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Saturday, 2 April 2016

From IPA in Gibraltar to EBA in Bridlington - a month of pool

Event poster signed by the visiting players, courtesy of Paul Heard
The EBA European Championship was looming closer as a dreary February led into March.  I have been getting regular practice, although as usual, never as much as I would like, and I have been taking regular exercise - well, walking the dog once a day.  But it was the visit to Gibraltar last weekend by the IPA Professional World Series that made the best warm up to a tournament I have ever experienced.

Cue sports enthusiast and a good pool buddy, Paul Heard, of Premier Cue Sports in Gibraltar, had been negotiating with the IPA since the middle of last year to bring the World Series to Gibraltar.  The event created included the professional Gibraltar Final, the Gibraltar Open, a team competition between Team IPA and Gibraltar Select and a light-hearted Last Man Standing competition which all took place during Easter weekend in what was a festival of pool as well as a tremendous success. 

Paul Heard at the table, courtesy of Paul Heard

It was precisely the type of high-profile international event Gibraltar needed to really bring an explosive boost to the game.  The visiting professionals showcased their extraordinary talent on the one hand, but by becoming involved in the local tournament, they gave local players a chance they  perhaps would not otherwise have had to play pool at such a high standard.

It is perhaps one of the universal truths of any sport that a player can only improve and tap into his full potential if he is stretched by the demands of playing against highly-skilled opponents.  Not only was this available to Gibraltar pool players this weekend, individuals and the national squad alike, but the Gibraltar Pool Association arranged for one of the professional players, coach Jimmy "The Showman" Carney, to deliver coaching sessions to local players prior to the tournament. 

Jimmy Carney imparting pool wisdom to Gib's No 1 player, Dave Goodwin, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

What a tremendous opportunity that was.  I did not encounter anything other than praise and appreciation for Jimmy Carney's work with the players - we all learnt something from him.  For some it was a point of technique, for others it was about attitude, or stance or our nerves and our approach to the game.  It all helped.

For me, Jimmy pointed out those moments of doubt, as you go down into a shot, where you are not certain:  hit it this way or that way, take that pot or that one, left or right?  He suggested standing back, taking a few breaths, making a decision and then committing to it.  If you commit to a shot, most times you will achieve what you want.  It is those split seconds of indecision that lead you to defeat.

Jimmy Carney, displaying focus and decisiveness, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

Jimmy Carney with the audience, enjoying the fun mood of Last Man Standing, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography
It was in a game against one of the professionals, Ronan McCarthy, that I realised just what he meant.  I broke and he took the table.  A couple of pots later, just as I was thinking that I was going to be totally wiped out - Ronan's ability to pot ball after ball after ball like a machine is simply breathtaking - a small error left me on the table.  

Ronan McCarthy, just about to give me (sitting in the background) a rare opportunity, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

This was a one-frame Last Man Standing game, a bit of fun at the end of a long, tense day of pool. I was tournament director and had spent the best part of ten hours coordinating the matches, the scores, the visitors, the spectators, the players.......and I was in the mood to relax into the game.  I suddenly found myself potting the balls in quick succession, a little like I used to in my hey day of snooker.  

Is that a frown of indecision or concentration on my face? courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

For one or two seconds, the thought struck me that perhaps I could just beat one of the pro-champions. Then there was a tricky yellow.  I went down, lined up, and felt that stab of uncertainty.  This or that?  I plumped for that, but at the same time convinced I should have done this.  In that frame of mind, neither option would have been successful.  The mistake was made and Ronan pounced like a shark with blood lust and finished me off.  Shucks. That's what makes him a champion.

As tournament director, I was pretty busy all weekend, but got the chance to watch some superb matches.  Not only did the local players acquit themselves admirably, but the pros were an absolute joy to watch.  I learnt by watching.  Not just technique - you can watch that as much as you want, unless you practise endlessly you will never be able to emulate it.  But I observed closely how the pros paused, stood back, took the timer to the very edge just so that they could be sure of their shot, their positioning, where the cue ball had to land to set up the next pot.  They were thinking three or four pots ahead.  And above all, how they focused, cut out the rest of the room and concentrated on each shot. 

