The inner game of pool

It's a funny old game, pool. But how do you learn to play it? Malcolm and I experiment a little with it, and have some insight on how to learn/teach along the way.

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This is the first of the NaNoWriMo articles that I’ve redrafted and turned into a post. Which is why it’s a couple of days late already!

We’re on holiday this week, in a lovely place on the Northumbrian coast. The house is fantastic – it’s unusual for me to get stay somewhere that has an even better shower than home, and an even better kitchen than home (OK, so I brought my own knives). It’s got a pool table, too.

I haven’t played pool in years. I used to play a bit as a student in the basement of Teviot (Edinburgh University’s student union), usually after far too many pints. I always felt I was OK at it – I understood the theory of angles and spins and suchlike, mostly from playing various simplistic pool games on the BBC Model B computer at home – but in practice I sucked. Most of the time, the ball I’m trying to pot goes off at a more acute angle than I want it to.

The Inner Game

Teaching Malcolm to play pool has been really good fun, and it’s improved my game, too. I’ve been using the opportunity to practice something I’ve been reading in Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. It’s the concept of the “inner game” (vs the outer game), as introduced by the Inner Game of Tennis in 1974.

The outer game is the part with the rules (you potted the white, two shots to me!). It’s the part where you can describe techniques to improve your play. In short, to me, it’s the verbal side of the game, or the L-mode part of it.

The inner game is the non-verbal R-mode side. It’s using your intuition to improve your performance through a rapid feedback loop. Hit the cue ball this way, and it strikes the ball there; hit it slightly differently and it spins off to the side.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Andy retells the story of a tennis coach who is tasked with teaching a woman in her late fifties, with no particular athletic ability, to play a game of tennis in a short space of time. Instead of launching into the theory (the scoring system, rules about serving, where the ball is allowed to land, how to hold the racket, how to stand), he starts by asking her to say ‘bounce’ and 'hit’ in response to the ball’s movements as he’s playing. After a while, they swap places. She doesn’t worry about actually hitting the ball, just saying 'hit’ at what seems like the appropriate time.

Next up, the idea is to listen to the noise that the ball made when it hits the racket. (I’ve played enough racket sports to know that the strings make a beautiful sound when you hit the ball just right. Conversely, they make a discordant note when you get it wrong.) She wasn’t given this information, just asked to listen to the sound.

In learning to serve, the coach just asked her to hum a phrase as he served the ball. Something that would match the rhythm of the move. After a while, the woman was to mimic the act of serving using the same phrase and rhythm, but without worrying about the ball. Finally, the ball was introduced.

Another technique was to place a chair at the other end of the court, and hit the ball towards it. The goal was not to hit the chair. Instead the goal was simply to notice where the ball landed in relation to the chair. Did it go to the left or right? Did it fall short or sail over? Simply be aware of what happened and move on to the next shot.

The Inner Game of Pool

I wondered what would happen if I applied these ideas to teaching Malcolm to play pool. It had been interesting to observe other people playing pool with Malcolm (which is probably what sparked the idea in the first place).

You’re holding it wrong!

The main trouble is that Malcolm chose to hold his cue in a slightly curious manner. He’s bridging with his right hand and providing the power with his left (which, since I do it the other way around, strikes me as a left-handed hold) but in other activities (like writing), his right hand seems dominant.

In addition, he’s holding the cue 'overarm’ instead of 'underarm’. Personally, I think this is just because he’s quite short in relation to the table, and it’s just a more comfortable hold. (Having mentioned that in this presence, while defending him, he’s rationalised it that way now, too.)

Everyone who’s played with him has tried to correct him. In a couple of cases, it was because they were worried about Malcolm accidentally damaging the baize. In one particular case, she’d decided he was naturally gifted at it, has some potential, and so needs to be taught the 'correct’ way to do it.

Either way, games with them tended to devolve into an argument about how Malcolm should hold his cue, trying to describe the correct way to hold it. Let’s just say that Malcolm is extremely stubborn, and this is a widespread family trait…

Follow the rules!

I was just as bad. I was fine with Malcolm holding the cue however he pleased, just trying to remind him of little things like putting his bridging hand down on the baize. Instead I was all about the rules. You must hit this ball into that pocket. And you can’t hit that one into a pocket or I automatically win. And if you transgress these various rules, I get two shots. Except on black. And the second shot carries (unless it’s your turn and it suits me to claim it doesn’t – he’s figured out the subtlety of that rule already!).

I was all about the rules. Off on a bit of a tangent, I wondered about that. My personality type (INFP, mostly – the I and P are the sort of percentages ISPs aspire to in uptime, but the N & F are more borderline) would suggest I’m less about hard and fast rules. I tried to analyse that a little. I don’t think it’s about wanting to live within a set of rules – a rigid structure. I’m happy to 'bend’ those rules when it suits me, though once I’ve established a 'bent’ set of rules, I like to maintain consistency. I think there are two reasons for it in reality:

  • I get a kick out of remembering arcane rules (go on, ask me about VAT); and

  • I still can’t remember the second reason, even while I’m redrafting! What do you think it might be?

