What's the Hardest Shot in Bowling? It's Complicated

Wes Malott’s arm drops as he approaches the foul line, his hand moving in a perfect pendular motion before releasing his bowling ball. The ball glides in a long, graceful arc before toppling all ten pins at the end of the lane. Then he fires off another strike. And another. He’s just warming up, and to me his shots look perfect. Malott, however, has developed a more discerning eye for analyzing his ball’s movement, as the professional bowler and ten-time national title holder recently explained to me at the United States Bowling Congress, in Arlington, Texas. “You have to read not just where it’s spinning, where it’s hooking, but understand how and why it’s doing it to get the angles right and create the highest strike percentage possible,” he says.

That percentage is one of the biggest things separating elite athletes like Malott from birthday-party bowlers like myself. On the first shot of any given frame, a pro is more likely than not to send all ten pins clattering to the deck, whereas a layperson is liable to leave some standing in one of the more than 1,000 patterns—aka spare configurations—that leftover pins can occupy.

The pros can convert many of those configurations with ease, but some pin arrangements pose such a challenge that experts and novices stand an equally dismal chance of success. Among the most notorious spares is the 7-10 split, which seasoned bowlers talk about with a kind of battered reverence.

“I’ve been bowling since I was 10 years old. Today I’m 42, I’ve been bowling professionally for going on 20 years, and I’ve made the 7-10 three times,” Malott says. He estimates he’s made hundreds, if not thousands, of attempts at it, so when I ask him to actually demonstrate why that spare is so difficult, he obliges somewhat begrudgingly.

In the 7-10 split, only the two outermost pins are left standing. (Picture the posts on a bed the width of a twin mattress, and you’ll have a rough idea of the space between the two pins.) “You’re sending one pin over to try and pick up two,” Malott explains, between failed attempts. “And that one pin has to bounce, fall, and spin the right way to hit the other.”

But unlike every other spare configuration, you can’t convert the 7-10 split with ball and pins alone. That’s because doing so would require hitting either pin on the outermost point of its radius. The problem: It’s impossible to get a bowling ball into that position without it first falling into the gutter. To successfully convert the 7-10 split, you need to rebound one of the pins off the pinsetter—the machinery that clears the lane of fallen pins and returns them to their appropriate positions.

Between the bowling pin’s funny shape and the mechanical variability of pinsetters, no bowler on Earth can ricochet a pin reliably. “You need some kind of lucky bounce,” says Tom Frenzel, a USBC research engineer. “It hasn’t got anything to do with your skill, you just have to throw it hard and fast and hope you get it.” The results are pretty underwhelming. On average, professional bowlers manage to convert the 7-10 split just 0.7 percent of the time, or about once every 145 attempts.

So that settles it, right? The 7-10 Split: Toughest spare in bowling. Not so fast.

“Everyone talks about the 7-10 split being the hardest shot in bowling. I wanted to know whether that was true,” says data journalist Ben Blatt. In 2015, he analyzed nearly half a million frames from professional bowling matches in search of the least-converted spares. When he finished running the numbers, he found another spare that elite bowlers convert just 0.3 percent of the time. It’s called the Greek Church.

Illustration: Olman Hernández

When I share these numbers with Malott, he agrees the Greek Church is a doozy. But more difficult than the 7-10? Absolutely not. To prove his point, he takes a break from trying to convert the 7-10 split to attempt the Greek Church. He struggles a bit (it is, in fact, a very difficult spare to make), but manages to clean it up after about a dozen attempts, and very nearly does so another three or four times. Conversely, in almost two hours of bowling, Malott never came close to making the 7-10.

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