Clint I'Anson totally focused, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

Simon Ward, IPA Professional Final Winner, Gibraltar 2016, just stepping back momentarily and thinking before committing, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

Craig Marsh in good form winning the Gibraltar Open Final 2016, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

Chris Bowron, IPA top amateur player, giving an excellent account of himself, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

I also found myself learning about formality and professionalism from the IPA's most senior referee, Mel Harley.  He commanded the floor, the tables, the room, quiet, discreet but always in charge.  He received the utmost respect from players and spectators, in fact from all participants.  And beyond that, he has a great sense of humour: a total gentleman.  It was from watching him and from our discussions later that I have discovered my interest in training to become a referee.  

Mel Harley setting the balls up during the Final, courtesy of Tommy Finlayson Photography

On a personal note, I also found that I learned a great deal by working the event.  I found out about the mechanics behind laying on such an event, about how important the media element of it is, especially social media to get people involved even if they can't be there.  I found out just how much of a huge effort of co-ordination it is - shout out to Paul Heard, Fresh Entertainment, the photographers, Ethan, Jill, Charley, Jordan, Jonathan, Camilla, Tatiana (....if I've missed anyone out, sorry!) and how much local players in Gibraltar are keen, eager and happy to get involved.  

The Gibraltar Select Team, picking up their silver medals from IPA Chairman, Kevin Barton, courtesy of John M Piris Photography

The event brought out the best of pool in so  many ways, and it brought out the best of Gibraltar's hospitality, with local players taking the visitors on sight-seeing tours and on tours of the local night clubs (of course!).  I want more involvement in the sport, whether that means playing or not.

Mel Harley (The Man in the Middle) flanked by Clint I'Anson on the left and Simon Ward on the right, courtesy of John M Piris Photography
This time next week, I will be in Bridlington - and I want to add here a brief note of thanks to my sponsors, Grand Home Care, Gibraltar, who have kindly helped and whose website can be accessed via the link on this page.  Along with the GPA team, I am practicing and making as much use of the GPA's Academy for practice as I can.  I feel a surge of anticipation, and for a change, a certain glow of confidence.  I may not win anything, but I feel I can tap into the right frame of mind to make the most of what is sure to be a terrific week of pool.

Read  more about the IPA Professional World Series Tour Gibraltar 2016 here:

IPA Professional World Series Tour Gibraltar 2016

Watch the games streamed here:

IPA Professional World Series Tour Gibraltar streaming

Sunday, 17 January 2016

New Start

The beginning of January is full of resolutions and promises to self to make a new start, to do more of the right stuff and less of the naughty stuff (or in my case, in case Her Ladyship Indoors is reading,no naughty stuff at all.....and to do more stuff around the house).

I get bored with the whole new year resolutions thing.  I set off with only a bit of tepid enthusiasm on New Year's Day and have broken most of them that very evening, never to resume giving them any attention again.  Hence why I still can be described as....ahem....portly.  But 2016 looks set to be a big year for my game of pool, so I am going to have to focus.

Firstly, I was hugely relieved to have come through the rankings in 2015 to make the national squad and be invited to play in this year's international tournaments.  It was a tough call because I missed a number of games during the summer months when I was away spending time with family and supporting my wonderful Mum who was diagnosed with cancer.  The catch up was hard.  Not only was I terribly out of practice, but I returned to the rankings at a time when everyone else was playing hard and determined to get through.  I scraped it, but I'm there.

Which means that in 2016, I feel obliged as well as determined to work my hardest to make every shot count.  In April, I will be playing in the European Championship, then the World Cup in the autumn and finally later in the year, in the Nations Cup.  I know from 2015 that the standard is extremely high.  So if there's just one thing that I do this year, it will be practice, practice, practice.

But pool isn't just about me.  It is above all, a sociable sport, a game that draws in players, entertains them, teaches them new skills and creates a forum for making friends.  There are few better ways of lifting your spirits than taking part in the banter around a table during friendly practice matches. So I want to use this year to introduce at least one person to the sport.  Just one person who will discover a game that they enjoy and a community of players who will soon become friends.