A simpler approach

Anyway. I got to thinking there might be something to this way of learning. So instead of playing pool, we simplified it a little. We set up the balls in the triangle in the same way, but instead of pool’s relatively complicated set of rules, we simplified it: the goal is to take turns to try and pot balls. It doesn’t matter if they’re spots or stripes (or even the black!). We still devised a scoring system – Malcolm does react well to an element of competition, whether he wins or loses – but it was just a count of the number of balls we each potted.

It was a great fun game. We played it for half the afternoon. I’d like to think that Malcolm’s basic technique improved (though I didn’t objectively measure). But at the time, the main thing from it was that we both had fun. The games didn’t end in a huffy argument, at least. :) And that’s what it’s really about at this stage, right?

A new game

The next morning, Malcolm and I were up early. Before I’d even finished brewing the first Chemex (one has priorities in the morning!), he was saying, “shall we play pool? I’ve got a great idea for a new game!” And then he reminded me of the gulf of learning we’re trying to cross between us. My theory was that I’d reduced pool to the simplest possible thing: hitting the white ball with a cue, causing it to hit a coloured ball in turn and, hopefully, get it into a pocket.

Malcolm came up with a new game: hit one of the coloured balls straight into a pocket. He even devised a scoring system that made it interesting. You score points according to the value (from the American-Pool-compatible balls) on the ball.

My first reaction: “No! You can’t do that! You’re not allowed to hit the coloured balls with the cue, you’ll damage them.” That’s what I’ve been told in the past. But how do I even know that’s true? (Pro tip: question what you consider to be innate knowledge.) Chances are – in a consumer pool set, at least – the coloured balls are made with exactly the same materials and manufacturing process as the white ball. It copes OK. And let’s face it, this is a pool table in a rented holiday home. Chances are, we’re not the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

So I suppressed that response and relaxed. Yeah, OK, let’s see what happens. It was a fun game, and a really good exercise. I got Malcolm to experiment with using his cue the 'right’ way (and who’s to say it’s right anyway), and he evaluated whether it was better for him. The jury’s still out, but he’s happy to try both ways now. Riffing on the sound of the ball hitting the racket, we noted the noise made by the cue hitting the ball. Yet again, when you get a good, solid, connection it sounds delightful. When you fluff a shot, you can hear a discordant clank. When you get it just right, the ball can make a really satisfying 'thunk’ as it’s sunk into the pocket.

I got better, too. My aim improved measurably. I started getting relatively fancy and levelled up to hitting a ball (not necessarily the white, just whichever suited) with the cue, which would bounce another one into the pocket. It’s a simpler game, but allowed me to think about the kinds of angles I wanted to practice, and just to get feedback on trying various things.

Back to the chair

Later on in the morning, when Malcolm was off exploring rock pools on the beach with the rest of the family, I simplified things even further. I started hitting the cue ball off the cushion with my cue, and observing where it wound up. The goal wasn’t to make it wind up anywhere in particular, but just to be aware of how I was hitting the cue ball – where on the surface, how fast, in which direction – and noticing where it ended. Similar to the tennis ball and the chair.

Then I played a little with placing the cue ball in a particular location, and placing another ball in a consistent place too. I’d then practice hitting that ball. Again, not worrying about where it landed – whether I potted it or not – just observing where.

The end result is that after just a couple of days, over a couple of sessions of deliberate practice, we’re both measureably improved our game. Malcolm is still holding the cue in an unconventional manner, but he’s planning and lining up shots, potting a few for good measure. I’ve improved my rate of potting the shots I attempt – even starting to put some effort into lining up subsequent shots! And we’re now both consistently beating Mummy. :)

Drawing parallels

How, then, does one take a moral from this story and make some pithy observation about software development, or life in general? That’s the easy bit. It boils down to a few things:

  • Awareness. Be aware of what you are doing. How are you setting up the shot, where are you hitting the cue ball, how hard, which direction, why are you selecting that particular shot? How can you make yourself more aware of what you’re doing and the context in which it resides?

  • Fast feedback. There’s nothing like feedback to tell you when you’re doing things right and wrong. With pool, it’s dead easy: if you do it right, you get the ball into the pocket and the cue ball into a decent place to follow on to the subsequent shot. You get that feedback immediately. How can you make sure you get fast feedback from life?

  • Deliberate practice. Practice, practice, practice. Nobody gets good by doing something once. (Not even the 'naturals’ – you just don’t see the hard work they put into it in the background!) Keep practising what you do. Push your envelope, but do it in a controlled manner, with that awareness of what you’re doing that will give you good quality feedback.

(No baizes were harmed in the making of this story. So far, anyway. touches wood.)

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