The most frequent big mistake I see is a team playing “conservatively” (i.e. “scared”) when they are in scoring position and their opponent is out of balls. Teams will regularly drop their last ball instead of going for more points because they fear “selling out” (making a bad play that flips the position such that the opponents end up scoring). While the sellout is a huge turn of events, if the fear of it dominates your thinking you’re going to leave points on the table that will come back to bite you in the ass later.
Any time you have a chance to score multiples, you must look for every opportunity to capitalize. The difference just between scoring one and two points is enormous over the long term, and yet teams will pass up easy chances to go for an additional two or even three points even if their downside is giving up just a point or two a small fraction of the time.
Green to play.
In this example, if green can move the pallino back just a bit (lagging along path A), the court would be wide open for scoring three or maybe four points. However, the position of the red balls makes the green player lag from the opposite side of the court, and in our league most players avoid these cross-court lags because the centers of the alleys are rough and bumpy, which totally wrecks accuracy. Shooting along A is no good since red has two decent balls down court on the nail. Shooting along path B is another possibility, though the outcome of such a shot is extremely hard to predict, even if it is perfectly executed. The pallino could end up down court, or the green A ball might get carried away leaving red with one point. Despite the risk, this choice shouldn’t be ruled out immediately since green has three balls left, leaving a good possibility to clean up any sellout if the shot does go wrong.
In the end, I decided to play along path A. The mistake I made was in lagging just hard enough to get to the pallino and maybe move it a foot or two. In this case there is plenty of room behind the green ball so even if the pallino goes too far for the A ball to remain in scoring position it should be possible to get three points. If I had come in a little harder, the increased momentum of the ball may have negated a bit of the variance from the bumps in the middle. As it turns out, my ball went off-course and didn’t have any significant effect.
The important part of this example, though, is that I’ve seen many players in this situation simply give up and “drop” their remaining balls and simply “take one point” because “it’s too tight in there.” Taking one point is “safe” since it avoids the sellout. But early in the game, a one point lead isn’t that big of a deal, while a three or four point lead is (my gut feeling here going on nothing but experience is that a 4-3 lead would hold up about 55% of the time, while a 7-3 lead would hold up closer to 70% of the time). On top of this, if your first ball does “sell out” you’ve still got two chances to recover! Grow a pair, get greedy, and load up!
Now, here’s another situation where dropping might make sense:
Green to play.
In this case, green can’t lag in along the normal routes off of the side boards since Red A and B are blocking. A lag along path A would probably be safe on a semi-regular court, but with the bumps and variances of our clay courts, it’s pretty risky. Red A could get bumped up into scoring position, or Green A could get bumped out of position. Shooting along path B (basically the same path) with the intent to pick the pallino out is worth considering, especially if the setup is a relatively short (shooting the pallino gets really hard as the distance increases). If the shot is successful, green can easily drop ball D in behind to pick up two points.
In this case, though, if green misses the shot, the downside is huge. A particularly bad outcome would have the shot pick the green A ball cleanly out, leaving red with four points and green with one ball to try to salvage something. Of course, green could try shooting the pallino again, with one less ball laying around to get in the way. Shooting your last ball when the opponent is sitting on four points is never a pleasant situation, though.
Dropping the last two balls is probably the way to go here. Green already has one ball in position, the best possible upside is to come out with two points, and the downside is catastrophic. Further, this is closer to the midway point of the game, where small edges are worth more than in the early stages.
Aggression is in general the best policy, but (just as with any other strategy) the difference between a journeyman and a master is knowing when the exceptions come up and it’s time to back off and play it safe.