Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The Big Win

A Story of Karma and Victory

The Warm-up

The day started out like most others, slow and easy without stress or worry, but I knew there were challenges ahead. Two big meetings at the bank and then the 9-ball tournament in the evening.

I had been sluggish lately, hadn't done the treadmill or weights for a week, so to prepare for the day's events, I put myself to the task, and did the work. Truly a paradox, it is, how spending energy (on the treadmill and weights) actually creates energy!

It was a good workout, and I hit a new high speed on the treadmill. The meetings went well, and I got home just in time for sunset, then one of my favorite meals before driving north to the tournament.

I was just setting up for some solo practice (El Maestro Tony Sorto had not yet arrived) when Vince asks if I want to shoot some games. No, I do NOT want to shoot some games... I want REVENGE!

Vince beat me in the last tournament, 3-0, and he even beat El Maestro himself 3-0 with only 4 shots! That is one incredible accomplishment, especially for a "B" player, but it is also a testament to how much luck is involved in matches of only 3 games. In a short race, anything can happen!

I win the first game against Vince, convincingly, and say "That's one I owed you!" to let him know I'm paying him back for last time. In the middle of the second game, Tony arrives to watch the carnage. "That's two, Vince. I owe you one more!"

I'm shooting with a purpose, making some real nice shots, and game three comes my way. Vince is paid in full: Mikie wins 3-0. Now, this is just pre-tournament warmup, but already I feel that my night is a success, no matter what happens later. Tony continues the Vince-bashing, while I take a break to bask in sweet victory.

A short note about Vince... Don't get me wrong. I like Vince. He reminds me a lot of me: Quiet, humble, with a real desire to learn. Nice-enough guy, it seems, but this is war. Nothing personal involved here. It is my job to crush him, as it is with any competitor.

Soon enough the tournament begins...

First Match

There are many elements of luck involved in these tournaments. The first of these is the luck of the draw, that is, who you get matched up against.

When it was announced who my first match was with, I was completely overjoyed, but at the same time a bit nervous.

David Nakano rates himself as an "A" player. He seems to be a likable guy, clean cut, well groomed, quiet, composed. He had always impressed me with his shotmaking. Although I had never played against him, I had checked his "speed" briefly, a couple of times, and he looked as though he knew what he was doing. I had always thought he would be tough to beat. It's interesting how first impressions can be wrong.

Although we had never met before, he must have been checking my speed as well, because this past December he came up to me between matches, and told me: "Mike, you should NOT be playing as an A-level shooter!"

Now it is important to put this in perspective. It was only in November that I started playing as an "A". Prior to that I was playing as a "C". It may have taken some people by surprise that someone would completely skip over the "B" level, but this was done on the advice of my instructor, El Maestro Tony Sorto.

I told David Nakano that I was only doing what my instructor told me to do. But David went on, showing me a chart, from a scrapbook of notes he keeps, and the chart mentions the different levels of players, and describes the playing characteristics for each. And, according to David's interpretation, after watching me shoot a few balls in a few games, and never having played against me himself, he figured I was rating myself higher than I should. He said I was setting myself up for disappointment. He said he figures he is the best handicapper around, and can tell very accurately who can beat who, and by how much. I asked for a copy of the chart,but David said "No Way! This stuff has taken me a long time to collect. This is private stuff." I showed him that the printout was from a public website, and that I could get it easily in minutes, but he still said I couldn't have it. (click here for the chart he was using)

Now, one has to wonder what would be his motivation for coming up to me to tell me I was over-rating myself (in his "expert" opinion). Is he the rating police? Is it a crime to over-rate myself? Surely it would be hustling if I under-rated myself, in order to get more weight from my competition, but to over-rate myself only makes it easier for my competitors to beat me. So what could be his motivation for putting me down?

Was he offended that some newbie would edge into his exalted hierarchy? Was he trying to "get over" on me in advance of the impending day that we would surely play mano a mano?

Your guess is as good as mine, and I took it all in stride, and ignored it. I was polite, and stayed playing as an "A". But internally I told myself that, one day, I would surely beat David Nakano at pool, and that he would truly rue the day he said I was no "A" player.

