Understanding the hidden oil patterns on every lane is a key to understanding bowling. It separates the pros from the rest of us. And these nearly invisible patterns can completely change how you bowl. This is not just some guy. This is Parker Bohn III. He’s won a mess of titles and earned more than three million dollars bowling. He’s been turned into an arcade game. To explain bowling, he’s got to crouch like this. And point at barely visible lines.
Here’s your typical bowling lane. 39 boards. It’s got targeting guides, like the dots and arrows – if you want a rule of thumb, each arrow is five boards apart, with the middle arrow at the 20th board. For a strike, you want your ball to hit between the one and three pins or the one and 2 pins. This area is called “the pocket.” That’s just the beginning. Every lane is coated with oil. It started for protection, but today, these oil patterns hugely affect strategy and scores.
Right here, the pattern that they’ve put out onto the lane is roughly 41 feet in length. Every bowling lane has a pattern, usually placed by an oil machine like this one. The PBA knows showing oil patterns is crucial. Sometimes they even put blue oil on the lanes. Here’s Bohn bowling on one.
Here’s what typically happens. See how the blue is darker in some spots? That represents more oil on the lane. Your ball starts here, and because there’s a lot of oil, it skids along the top. Think of your tires skidding on ice. As you get further down, the oil thins out. If you put spin on your ball, it starts getting enough traction to hook a bit as it grabs onto the wood. Less oil, more traction. When there’s no oil left, that spinning ball will start rolling toward the pins, because it’s picking up a lot of friction on the lane. That’s really important. To hit “the pocket” – that sweet spot between pins — only hooking can help you do that, and hooking depends on oil patterns.
You can see it as Bohn bowls. Outside, then a hook in when the oil stops. Strike. But for pros, knowing there’s oil on the lane is just the beginning. These are the tour oil patterns of the Professional Bowlers Association. The PBA. They have crazy names like Badger, Bear, and Cheetah. And they affect play a lot. “I like the Cheetah cause I grew up playing the gutter. I love throwing my ball out near the edge of the lane and letting it hook back.” Let’s break down what that means. There’s less oil on the side. Less oil helps his ball hook early, because it skids less. And because Cheetah is a short pattern — 35 feet instead of, say 41 feet — the ball has more space on the boards, without oil. He can play closer to the edge, because there’s more time to get back to the pocket and hit the pins. On a longer pattern, you’d want to play closer to the middle, because the ball would have less time to get back to the pocket once you leave the oil.
A pro bowler adjusts their speed and ball type around this, and they have to make all these considerations with every different pattern. And that’s not all. The oil on a lane is constantly changing. “As the day progresses, as your league progresses, guess what just happened to your lane – it really started to break down.” See this pattern on the right that Bohn drew? These are from right handed bowlers. Their balls drag out oil over the course of a day. That means bowlers have to compensate by bowling more weakly or closer to the center, because the lane has changed. You can see where this ball has picked up oil. Look at the lines. Changing oil makes lanes really complex. “Look right there, you’re gonna see oil there.” “See, there’s some oil right in here we can see.” “There is a ball that has brought oil down there. When? We don’t know.” That means bowlers have to change their strategy as the lane breaks down. If they’re a lefty like Bohn, it even gives them an advantage.
Fewer people are bowling on their side, so the oil breaks down less. So although a bowling alley might make you think of a basketball court, because of the wood floor, for pros, it’s more like a golf course, where every hole is different. Every lane is different too. So how can people who aren’t as good as Parker Bohn III use that to their advantage? Let’s say you are a totally recreational bowler. A high school kid on a Friday night, a half-drunk college student, a friendless video producer who’s greatest thrill in life was standing on a bowling lane. You’re not gonna buy a specially engineered ball or take classes on form. Bowling is complex.
This is like advice for the first move of a chess game. But there are ways you can use your oil pattern knowledge to improve your game. This is a “house pattern.” You’d find this in a typical neighborhood bowling alley, probably one like yours. It’s usually about 32 feet, buffed out to 40 feet. It’s designed to help you knock down pins. All that oil in the center helps you stay longer in the middle if you shoot your ball there, so you won’t hook too early. Less oil on the side helps you hook earlier if you aim too far from the pocket. The pros have a really flat pattern like this one in the US open. They get no help at all from the oil. But you get guided to the middle by the oil. It’s like an extra bumper! There’s a rule of thumb for where to aim. “If you take whatever the length is minus 31, that’s the rule of thumb. Minus 31 gives you a very good, formulated, idea of where your ball should be at the end of the pattern. In this case, we’re looking at approximately 41 minus 31, means that we’re going to be at approximately the 10th board. ” So shoot for around that 10 board – this arrow – maybe a little further out for your light ball. And try for that hook.
The lane is built to help you, even if you have a cheap plastic ball and terrible form. So maybe this is not you. But this doesn’t have to be you, either. So if you want to learn more about bowling, this video just scratches the surface. One of my favorite channels is the USBC’s Bowling Academy. They have really in-depth videos that will tell you everything you need to know about bowling patterns and also higher strategy when it comes to bowling.