INPUT DOES NOT EQUAL OUTPUT
Alex Lely’s Long Quest for the Holy Grail of Pool
07 Nov 2007
(Manila, Philippines)-- Some players call it getting in “dead stroke.” Others call it “free flowing mode.” Yet others call it being “in the zone.” Whatever the moniker, it is the Holy Grail of playing for pool players. It’s that space where everything seems to come together at once, and you play perfect pool, no longer thinking about the mechanics of your stroke, no longer fretting about previously missed balls, no longer thinking of what lies ahead in a match. You have stopped caring and are just playing, living in the moment, unfettered by outside distractions or worries. Everything is so darn easy; the stroke just flows, the balls drop dead center, the cue ball goes exactly where you want it.
Top photo: Alex Lely (L) sitting againsts Yang of Taiwan.
But, of course, the conundrum of it all is that that bit of Buddhist Zen is damn near impossible to achieve. And not just in pool. Why is it in life that whenever you start caring too much about something you’re trying to accomplish, you often have trouble getting anywhere? But the minute you give up and stop caring, things start to flow and your performance is enhanced? I often find that is just the case with writing.
The sport of pool, though, seems to offer exceptionally challenging odds, especially at the professional level. Played alone with nobody to pass the shot over to, the pressure packed decisions players have to make, along with the fickle nature of the balls, all adds a cruelty to the game that leads me to believe that many players suffer silently as they search for that ever-elusive magic. No doubt, it is also the reason why fans love the sport. When you do see a player in free flow mode, you sit back and say, “Wow!” For players who achieve that nirvana, it must feel like total ecstasy.
As you can obviously tell I have a bit of fascination with this topic. I had been wanting to write about it as part of this World Pool Championship column, when, about two weeks ago, I receive an email from Alex Lely, the great player from the Netherlands. Alex had read one of my earlier columns and wrote to me asking if he could use the story on a Dutch pool forum he writes for.
Alex Lely has played at or near the highest levels international pool for the nearly a decade. The 34 year old, known as “The Plague from the Hague,” won the World Pool Masters in 1999, defeating the great Efren Reyes in the finals. He has made two Mosconi Cup appearances. In 2001 he was the top player on the Euro Tour, and spent six years in the top ten.
In his email Alex mentioned that he had quit playing pool in the international circuit. He would be playing in the World Pool Championships this year, however, because his last appearance in the Mosconi Cup allowed him a free pass into the tournament. I was intrigued that he had quit playing internationally, and yet he was about to play in the biggest tournament in the world. He seemed to be the perfect person to ask about the topic of trying to “not care” in order to play good.
I then exchanged a series of emails with Alex on that very subject. It turns out that Alex has actually studied and contemplated this philosophy of “free flowing” and was very keen to open up about it. The response I got back is simply amazing, not only in its length and breadth, but also in that it provides a glimpse into the mind of a top international pool player and the struggles and demons he has had to deal with in trying to capture that ever elusive magic of playing without distraction, either from his own head or from outside influences.
I have reprinted out correspondence here. The story, however, doesn’t end with these letters as you’ll see if you read on and find out what happened to Alex in his quest to bring his philosophy of “not caring” into the biggest tournament of them all.
I think the fact that you have basically quit the international circuit means that you will probably play well this year in Manila. After all, what do you have to lose? You're loose, care free. Sometimes that's the reason you will play good. What do you think? It will be fun this year for sure.
The next day I received this reply from Alex:
I’m aware of the fact that I now can play without pressure...the pressure of having to play well is immediately there:) this year I won more national tournaments then ever, regularly not picking up a cue for three weeks...we'll see what happens in Manila.
This response peaked my curiosity. Suddenly he’s winning because he’s not taking it seriously. I wrote him back immediately thinking he might give me a few quotes for an article on the subject.
I'm writing an article for my column about playing loose, trusting your stroke and I wanted to ask you about that. I find it interesting that you quit playing on the international circuit and suddenly you find that you are playing better. Why do you think that is? Why do players play better when they "don't care" so to speak? How difficult is it to get in the frame of mind of "not caring" when you're playing fulltime? Also, why did you quit the international circuit? What are you doing now? Working? School?
