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Technical
Openings used in The MacRobertson Shield 2010

By Chris Clarke

Nomenclature

U, K, R, Y

blUe, blacK, Red and Yellow

C1, C2, C3, C4

Corners 1, 2, 3 and 4

N, S, E, W

North, South, etc. also combinations NNE, ...

Further information:

It's difficult to know how much detail to go into on this topic. Openings have always been my favourite area of the game. I'm going to concentrate on two main openings from this year's Mac;

For those unaware of opening terminology, it is assumed that U plays first, R second, K third and Y fourth.

Supershot Openings

The supershot was the most widely used opening I saw (certainly during week 1 anyway). It varied from a line 1 foot W of the centre line to 4 yards W of the centre line. The distance varied from 11 yards to 16.5 yards. Everyone that I saw use the supershot was using it with a pre-determined decision of trying to go round third turn. I thought that this failed to fully capitalise on better opportunities when it became clear that people weren't shooting well.

Let's look at the 5 main responses

a. R just S of C2

In my opinion, this was generally the best response. It gives the opponent the chance to fail to get going if they hit and this regularly happened. Additionally, you are likely to get a double target fourth turn if K misses R.

There was the odd occasion when UK were playing so well that I would have considered different alternatives. Such an example was game 3 of Chapman/Westerby v Fulford/Lines where Fulford’s choice of R 4 yards NNE of hoop 4 with his own ball was excellent.

b. R to 9 to 10 yards E of the peg

This was used by the Americans - in particular Danny Huneycutt. He seemed to use it irrespective of the length of U. I thought it was a very poor opening - why? Firstly, it offers K a free shot through R into C4. If K misses, there is no clearly good line for Y which usually shot at R from A-Baulk. This left RY with an 8 yarder and gave UK a variety of options 5th turn. So, to summarise, UK got the first 19 yarder, after which RY got a 19 yarder with an 8 yard join after which UK had options of what shot to take.

Furthermore, for those players who were aware that this was likely to be the response to U - supershot, it offered them the opportunity of playing U 17 yard supershot, R 9 to 10 yards E of the peg, K to 17 yards S of C3. This leaves Y a 17 yarder for a 4 ball break or to concede and easy 3-ball break. You need to be a pretty good shot as RY to want this scenario, and if you are that good a shot, then there are better openings available.

c. R dribbles at U from C1

This was used by Chapman/Westerby and a few others. My feeling was that if they missed, the first break tended to go to UK and so it was inferior to R to just S of C2. However, I think it will become more common in the future as players improve and become better at going round 2nd turn.

d. R to 19 yards S of C3

This is an interesting response. Openings are about bluff and double bluff (if you are playing someone intelligent). When you play R just S of C2, you are either saying "I know you are going to shoot K at R and I'm happy to make life difficult for you if you hit, and probably have a double if you miss" or "I'm happy to have a 13 yarder if you join up with me". When you play R to 19 yards S of C3, you might be saying "I don't want to give you a 13 yarder" or "I don't want to have a 13 yarder 4th turn - I want to be able to join up". Clearly, working out your opponents desires and mentality is part of all croquet. When Mulliner plays 19 yards S of C3, everyone knows it is because he doesn't like giving short shots away. When I go 19 yards S of C3, it is more likely that I'm trying desperately to get the innings without having to hit in.

This then leaves choices as to what K does. Traditionally, it just shot from C3 through R into C4, allowing Y to shoot at R from A-Baulk joining up. It soon became clear that this was working too well for some RYs. Therefore, it is common nowadays for K to shoot at R at a slight angle and go off somewhere between 5 yards and 12 yards S of R. This clearly increases the target for Y in 4th turn, but gives K a much better chance 5th turn if Y misses.

This is the psychology of the opening. When you know that someone believes R to just S of C2 is the best reply (and I believe that this will be borne out when the stats are completed), why has someone just played R to 19 yards S of C3. Is it because they want to join up after you shoot into C4 or because they want a nice double 4th turn and want to get you to take a 19 yarder rather than a 13 yarder.

I should also point out that if U thinks R is likely to play 19 yards of C3, it should avoid laying very short supershots (10-11 yards) since these will become the best option for Y on turn 4 rather than the long "double". The opposite clearly applies - if your opponent lays a short U supershot, R 19 yards S of C3 is more attractive.

e. R to 3 to 4 yards NNE of hoop 5

This is all about knowing what your opponent is likely to do third turn. There are so many reasons for playing this opening. Fulford/Lines played it in the third v Chapman/Westerby knowing that the Kiwis had played K at U hard 3rd turn of the first game, giving Fulford an easy break. When they played game 3, Chapman once again laid a supershot (arguably slightly too long if they were going to shoot hard) and then instead of Lines playing R 3 yards NNE of hoop 5, so Fulford could shoot at any double that was left by a soft roquet attempt, Fulford played 3 yards NNE of hoop 5, meaning that if Westerby shot hard, he gave a laid break to Lines. The Kiwis shot hard again and this time it was the weaker GB player that was given an easy break.