Photo "Ball and snooker player" by Toa55 courtesy of

Just one last thing.  I love playing pool.  I want to play at my best this year, and do my best for the Gibraltar National squad.  But my first love is snooker.  2016 will be the year I return to playing that game too.  I've had a small taster this month already.  I had almost forgotten the thrill of the challenge.  Not too many more days will pass before I pay my joining fee and take on those tables.  Now that will be an interesting resolution to keep.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Getting down to the nitty gritty

Photo "Eight Ball Pool" by ArtJsan courtesy of

It's over.  The summer, I mean, not my pool playing days.  Not only have the heavens opened to provide us with a long-overdue clean up of the streets, but the glamour of travelling to international competitions of the late summer is now over.  The pool playing season has started, and here we go, head down, cue lined up and...shoot.

It was, though, if you can hold with my reminiscing a moment, a bloody good summer.  The EBA 2015 Nations Cup in Killarney was a brilliant event.  The location couldn't have been more perfect: what a lovely place Killarney is, and what friendly, welcoming people.  The venue was superb and what all competing pool players need when travelling is their physical comforts made easy so they can concentrate on their game. I couldn't fault the Gleneagles Hotel, nor the organisation of the tournament.  And then there was the fun.  I met some genuinely decent people, and had the privilege of meeting, chatting to and learning from some great players.  Here's the photo album:

Yours truly in the middle feeling totally privileged, flanked by Jack Whelan,
current IPA world champion, on the left and Andy Lucas,
also one of the world's best, on the right

In Killarney - just gotta love this place!

As for the playing, it was to a very high standard.  I came away with no prizes but with a degree of returning self-confidence.  I held my own reasonably well and just let myself down in situations where I knew I could have done better.  I have come away with some strong ideas on how to make improvements, and as I said in my last post, a good deal of this will involve my mental approach to the game, not just the physical skills and practise needed.

Terrific venue at the EBA 2015 Nations Cup - a scene from the opening ceremony

A couple of weeks later I travelled to Carlisle with two other GPA players representing Gibraltar in the UK Open.  That was a tougher competition for me.  Again, the standard of playing was extremely high.  By the time I was on the plane travelling to the UK for this event, I had been away from home on numerous trips for three months.  I found myself tired, not just physically, but fed up of hotels and being away from the family.  It was hard to concentrate on playing, and my game suffered.  I have to say that those professional players who travel so often to different venues to compete and consistently improve their game must be tough and so strong both mentally and physically.  They have serious stamina born of the dedication that only comes from love of the game.  Full respect to them.  This said,  again the trip was so valuable in terms of experience, the people I met and learned from, and of course, practising playing at a high standard.

So now we're back.  I'm settling back in and, with the whir of travelling still buzzing in my head, find myself part of a new pool team, The Sharks, as well as part of the GPA committee after last month's AGM and appointed as media officer.  I haven't quite digested all that yet.  But what it certainly means is that this coming season, life is going to be full of pool, and I wouldn't want it any other way!

Monday, 24 August 2015

It's all in the mind - isn't it?

Photo "Male Thinking" by David Castillo Dominici, courtesy of
It's often been said that pool - among other sports - is as much a mind game as they it is a game of skill and strategy.  With only days to go to the EBA 2015 Nations Cup of Pool in Killarney, Ireland, now is as good a time as any to get going with the thinking.

The problem many players have when they think ahead to a competition, especially an international tournament is that it makes them nervous.  Now, nerves aren't good, not in most situations, unless you are about to be attacked by a bear, in which case it is a wonderful thing for the fight or flight nervous impulse to kick in.

Photo by Stuart Miles, courtesy of

Being nervous before a major competition is pretty natural and everyone I know suffers from nerves to some extent.  Some players are really good at coping with them, at controling them, at using the energy of feeling nervous to enhance their performance - that rush of blood to the muscles, oxygen to the brain as you breathe more quickly, the adrenalin to carry you through any tiredness - these all contribute to good performance.

But the problem is that if you get really nervous, or if you allow yourself to be overcome by pre-tournament nerves, these can badly affect your performance.  Your muscles tend not to respond as they should or they tense up - a frame loser more often than not. You start to lose concentration and find that the smallest of things distract you easily.  Then, if you start to play badly, your confidence starts to shake.  Game over. Bad news.