His response was the following epic…
My best game got better, my worse game got worse. But playing tournaments in Holland, I don't get exposed to mega-pressure like on the international circuit. I get time to warm up. 7 days per year we play national league, where all 8 teams (www.proteamleague.nl) come together in the same locality. Every team then plays against two other teams, with a buffet in between sessions; a lot of fun. The next day a grand-prix tournament is being held in the same place. So when I have gone without practice for 2/3 weeks, I'll warm up on Saturday, to be ready for action on Sunday.
Sunday action by the way is regularly without Niels Feijen and/or Nick van den Berg, fortunately. It's 32 players, 1000 Euro for the winner, which I won 5 times, out of 6 times participating. I have won 3 other smaller tournaments. Two national tournaments I entered, I did not win. This year, about 4/5 periods I did not practice for 3 weeks. For me that is a very uncomfortable standard to get used to.
On the other hand, it has paid dividend. Because of little practice, when playing I should not search for technique and a standard, because it makes me insecure. The only way to deal with it, is to play with 100% feeling. Swing the cue, keep my eye on the ball and pull the trigger. I therefore am playing with a quicker pace. In league I played a straight pool match. My buddy was telling me I was over the hill, never to run a 200+ again. This stimulated me and I ran a 120 and out and continued, to make a 256 ball run. The thing that marveled me was that I played very fast, almost running around the table and sometimes joking to that friend of mine, the instigator. Very unlike my previous ‘professional’ style of play.
In the Dutch circuit and in my head, the hope/fantasy then started to bubble up that I might do really well in the World Cup of Pool, the World Championships and the Eurotour in Weert, that I would be playing, since Weert is in Holland and I was the holder. Weert was held just before the World Cup of Pool last month.
But the fact that I would be playing on an international level again did arouse some of the old wanting-to-make-sure reflexes. This started 6 weeks before. I started playing with my hand on the break again, slightly and less than before, but still. The Euro Tour was a success. I lost in the winners early so on Friday I had to win 5 matches in the losers bracket, I did: Torrenti, Roschkowsky, van Haren, Kämpter and Kaplan. On the European tour that is a formidable run. Saturday morning I played against Engert in the last 32. I played better but lost. I put too much pressure on myself and choked. That can happen, when I did practice a lot I could have lost in exactly the same way, no remorse there. My conclusion was that I had a splendid long Friday and a brief competition on Saturday; that shouldn’t cloud my positivity. On to the World Cup of Pool.
I don’t know if you heard, but my teammate Rico Diks had a horrible evening against team Belgium. He missed 8 balls, made five. He was unable to produce any form. I did play some very nice kicks and safeties, but I don’t feel my game was really tested there. The only thing I do regret, is that I didn’t coach Rico as I can. With my longtime captaincy experience in rugby and the way that I coach my teammates in league (with an underdog team we won the title twice) i coulda/woulda/shoulda have made a move: take a time-out, slap him in the face, get him a whisky-coke. But I went into the match so focused on my own game that I was a little shell-shocked when it all came down.
World Championships: just go and enjoy the show. I’ll arrive October 31st and will use the time to play some cheap sets in One Side(a pool hall in Malate, Manila) to get my juices flowing. I’m in a pretty tough group and I really need to produce. Whatever happens I am dying to play well and show that I have quality pool to play, even though I’m not playing internationally so much anymore. But I still like to play an invitational now and then.
The situation I was in: Dutch government paying expenses for championships, also the Euro Tour, very nice. But the format in the Euro Tours is so sick that it is too hard for me to get in the money: 3-break inning alternation, tapped racks and usually big pockets. That takes away too much from the core of my game: break, safeties and kicks. Actually, today the guys leave for the Euro Tour in Switzerland and I really am happy to not go there.