However, that was just one example. It has become Fulford's standard response to Bamford who tends to shoot gently at R with K from first corner. This then gives Fulford a 13 yarder 4th turn, which he is happy with. In general, this is only an opening that I would recommend if you are a good shot and are playing someone very good, who will probably go round having hit R just S of C2 if you played that.

There is much more I could say about responses, but I'll leave that for now. I should look at why players were using supershots at all. I have been a big believer over my playing career about trying to start matches defensively and let your opponent make errors. This is particularly relevant in Test Matches, where first of all, there is more pressure and secondly 60% of your matches are doubles where players tend not to play as well as singles. If you are the stronger player, the last thing you want to do is to make life easy for your weaker opponent at the start of the match.

However, if you not the stronger play, the supershot is fairly attractive as openings go. I think that on average, UK have the advantage if they play a supershot and that this is definitely true if R does not play just S of C2.

I could go into more details about why you should lay the Supershot in various places, but not now.

Corner 2 Openings

I've always liked this opening for myself. I only use it every 20 games or so, but it has a purpose. I spent most of the 2003 Mac trying to persuade Rob to let me play it, but was only allowed to in 1 match. It therefore came as a complete surprise to me when Fulford/Lines used it in Game 1 (and game 3) of the Notts Test v Skinley/Wright. From that stage, it became the second most popular opening of the Mac. The other 2 GB pairs started using it, then some Aussies had a go - it was amazing!!

Anyway, why do I like this opening? The answer is that (as the stronger player), I like defensive openings. I usually play U to 8 yards N of C4 if I believe my opponent is going to play R just S of C2. This gives me a quiet, non-shooting opening that suits me down to the ground. However, some nasty people play Duffer tices against me (why oh why were there so few Duffer tices this Mac - it is a great opening for RY). By playing U just S of C2, I have found that opponents simply can't resist the big space I've left for them on the E boundary. Some lay B-Baulk tices which is a reasonable reply, but many just go anywhere between C4 and 10 yards N of C4. This allows me to join a couple of feet away if they are near C4 or even shoot from A-Baulk if they go too far N. Either way, I have a lovely quiet C2 opening without having to shoot myself.

So, to clarify, this is a good opening if you are the stronger player and want a quiet opening. The fact that the Aussies started playing it against GB was absolutely fantastic from a GB standpoint.

When I played in my first Open Doubles with Rob in 1989, we played George Latham and Allan Cleland in the semi-final. There was one position where I was adamant that we should do one thing and Robert was adamant that we should do another. "But if we do X, then they will be just have a short shot at us, but if we do Y, it is a much better leave" I said. Robert replied "Yes, of course you're right, but only if they take the short shot and I guarantee that they won't, even though we both know it is the right shot to play". I was eventually persuaded and as Robert guaranteed, Latham and Cleland didn't shoot and we went round next turn.

What the above story shows is that you don't have to take the theoretical best line of play; you just have to take the best line of play given what your opponent is likely to do. In all the games during the Mac from day 6 onwards where U just S of C2 was played, I never saw the "correct" reply. I've been playing it for 20 years and only once has my opponent played a good response - I never played it again against him. So, as Rob says, U to just S of C2 isn't a particularly good opening - but it is if your opponent does what you want.

What is the "correct" response? Well, once again it depends on the usual factors of how well you're shooting, what your opponent is likely to do, how difficult the lawn is etc., but try these two options for starters. R 9 to 11 yards Duffer (experiment as to whether you prefer E or W of hoop 6) and R 9 to 11y reverse Duffer (near hoop 5) - once again look at both E and W (you might want to get hoop 5 in the way of the rush to hoop 1 and the shot from C1).

I enjoyed watching U to just S of C2 time and time again and never seeing a good reply. It worked extremely well for me during my career. It's not a "good" opening, but every player who aspires to be the best should have a complete understanding of all the options available to them as their form and opponents change.

Chris

Discussions

This article on the Nottingham news group prompted further discussion.

Chris Clark writes:
 
Thanks to both Paul Billings  and Ian Burridge for some very interesting thoughts. I think that most of what they both say is correct.
 
Firstly, I should add some more explanation as to when I play U to just S of C2. It is often when I'm not shooting particularly well. I have also seen John Prince use this opening on a few occasions. He is another player that fits the mould of "not the best shot, but pretty good when he has a rush to his hoop". It also fit the description of some players in this year’s Mac.
 
Anyway, clearly if you are an elite player shooting very well, it is going to take herds of wild elephant to stop you playing U - supershot (unless you're the Beast and simply must play RY).

