Choosing a league can be a tricky ordeal. If you are in any way serious about playing pool, you'll want to get the most return on your time, investment and money; but each of the leagues available offer a different experience. So, does one make the final decision? Unfortunately, I can not answer that for you. The best I can do is give you a side-by-side comparison of the leagues I've played in which hopefully will help you make your decision. I will not compare in-house leagues as they from all other leagues in terms of rules, payouts and experience. However, I will comment on them at the end of this article.
The three main leagues in our area are APA, Missouri-8 and (new) NAPA. Each of them have their pros and cons and it can be difficult to explain to people what the differences are - especially if they have no league experience at all. Let's go through them individually before we begin comparing.
APA - American Poolplayers Association. On a national level, this the largest league *in the world*. However, despite the fact that the APA is headquartered in St. Louis, it is not the largest league in town. On a given league night teams of between 5 and 8 players (though only 5 can play in a match) go head to head in their chosen format (8 or 9 ball). Each player has their own skill level: In 8-ball the range of skill levels is 2 to 7. In 9-ball the range is 1-9. Your skill level in one format has no affect on your SL in the other format. For a league match, the teams may play any combination of players they wish, as long as the SUM of all players' skill level is 23 or under. That is not a very high limit and it is designed by the APA for a purpose. As players continue to play they will naturally get better, and over time their SL will rise. Eventually, a team that could play a night on only 20 points will not be able to play those same players each week, as each of their players's SL go up. This forces that team to recruit other lower skill level players to the team (and likely new to the league, thereby growing membership). A team will sometimes split up and recruit several new players at once to fill out both new teams. This helps the league and it helps the teams in the division by adding new players and thus more competition. The league is structured is to allow for people of all skill levels to compete in a fair and unbiased manner. This is accomplished by their handicapping system named "The Equalizer System". The system, in a vacuum, works incredibly well. What I mean by that is it functions perfectly in areas with a stable player membership. Assuming there is some group of a few hundred players, the handicapping system will accurately product player skill limits relative to everyone one else. The issue that arises is there is no way for the handicaps to be compared against another group of players from a different city. This lack of comparison is what causes SL6s from City A to complain about SL4s in City B being underrated. What it really means is that the players in City B are, on average, stronger players than the players in City A. The only way to get the ratings equalized across the two cities is if they would also compete on a regular basis. However, this is not an option - on a national scale so a new solution is needed. The APA leadership is aware of this and I know (from personal conversations) it is always at the forefront of their minds.
So how does an average league night work? Let's say we have a team named "Dude, Where's My Team" playing another team "Good Mojo". DWMT has 5 players, with ratings 2, 4, 4, 5, and 6 while GM has player ratings of 3, 3, 5, 5, 7. The format of the night is 8-ball and DWMT puts up their player first and they start with a 4. GM has no player with SL4, so they decide to play their 3. This difference in player skill levels is reflected by the number of games each player has to win in order to win the match. In this case, the SL4 must win 3 games and the SL3 only has to win 2.
The two players then lag to see who breaks the first rack of 8-ball. From there it is a fairly standard game of 8-ball. A scratch on the break is NOT a loss and the incoming player has to play their first shot from behind the line, referred to as "the kitchen" (in other words, the same area from the breaker must break from). A failure to contact your ball first results in Ball in Hand for your opponent. If you're solids and your shot hits the 8 or a striped ball before hitting a solid, it's Ball In Hand (BIH). A ball must hit a rail (or be pocketed) after legal contact with the cueball. This means that if you decide to play a safety and you simply shoot the cueball into one of your balls, but then no other balls (neither the cueball or your ball or one of your opponent's balls) contact a rail - it is BIH for your opponent. When shooting the 8-ball the shooter MUST mark the pocket with a special object. It can be a cell phone, a wallet, a lighter, a specific "pocket marker" - anything other than a piece of chalk or any form of legal currency. Just pointing at the pocket and/or calling it out loud will not satisfy this rule. The pocket MUST be marked, clearly and prior to shooting the 8-ball in order for the shot to count. If this is not done, the shooter will LOSE the game.
Once an individual player has finished their match the next match will begin. In our example, let's say that the Good Mojo's SL7 has to leave early for personal reasons and needs to play next. Similarly, let's also assume, for this discussion, that DWMT's SL2 also has to leave early and also needs to play 2nd. So, when GM puts up their 7, DWMT puts up their 2. This looks like a very one-sided match-up, but here's where the equalizer system really shines. The required number of games each player must win is adjusted accordingly. The SL7 must win 7, while the SL2 only needs to win 2 in order to win the match. This is the sliding scale that allows players of all skills to compete with other players of all skills. Similarly rated players will each need a similar number of wins.