Another reason for quitting the international scene: if I do this thing on a professional basis, I tighten up. I always have, but since I am together with Nynke and raising kids the pressure on my game mounted even more. When I’m away from home, she (and her mother helping out) has to work very hard to manage things. I’ll be questioning what I am doing constantly and more so when I am racking the balls for the other guy, bitching because they’re not frozen, because I missed a ball in the previous rack. For this reason I have restructured my life and the place that pool has in it. In 2002 I started a university study in political science (I still am grinding it). 2004 Josephine was born. In 2007 Zeger was born and Nynke and I got married. I even worked 9-5 for two months this year…a very cold-turkey-like experience. So what I do now: 20 hrs/week for the poolkrant.nl(dutch pool forum) and Big-8 (web shop) that’s all on the payroll of Etiene Verheem from Club-8 in Amsterdam. 8 hrs for the Dutch squash federation through a Dutch-Olympic-Commitee-project that integrates ex-athletes in society. Some commentary work for Matchroom or Dutch television (if they ever broadcast). Articles/columns for whoever wants one: I recently did one for a poker magazine and they want to make it a regular column. And of course I still hold a cue now and then for tournaments, easy action and lessons/exhibitions.
The past year I have learned a lot about the game: If you’re not an established player yet, you should take a break now and then. You need time to reflect and to integrate information into your system: muscle memory, knowledge, big wins, big losses. More so, your brain is a muscle that also needs to recharge its battery, so at least ease the pressure on your system every now and then. A javelin thrower feels when he is over trained, an aspiring pool player does not. He will miss sloppy balls and gets frustrated, often leading to more practice time being put in. In practice, limit the time you put in. Many players, especially the younger ones, just keep on playing; if they are playing well in a session, they want to keep on going. If they play bad in a session, they want to keep on playing until ‘it’ comes. When you get older or quit playing professionally, you unavoidably will have your practice time limited. I believe that is a strong basis for the maturing of ones game: accepting that practice time is up, the day is over, that one shitty tournament can be missed.
If you are an established player it is hard to skip tournaments. You’ll feel obliged to participate, because of the rankings and the start of a streak. In ’99 I won the World Pool Masters against Efren Reyes in the final. I received a lot of invitations and sponsorship deals. At the time I even hesitated to sign a 3-year deal, not knowing if I should want to commit myself for three years. I did and retrospectively I exposed myself to more than I could handle at the time. But hey, you’re young and hungry, I felt like I could take on the world. It would have suited me to start at that time to integrate pool into a more whole and fulfilling life, like I am doing now…OR move to the States or the Philippines and be a player 24/7: no outside, societal interference, just living from one money game to the next.
What I also learned is that every player has his own way of learning. Niels Feijen is a very methodical player and he has always practiced very religiously. He is kind of control-freakish, always working on practice methods and drills. This suits his character very well: input=output. I tried to copy that. It feels secure to work so hard on your game, you feel safe, unaccountable for failure. But it just makes me think about technique too much. I get very rigid. And the lack of output does not motivate. This development is behind me now and I am getting back to my core, my game, whatever the consequence. My character as a person and therefore as a player is flexible, emotional, not monotone (unstable?!) and I need to accept what that means for my game. One of the strengths needed to play this game on the highest level is cool; one element of cool might just be a physical talent. The way that your body reacts to pressure. Does the adrenalin get to your muscle quickly. It is also depends on hard work being put in. A lot of the European Pro’s do meditative techniques and mental training.
If I am playing without caring, which sometimes for whatever reason goes well, I look with both eyes. If I am caring, I want to make sure too much and start using my dominant eye more. I then feel like a cyclops, it is not the most comfortable thing. The striking thing: when I was in the States playing long sessions of big sets (my standard: approx $1500 with my own money), after 6 hours, probably because my dominant eye got tired, I started lining up the cue unconsciously under both eyes, therefore creating more room for my stroking arm, and hitting the balls better and with more ease. I gave this matter a lot (too much?) thought. Eye dominance is influenced by the interacting of brain hemispheres, state of mind, fitness, pressure, blood sugar…
I decided to not try and figure out all the variables. I now just play.
