Competitive Strategy

In my last article, I discussed how to improve the quality of your lockpicking practice, which I developed primarily to help me prepare for the LockCon picking competition that year.

However, if you were thinking of participating in a lockpicking competition – Which I highly recommend to anyone with an intermediate level of lockpicking skill – Then you may want to give strategy some thought.


The need for a strategy

Picking against a clock and against opponents can be really tough. It’s definitely not the same environment as a cosy virtual lockpicking night, where people are chatting freely and the pressure is off. And that means that you’ve got to be picking as best you can.

If you’re not familiar with picking under stress, which I would imagine is the majority of the readership, then you’re probably going to make mistakes that you wouldn’t normally in a more relaxed environment. That’s simply a feature of competition and stress.

This means that remaining calm is hugely beneficial, but we’re not all able to simply dismiss the tension a competition creates. So, what I opted for, and what I recommend if you’re picking in a competition for the first time, is a strategy.


Developing a strategy

It’s important that whatever strategy you adopt, it works for you. I’m going to share my strategy with you, which I used at LockCon 2019 with some success. However, it’s not a perfect strategy, it’s just the first one I ever came up with, and I intended it to be basic. Adapt it based on what techniques work for you, which tools you have success with, how heavy handed you like to be on tension, and anything else that shapes the way you like to approach locks.

The first I learned about strategy in lockpicking competitions was from this video, by Schuyler Towne. It’s what first got me thinking about lockpicking competitions, and how best to approach them, and I highly recommend watching his video if you’re thinking of competing sometime.

I liked the idea of a cascade. It’s good psychologically, because it helps you stay calm when the pressure increases as your time runs down. It’s also useful because while some locks fall to certain methods very quickly, others just won’t open to those methods, and it’s important to be able to adapt. That said, I propose a much simpler approach than Schuyler, especially if it’s your first time.


Knowing the rules

In order to formulate an effective strategy and train with it, you need to know the rules of the competition that you’re entering. There’s no good ruling out methods that are open to you or practicing techniques you’re not allowed to use! So, read up on the restrictions. For example, at LockCon, pressing on the cam with your hand to apply tension is allowed. So try this method, and see it if works for you. I don’t personally like it, but I’ve seen pickers I admire and respect try this method from time to time. In fact, I’d use it myself if I had a lock that I found difficult to tension with my available tension tools.

The time limit is important for practicing against, especially if you’re using the system I advocated for in my last article. It’s also important to know what you need to do when you get your lock open, and whether or not you should remove your tools. Making it easy on the umpires is important, and will minimise any extra stress during the contest.

LockCon has a brutal first round. In this case, there were 65 entrants for the first round, fighting for just 12 places in the second round. We were split into tables of 11 (and one table of 10), and the top two on each table progress. Your score depends on the number of locks opened, so opening 10/11 locks beats 9/11 locks, even if you’re slower to open those 10 than your opponent who opened 9. If there’s a tie for a position, then the lowest cumulative time is used to determine who progresses.

Everyone is given a lock, and has 5 minutes to open their lock from the time they say “go”. You have a short time to set your lock in a vice, if you want to use one. You can also insert a tension tool ahead of time, but no picks can be inserted into the lock. After 5 minutes, you pass your lock on to the person next  to you, receiving a new lock from your other neighbor. This continues until everyone has attempted every lock once (60 minutes). Endurance matters!


My strategy

The strategy I adopted for LockCon 2019 was pretty simple. I knew that the quality of the locks wouldn’t be so high as to make raking useless, so I opted to start with my rakes. I only personally have much success with 2 rakes:

1. SouthOrd Slimline Triple Peak Rake (SLS-12)

2. SouthOrd Slimline City Style Rake (SLS-1)

So, these are the ones I start with. I find that there are a good variety of ways of using rakes, and so I give myself 30 seconds with each rake to get an open, generally varying tension from featherlight to medium.

If you need inspiration for new ways to try using your rakes, Christina Palmer has an excellent article covering it in greater detail than I’d ever be able to here.

An important detail to note is that binding order changes when you reverse the direction of tension. This can sometimes effect whether or not the lock will open, and so I gave myself 30 seconds per rake, per direction. After that, if I’ve got nothing, I give myself 3 minutes for single pin picking. For that my preferred tools are hooks of various depths picks, namely:

1. SouthOrd Slimline Small Deep Hook (SLS-06)

2. SouthOrd Slimline Offset Half Ball (SLS-10)

3. GOSO hook (???)

Yup, you read that correctly. There’s a GOSO hook in my competition set. Use what works for you!

For tension, I used the GOSO Z bar tensioner, which was a surprisingly good BoK tensioner for most of the locks I faced, and a custom bit of bent wiper insert which I’ve been using for years. It’s got a ToK end which is short and not quite bent at 90 degrees, and a BoK end with a 90 degree bend.

I also had a hobby vice to hold my locks in:

Hobby vice and lockpicks on a table with scoresheet
This was my simple setup. And to be clear, I was limited more by skill than by my tools!

And that’s it! Nice and simple.


So, how did it work out?

Well, for a first run, I wasn’t unhappy:

Zeefeene's score sheet
You can avoid jumbling your numbers at the beginning, if you know which details need recording, and how!

I opened 8/11 locks.

My fastest open was 3 seconds.

For the locks that I did get open, I averaged 1:14, which I was pretty happy with.

The one detail that I was really disappointed with, was the ISEO lock. Why? Well, let me explain. ISEO is a pretty common lock in the UK. It’s also a lock I’ve had experience with as a bench locksmith. And it’s a lock that I’ve picked many of. So, if there were ever a lock I’d want to come up in a competition, it would be an ISEO standard pin tumbler. I get great feedback from them, I always know which pin I’m on with them, and I know exactly how to bully the spools into place – even with the nastier bittings. But there was my downfall.

I don’t rake ISEO too often. I find it’s much better to get a quick false set, and then set the pins, since they give such nice counter rotation. So I raked this ISEO for about 3 seconds, and then got a false set. And that’s where I strayed. I ignored the plan. And instead, I reached for a hook pick. 3 and a half minutes later, it still wasn’t open, and I’d been getting more and more frustrated with it. Not a good position to be in, especially in competition. So, I reset it, and I picked up my rakes again. And it fell open in about 5 seconds of raking.



If I’d stuck to my plan, I’d have gotten it open in probably fewer than 20 seconds, and had much more time to luxuriate, my relaxed demeanor probably doing irreparable damage to the psyche of my opponents. But alas, this was not to be.

The moral of the story? I need to work on my discipline, and have faith in my strategy. And you should aim to do so too. Spend the time to develop a good strategy that works for you, and practice with it, and hopefully you’ll have greater success!

(And no, I didn’t make it to the second round. Someone on my table opened all of their locks, and I think two other people opened 10/11 from recollection. I was quite the ways from a top two place at my table)

Hopefully you enjoyed reading this article, and I hope it helps you out, or inspires you to try picking in a competition sometime! Thanks for reading!

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