Photo "Worried Man" by graur razvan ionut courtesy of
I have talked to many players recently, here in Gibraltar and in UK, where I have recently spent a number of months and was fortunate to meet up with some old snooker playing friends, as well as other sportsmen - no single sport has exclusivity on pre-match nerves.  Here are a collection of tips that I believe are going to be really helpful:

  1. Focus on the now - you can't do anything about the past, not even what happened two minutes ago.  If you play a poor shot, it's over, it's done, move on to play the next one better.  Don't let your mind drift over the past and don't speculate about the future, just about what is happening right here, right now.  This is true about the period between matches as well as during play, then you avoid fretting.
  2. Find ways of recognising when you are losing that focus, pause in what you are doing, breathe slowly a few times and bring your thoughts back to the now. No-one will notice you doing that; they will think that you are plotting your next move, you will appear confident and calm, and you will feel confident and calm because you are taking control of yourself.
  3. Focus on yourself, your game, your skills, your thinking, how you hold the queue, what angle to use, what spin to put on the cue ball, how much force to use - keep those things foremost in your mind and don't compare yourself to the other player.  It is how you play that will win or lose you the game, so don't waste energy comparing yourself to others.
  4. Enjoy the competition.  Taking part in the event alone is a privilege, so take it all in: the venue, the atmosphere, the excitement, the camaraderie, the laughs.  When we talk about sport, we use the word "play" because that is what we do, we return to a basic human instinct to play, socialise and have fun.  As soon as you decide to enjoy yourself, you'll relax, and as soon as you do that, your game will improve.
  5. Focus on each game, not on the outcomes, and avoid setting goals for yourself.  Take each frame at a time and focus on each one.  That's all.  Like that you will be able to stay in control of the frame, on how you play and keep those disastrous nerves from sapping your confidence as the match progresses.
  6. Keep positive, not just about the competition, but about everything around you.  Avoid negative people and their bleak comments.  Smiles engender smiles, and smiling relaxes you.
  7. Keep busy especially in the lead up to the competition.  This helps you not to let your mind over-think the challenge ahead.  That does not mean work 14 hours a day until you catch your flight and answer emails from the boss with five minutes to go.  I've been there, done that, what a waste of time!  But go for a brisk walk and breathe some good clean air, take a swim, call the family, take practise frames with other players, go sight-seeing if you have never been to the host town before.  Giving your mind a break is as important as resting yourself physically.  And get good sleep - a rested mind is a sharp mind, so avoid too much coffee and put that pint down!
  8. Focus on the context of the event - what is the worst thing that can happen if you don't win?  I mean, really?  Chances are, you still have a loving family to go home to and friends about you.  You won't have lost life or limb, only a game.  And you will have loved playing it.  Really, if that's the worst that can happen and you've enjoyed the event, then there's nothing to be nervous about!
Above all, it's important to keep in mind that nerves are internal, that they are one of the few things about a tournament that you can do something about.  All the time you are aware you can control them, they sure won't be able to control you.  

Photo "Cup on Hand" by Ambro, courtesy of

And a final tip - for those of you who sometimes find it difficult to concentrate on a shot when there is noise around.  In these last few days, get some practise in at a local bar.  The noise is usually dreadful and it's good practise for the technique of breathing in, shut it out, take the shot, breathe out.  It can also be pleasantly sociable!

I will be letting you know if these tecniques work for me at the Nations Cup - and I'd love to hear how you deal with your pre-match nerves. 

2015 EBA Nations Cup of Pool venue, The Gleneagle Hotel, Killarney, Ireland

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

It's gonna creep up on you - old age and playing pool

Let's talk about growing older!  Photo "Did you know?" by Stockimages courtesy of

So, it was quite something to be placed in the seniors by dint of just arriving on the cusp of being a veteran and not yet ready to be put out to grass.  It sounds pretty prestigious, doesn't it, being a Senior?  It reminds me of being at school and looking up at seniors who were older, cleverer and infinitely wiser.  And as for moving up to the Masters - well, that sounds even better.  A Master, eh?  It must mean that we have mastered our sport, are ready to pass on those skills and that wisdom to the younger players.  Doesn't it?

