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August 20th, 2008 Kevin Stark | Featured Stories
 

Breakin’ Balls

WW intern learns from “The Pearl” and “The Scorpion” that he’s got a weak stick.

     
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BEHIND THE EIGHT-BALL: Pool legend Johnny Archer gives instructions to Dondi Bell at Sam’s Hollywood Billiards.
IMAGE: leahnash.com

Johnny “The Scorpion” Archer breaks an eight-ball rack like he is having savage, powerful sex. I break a rack like your baby sister.

Earl “The Pearl” Strickland is a five-time world champion billiards player and practices every day. I play a couple times a month and never without beer.

Among the estimated 270,000 members of the American Poolplayers Association, Archer and Strickland are legends. Together, they have won six U.S. Open Nine-ball Championships since 1984. In the late ’90s, Billiards Digest named Archer its Player of the Decade. And Strickland once won $1 million at a professional cuesports tournament. I’m a barroom hack lucky to make two balls in a row.

But I got to play recently with Archer and Strickland, who are traveling the West Coast giving four-hour pool lessons to players willing to shell out $200 a pop. They say they can dramatically improve my game in one lesson.

I’m skeptical. What can they do in four hours? WW sent me to find out.

Class was at Sam’s Hollywood Billiards in Northeast Portland, a pool hall gracious enough to pick up my $200 tab (consider things even with this mention). Even at 11 am, people other than the 12 of us here for lessons hover around the bar rail, their cigarette smoke wafting around the neon beer signs overhead.

There are no women is only one woman among the dozen students, which bar manager Jason Moore says is unusual because “pool is pretty universal.” We are split into two groups, getting two hours with each pro. My group gets Strickland first.

Strickland, 47, is not a good teacher. He reminds me of Will Ferrell’s film persona Ron Burgundy, if Burgundy played nine-ball. Strickland wears faded black pants, a golf polo and worn white sneakers. He has blond hair and a thin mustache. He tells us he will “fix our bridges.” Translation: He will adjust our anchor hands—the ones on the table.

After about 20 minutes, he concludes of my group: “You all cannot excel at this sport. You’re just not talented enough.”

Strickland and I clash. I botch my first few shots and he sends me to play at a corner table, a billiards timeout. As I practice alone, I hear him compare himself to Tiger Woods.

I quickly realize I am dealing with a rare breed of human, a narcissist with an affinity for verbal abuse. My favorite one-liner of the day: “My cue is like a Cadillac and y’all are driving Volkswagens.” Turning to me, he adds, “Your cue isn’t worth 10 cents.”

But, do I improve? After Strickland tires of my failing, he holds my left bridge hand in place. I make my first shot of the day—a tough corner-to-corner draw shot—to the applause of the group.

Strickland responds loudly, “He could never have made that shot were I not holding his hand.” Thanks, coach.

What I learned about pool in my two-hour lesson with Strickland: I should probably quit playing.

Fortunately, I still had two hours with Archer.

Archer, 40, is a tall man with a doughy beer belly and a sparse mustache that looks like soft grass His approach to teaching differs from Strickland’s. It’s human. He tweaks my fundamentals and repositions my stance, steadying my frame. He shows me how to shoot from my elbow and gently stroke the ball.

Amazingly, I begin to learn.

“See the feel,” he says, showing me how to stroke the cue. Yeah, right, see the feel, I think. Then I make the next few shots. Damn right, see the feel.

Archer is a great pool teacher, and I would have said the lesson was worth the $200. But then he had to go and do this:

The two of us are sitting with his friend and tour manager, Mark Cantrill, during lunch break by the bar downstairs.

Archer turns to me and says, “What is it with Portland women?” He is wearing a black T-shirt that says “The Scorpion” on the front and back, and he is drinking a Bud Light.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind hefty women, but I would say 95 percent of the girls in this town have bellies that are too close to the dinner table.”

“Careful, motherfucker, he’s writing a story on you,” says Cantrill.

“Think I give a fuck? What’s he gonna say, ‘Johnny don’t like hefty women?’”

Johnny don’t like hefty women.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This online story corrects an error in the original print version, which said there were no women in the author's class. WW regrets the error.

Video: How Johnny Archer breaks


FACT: According to the American Poolplayers Association’s Jason Bowman, about 1,000 of the Association’s estimated 270,000 amateur players for the are rated a skill level nine (the highest for nine-ball pool). Of those, only a handful play at the professional level of Archer and Strickland.
 
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