The big test of Alex Lely’s newfound philosophy towards playing professional pool would come on day one at the Araneta Coliseum in Manila for the 2007 World Pool Championship. Playing his first match against Germany’s Harold Stolka, Lely’s attempt at not thinking and just getting in “free flow” mode seemed to work right off the bat as he surged to a 6-0 lead in a race to nine. But then everything started to fall apart. A bad miss, a bad safety and just as quickly 6-0 became 6-6. From there Lely had to switch to battle mode and the score went to 8 all. He ended up losing 9-8. Afterwards, standing outside the arena puffing on a cigarette, one loss away from elimination, Lely started questioning his “free flowing” philosophy. Clearly, he was now not sure it would be enough to take him through the group stage and into the round of 64.
“I was playing really good safes, kicks, breaks,” he said. “At that point I’m feeling really good. Then I missed the six ball. I said to myself, ‘Just continue flowing.’ Two racks later I missed the six. I said f__k! The next rack I made the one and misplayed a safety. Then I got nervous. Then my arm got tight. The problem is, if you start out playing loose, you throw away the harness and then if you start playing bad, you can’t find the harness anymore.”
“I lack tournament rhythm,” he continued. “I’m doing it only half way and that’s the hard way. Guys like Niels(Feijen) and Ralf(Souquet), they have the edge in pool because they play and practice full time.” But then a minute later he was sure that even a strict training regime was also not always the answer in pool.
“The problem with pool,” he said “is that input does not equal output. In other endeavors in life it does. Hard work pays off. But not in pool. In pool hard work gets you to the quarterfinals, but that’s not good enough.”
His next match was coming up in a few minutes and he obviously needed to get his head together. Before I left him he gave me this philosophical gem; “Result is talent minus distraction,” he said. And Lely had to get the distractions out his mind quickly, or the result would be he’d be finished on the international circuit.
Fortunately he easily won his next match against Saeed Ahmed Al-Mut-Mutawa of Qatar, 9-3. Now with one win and one loss, it was sudden death time for the “The Plague from the Hague.” If he won his last match he’d move on to the round of 64 beginning on Wednesday. If he lost, he’d be headed back home, his career as an international player probably over.
Lely would be playing Indonesia’s Ricky Yang, who was also 1-1 for the day and facing a do or die situation. Yang had just come off a grueling two and half hour 9-8 loss against American Charlie Williams and the strain showed. Playing well, Alex found himself up 8-5 with the break, one rack away from moving into the final 64.
But then, as if the pool God’s wanted to taunt Lely, things suddenly start to go awry. Alex fouls on the two ball and takes a seat. With ball in hand Yang runs the table to make the score 8-6. Yang then executes a perfect break and runs out the balls. 8-7. Then he breaks good again and runs out. 8-8. Yang has found a wellspring of energy just in the nick of time. Lely can only sit and watch. You can practically see the demons standing on his shoulders laughing at him.
On the break in the final rack, Yang downs the five, but has to play safe on the one ball. Alex kicks but leaves the one ball open, which Yang then pots. Yang looks like he has a clear path to a run out. He pockets the two, then the three. Then, however, Yang shoots a straight four ball, but he misses it by a mile. Yang hangs his head in disbelief while Alex jumps off his chair, suddenly infused with new life. ‘Just get the pattern and run out,’ he seems to be thinking as he studies the layout. ‘Stop thinking and shoot them like you know how.’
Which is exactly what Alex does. He downs the final four balls without a problem. As the 9-ball drops, he pumps his fist, smiles, shakes Yang’s hand and strides over to get congratulations from the handful of Dutch friends in the audience.
Wednesday will be a whole new day in the life and career of Alex Lely.
Ted Lerner is the author of the books “Hey, Joe-- a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” and “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers—sex, death life…on the road in Asia.” He has lived in the Philippines since 1995 and has covered pool as a writer and TV commentator for many years. He will be reporting several times weekly from Manila up to and through this year’s Philippines World Pool Championship which runs from November 3rd-11th.
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