Take two steps to solid spare play: the 3-6-9 and plastic systems both have merit, under different sets of lane conditions – Lane Logic

Kim Adler

MOST PEOPLE WHO ARE bowling at least at an intermediate level have a spare system. After all, solid spare play can add 10, 20, or 30 more pins per game to your score. Developing a spare system improves the way you approach the lane condition you are playing on, for both the first and second shot. It is the area you can beat the winter blues during the midseason doldrums of your leagues by addressing your focus.

But if you don’t have a spare system already, how do you develop one? In this issue, I’ll outline two of my favorite spare systems and guide you through using them.


Each lane has the same number of boards, whether they’re wood or synthetic. In developing a spare system, you first must identify where you normally stand and look on the lane to take the next step. If you are right-handed, use the front-center of your left foot to mentally mark your starting position.

Why the left foot? As a right-handed bowler, you finish on your left foot. You can then look down after completing your shot to see where you’ve finished. By comparing both your starting and finishing positions, you can analyze how many boards you travel sideways, what we call “drift” (basically, how straight you walk on the approach). The straighter you walk, the better. Keep your approach as simple as possible, and eliminate movements that aren’t necessary. Your starting position and drift affect your spare system by making you aware of your starting position, as well as your target.

Having these basics in hand allows you to move forward and develop a systematic way of adapting to your ever-changing bowling environment and incorporating the things that are easy to overlook. One of the best ways of doing this is through a solid spare system.

Keep it simple. The best spare systems use the basic knowledge you have about your playing environment. If you prepare for your shot without knowing exactly where you’re standing, for example, how can you duplicate the shot the next time? The more aware you are of your environment, the more confident you can become in your decisions, including the belief that an adjustment you make will create a specific, improved result. This increases your confidence, which in turn helps your mental game. See how everything connects?


My first spare system is the traditional 3-6-9. (Note that I am speaking as a righthander; you will have to follow oppositely if you are left-handed.) This system was developed many years ago, and it involves moving your feet right either three, six, or nine boards depending upon the front pin in the row you’re trying to convert. The 2-pin is the front pin of the first row, the 4-pin is the front pin of the second row, and the 7-pin is the front pin of the third row. Therefore, if you leave a combination where the 4 is the front pin, you need to move 6 boards to make the spare.

For right-side spares, adapt the 3-6-9 and create new “rows,” making the 10-pin the front pin of the first row, the 6-pin the front pin of the second row, and the 3-pin the front pin of the third row.

There are a few rules for the 3-6-9 system:

* Adjust your first shot accordingly in your mind by visualizing what you should have done to make your first shot, and then move within this system to make the spare. (There is a reason you left the spare, right?)

* Roll the ball off your hand just like you did on your first shot, targeting the same place as your strike ball. Just change your angle by moving your feet.

* Walk as straight as possible.

Let’s talk about these “rules.” Some people, in their “stale” spare system, always stand in the same place and look either a little more left or right, throw more left or right, or do a combination of both. Wrong!

Remember that consistency comes from simplicity. Stale spare systems force bowlers to incorporate several different motions with their bodies into a part of the lane that their ball may not really be familiar with. If the strike ball is around the 2nd arrow, then they target the 4th arrow for the spare–but that move doesn’t address whether there is more or less oil in that area. They’re rolling into unfamiliar territory. Also, changes in swing or body position might occur, which all are great reasons for inconsistency and for a lack of confidence.

I have used the 3-6-9 system for years with a great deal of success. You know basically what is happening in this part of the lane, because this corridor is where your ball spends most of its time. I also add or subtract from the system based on the amount of oil on different lanes. Right-hand spares have forced me to use different variations of the 3-6-9, including 2-7-11, 5-8-11, or 1-4-7–but I always use 3-6-9 as a starting point.

I also use 3-6-9 on sport conditions, but the numbers shift to 2-4-7, because the middle of the lane does not hold as much oil and my ball hooks much easier there. The important part to remember in a 3-6-9 system–or any system, for that matter–is establishing a starting point. You can then adjust the system by adding or subtracting from the figures as need be.