And so, in the fullness of time, here we were, face to face for our first match ever, and I was ecstatic at the potential of the moment. Surely, it was expected that I would lose to him. Surely he felt that way, as an expert handicapper. Surely everyone else in the place would have agreed. But it didn't turn out that way, did it David? I won, 3-1, and sent David Nakano to the Loser's side, where Tony Sorto knocked him out of the double elimination tournament. It was not David Nakano's day, losing first to the student, then The Master. (see photo)

I held my tongue, even though I burned to ask him "Still think I'm not an A player?" or "If you lose to a Not-A player, does that mean that you are less than A?" I saw no purpose in rubbing it in...

An interesting thing happened during the match. I won the first game, and the second. In the third game I was bridging over a ball and moved it into the cue ball. This is a foul, and I backed away from the table. David N. looked up and said "What's wrong?" And from this I could tell he didn't see the foul. I could have taken advantage of his inattention, and continued to shoot, but I told him I moved the ball. He said he didn't see it, and I told him "No, but I did." and reliquished my turn, giving him ball in hand, and he easily ran the two remaining balls for his only win. What is interesting is that at that moment, I had the power of the great knight Sir Galahad: "my strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure". I could call a foul on myself and still win.

The great champion Babe Cranfield was well known for this trait, and won the world championship in straight pool, even though he called a foul on himself that neither the referee nor competitor saw.

So far, so good. The mighty David Nakano is vanquished. This was shaping up to be a good time...

Second Match

Next up was Armando, a young guy, level "C" player. Nice guy, pleasant, seemed eager to learn. He was there with a friend, who sat in his corner, and kept a running commentary going, asking me questions and talking a good bit.

Tony says "C" players are the most dangerous because it is easy to not respect them. It is easy to shoot down to their level. It is easy to let up, be complacent, and when you miss, to expect to shoot again.

When a "C" player is matched against an "A", the C gets a big spot: the 7-ball. This means they get TWO money balls, two chances to win on either the 7 or 9. They get two chances to get lucky on the break, two chances to get an easy early out combo, two chances to get lucky on an unintentional carom. It's almost easier to play head to head against an "A" because you MUST focus on every shot, and can not let up for a second.

Tony says "There is no small enemy." This is the advice that was ringing in my ears as I started into the game. I did shoot ok, but not great. I felt how easy it is to let up. I'm too nice a guy, I guess, because I took myself out of my game to answer his questions about my cue, and my tip-shaping tool, and the rules of the "push-out" move. If I were more professional, I would have ignored him, and his friend, or just barely smiled and said nothing, and focused entirely on the game. But nooooooo, I'm Mr. Nice Guy! And I could have paid the price for it. But I won 3-0.

Third Match

My next match was giving me some concern. Ken J. is a seriously strong competitor. "A" rated, of course. I have played against him twice before. Once in a match that Tony set up, where I went hill-hill with him, and lost. Another time in this 9-ball tournament, and he beat me 3-0. But those losses to him were when I was a "C". And although we were now rated equally, it is tough to shake off two previous losses, and get yourself into a mind-set of superiority.

But you do what you gotta do, and I did it. Was Ken J. rattled after I beat David Nakano? I'm doubtful about that. Ken J. doesn't seem to be so easily rattled. I have enormous respect for his game. And he played good. I think I played pretty good too, but not great. I remember making some awesome shots, and one or two super-fine runouts, but in a match that is only 3 games, it might have gone either way.

But it went my way. That was a real confidence builder. And maybe an over-confidence builder based on what happened in the next match...

Fourth Match

I was riding high on adrenaline and confidence with three wins in a row, so when I learned that my next match was with Vince, who I had crushed 3-0 just before the tournament, I thought I would have an easy time of it.

And that should have been a signal that I was not thinking correctly. I should have thought that Vince had also won his last 3 matches, just like me. I should have remembered "There is no small enemy." I should have remembered the first time I played Vince, and he beat me.

