What is the best way to prepare yourself to play a person with a skill level (SL) much lower than your own? I’m a SL6, and I often have to play SL3s.
Many times during League play or at Nationals, we have to play people that are not close to our skill level, whether higher or lower. It can be frustrating on both ends of the spectrum, so I will address the higher to lower skill level matchup, as well as what the lower skilled player competing with a higher skilled player should be thinking about. It definitely can take you out of your comfort zone when you compete in a match with someone who is not near your skill level.
Viewpoints of a higher skilled player . . . When a higher skilled player competes with another higher skilled player, there is a certain amount of familiarity to the number of safeties—especially the safeties that are intended to be played—and the overall pace of the game. It is a longer race. If you make a mistake (like making an early 8-ball), there is a whole match of either a 5-5 race, or a 5-4 race to “battle” back and play through this error. When playing a SL2 or SL3, that luxury definitely doesn’t exist. If you make an error and lose a game, the other player at the lower tier may only have to win one more game. I know this puts many higher skilled players on edge. You start pointing out all of the rolls when the lower skilled player missed a ball and got safe (again!), or when a ball rolls in front of your hole for the 8-ball and/or clusters up your balls when previously they were all out in the open. I know. I have seen it happen during many of my matches with these players— many innings in a row! All of this is just one facet of what happens. The mental side of this matchup can also have the higher skilled player playing much more wide open, or haphazardly. After seeing a SL2 or SL3 miss the balls they do, the higher skilled player will sometimes play faster, or try to run out when there is no out, sending the cue ball into a large cluster to break out balls without paying attention to how the balls would spread, etc. When a higher skilled player competes with another player of their caliber, he/she will play more carefully. We pay attention to exactly how to break out that cluster. We do not make a ball until we know we can run out fully. We play focused and at a steady pace.
Ultimately, what needs to happen is you have to play everyone the same. You have to play that SL2 or SL3 the exact same way you would against the best SL7 (in 8-ball) or SL9 (in 9-ball), or any other pro that you respect. I, myself, visualize playing Efren Reyes. If my goal is to play the best shot, the best way I know how, why would it matter who I am playing? If I’m playing Efren, you can bet that I am doing everything that I have written in previous articles—not caring about the rolls, staying even-tempered, and focusing with quiet, determined concentration. I realize it takes a lot of discipline to watch a SL2 shoot the way they do at times, and then regard them the same as you would Jeanette Lee. It is not exactly respect for the other player you are showing by doing this, but ultimately a respect for the game itself. No matter the opponent, you take what the table presents you—no matter who positioned the layout for you that way— and do the absolute best option your knowledge and practice affords you. Do not readily assume a SL2 or SL3 cannot run out if the balls are open. We have all seen it happen, or have heard stories of it happening to other people. Don’t let this happen to you because you rushed a shot, or took a “flyer” that you had no business shooting because the shot looked fun and impressive. Taking these shots would lose the game for you against Efren; it is better to assume the same when playing a SL3.
There are only a few instances I would approve of doing some things when competing with a lower skilled player that you may not ordinarily do when you compete against another higher skilled player. One such situation is when you have only the 8-ball left and you are safe behind a ball. If you have to kick at the 8-ball and it looks like if you hit it at the wrong speed or on the wrong side that you might scratch, give the SL2 or SL3 ball-in-hand, and don’t take the kick. Now, you don’t have to just pick up the ball-in-hand and give it to them. You can shoot at one of their balls to tie up another one of their balls, or move an unfavorable ball of theirs out of the way of the pocket the 8-ball is positioned toward. Ideally, the SL2 or SL3 would have many of their balls on the table, in a cluster. Again, you could make one for them if they do not have a cluster already. This way, you could play to your opponent’s weakness, where I have been advocating to only notice what is on the table. The difference is to do it intelligently and thoughtfully. You are playing to their weakness because that is a better option than kicking at a dangerous ball that could give away the game in one shot. There are almost always exceptions to most rules, and this is one.
Viewpoints of a lower skilled player . . . It is almost always nervousness that gets the best of you in this matchup. You often feel like the match won’t be fun for you if you think this player will run out all the time, or this kind of pressure is just overwhelming at your experience level. You have to take this as an opportunity! Normally, when a SL2 is put up against a SL7 (8-ball), it is rarely with the expectation that you will be the favorite in the matchup. You do not need to feel any pressure that you have to win exactly. All you can do, and all anyone on your team can (or should) expect, is that you will do the best you can to make the balls that you are able to make at the given time. I would hate to see you miss balls because you believe that there is added pressure. I know we all want to win, and you can! You will come to find out, the first step to winning more often is when you quit caring about winning so much. I’m not saying don’t be competitive. You should want to do as well as you can based solely on that, wanting to do well for you. Playing this way will result in a win more times than if you are focused more on winning versus playing as well as you can. Again, do not be focused on the “win,” but instead be focused on playing as well as you can.
When you find out that you have been thrown up against a higher skilled player, welcome the challenge! So many SL4s and SL5s wish they had the opportunity to play these great players more often. As the saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” It is almost always a greater victory to defeat someone who is widely respected, and I guarantee you, if you are the person to make a SL7 “fall,” it will definitely make your night, and encourage you. To some, playing like that could definitely be viewed as a “risk.” There you are, center stage in front of no less than 10 people, playing this highly skilled player. Again, with great risk, comes a great reward. But what really is this risk to you? You get the opportunity to play this higher skilled player, with no true expectation (other than your own) to win. You really are in the best spot possible if you think about it. All the “glory” but really, no risk. The risk to some is their own ego; losing in front of these people. SL2s and SL3s need to be realistic here. If someone has an ego, it should be owned because someone truly has an ability worthy of having an “abundant confidence” about it. If you are a SL2 or SL3, you simply aren’t there yet. It is like if I were to get upset or embarrassed trying to par a hole playing golf at Torrey Pines. I have only played golf sparingly; what business do I have getting upset or having an ego playing something I have not put that much practice into? I enjoy playing golf for the sheer fun of it, and you should feel the same way about pool.
If you come across a higher skilled player that is complaining that they have to play you, let them complain. This only makes them shoot not as well as you may have seen them play others of their caliber. There are many problems higher skilled players make for themselves while playing you; take advantage of that. Just try to play your game the best you know how. Do not get nervous because of who they are. Just try to make a ball. Think of a way that you can move your ball in front of a pocket that would obstruct your opponent from pocketing a ball, something simple. Just push balls around if you can’t make one, in a way that you feel would be the most difficult for them to run out. That’s it.
In the end, it’s about welcoming the challenge no matter what skill level you are. For the higher skilled player, it is accepting the challenge as presented and digging deep for the discipline to play everyone the same. You need to play “tight and right” against anyone you play. For the lower skilled player, it is about having the opportunity to really be the star that night, to stand out above all the expectations, and do what you may think is, “the impossible.” How fun is that? That is why I have played pool for all of these years. I appreciate the “dare to be great” situations that I have been in, and many times, have risen above. My life has been enriched from being presented with these challenges in pool, and has helped me in many other facets of my life.
I welcome any comments or questions you may have! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.