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Adjusting to Court Conditions

I’ve been on hiatus for a while; between business travel and getting the flu I haven’t had much time to play since the holidays. My first week back after a long stretch and I get to play on alley 4, which is known as the “worst” court in the club; what that really means is that it’s the most inconsistent surface (breaks can vary wildly over even very short distances, so even if you know how your ball will break you have to be more accurate than on other courts in order to get the desired result) and it’s also the most sensitive to changing weather conditions (and over time, this is almost certainly what has caused the inconsistencies in the surface). Our alleys are indoors, but there is no foundation under the courts. There’s just the earth, a layer of gravel, and the Har-Tru clay surface. When it rains, water seeps under the building and into the alleys, and #4 gets more of it than the other three put together.

The good thing is that you can easily see the difference between wet and dry areas in the clay, and the effect of the wetness is fairly consistent. By far the biggest effect is on ball speed – wet courts play much, much slower than dry courts. The other effects are relatively minor and are basically negligible. Things get interesting when you have a court with some wet spots and some dry spots – and they get really interesting when you’re playing in the winter the day after a big rain. When the heaters come on, they can dramatically increase the drying time of the alley, so a surface that starts out pretty sloppy can get considerably dryer over the course of an evening, and can even change significantly within a single game. If you can adjust to this change better than your opponents, you can build a huge advantage.

The biggest mistake I see in this sort of situation (and one I myself made three or four times last week) is a “double adjustment.”

2008-02-07 Figure 1

Lagging shot selection. Click for larger image.

A player will start off lagging along path A, through a wet spot. His ball will get bogged down in the mud and stop short of the target. He decides to adjust by moving over, lagging along path B to avoid the mud. However, your brain will also want to adjust (increase) your lagging speed; this double adjustment results in a big overcompensation and the lagger goes from a ball that is ten feet short to one that is ten feet past the pallino. Making a single adjustment is, of course, much easier, and since your brain is subconsciously recalculating the speed you need to get to the ball, staying along the same path is a better choice. It’s much easier to keep your position constant than to keep your speed constant. Your brain will be at least partially on auto-pilot for the speed recalculation, and fighting that is going to be counterproductive.

* * *

Changing gears, I saw one fairly rare but interesting situation this week.

2008-02-07 Figure 2

Green to play. Click for larger image.

It’s early in the game, and normally green would be ecstatic to have three balls to play with all the red balls spent. However, lagging in for multiple points here is going to be extremely difficult. Shooting red balls out of the way is another option, but there are lots of things that can go wrong here. It’s a high variance situation. Should green really consider dropping three balls and just locking up the one point in the hand?

The most important factor in making this decision is the relative skill levels of the green and red teams. If the green team is more skillful, they should drop the balls and take the one point. If green feels outclassed, they should gamble and go for the big score. It’s quite simple, if you’re behind in skill you want to make luck as big of a factor as possible in order to level the playing field out. As variance increases, the chances for an upset increase, too. Shaking things up and going for big scores is a prime way to add variance here.

As the gap in skill widens, the need for the underdog to take big chances increases, too.

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