Howard Smith

Pool leagues are designed to encourage pool play for financial benefit to them and the establishments where they play. The APA, American Pool Association, says that everyone can play and anyone can win. To accomplish this, they attempt to rate players in a way that all players have a chance to win. At best, this is a poor effort. Different leagues do this in different ways. No matter what is done, the better player is favored, once he learns all aspects of the system and how to use them. Eight ball lends itself best to rating players more so than 9-ball. League-play has been very good for the pool industry and has made pool a family game which builds the number of players and participation overall.

Strategy of team play

Most league teams are an assembly of eight players, of which, 5 play on a given night. Each player has a rating, determined by some method based on his performance over time. Here-in is one of the most varied methods leagues use and is a highly kept secret. The purpose of the secret is to prevent what is called sand-bagging. Sand-bagging is performing in a way to manipulate your rating to give you an advantage for your team to win. Needless to say, this is cheating and in most leagues is handled severely. My recommendation is to play the best you can all the time and let the league take care of ratings. Playing badly is something you will do enough without trying. Most 8 ball leagues play 5 matches per night. That means that 5 players on your team will play 5 players on an opposing team. When you total up the skill level of the 5 players, the total must not exceed a given number set by the league, such as 23. This is to keep a team from being built of all high-level players. This also is an advantage to the league and the pool rooms. As players get better over time and their skill level goes up the team will be over loaded with higher level players. If a team has too many high-level players, the team will have to split to add low-level players. The high level players will form new teams there by bringing in new players and increasing the numbers of players at a location. This increases the number of players and revenue to the league and the pool rooms. This also is positive for everyone, as it increases the industry and gives us more people to play with.

8-ball league

The APA league is one of the biggest leagues in the US, so I will use it for most references.

Players are rated from 2 to 7, with 7 being the highest rated player. If you have ever played league pool, you quickly learn that these numbers are not accurate on any given time of play. I usually look at players at 3 levels within a rating. Example: there is a 6-7 a 7 and a 7+. There are many reasons why a person plays at different skill-level at any given time. After a player has played for a long time in the league his rating will become more stable. The league imposes limits on how much movement a player-rating can change.

The idea that once you archive a level, you don't go down more than one rating-point, mostly serves the league.
The way the league levels-the-play between players is to make a higher-rated player win more games in a match than a lower rated player. If a 7 plays a 2 the race is 7 to 2.
If a 7 plays a 5 the race is 5 to 3. The reason for the difference is to shorten the time to play all 5 matches. You don't want to stay out too late.

Previously I mentioned the total rating number for APA is 23. The strongest set of 5 players for a team is 7,5,5,3,3. I make this statement only if the players are playing at their skill level or better.

Now, how should you match up players? The goal should be to win at least 3 points each night. This in a way is practice for playoff or city play, where you are playing a race to 3 points. Regular session play is for all-you-can-get out of 5.

The general rule is to flip a coin to see who puts-up first. You should always want to win the toss and to put-up first. If you put-up first, you will control the 4th and 5th match and therefore have a better chance to win more points.

Ratings and how you play them:

There are 6 ratings and I group these as high, middle, and low. 7,6 being high, 5 being middle, and 4,3,2 being low.
Within the high players are some that are unbeatable. I say this with tong-in-cheek because anyone can loose to anyone. That is not to say that they were beat only that they lost. A high player, playing to the level of his rating and playing smart, against a low player can not be beat. He can loose if, he does not perform to the level of his rating or does not play smart. He can beat himself.
The middle rated player a 5 can beat low players and high players. Middle rated players have experience and skill in their favor but usually lack consistency. Middle players are usually your best bet for blind posting. That means you put him up not know who he will play. He will beat most low players and a lot of the high players, therefore reducing the gamble in a given match.
Low players will usually loose their match. You must have and play low players to meet the number requirements and give them experience to learn and become better players. Their ability to win is usually based on how bad their opponent plays rather than how good they play. If they play good and the opponent plays bad, that combination can be a win. You should not put low players in a critical position, your chances are low.

General Rules:

Your team should be made up of, 2 high players, 2 middle players, and 4 low players.
You should have all players present and ready to play 1 hour before time to start.
You should never put-up a high player blind. That means, if it is your turn to put up, do not put up your high player. A general rule is the middle player is the best starter. A middle player can beat all low players and a lot of high players.

The strategy is to win points:

If you play a high player against a high player it is a gamble. Either could win. Your high players should always be able to win against low players. Like wise, a low player against a low player is a gamble. Your low player against a low-high player, or a high player with an off day, has a chance to win. A 4 rated player is dangerous against a 6 or 7. Sometimes the high player under estimates the 4 and with a little luck, the 4 will win. The odds are always in favor of the higher skill.

Now let us go through a 5 match night.
Flip, you win. Put up your 5. (Your starter. A strong 5)

If you don't win the flip, and they put-up:

If they put up a high player, you put up a low player. How low? Here, it is important for a captain to know the opponent. If they put up an unbeatable, use your lowest player. If you think he can be beat, select a low player that has a chance. Here is where a strong 4 is an ace-in-the-hole. If you have three high players and a low 2, you may be able to play a high player and take the first point. The 2 may allow you to stay within the total of 23, but this means you will have to play your 2 next.

For the rest of the match, follow the rules, low plays high, high play low. It is not a good idea to match skills, you are back to gambling. You will have a few high players and more low players. Your middle players and low players will win some of the time. Your high players will win more of the time if you play them against low players. If the middle and low players win 1 out of 3, and your high win 2 out of 2, you will take 3 points a night. There will be nights when you win more than 3, and some nights less. On average, you should take 3 a night. If so, you will always be in the playoffs or go directly to the City tournament.

9-Ball league

9-Ball does not lend itself well to league play. It is difficult to rate players for 9-ball that equalizes skill. Various leagues try to do this in a verity of ways. Most fail, but it is what it is. For example APA always favors the higher player and 8-ball Express favors the lower player. If you are a 9-ball lover you will not like either, but if you learn the rules and study the strategies you will have fun. Regardless which league you choose the strategy is rather simple. Know your players and opponents. Match your opponent's skill the best you can. If they put up a 6 and you have a 5 that is performing at 6 level you will have an advantage. In 8-ball, you always want to put up first. In 9-ball, you want them to put up first so you can match players 3 out of 5 times. If you are put in a position where you can not match players it is better to play low against high or high against low based on which league you play. Remember the league unbalance tends to favor low or high depending what league you play. If you have a player that is unbeatable you always win, but most teams are not so lucky.

There are three components to winning team play:
Skill, strategy, and luck.

Skill is, for the most part, out of your hands and in the hands and mind of the player. Luck is fickle and undependable so don't bet-the-farm on it. Strategy is up to you. Know your players and there ability at the time of play and know your opponents.
Use every-bit-of-knowledge you have at your disposal and you will have a chance.

This strategy is for an ideal world. Hey, it is not that way in the real world. During session play, you will have to select players to get games in. You will not always have players present when they are needed. They won't show up ahead of time to practice, so you can evaluate them for the night. (How is Joe hitting them tonight?) You may not have a set of players with skill levels needed. Player numbers go up and down, which can change what you decide to do.
As the captain of a team you should control and direct play based on what is needed to win. Don't let your players control what you do. Use your strategy and knowledge to win.

If you follow this system, you should do well. If factors make it hard to achieve your goals, you may want to rethink the reasons you are playing league pool. If you have the illusion that you are going to win money or a trip, you are kidding yourself. It is possible, but not likely. You should be playing to perform, learn, and have FUN. You can do these every day, every time.

Howard Smith

League Pool Strategy