I've never been a particularly strong pool player, but over time, I've noticed something curious: I play much better with a little booze in my system—just before I reach the tipping point that causes my coordination to deteriorate.
It's a happy hour phenomenon that many a sports bar regular has observed—even if no lucky scientist has ever scrounged up the funding to study it formally: "The belief that a small amount of alcohol can help some people play better is just a theory based on anecdotal evidence," says Dave Alciatore, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University.
Alciatore may be speaking from experience himself: He's a part-time billiards instructor on the side and even uses the game to teach basic engineering principles. He's also written frequently on the booze-performance connection, but not without a touch of skepticism. "There can be a big difference between 'actual' and 'perceived' level of play," he says. "The 'beer goggle' effect can be strong."
Luckily, we do have some evidence to draw upon—even if it's not billiards-specific. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant and can reduce the effects of even the slightest tremor, which can make certain movements—like throwing a dart or shooting pool—go more smoothly, says neuroscientist George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
A little booze, in other words, can steady your hand and stop your brain from overthinking things—whether you're shooting for a bullseye or a back cup in beer pong. That may be one reason that consumption of alcohol is actually prohibited during archery competitions—aside from the fact that it's generally unwise to give sharp projectiles to intoxicated people. (Alciatore says no such ban exists for billiards).
But is there more to the effect than relaxed muscles? After all, anyone who's had three beers on a Friday night knows that booze lowers your inhibitions, quiets anxiety and self-doubt, and allows you to call which pocket you'll sink the eight ball with greater certainty.
"You feel a little more confidence, which is a big thing if you're trying to make a difficult shot or hit a bull's eye," Koob says. That probably happens because the frontal lobe, the frontmost area of your brain central to the processes of decision making and abstract thought, is particularly sensitive to alcohol, he says.
That's also the part of the brain responsible for executive function—your brain's ability to shift attention from one thing to another, or to pinpoint your friend in a crowded restaurant. A little booze, in other words, can actually quiet distractions and help you concentrate. What's more, animal studies have also shown that a little bit of alcohol—and we stress a little bit—may actually improve memory, not inhibit it, as with larger doses. The result may be that as you get out of your head and rely more strongly on muscle memory, you do better.
"The thing about performance is that a lot of these things are automatic. If baseball players think too much about their hitting stance, for example, they can go into a slump. But if you stay with the program you overlearned, you do fine. Alcohol blunts that overthinking response as well," Koob says. That's the reason former major league pitcher Rick Ankiel recently admitted to drinking vodka before games—to get himself out of a case of the yips (sudden bouts of nervousness that tend to plague elite golfers and baseball players).
One problem, however, is that alcohol doesn't act the same way on everyone. "Everybody is different. A petite, 100-pound woman is going to react differently [than] a 200-pound fullback [to a few drinks], keep that in mind," Koob says. There also haven't been any clinical trials to determine how much alcohol elicits this effect across people with different physiologies, psychologies, or levels of tolerance, he adds.
And even once you've found your "sweet spot," figuring out how to stay there is even harder. Furthermore, people who already play at peak performance might not find alcohol to be of much assistance, Koob says.
To be convinced that the skill-enhancing effects of booze were physiological and not just psychological, Koob knows exactly the kind of study he would need to see. First, you'd take a bunch of pretty good darts players, give half of them regular beer, and the other half non-alcoholic beer that does a good job of mimicking the smell and taste of the real thing. Then you see how they play. It would probably be pretty expensive, Koob says, and it might backfire because even non-alcoholic beer can make people act drunk, studies have shown.
Alciatore says he hasn't found any benefit to drinking, himself. "I'm a lightweight and even the buzz from one or two beers negatively affects my stability and judgement at the pool table." So if you're trying to trounce your friends, it'd be smarter to actually practice your skill than to pin your hopes on the happy hour special.