But noooooo... They say that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So maybe I got stronger after losing that match to Vince. But it sure seemed like a stupid way to get stronger. Vince was playing as a "B" rated player, which means I had to give him the 8-ball. And, if a "C" player is dangerous, a "B" player can be downright deadly.

My overconfidence led me to dog an 8 ball and rattle it in the pocket, giving Vince an easy win. My overconfidence led me to dog a 9 ball and rattle it in the pocket, giving Vince an easy win. My overconfidence led me to underhit a safety shot, leaving a 1-9 combo to win. It was over before it began, as they say. It can not be said that Vince won, but it can surely be said that I lost.

Pool is 90% mental. And the other half is all in your head. ;o)

Fully and soundly humbled, I go to the loser's side. Oh, the agony of defeat.

Fifth Match

Now on the losers side of the bracket, I must win my next match, or I'm out of it.

And who do I have to play? Ken J. again! I put him on the losers' side, and you just KNOW he's going to want revenge. I was scared of Ken J. before, and now I feel like I just poked the bear, and that's not a good thing.

But this no time to be thinking negative. Just play the game. One shot at a time. And that's what I did. Slowed the game down a lot. Preshot routine was very consistent. Played tight position, and ducked with safety shots when I didn't have a high percentage choice.

And it worked. Fast Mikie moves into the finals. Who'da thunk it!? I'm liking this winning thing...

The Finals!

This is it, folks: the Finals!

And I'm up against Vince again, who has gone undefeated. He's got to be feeling bulletproof right about now. Looking at me as the guy who choked in our last match, and handed him the game. I'll bet he's thinking he can't lose.

"Wanna split the pot?" he asks. Split the pot? Is he kidding? This is a concept I just can not understand. I have seen this happen a lot around here. The last two players split the prize money for the first two places, and they don't play the match. There is no winner, no second place. What is the point of that?

So I ask Vince: "Have you ever won this tournament?" "No", he admits. Well, neither have I. And if we split the pot, we would still be two guys who never won! That's just wrong. In fact, we have both advanced farther along than ever before, in this tournament. (I snagged a third place in my first try.)

To walk away without even going for it is senseless. Vince and I have played two matches today. And we are even. The universe demands a decision. One of us must be a winner. This tournament needs a winner. So I refused to split the pot, which forced us to play it out. And I almost regretted it!

I won the first game. He won the second, and the third, and the fourth. When he won the fourth game, with the score 3-1, I thought it was over, and that I had lost. But the finals is a race to FIVE games, not 3! It seemed to be a sign. I'm not dead yet.

I won the next game. Now it's 3-2. But the hour is getting late. I am surprised by a yawn. I'm getting hungry. My attention is waning.

He misses a shot and scratches. I have ball in hand with the 8 in the center of the table. The 9 is by a corner pocket. A child, could get out from here. A moron could get out from here. And I miscue!

There is no greater stupidity than to scratch with ball in hand. No greater humiliation.

Now, I'm not just tired, I am exhausted.

Vince is now "on the hill". He needs only one game to win the tournament. I need three games in a row. And after my last display of mental breakdown, it is looking impossible.

But I did what I had to do. I dug deep and found some hidden reserve. I focused like a junk yard dog. Nothing entered my mind except one shot at a time. I became a man possessed.

Miraculously, I won my next three games, and the tournament. But you already knew that.

I wish you could have been there to hear the primal scream I let out, and to see El Maestro's proud smile.

The prize money was only $100.oo, And like all my pool winnings, is donated to charity , but this win was so rewarding, I'm going to double the donation.

I broke down my cue, collected the cash, and went outside into the cool, sweet, early morning air.
And I never said a word to David Nakano.

It is moments like this that make long hours of practice worth while.

Other Pool Stories by Fast Mikie
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
(the U.S. Amateur Championships)

Agony and Ecstasy in Las Vegas
(the National Team 9-ball Championships)

Fast Mikie Retires His Willie
(how I beat a world champion at 9-ball)

Fast Mikie Goes To College
(recollections of a time long ago)

Diary of a Pool Shooter - The Adventures of Fast Mikie
(the blog)

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