Your plastic ball rolls straighter than anything else in your arsenal. Therefore, using a plastic ball in certain situations is my second spare system. There are some general guidelines for the plastic spare system:

* You must use a plastic ball.

* You cannot assume the lane will help the ball hook into the spare.

* You must take a practice run.

In practice, a professional will pick out a starting position so that the middle arrow, or the 4th arrow from the right, is used to get the ball to the spare. Then the 3-6-9 system helps to make adjustments for the other spares based on the starting point.

I have used both the 3-6-9 and plastic ball systems, depending on the difficulty of the oil pattern. The more my strike ball tends to skid and hook unpredictably, the more I lean toward using plastic for my spares.

Sport patterns are a popular surface on which to use the plastic ball system. Some professionals will also tell you they just shoot straight at the pin, almost like “pin bowling.” They don’t even look at a lane marker, just at the pin. (Keep in mind, however, that these are professionals who could hit a quotation mark from 55 feet away if they wanted!)

Again, simplicity rules. Keep your plastic ball system as simple as possible. If you are all over the place on your spares, chances are you haven’t taken the time to find out what your ball is doing in that part of the lane.


So which spare method is the right one for you? I have found a time and place for both variations. When the lanes are oiled with a very short pattern (20 to 30 feet of oil, for example) and are fresh, or at any time when a lot of bowling has already occurred, your strike ball will move in strange ways. In such cases, you want to lean more toward the use of the plastic spare system, which uses a more predictable ball and set of variables.

I have used my strike ball in such conditions, but I have always exercised special care and awareness in doing so. The set numbers of 3-6-9 certainly do not work with my strike ball on extreme surfaces. I will possibly use the variation of 1-4-7 on the fresh oil pattern, and a 1-9-13 approach later on when the fresh oil has broken down.

On the fresh pattern, the smaller number gives me the confidence that the ball will be changing directions sharply to break into the spare. I use the dry, squeaky-clean back ends to help convert the spares. On the broken-down patterns, ones I would encounter during the second shift of leagues, the 1-9-13 is usually more effective because several people already have bowled where I am throwing.

To my right, where I move my feet only one board right for the 2-pin, there is usually some wear in the front part of the lane, so my ball wants to hook more, and early. This is why I don’t have to move more than one board–the lane will help get the ball there.

However, that’s also why I have to add more boards to the rest of the adjustment. A bowling ball only has so much energy stored in it. When the ball hooks, energy is being released. When there is no more energy, the ball “rolls out,” or even goes straight. You may need some real angle to get at a spare, but the lane wants to straighten out the roll, so you have to incorporate more angle by moving more with your feet more to the right.

This is how I came up with the 9-13 board adjustment. It gives you a different look when comparing your ball roll when it hits oil and skids vs. hitting dry boards and running out of energy. Awareness of the difference only comes from experience.

Here’s my experience: At times, I thought my ball would skid, but instead I left a weak 10-pin on my strike ball. On the next shot I adjusted right two boards with my feet and one board with my eyes, but my ball went through the nose. The “skid” I had thought was oil was actually the ball’s energy being released (rollout). I made it worse by moving into an even drier area!

Keep one thing in mind: Spare play isn’t just about numbers and steps. For me, and for you, the more you see success–and increased awareness–from a solid spare system, the better you will feel. You will develop a cycle of positive emotions, which will help your confidence and your bowling.

As with anything new, you must practice and see where your spare system fits into your game. These spare steps are guidelines for you to work from. It is possible to take a few of these ideas straight into your next league session. But you will get the full benefits only if you play a few games away from your league and use practice to understand how the systems can work for you.


Front pin No. of boards to move right

2 3

4 6

7 9


Front pin No. of boards to move right

10 Stand in your 10-pin spot

across the lane, looking around

the middle arrow

6 Three right of your 10-pin spot

3 Six right of your 10-pin spot

Kim Adler is a top PWBA bowler, with 15 career titles and 21 perfect games. To ask her a question, visit her Web site, www.KimAdler.com.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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