Well, as I muse the matter, the answer is yes...and no.  Many of us in the Masters age group - 50 plus - have graduated there after years of playing in competitions, semi-professionally or professionally, are teaching, coaching or mentoring and still have a bit of an edge to our game that can take us successfully through competitions.  And there are those of us who played to a very high standard as youngsters and then life took over, and we had to work for a living, have kids, have mortgage, need to work some more, with overtime yada, yada, yada.  Suddenly years stretched into decades of missing out on the game, on getting rusty and, and one day we're back at the table, and the hunger to play, to play and win, comes flooding back.

Photo "Playing Billiard" by marcuso courtesy of

But at that stage, when your lumber region creaks slightly as you lean forward to line up the shot, your bridge hand just doesn't feel as steady as it used to, and you realise you have to change to your other specs to guage the angle properly, you wonder, what are you master of, and do you still cut it?  Can you still beat those victory hungry youngsters that prowl round the table ready to devour your aging carcass at the first false move?  What is it about getting older, especially in a sport not renowned for physical exertion or strength or speed, that makes it that bit harder to win over the younger players?

Interestingly, pool does require a degree of physical fitness - the muscles need to respond, control of your fine motor skills is essential, your hand/eye coordination needs to be sharp, the paunch has to go - never mind how much money you've invested in growing it over the years!  Get new specs - longer shots and sharper cuts are going to be harder to see, but these days, there's  no excuse for not dealing with that.  I'm sure we can all remember Dennis Taylor, the snooker champ, with his "upside down" glasses. And you need to have the stamina to play for hours and still be able to concentrate, to play the mind game, out-nerve and out-fox the opponent.  You need to be fit to do that.

Photo "Suphanburi...Feb19hossei" by pal2iyawit courtesy of

Younger players do have unbelievable nerve - in a good way. They tend to be fearless and brimming with self-confidence.  They will chance their arm rather than go to the safety shot - and often it pays off.  Age brings with it the calm of years of experience, the years of potting the same shot time and again till it's as natural as breathing.  But it can make you over-cautious, or, if there's been a large gap in your game, self-doubt can somtimes trouble you enough to miss a shot you would never have missed in your teens. 

Photo by stockimages courtesy of

But the beauty of the game is that pool non-exclusive as far as age is concerned.  I love the challenge of playing younger players, the chance to test myself again.  I enjoy the fact that they can sharpen their skills against me - younger players are the future of the sport, and in Gibraltar, it will be youngsters who will be taking Gibraltar into international championships as potential winners.  So for the younger players reading this, there are always some tricks to be learnt from an old fox.  And any Masters out there wanting to share their thoughts on this or their experiences, please comment, or contact via Google +, Twitter, Facebook etc.  We need to be old and proud together!

Photo "Mature man with raised arms" by stockimages courtesy of

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Getting better and better.....

Photo "Stress on Dynamite" by Stuart Miles courtesy of

....At playing pool? Well, not so much getting better and better, but at least playing a bit more.  No, I'm referring to the fact that I'm getting better from a bout of sickness I didn't know I had until I ended up wired up to machinery in A&E.  Sounds dramatic, but what they suspected at first was a heart attack was actually a panic attack brought on by a protracted period of stress, which was caused by anxiety caused by goodness knows what, but contributed to by a very demanding period of work.

Photo "Stethoscope and ECG" by cooldesign courtesy of
In fact, until this point, I had not realised I was a stress victim - and I don't use that term lightly any more, because I really was unwell, and recovering from this is taking a fair while.  Not only that, I'm generally quite an easy-going person and I don't usually get worked up about everyday things easily, so it came as a pretty big surprise that I was reacting with symptoms of extreme anxiety to what seemed to be everyday events.  But that is what happens when you experience protracted periods of stress, apparently.

Photo "Anxious Calendar" by Stuart Miles courtesy of

Looking back, I can see how it affected my game.  At the European Championship, I was missing shots that normally I would pot. I could feel my arms tremble slightly as I reached for shots and the tension in my arms and shoulders meant there was no way I could relax into the shot.   Worst of all, I could not think through the game, not without my brain getting so fogged up I could not work out what move to make next.  It is often uncertainty, the lack of ability to take those snap decisions as you walk round the table, that throws away a game.  I was mentally exhausted, although at the time I thought things were alright and I was having a bad tournament.

