2017/2 – The chicken-or-egg question

One of the things I like best about my little hobby-corner on Facebook (Bert’s Billiard Page) is the fact that sometimes great players send in their comments.

Last week, I made an observation about the Bursa final between Caudron and Jaspers, with Fred in the starring role: 40-14 in 7 innings. That was the best average in a World Cup final, ever. I saw the match twice: once live on Kozoom and on video a few days later. Here’s what I wrote:

If you watch the tape of the Bursa final, you can’t help but notice how often Caudron hits the third ball at JUST the right angle to give him an easy next shot.

Every experienced 3-cushion player knows, that hitting the third ball quarter ball (or even thinner) will usually result in better positions than hitting it full ball.

And yet, no top player, not even the absolute best in the world, will claim that they AIM to hit the third ball thin. It is just irresponsible, it is too risky, they need to make certain of the point.

Here’s the chicken-or-egg question on my mind: Do they play so well because they hit the correct side of the third ball six or seven times in a match, or do they hit the correct side of the third ball six or seven times in a match because they play so well?

The first one to comment was Frédéric himself, and he did it with a sense of humor. “(One of my teammates said) the reason I hit the third ball on the correct side more often, is that I hit the third ball more often”.  Nobody can argue with that, and only a fool would accuse Caudron of playing “lucky”. That’s like saying Usain Bolt got lucky in the 100 meters because he didn’t stumble.  

But however funny and clever that reply is, my question remains unanswered. Does he aim for a thinner hit on the third ball? No. Does he get it, often, and does it help him make high runs? Yes. 

If you believed that statistics explain everything, Fred’s answer would be the end of it. The more often you make the point, the more often you will be rewarded with good positions. But I think there is more to this. There is even, I am certain of it, more than meets the eye. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The second great player to chime in was Marco Zanetti. “I believe that certain lucky or unlucky hits on the 3th ball are more and more decisive in 3-cushion games. Hitting a 3th ball very thin instead of missing it by a hair…. You can’t play 3 average or more without having tail wind.”

Another very down to earth, sensible comment. And a modest one, from a player who has a track record (especially in position play) like his.  

And now I’m going to do the unthinkable: disagree with Zanetti and Caudron!

If they did aim to hit a third ball full, THEY WOULD, more often than the rest of us, because their aim, stroke and knowledge of the lines are much better than ours.  

And yet, as we know, when they have a good feel for the table, THAT is when we see all these advantageous hits on the third ball, usually on the correct side of it.

Here’s my attempt at an explanation. When a top class player lines up for a natural 5-railer with the third ball in the open, he usually knows he’s going to make it. There is no fear in his stroke. His mind is not full of questions and choices to be made. He knows there’s no kiss, he knows there’s no miss. He is free to go from the conscious to the subconscious level of playing billiards: he can line up the shot in such a way that IT FEELS GOOD.

And why does it? Because he’s played shots like this one 10.000 times, and he has instincts for what gives position and what doesn’t. Without doing math, he’ll hit 37.9 mm of the second ball. Of course he would have made the point, had he hit it 37.7 mm thick. But that felt bad. Because he would have hit the third ball full. 

 If you play 3-cushion billiards with your intellect, you can reach a respectable level. You’ll be able to say things like: I need to hit this half-ball, I need to go to the third diamond. But that is not where the real precision lies, that is not the world Caudron lives in when he beats Jaspers in 7 innings, in a World Cup final.  

If your focus is good enough to let you get a feel for the table, if your stroke is reliable, if your confidence is deep enough to let you actually PLAY, if you can get past left-brain analysis and into right-brain holistics, away from the fear of missing and into the joy of making, that’s when you’ll start hitting the third ball on the correct side.

On your good days, that is. And not even Fred has only good days.

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