to compete against 5 players from the opposing team, but the total skill points may not exceed 23. This prevents teams from playing only top-level players. So players with very low skill levels are valuable, because it leaves the team with “spending power” to play their best players. In a tournament, the first team to win three of the five matches wins the round and moves on through the bracket.

Also, the teams don’t put up all 5 players at once, which is a surprising source of strategy. The two team captains flip a coin, and the winner decides who will “put up” a player first for the first match, and then the teams alternate putting up first. Typically, the team that wins the toss tells the other team to put up first. Putting up first is a strategic disadvantage, because you have to name a player without knowing who the other team will put up. So the team that puts up second can pick a player more likely to beat the player who was put up first. Why am I telling you this? Keep reading.

We showed up for our first round on Friday night, and to my delight, we won easily. Even I won, and I’m usually a useless, throbbing knot of nerves in tournaments. We did have an unpleasant surprise when one of our most reliable players lost a match he should have won. It was a bad sign.

The first round ended around 11:30, and we had to return at 8 a.m. for round 2, so everyone raced home to get some sleep. But after the victory, all I could do was lie there in the dark with my eyes wide open, heart pounding with excitement.

On Saturday morning, I played a gigantic guy named Calvin, who had that kind of effortless strength that makes you wonder if he is trying to actually shatter the cue ball. Unfortunately for him, pool is not a game where strength provides an advantage, and I beat him. In an interesting contrast, one of our players competed against an opponent who had a withered arm. This is what I like about pool – anybody can play. Our ace player lost again in the second round, which concerned us deeply. Despite that loss, we won and moved on to the third round. We all raced home again, because we had to be back at 8 p.m.

During the round, play was disrupted when a woman on one of the teams suffered an epileptic seizure. Paramedics were called and they took her out on a stretcher.

In the third round Saturday night, we played a team composed mostly of older retired people, who have nothing to do all day but practice. They were good. But somehow, we beat them in three straight matches. Our ace player came out of his slump and beat a sharp old coot named Irv. By this time, emotional fatigue was starting to play a role. You could tell that the older people were up past their bedtime, and drained from the excitement. Our ace is a musician with a symphony orchestra, and he told me that he never loses his focus, because he has to concentrate for 3 hours straight to play an opera.

We were told that round 4 would start at 10 a.m. on Sunday, so we all went home again to rest up, thrilled to have made it this far. On Sunday, we played a team with some familiar faces. Lots of players move around the league playing at different locations, or playing on different teams on different nights of the week.

We won the toss, and they put up a 4. We put up a 5, expecting an easy win. But we lost the first match when their player shocked everyone by making a “Hail Mary” kick shot that would have been nearly impossible for the best player in the league, resulting in an easy runout for the victory.

We put up our ace player in the second match, and they countered with an opponent named Trish, who was equally rated, resulting in a 4-4 race. Trish displayed uncanny skill and table savvy, beating him with effortless ease 3 games straight. But she had to win one more game, and the musician got his opera focus in gear, beating her in four straight games for the win. By this time, the hall was deathly quiet, punctuated by occasional shrieks of victory when a team won a match.

Now the strategic aspect of the game came into play. We had played two 5’s, leaving us with 13 points to spend. Our opponents had played a 4 and a 5, leaving 14 points to spend, and it was their turn to put up. They put up a 3, leaving them the option of playing a 7 in later matches. Our team captain decided to play a 3 as well, leaving us the same option. Unfortunately, this strategy meant that our 3 had to win. Otherwise, we would be down 2 matches to 1, and the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. And she lost.

The reason it was a foregone conclusion is because we had to put up in the fourth match. If we put up our 7, they would put up a low-ranked player as a sacrifice, and play their 7 in the last match, in which we would be forced to put up a low-ranked player. If we put up our 3, they'd just play their 7 and end it immediately. Sure enough, we put up our 7, and they put up a 3. Our 7 won easily, and in the last match, we were forced to put up a 3 against their player Mark, who is one of the best players in the league. It was all over quickly. We marched glumly out of the hall, accompanied by shrieks of victory from other teams. Well, there’s always 2010.

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