Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Worthy Opponent

One of the great things that bonds me to my pal The Chairman is..... that he is a better pool player than me.

For the two years that he was living in the same city as me, we played each other pretty regularly - eventually developing a habit of meeting up for an extended pool session almost every week, sometimes twice a week.

Damn, he's good. I generally consider I'm doing quite well to take any games off him at all. If I manage to take much more than 30% of the games, it's a particularly strong showing from me. On the rare occasions when I have managed to take 50% of the games, I know with a horrible certainly that he is going to nick 'the decider'. The man's pretty much unbeatable. (On the very few occasions when I have come away from one of these sessions with a winning record, I feel strangely dissatisfied: it can only have happened because he wasn't quite on his game - even The Chairman loses his 'mojo' occasionally!)

Last Sunday, for instance, we played for nearly two hours, and The Chairman came out 6-3 ahead. And he won our final game of doubles when we each teamed up with one of the local hotshots who'd been watching us. I wasn't quite at the peak of my form, but I was playing pretty damned well. That really is a good record from me. There are lots of people who've fancied their chances against him, and gone whimpering home with their tail between their legs. There are at least a couple of occasions in this town where, with a 'winner stays on' table, The Chairman has successfully seen off all comers for some hours - including many players who appeared much younger, sharper, hungrier than him. Our pal Big Frank used to refer to these displays of crushing dominance as "a Chairmanizing".

The Chairman's big weapon is SURPRISE. (Well, amongst his weapons....) People underestimate him. He is such a bumbling, shambling, clumsy, diffident man: he looks completely out of place in a seedy bar; he looks as though he's never held a pool cue in his life before. The poor chap is nearly blind; he has a shaky technique (awkward, wobbly stance; not a particularly strong bridge hand); he can be woefully inconsistent at times, often 'going walkabout' and playing like a complete duffer for minutes at a time. It's easy to assume he's going to be a pushover..... right up until the moment that he 'Chairmanizes' you! People regularly walk away from the table shaking their heads in puzzlement, and assuming their defeat must have been just a 'fluke' - a freak, unrepeatable sequence of good or lucky shots. They think they'll beat him easily next time. But they never do.

I don't make that mistake any more. I know what he's capable of. And I have to produce my very best game to get anything off him. It helped my game enormously to have such a challenging regular opponent, and I've missed him (and the pool playing) bitterly over the past 2.5 years since he went away.

The curious (sometimes exasperating) thing is that he's really not that much better than me. In many respects, actually, he's probably not as good as me. He may have an edge in the smoothness, the consistency of his positional play (although, gallingly, this usually looks utterly unconsidered, accidental - though most of it, I'm sure, is worked out at some subconscious level, the benefit of his many hundreds of hours of experience in the pool dives of the West Midlands)..... but that's about all.

Well, the real secret of the 'Chairmanizing' phenomenon, I think, is his consistency and coolness under pressure. He really gets in the groove when the chips are down - even if he's been playing clumsily, crappily up until then. If you leave him any kind of opening to nick the game with a 3 or 4 ball clearance, he'll make it - every time. Even a tough clearance. He is quite devastating coming from behind. (I think it's actually good policy to let him get well ahead in a game; then his concentration falters, and you can frustrate him, wear him down with safety play. Well, in theory.)

And then there's the luck. He is an astonishingly lucky player. Of course, to a large extent you 'make your own luck' by being good (we all know that anecdote about Gary Player, who, saving par near the end of a major tournament by holing out from a bunker, was taunted by someone in the gallery that he "got lucky", and cheerfully replied: "Yes, I certainly did. Funny thing is, the more I practice, the luckier I get."). The Chairman, let me assure you, has a whole extra ration of luck which far exceeds any possible explanation by way of 'subconscious planning' or 'karmic deserts'. Even when he makes a complete pig's ear of a shot, you can guarantee that he will positively develop one or more of his balls while shifting one or more or yours to a shitty position on a cushion. Even when he pots the cue ball, you can guarantee that you will re-spot it in the 'D' (yes, we still play "80s English pub rules", as befits our age - none of this new-fangled "ball in hand/anywhere on the table" rubbish) to find all of your balls mysteriously obscured by his, or suddenly shunted away from the pockets they had been covering only moments before.

It is quite maddening. Big Frank could hardly bear to play him, so incensed was he by the constant sense of injustice.

It used to bother me, but I've learned to live with that too. Playing pool against The Chairman teaches self-restraint, patience, humility - he is a Bodhisattva of the baize.

But I will get the measure of him one day. Oh, yes.

Maybe soon - he's coming back to live here again in a month or so.....

No comments: