Evening Standard: 'I'm surprised Google hasn't put in an order.'

Frankie McCoy of the Evening Standard

Frankie McCoy of the Evening Standard

This article appeared in the April 29 edition of the Evening Standard, printed below.

Why new cue sport Loop's elliptical pool table is redefining the game

Smart offices take a break from being square on oval billiards tables, says Frankie McCoy

Pool can be a challenging sport. I’ve reduced grown men to tears in the pub with my inability to pot a ball millimetres from the pocket. So I sympathise with Alex Bellos, a mathematician and journalist, when he tells me in a matter-of-fact way, “I don’t play pool.” But that hasn’t stopped him from changing the game. Bellos has invented an elliptical pool table, which he hopes will revolutionise bar sports.

His Loop table is covered in green baize — but that is where the similarity with a traditional one ends. Its shape means that any balls shot on this table (it comes with four: one red, one yellow, one white cueball and one black) go straight into the hole, every time. At least, theoretically. 

It works because of ellipses. Here’s the maths bit: To draw an ellipse, use two pins with a string slung between then. Keeping the string taut with a pencil, draw around the two pins and it will mark out an ellipse. Each pin is at one of the two focuses of that particular ellipse. The relationship between the two means that in the case of an elliptical pool table a ball that passes through one focus at sufficient speed will rebound through the other one. So if there’s a hole at one focus, any ball that passes through the other should rebound straight into the hole.  

Hedge fund managers are addicted — Loop is an ideal work destresser

 

It was while he was writing a his numeric book, Alex Through the Looking Glass, that maths fiend Bellos came up with the idea for the game. “Theoretical elliptical pool tables are used in physics and maths as a tangible means of understanding how something works,” he explains. “So I thought it would be fun to go and build one.”  

That was easier said than done. The original Loop, built by the Snooker & Pool Table Company, cost more than £10,000 to build, which is why it’s housed at hedge fund Winton Capital Management in Hammersmith, which stumped up the cash for the project.

Employees there are addicted: there’s an in-house league table and regular tournaments. While Bellos teaches me to play, a queue forms of other people waiting their turn. It was a hit at the highbrow Port Eliot festival, where Bellos launched the table last year. Since then he has sold some tables to some private — presumably very wealthy — individuals and is interested in getting businesses to buy them for their employees to use in “breakout spaces”. 

I’m surprised Google hasn’t put in an order — Loop is an ideal in-work leisure activity. Smaller than a regular table, it’s great for when you’ve only got a few minutes break: shoot the balls right and the fact that you’ve only got two to pot means the game could be over in seconds, although between Loop pros, tactical manoeuvres and blocking shots mean games can go on much longer. 

Bellos is interested in the maths side of it: “The magic of this table is that mathematically speaking, as long as the ball goes through the black dot [at the other focus], you can hit it anywhere and it goes in. That’s the geometry of the ellipse.” But when Bellos goes to demonstrate his magic pool table, his ball grazes but misses the admittedly rather small pocket. How accurately balls pass through the focus plus friction and imperfect cushions mean it’s not a dead cert. When, later on, he does manage to pot a shot, his jubilation suggests it’s a rare occurrence. “What I thought would be the most boring game actually became something really interesting. It could be the new snooker. Why shouldn’t every start-up have one? Just by playing it you get to understand a little bit about ellipses.” 

I’m not quite ready to clash cues with the pros yet. On my first shot I fail to make contact with even the cueball; on the second, the ball brushes past nowhere near the hole. But then somehow, I understand. The angles are obvious; if I just clip the red ball right there... A satisfying click, and the ball rolls into the hole. It’s immensely satisfying — and I’ve used actual maths to make it happen. If only Bellos could find a way to make darts bearable.

LOOP at the 2016 World Snooker Championships in Sheffield

On Friday April 29 I'll be taking a LOOP table to Sheffield for the 2016 Snooker World Championships.

It will be installed in the Winter Garden, which is only a couple of minutes walk from the Crucible, and be by the Cue Zone where fans hang out and get tips from the pros.

I'll be there from 8am to 8pm and anyone who shows up can have a go.

Please come and visit. 

I can't wait!

 

 

 

 

Elliptical billiard baaaalls

The association of ellipses with cue sports dates at least as far back as 1885, the year that the comic opera The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan premiered in London.

The Mikado is Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous work and is one of the most performed pieces of musical theatre in history.

The song A More Humane Mikado mentions "elliptical billiard balls". It's in the clip above at 6.22 minutes - it's worth a watch just to see the terrific enunciation of the word "balls".