However, as I hope many of you will have spotted, these elite players often have less spectacular shooting patches and (should) simply fancy a quiet opening. Normally, the person who determines the opening when you play U to E boundary is RY. By playing U just S of C2, you hope that your opponent heads off to the E boundary (99% probability in my playing career) and hey presto!, you've got the opening you wanted.
 
Now, let’s look at Ian's R 11 yards towards C4. If you are worried that UK has underestimated their current playing strength and will probably go round third turn if you dare to play some sort of Duffer, then this is great. I would suggest being brave and playing it at 9 or 10 yards rather than 11 - there's not much to lose. The next step goes back to JR's point. If you hit in and are "prepared to just make a good leave". If people had just made good leaves against me instead of trying to dig out tricky breaks and subsequently giving me shorter and safer shots, I would not have won as many games as I have. Fortunately, some players simply can't resist having their fate in their own hands - even if it means they win 30% of the time instead of 35%. For all those players out there - thank you!! Please note that this means I'm saying Y should shoot at R, not K if all K does is play to C4 (without a double)
 
Time for another story. In the final of the 1988 National Juniors, I played Robert Fulford. It was a best of five and in one of the earlier games, I'd missed my peg-out and Rob had gone to the peg leaving me near C3 and laying up guarded near C1. I shot at him and hit and subsequently won the match. Rob understood the game well enough to know that my shot was nuts. When you've just missed a peg-out, it takes a mature, intelligent player to corner on their next visit to the lawn. I was not a mature, intelligent player. I only fully understood what a bad choice it was when 13 years later in the 2001 Worlds, I was faced with the same choice against Robin Brown. This time I missed and lost.

All the above is designed to show is how difficult it can be to take the “right” shot. The more you know before a game what is correct, the more likely you will be to make right choice when your natural instincts are telling you to be too aggressive (or for some people too defensive).

I should also mention what I did when someone played R Duffer tice against me. Obviously, as has been pointed out, my first thought was “damn, someone’s played the right response for the first time”. I wasn’t shooting particularly well and so I played K to C4. A clear win of the opening after 3 turns for RY, but at least I kept it tight in the opening.

As I’ve said – it’s not a good opening theoretically, but it worked regularly. I’m sure that despite this correspondence there will still be times in the future when it would be a good choice against certain opponents.

Chris

Robert Fulford adds:

Supershot

[See also Roberts discussion on the Supershot elsewhere.]

There aren't many statistics on top level croquet but from the commentaries it would be interesting to see some statistics for the supershot openings with the different replies.I thought Danny's(?) response was actually quite successful in the GB match. After K misses R to C4, Y misses R from A-baulk to level with 3 RY looked better off than UK. The variety of options 5th turn aren't really that great, the only shortish shot U at R gives away a much easier break chance than it gains and the Americans were pretty solid at their 8 yarders. Where R is relatively near the side boundary maybe K should be shooting from the end of B-baulk to join up more with R rather than the "free" shot into C4.

The fact that the Americans played this response virtually every game was its biggest weakness. If you know it is coming you can do things like put your supershot ball a little wider and shoot hard at it to closer to C2 third turn or put the supershot ball further west, where the length of U at R 5th turn is shorter.I still generally like R to just out of C2 against U supershot, as players frequently fail to go round when they hit it. Still not really sure our choice of opening against Paddy Chapman and Aaron Westerby was the right one though looked good after Aaron missed! Aaron was shooting at his best hard so felt if he did hit he might rush the ball off the court and have to play a long roll to get his rush to 1.  In game 1 I wanted to be shooting fourth turn if Aaron did go round. Aaron and Paddy had been perfect against the other two pairs and we wanted to maximise our chance of at least getting into the match. In game 3 after Aaron had missed in game 1 we thought we could put most pressure on with Ian getting the break if Aaron missed, but obviously it's Ian who has to save the match if Aaron has a third turn ball round.

U to C2 or just South.

The first turn to C2 opening is definitely played in the hope of having a quiet opening with R and U ending up on the East boundary.Playing the first ball actually into the corner is arguably better than just out, as if you did ever decide you want to shoot at partner third turn, you have a reduced chance of leaving a double. Let's R play into corner 2 replacing his ball on the north boundary if he wants to. A Duffer is a really good reply and on the whole makes U's first choice of where to go look silly, particularly slightly out of C2. As Ian Burridge says the best players faced with a good reply may well end up going round third turn off this, but not often, particularly if you manage to get hoop 6 in play. Giving them a better hoop 1 pioneer by going near 5 seems dubious.Lagging to near C4 is playable but as Chris says go for 10 yards not 12 yards. Really take care to be close but not on the south boundary. At a yard off the south boundary a close miss by K on the right will result in K being placed on the yardline close to plumb behind R.
Rob

Author: Chris Clarke
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Updated 15.xi.12
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