No slop

A decade or so ago, I used to play the occasional game of pool in Chicago taverns. And I learned quickly that the variant of 8-ball favored by Chicagoans includes the stern rule: “No slop!”. What this means is that it is not enough to declare which ball will end up in which pocket — you have to specify the exact causal sequence of contacts. If you announce that you will put the 5 ball in the side pocket (without mentioning the 11 ball) and the 5 ball actually nicks the 11 ball on the way to that pocket, then you do not shoot again.

So then I arrived on the West Coast, and began playing pool at work rather than in bars, and eventually my Inktomi homies persuaded me that, whether or not “no slop” was a good rule, it was not (in that good pedantic geeky way) an _official_ rule of 8-ball. A standards body had actually met on the question and had decided (for good or for ill) that the 8-ball standard should be “ball in pocket” — you declare which ball will go into which pocket, and pretty much any way that that comes to pass is OK.

Accepting the standard, and also just wanting to fit in, I embraced slop for the first time. Some implications were disturbing: as when my opponent shot at an angle at an 8-ball hanging at the lip of a side pocket, and then we watched as the cue ball missed the 8 entirely, and then hit four rails to come back at nearly the same angle for another try, knocking it in this time. Ball in pocket, game over, I lose.

But the cool thing about allowing slop is that you can sort of integrate over the different things that might happen, and go with the strategy that seems like it has the best promise of a good outcome. Launch one of your balls toward a pocket that is clear for a direct shot, but also has an opponent’s ball right next to it. The good outcomes are that you make it directly, or are off enough that you glance off the other ball into the pocket. The bad outcome is that you go right up the middle. Do you want to bet? It’s complicated. (For the Bayesians out there, this is kind of like a priori vs. a posteriori…)

Now, fast-forward to my gaming life post-acquisition. Yahoo! has bought our company, with promises that life will be better and games will still be valued. Disturbingly, though, our beautiful large pool table is carted off, to be put “in storage” per the games committee, and we are pointed at the smaller pool table in a different building that shares space with the ear-splittingly loud air hockey table. So habits change, and now we’re starting to play foosball (a Yahoo! tradition), and we fumblingly gain confidence. There are questions of pace: some players like to catch the ball and then plan their shot, while others thrive on keeping things moving. I quickly decide (since I have no good shots) that I want to keep things moving, and that my only hopes are that quick-transition offense combined with creating chaos (and opportunity).

So after getting better at this new game, my homies and I meet a couple of people who are actually _really_ good at foosball (Yahoo! has many of them), and we find out that they … have a “No Slop” standard! That is, if you score a goal in an unintended way, then they believe that it shouldn’t count. This seems totally wacky to me for this particular game, where so much of the fun is in the random bounces and lucky consequences… Besides, my favorite competitive situation is when I keep scoring seemingly randomly, and my opponent gets increasingly frustrated at his “bad luck”.

Anyway, as my last accidental post made clear, I was going to wind this up with one of those tiresome life-and-work-lessons closers (a trope I’m getting weary of….). But I will say that sometimes people who manage you want to know not only what you’re going to get accomplished but how you’re going to do it, and judge you not only by good results but by whether you did it the way you said you would… And this is understandable, because they want as much of a view as possible into how all that money’s being spent, and want to reassure themselves that you’re manageable. But it can be nicer to get into a mode where slop is allowed — all that counts is what you deliver, and you’re trusted to make some educated bets that moving things in the right direction will make good things happen. Because (though we like to pretend otherwise), the next six months of our work is actually a lot _less_ predictable than a pool shot.

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