The full verse is as follows:

The advertising quack who wearies
With tales of countless cures, 
His teeth, I’ve enacted, 
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs.
The music-hall singer attends a series
Of masses and fugues and ‘ops’
By Bach, interwoven
With Spohr and Beethoven, 
At classical Monday Pops.
The billiard-sharp whom anyone catches
His doom’s extremely hard—
He’s made to dwell
In a dungeon cell
On a spot that’s always barred.
And there he plays extravagant matches
In fitless finger-stalls, 
On a cloth untrue
With a twisted cue
And elliptical billiard balls.

Economist Tim Harford plays LOOP on BBC Radio 4

Both pictures ©Wesley Stephenson

Both pictures ©Wesley Stephenson

He's the bestselling author of the Undercover Economist books, he's an FT columnist and he presents numbers show More or Less on BBC Radio 4.

Tim Harford is also pretty handy at LOOP.

We shot some balls last week for a piece that will be broadcast today's More or Less. I can confirm that Tim plays an excellent game.

He'd definitely give world champion David Spiegelhalter a run for his money. 

Listen to the broadcast here



LOOP world championship: in pictures!

The tournament was held in the Round Room at Port Eliot, Cornwall, on July 31 and August 1, 2015. The room, designed in 1804 by Sir John Soane, is one of the architectural highlights of Port Eliot. British artist Robert Lenkiewicz spent 30 years on and off painting the mural and it is considered his masterpiece. With so much British architectural and artistic heritage in the room it seemed the perfect venue to make sporting history with the launch of LOOP. The pocket was positioned directly underneath the centre of the chandelier. Picture: Michael Bowles.

The tournament was held in the Round Room at Port Eliot, Cornwall, on July 31 and August 1, 2015. The room, designed in 1804 by Sir John Soane, is one of the architectural highlights of Port Eliot. British artist Robert Lenkiewicz spent 30 years on and off painting the mural and it is considered his masterpiece. With so much British architectural and artistic heritage in the room it seemed the perfect venue to make sporting history with the launch of LOOP. The pocket was positioned directly underneath the centre of the chandelier. Picture: Michael Bowles.

I introduced the table with a short explanation of the ellipse from Apollonius to today, demonstrating the unique geometry of LOOP and setting out the rules. Many in the audience were grateful that in addition to seeing the launch of a new sport they were given a maths lesson too.  Picture: Alex Bellos.

I introduced the table with a short explanation of the ellipse from Apollonius to today, demonstrating the unique geometry of LOOP and setting out the rules. Many in the audience were grateful that in addition to seeing the launch of a new sport they were given a maths lesson too.  Picture: Alex Bellos.

The first match was between Fred Wobus (in the top picture) and Mat Connolley (this picture). Six other people took part in a knock-out tournament on the first day: Mark Davey, Paul Illingsworth, Simon Bray, Quin Kirwan, Alex Demaunay and Simon Burr. Simon Burr defeated Fred in the final, making him Day 1 champion and winning him a place in the play-off for the world title. Picture: Michael Bowles. 

The first match was between Fred Wobus (in the top picture) and Mat Connolley (this picture). Six other people took part in a knock-out tournament on the first day: Mark Davey, Paul Illingsworth, Simon Bray, Quin Kirwan, Alex Demaunay and Simon Burr. Simon Burr defeated Fred in the final, making him Day 1 champion and winning him a place in the play-off for the world title. Picture: Michael Bowles. 

Eight more contestants took part on the second day: David Spiegelhalter (above), Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Lucy Cooke, Jamie Brisick, Ali Macloed, Paul Kirkby, Girma Tadele and Barney Shepherd. Spiegelhalter won the knock-out and played Simon Burr in the grand final. Picture: Alex Bellos.

Eight more contestants took part on the second day: David Spiegelhalter (above), Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Lucy Cooke, Jamie Brisick, Ali Macloed, Paul Kirkby, Girma Tadele and Barney Shepherd. Spiegelhalter won the knock-out and played Simon Burr in the grand final. Picture: Alex Bellos.

David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has an OBE and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. His most recent, and possibly most cherished laurel, however, is the LOOP world title. Spiegelhalter skilfully defeated Burr in the grand final to gasps and cheers from the audience. Here he is with the world championship trophy, the Golden Cone. Picture: Alex Bellos.

David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has an OBE and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. His most recent, and possibly most cherished laurel, however, is the LOOP world title. Spiegelhalter skilfully defeated Burr in the grand final to gasps and cheers from the audience. Here he is with the world championship trophy, the Golden Cone. Picture: Alex Bellos.