Wikipedia says Poaching was once performed by impoverished peasants for subsistence purposes and to supplement meagre diets. With respect to Pickleball, it's a term used when your partner "intercepts" or "steals" a ball coming to you for your hitting pleasure. Maybe there's a corollary here? 😏
There are basically two types of poaching: planned and unplanned. An example would be that you are eagerly waiting to return the ball with a perfect overhead smash, dink or a perfect line drive awarding your team with a point courtesy of yours truly - and your partner steps in front of you and takes away your glory. Many Pickleball enthusiasts "hate" this situation, but don't "jump" to any conclusions as crossing the "divorce line" (mixed doubles expression) as depicted in the pic above, may be the right thing to do under certain conditions!
There are indeed some reasons why you or your partner may "poach" to strategic advantage
1. Surprise: You may think that, or perhaps your partner has agreed [Editor's note: not mine!], that you are the better player. By taking the ball aimed at your partner earlier than your opponents may anticipate (especially on their return of serve or when your partner has gone back to retrieve a lob), you may catch them by surprise. This may not allow them to achieve better positioning (especially if they are in motion), prevent a stronger return, and possibly avoid a potential mistake by your partner
2. Better Shot: Also if the ball that you decide to poach returns high and is a relatively easy attack, you can execute a better return than your partner would who in this example, is behind you in the court at the baseline or attempting to advance. This is especially true with a forehand poach. Your partner would probably have a lower return shot that is easier for your opponents to retrieve, or your partner may attempt a more difficult drop from the back of the court with a lower percentage probability of success (mostly for us intermediate players!).
3. It's Fun: And finally, you just love to "smash" that ball at the feet of your opponents as they scramble up to the kitchen line! Given that all the variables are lined up in your favour as above, and you are also good at driving that ball or dinking with a high probability of winning the point, go for it!!
So Is Poaching a Faux-Pas? In the alternative, most poaching happens when one partner is forward and the other is back. Otherwise if you are both properly ready at the kitchen line, I would suggest that it's "pure poaching" and not necessarily the best strategic return as it opens up the opposite court [Editor: this blog ignores forehand vs backhand priority on the center line - a future blog will discuss this additional consideration]. To poach, your partner has to cross the mid court line to your side to intercept/steal "your ball" before it gets to you, abandoning his/her side of the court temporarily. The downside is just that - they have to get back and cover that open space, or you "switch" sides and you cover perhaps leading to a situation where you are now in a difficult defensive rather than offensive stance! This is especially true if your partner's return is an easily returned half volley defensive shot to the side he/she is supposed to be protecting.
There are also players who make a habit of chasing cross-court returns of serve into the server’s side of centre (sometimes even forcing their partners to scramble to avoid them, therefore leaving both out of position) reaching to half-volley the 3rd shot on a ball bouncing nearer to their partner, and leaving their side of court attackable. Again, this blog does not address left vs right-handed or partner strength considerations - stay tuned.
Finally, everyone loves to be engaged in a rally and if your partner poaches too often, and in the worse case scenario misses the shots, then you may need to have an on-court Tête-à-tête or perhaps it will be gruel for dinner, or nothing!! Plus a weaker player will never improve if their partner always poaches.
Whatever the situation, it's really a matter of context. The main strategic agreement that you and your partner should have either before the match or decided during battle, is when and if, and by whom poaching should occur - additional communication shown by signals below. Your open hand poach signal at the kitchen would mean that your partner at the base line should stay back on their return encouraging a shot back to them, and you could then poach at the front for a winner.
There is no "ego" involved here especially at the recreational level as we all want to have equal fun, and you don't want your poaching to become a fun stealer not just a shot stealer! If a poach has a better chance of winning the point on behalf of the team, then it's fair game as far as I'm concerned and a "congratulations" to your partner is in order.
It's really all about the team and we should all encourage strategies that provide the best outcomes - to have fun and win sometimes❣
closed means fake or no poach