Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't hate the game, hate the idiot who didn't even try

Nicaraguan bar pool!

The closemindedness of some people is exasperating. On 3 separate occasions, here in León, Nicaragua, fellow travelers have negatively commented, unsolicited, on the local rules without having even tried the game:

"Any game which allows intentional fouls is stupid" --British asshat after watching 45 seconds of two Nicas playing
"That's just not the right way to play pool" --German p.o.s. upon hearing the very first difference in the rules
"In REAL pool you get 2 shots after a foul" --Australian nit who had obviously only ever played Blackball pool.

The few travelers I have met who did try the game more than once have commented very differently:
"I'm going to show people how to play this in California" --American hippie
 "It's my favorite cuesport variation" --Longtime foreign resident of León
 "The tactical implications are very interesting" --French non-player with a keen intellect

  Today I present you Nica rules 8-ball, called "Pool Ocho".

At first glance the game ressembles American 8-ball. The equipment is identical. You are shooting either stripes or solids, and the 8 goes in last. The similarities end there.

Key differences:
  1. The 7 and 15 each have a designated side pocket. If you make your 7 or 15 in the wrong pocket, it gets spotted back up and you lose your turn.
  2. Hitting no balls is a foul. If you hit an opponent's ball first, they have the option to set the shot back up and have you shoot the shot again. If they choose not to have you shoot it again, you must remove one of their balls.
  3. If you foul, you must choose and remove one of your opponent's balls. If they are on the 8, you lose the rack.
  4. There is no "must hit a rail after contact with legal object ball" rule. You can just roll up behind one of your balls and just touch it. No penalty. Common shot.
  5. There is absolutely no stigma against playing defensively (unlike most bar pool across the world). This makes it easier for serious shooters to enjoy the game socially.
  6. Scratching results in loss of turn, but is not penalized by removal of opponent's ball (unless rule 2 also applies to the shot)
  7. Jumping is not allowed. Flamboyant massé shots are not allowed, but you can sneak in small curve shots without reprimand.
  8. If you sink one of your balls and one of your opponent's balls in on the same shot, your ball gets spotted, their's does not, and you lose your turn.
  9. Until the groups are determined, the only way to make a legal shot is by first contacting the 1 ball. Failure to do so is NOT penalized in any way. At first I thought this was strange, but you get used to it.

 The Rack:

Note: I have also seen the 7 and 15 racked where the 12 and 2 are in this diagram

I managed to film one of the hundreds of racks I've played. Here it is, with annotated explanations.

Here is another rack, this one very different.Watch for the numerous intentional fouls. Also, an epic fail of a forfeit at the end.

All age groups enjoy the game here.
People start playing at 8am, and drinking shortly thereafter
At this bar/restaurant, the pool is FREE (although there is a sign up that says it's 20 US cents per DAY, I've only been charged that once), and it's winner stays on. The level of play is generally quite high compared to what you'd find in an American bar. You can count on multiple railbirds enforcing the rules at all times, the game is taken quite seriously. No gambling (but you can find gambling at any actual pool hall in Nicaragua). As I have been "stuck" in León for some time now, this place has become one of my favorite places in the world to play competitive social pool. There are however some major drawbacks to this bar/restaurant so I won't name the place here. You can find it easily if you do come to León; feel free to contact me for those details.

Interruptions, obstacles, and other annoyances are an accepted fact of life here. Just deal with it.

My huge room. Private bath, free wifi, smell of fresh baguettes in the morning, $14/night :)

Experimental billiards photography (30s, iso 100, f/32)

Jack, best cook in Central America according to several sources.
Haven't tried them all yet, but he's excellent.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Antigua, Guatemala. It was time for a break..

View of the Volcano of Water, from the hotel terrace
I arrived in San Salvador 2 days ago, after sunset. San Salvador as a rough reputation, having been crowned Most Dangerous City in the world in 1992, at the end of the civil war which ravaged the country for 12 years. While Guatemala was no walk in the park security wise, I was under the impression El Salvador would be worse. But like I tell my Mom, due diligence goes a long way towards staying safe - this includes lots of reading and general travel experience. You can avoid risk by knowing where you are and where you are going, geographically and culturally, and by following simple guidelines that, in the end, only vary slightly from place to place.
The famous Arch in Antigua
When I arrived in Guatemala in early July, it had been a full year since I had started my trip. I needed a break, so I spent 3 weeks relaxing in and around Antigua, a beautiful small city at the foot of the Volcano of Water. I only played pool once. I spent most of my days there practicing guitar (bought one there for about $40) and conversing with other travelers. I made many contacts there, and got some recent information about traveling trough the rest of Central America. The geographical and cultural knowledge of your average hippie backpacker in Guatemala would put any NBC Olympic commentator to shame (obviously). I found myself discussing subtleties of language distribution in Central Asia, methods of crossing the Darién Gap overland, negotiation norms in Botswana, and other fascinating topics. You do also meet the occasional crazies as well, and there are some people for whom it is a total wonder that they made it as far as Antigua.
It was also super nice to be able to spend more than a day or two with the same people. In the past year, I've hadn't had a chance to spend much time getting to know people face to face, and although FB, Twitter, IM etc are really great tools for keeping in touch, there is nothing like having a conversation that lasts more than a week and making true friends in the process.

Kids in the small villages around the volcano
I didn't stay in Antigua for the whole three weeks - I had time to visit the villages around the city and the volcano - many of these villages are almost 100% Maya, and the locals do still wear the traditional dress and believe in the peculiar mix of pre-columbian, catholic religious, and conquistador legends which color the local customs. See Maximón.
I also took 20 hours of Spanish lessons, in a colonial building with a courtyard generously shadowed by a huge avocado tree. I figured I needed to brush up on that language before continuing on my journey South. Learning Spanish again has come at the expense of my ability to easily codeswitch to Italian from my other languages, but I am confident I will get that back too if I ever spend time in Italy again. My German, English and French are safe, however.

Lakeside lunch in San Pedro de la Laguna
I also got to spend a couple of days around Lake Atitlan, an aesthetic marvel of volcanic geomorphology. Aldous Huxley said : "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
I climbed the San Pedro volcano along with a friend, and the view of the lake from the almost 10,000' summit was truly a wonder.

View from the summit of the San Pedro volcano

Although I don't have pictures good enough to post, one of the very best restaurants I've ever been to is in Antigua. Hector's, an unsigned affair near the Iglesia de la Merced, with its 6 tables and tiny kitchen, did not disappoint. Using French cooking techniques along with local ingredients and its own twist on traditional dishes, this little jewel of a restaurant with its perfect atmosphere and presentation made me come back for a second visit to celebrate my last evening in Antigua. It is worth going to Antigua just for a meal here. An equivalent meal in the US or Europe would run you at least $100/person, but here about $25 with wine and starters. 

The San Pedro volcano viewed from San Marcos, across Lake Atitlan

Anituga itself is sort of in a bubble - being a Unesco World Heritage site, and having so many Spanish schools, it is the safest city in Guatemala by a long shot. However, you don't have to go very far before encountering real danger - just the Volcano of Water, for example, is heavily discouraged to climbers - the locals say there is a 95% chance you will come back naked due to bandits, if you can even find your way up - or back down. I heard several stories of people being robbed on buses and public places, and even much worse - basically anyone putting resistance up to an armed robbery gets killed on the spot. But again, simple guidelines followed, you will get away shaken up but alive.

I promise to write about El Salvador very soon. I'm actually heading out to a pool room right now :)

Found this guy on the very summit of the San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan, with view of the Indian's Head - can you see it?

View of Antigua and the Volcano of Water, from "The Cross"