Photo by ArtJSan courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhoto,net

The way stress affects a game goes deeper than pre-match nerves.  Most of us get pre-match nerves and every player has his or her own way of dealing with it - have you ever met the Talker, who just doesn't shut up because jabbering a meaningless commentary as he watches a game is his way of easing the tension?  Inevitably the Talker will encounter the Silent Type who would rather chew his nails and visit the loo regularly than enter conversation with anyone while he waits for his game.  Playing pool tournaments can be illuminating for any people-watcher!

So I've had medical help, and a period of rest, and I can feel myself getting better and better.  I'm exploring different ways of dealing with stress so I don't relapse, and playing pool is most definitely one of them.  It distracts me from day to day life.  It helps me focus, balance, strategise and return to making fast decisions with confidence.  I think I walk miles round the tables too - which may not get quite the aerobic exercise I should be getting but it is all positive for the health, I'm sure.  

Photo "Pool" by James Barker courtesy of

I'll go into the health benefits of cue sports in one of my future posts, but for now, I'm going to keep enjoying the walks to the tournaments, the interactions or banter with other players, and the sense of relaxation and satisfaction at the end of the game, whether I've managed to get any further than first round or not.  Luckily, I live in a place where most venues are within walking distance - especially if I want to exert myself up a hill or two, and the evening sunshine dipping over the Bay of Gibraltar is a spectacular backdrop to remind me that loving life is far more important than hanging on to anxiety.

Evening view on my way to a practise session of pool, Gibraltar harbour looking over the Bay

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Pool practise and weekend challenges at The Three Owls

Photo: "Skills Definition Magnifier" by Stuart Miles courtesy of

The only way to develop skills in anything, from potter to pianist to pool player, is to practise.  Stephen King, whose work I admire greatly, memorably said: "Talent is cheaper than table salt.  What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

Okay, so I'm not sure how to quantify talent, and I'm not sure if as I've grown older I can regain that youthful confidence in my own talent I once had, but since pool is something I enjoy playing so much, I'm more than happy to put in the practise.  I've yet to take that quantum leap from practise matches to hard work, but as I reorganise my life - and we can't get away from the fact that if you are committed to something you have to make your life work round that thing and not the other way around - I am beginning to make time for more practise.  This week I played in the rankings on Wednesday evening.  Then at the weekend, where I normally do as little as possible in the post-work haze of exhaustion, I played in an open tournament.

Kyle Dixon, in action at The Three Owls.  Photo published with kind permission of Kyle Dixon.

Held at The Three Owls and organised by Val Jarvis, the tournament just added to the opportunities to play competitively, which is one of the best ways to prepare for a competition.  My game started at 5pm, and although I was knocked out losing 3-2 to Kyle Dixon, I really enjoyed myelf.  I played better than I have for a while, and Kyle pushed me into tapping into skills which sometimes I don't have to use - and if you don't regularly use your skills, they rust up.  You need to play good players, better players, to push yourself into improving.  Kyle is a young player and has a bright future ahead of him, and I enjoyed the chance to play him.  

Karina Flood in action during the World Championship in Perth, 2015.  Photo courtesy of 8Ball Army, with kind permission from Karina Flood.

I stayed on to watch the rest of the evening's playing and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Notable moments that I witnessed included Karina Flood's beating of Dominic Savage (sorry Dom but it was a really good match and she deserved to win).  She went on to beat Justin Collado, drawing on her experience of safety play which carried her to the next round, and well done Kat for applying a good strategy.  Val Jarvis herself also played well, and I watched her win her first two matches, beating Gerry Brunt in an interesting clash of seriously senior players (in terms of experience, guys, not age!).

The main benefit for me was the chance to practise the game, and while I was not particularly successful, I aslo benefited from taking part, socialising with fellow-enthusiasts of the game, watching how other people use their skills, and always learning more about how to play better.  It was fun and I am looking forward to the next tournament. Since I can't get much worse scores than I had yesterday, as the song says "Things can only get better"!  Practise, after all, tons of it, is supposed to make perfect.

And coming back to Stephen King: "Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won't carry a quitter."

Photo: "Improve Blocks showing Growth" by Stuart Miles, courtesy of