Killer Instinct by Bob Henning - November 2006

Killer Instinct is a term tossed around fairly regularly in pool room conversations. It is applied to some players and found absent in others. “He’s got the killer instinct…she doesn’t have a killer instinct, etc.” What, exactly does this term mean? How do you know if you have it or not? Is it a good thing to have? Or is it a dinosaur left over from the smoke-filled, trouble-in-River-City pool rooms of the Hustler Era?

For sure, pool is a one-on-one sport. Two players go into a match and only one comes out a winner. Only one player gets to move forward on the tournament chart. You could say that the other player, in terms of a pool match, gets killed off, and that points to the essential aspect of competition. Everybody can’t win. If your opponent really wants to win and you really want to win, one of you has to be denied. And that denial, no matter how many mistakes you make, is ultimately delivered by the hand of your opponent. In that respect, pool requires the winner to land a killing blow. He has to squash the other player’s intention and kill off his hope.

There are people who appreciate the beauty and camaraderie of pool, and cringe at the killer allegory. They would prefer to pretty it up. No killers here thank you. To them the outcome of any particular match is just a matter of the best player winning. If one player plays a better game, then he wins; if the other player plays better, then he wins. It’s not a personal thing, for goodness’ sake.

If we were talking about boxing, this issue would be easy to resolve. After all, somebody is likely to get knocked out, maybe even hospitalized. Having a clear and focused killer instinct in a boxing match is clearly a genuine advantage. Only a fool would be there without one. But is boxing so different from pool? Pool players can’t physically touch each other, but aren’t they up to the same thing?

The truth probably leans toward the killer instinct, even though some will not admit it. To such a player, resistance to the phrase killer instinct comes from associating it with undesirable traits such as hatefulness, evil, and disrespect. That player wants to see himself as a good person, intent on pursuing his own goals and not someone who is focused on actively killing off another person’s hopes and dreams. But that perspective denies the real truth of competition. You have to eliminate the other player to claim victory.

There is nothing wrong with having a killer instinct, expressing it in competition, or talking about it in a mature fashion. It’s not something bad. Having a killer instinct doesn’t mean you have to hate your opponent or be mean and surly and it certainly doesn’t necessitate poor sportsmanship. In fact, the greatest killers in competitive pool are often the most jovial, friendly people you will ever meet. The killer instinct is not demonstrated and revealed by mannerisms, but by the underlying intention of the player.

You can like or dislike a particular player, but if you want to play well against them, it’s essential to respect them. Allison Fisher told me it was the most important thing. It’s also natural to feel love and camaraderie for people like yourself, who have found a passion for playing pool. None of this, however, needs to interfere with the killer instinct coming to the surface once your match is called. It’s what competition is about and if you didn’t have it in you, you would not be playing competitively.

All competitive players, in other words, possess a killer instinct, even if they can’t express it powerfully. One has to acknowledge and accept it to express it effectively. Think about yourself as a competitive player and look for it inside. Don’t worry, pool isn’t an existential activity. No one is really going to die. Even if he tells you he needs to win to feed his family, that’s just a bunch of baloney. It’s still your responsibility as a competitor to kill him off as soon as you can. You’re not taking anything away from him, because if he’s not qualified to win, he doesn’t deserve it. He can get a job like everyone else!

Good luck & good shootin’! Bob Henning

PS - If you enjoy Bob Henning's articles you will really enjoy all his books and DVDs.