During all matches the other players watching the match are responsible for counting the number of innings per game. The number of innings are used as part of the calculation for your rating. So, an SL3 might win most of their games, but it takes them 27 innings to win 3 games (that's 9 turns at the table, each rack!) each week, they do not need a higher rating. However, if a new player (always start at 4) plays their first APA match ever and wins their requisite 4 games in only 8 innings (an average of 2 turns per rack) their rating will go up.
Things change a little bit when the game is 9-ball. In this format, it's not the individual games that matter, but the number of points scored that count. A rack of 9-ball has a potential of 10 points: 1 point for the balls numbered 1 through 8, and 2 points for the 9-ball. The total number of points determine the match winner. Returning to our example where a 7 was playing a 2, the race would be 55 to 19 points. In the 4 vs 3 example, it would be a 31-25 race.
Let's talk about the end-of-season events offered by the APA. At the end of each session (season), there is a team tournament, called the Tri-Cup; where teams who qualify during the session compete in a 2-day tournament to win cash prizes. Throughout the entire year there are also tournaments for individual players where the winner can win a *free trip to Las Vegas to compete in the Nationals (a week long tournament for all APA members/teams who have won a spot in their format). There are tournaments for Scotch Doubles (8 and 9-ball) and Jack'n'Jill (8b only) formats as well. Teams, however, have only 1 chance a year to win that coveted spot to Vegas: The Local Team Championships. This event is held (usually) in the summer and will feature all the teams in the region who've qualified to play in it (by winning their division in a regular session). This is usually a 2-day tournament, with multiple brackets which allow for more than team to win a trip to Vegas.
If a team wins a trip to Vegas they will then travel to Vegas and stay at the Riveria, which houses the National Team Championships each year. Airfare and hotel are generally paid for the league, so players generally only need to pay for their food and daily expenses while in Vegas. There, hundreds of teams will compete for a chance to win thousands of dollars. 1st place for team 8-ball pays $25,000. 1st for 9-ball pays $15,000 and 1st for Masters pays $10,000. Jack'n'Jill winners receive $3,500 and Scotch Doubles winners receive $5,000 for 8-ball and $3,500 for 9-ball. (the variance in payouts is relative to the number of participants in the events)
If you wish to play without any kind of rating or handicap, you can choose to play in the APA Masters division. Here players play each other a race to 7 wins in a mix of both 8-ball and 9-ball racks. There are no outside tournaments for Masters-only players (no singles, doubles, etc), only the LTC to determine which Masters team goes to Vegas.
A few notes about equipment. In the standard APA, there are NO jump cues allowed at any time. You may have a break cue (used ONLY for break-shots) and your playing cue for all other shots. You can break and play with the same cue. You can NOT alternate between cues during a single rack. There is no 3-foul rule and there is no push-out rule. In the Masters division, jump cues ARE allowed and the push-out option is available. However, still no 3-foul rule.
Missouri-8-Ball (Also called MO8). This is the largest league in the area for one reason: CASH PAYOUT. This is a handicap league as well, but unlike the APA there is no need to track anything other than wins during a match. Ratings range from 2 to 8. This leagues offer 2 league types: 4-person and 5-person teams. Similar to the APA, there is a team-skill-limit on each night. Recall that in APA it was 23, but in MO8 the limit is 32. This means teams can have more higher rated players active on their roster. That is where the similarity ends for these two leagues.
A night of MO8 goes like this: Each team pulls 5 opposing players at random, then players marked in position 1 will play a single rack of 8-ball. Then the players in position 2 will play, and so on until all 5 players have played a single rack. Then the process is repeated - 5 more random players/slots. This continues until one team accumulates 13 wins. However, since individual matches are not races, but individual racks, there still needs to be an adjustment for handicaps. This is where the team-limit comes into play. Before starting the night's match, each team will decide how many points they want to play. If a team only had 5 players total (no alternates) they are forced to play as many points as their player's skills combine to, but if a team has 7 players on the roster, they can choose any combination of those 7 (still totally under 32) and use that as their "points to play". For example, a team with 7 players, with ratings 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7 does not have to play all 32 points. They can instead, play 27 points (7+6+5+5+4). This means that for all rounds of the night, they can only play a combined total of 27 points, max. They can swap out the players with a 6 rating 1 round to the next, as well as alternate the 5's. They could also play both 6's and all three 5's in one round - any combination that is equal to or less than the number of points they indicated at the start of the match. If a team decides to play all 32 points and their opponents only play 27 points, then the total number of games each *team* needs is adjusted. In this case, the team playing 32 points needs 13 wins, while the team playing 27 points only need 11.
Players lag to see who pays for the rack. The loser drops the balls and racks them. The winner breaks. If the 8-ball is made and the cueball does not scratch, it is an instant win, the rack is over. If the cueball scratches and the 8-ball is NOT made, game continues as usual. If both the 8-ball and the cueball are made on the break, it is an instant loss of game.
At the end of each session, teams receive a cash award based on their win percentage. The teams with the highest percentage gain entry into the yearly team tournament, where a 1st place win can earn the team between $5,000 and 10,000 (relative to the number of teams active during the regular year). There is also a doubles tournament (any two players, combined skill limit 10) as well as an All-Stars tournament (individual players with high winning percentages) annually; both of which pay very well.
NAPA - North American Poolshooter's Association. This is the newest league to reach St. Louis and is as of yet barely known. It is a handicapped league and it is a cash-payout league with a national tournament option. Skill levels here range from 10 to 150. On average, the conversion is the player's APA 8-ball rating, multiplied by 10, then add 10. So, an SL6 in APA would be a 70 to start out in NAPA. This league's handicapping system also suffers from the same area-comparison problem the APA has. (In truth, all national leagues share this problem) Again this is a team based league, also with a team-based skill limit. In NAPA the limit is 325. Also like the APA, individual matches are a race of some number of wins. There are 5 matches in a league night. Teams alternate putting up their players and having the other team "counter" with a player of their choice.
Because of the potentially huge gap is players' skill levels the races can also be very one-sided. If, for example, a player rated 130 had to play someone rated a 40, the higher ranked player would have to win 10 games, to their opponent's 2 games of the chosen format. A player will have a rating in each of the formats offered and one format's rating does not affect any other rating.
As for game play, in general it's very similar to APA, with some crucial differences: In 8-ball - the table is open after the break. This means that if a shooter makes a solid on the break, they are not required to shoot solids from that point forward. They can, if they choose, elect to be stripes with no penalty. In both 8 and 10-ball, EVERY shot *must* be called and verified by the opponent. The shooter must indicate which ball will be pocketed - and into which pocket. In 9-ball, the ONLY ball that must be called is the 9-ball, all other balls are "slop-counts". If a player calls a ball/pocket and it does not go into that pocket, the shooter's turn is over. However, in the case where a ball is called, and does not, but another ball is accidentally made, the incoming player has the option to take the table as it lies or return it to the shooter. Unless the shooter explicitly calls "SAFE", in which case the incoming player must take the table as it lies. For all formats, shooters may use jump cues at any time. In 9 and 10-ball, the push-out option IS available after the break. Only rack wins are counted, no innings, no points.
At the end of the session, the top 2 teams receive cash prizes (scaled by the number of active teams in the division). For smaller divisions, each member of the winning team also receives a qualification certificate to participate in the Nationals; where individual players compete for large cash prizes (also pro-rated by number of entrants). However, unlike the APA, all travel expenses are the responsibility of the player.
In-house leagues: There are several in-house leagues around town. Each one of them is a little different than any of the formats described here. Most of them have similarities such as cash payouts, earlier nights, small number of players, house-benefits, etc. They are for individual players usually, though a small handful are team-based. If you're interested in an in-house league, my best suggestion would be to visit the room/host location and spend some time in the room, playing on the tables and taking in the atmosphere. Observe the other customers, take notes on the environment - is it loud, quiet, dirty, well lit, etc and make a decision based on how well you feel while playing there.
Each player will have to decide what they want out of a league experience. For some, the money available in MO8 is worth playing one rack of a 8-ball per round (at most 3/night). For others, the appeal of getting to Vegas is worth the hassle of counting balls and innings all night. For some others the appeal of calling every shot is worth the frustration of playing in a league that's just getting started and all the related growing pains.
Each league has its own list of pros and cons and it is not the intent of this article to expose all of them nor persuade you to one league or the other. Chances are, you know someone who's played in or is currently playing in one of these leagues. Tag along with them one night and see it in action for yourself. Good luck and swing straight!
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