Encounters with Earl

Saturday, November 10, 2007

earl_strickland_10 It seems everyone backstage at the World Pool Championship has a personal story to tell about the great Earl Strickland and his bizarre rants and raves. Earl’s always looking for a sympathetic ear in order to unload a litany of complaints about the world in general. If you’re a player, a guest, or working the event, it’s only a matter of time before you will stumble upon Earl and receive an earful about his sorry life, how he can’t win this tournament, he’s past his prime, the table conditions suck, the Taiwanese are hogging the practice tables, etc. Sometimes it’s Earl who corners people into listening. Most times, though, I believe it’s people who seek out Earl. We humans are easily entertained and the sights and sounds of a grown man in the stages of psychological meltdown seem to be especially appealing.

I always make sure to say hello to Earl when I see him at a tournament because, well, I actually like Earl. I’ve talked privately with him on many occasions and found him to be a nice guy. It’s obvious he’s troubled about the world so, in my feel sorry mode, I lend him an ear. Though I’m not sure if he really cares about me. I sense he simply wants to vent and rant on anyone within earshot and doesn’t care who’s standing in front of him. And truth be told, his tirades can be fun to listen to. For a few moments, anyway.

My encounter with Earl happened on day one just inside the south gate to the Araneta as players, guests, media and officials were waiting in a reasonably short security line.

“Hey Earl, how ya doin?,” I said when I saw him.

“Hey, good to see you,” he said shaking my hand.

“How’s everything?” I asked him, knowing that it wouldn’t be more than a few seconds before he would go off.

“Not good, not good,” he said.

“Why what’s the problem?”

“Well, I’ve got gall stones this big,” he shouted in that semi-angry, high-pitched whine of his as he held up his thumb and forefinger in a circle the size of a golf ball. “Do you know how hard it is to play with gall stones? I just got rid of one a few weeks ago and I have another one now. Man these things are painful. And my eyes are starting to go. I can’t see the balls anymore.”

As several other people gathered around to listen, I tried to give him a little friendly advice. “Come on Earl, get it together. You’ve got the talent. You can win this thing. Why don’t you just go out there and play and stop thinking so much?”

“I can’t,” he said loudly. “I got to earn a living.” He went on and on for a few more minutes. When I finally slipped off Earl had already turned his ire on the others standing nearby.

One conclusion going around is that Earl has lost it mentally, he’s nuts, he’s in total psychological meltdown, he needs professional help. The other conclusion from pool insiders is that Earl simply no longer has the ability to win at the highest levels of pool and that he uses this anger as a way to set up future losses, so he has ready made excuses.

Earl certainly makes it easy for people to conclude that he’s lost it. From the minute he showed up he didn’t seem to want to be here. His first few matches in the group stage offered clear evidence that he doesn’t seem to even care about pool anymore. In his first match he lost 9-1 on the main TV table and it was ugly. Throughout, Earl talked and cursed at himself, hung his head in his hands in utter disgust and glared at the audience about perceived sharking. He swatted at balls and often missed on purpose.

Earl had his usual share of bizarre gadgets with him. He started one match wearing a large bandage around his left arm. Later in another match, he took off the bandage, but then played a few racks with a jacket on. He wore a glove on both his right and left hand. He dressed like a street bum, with disheveled shirts that looked like something he bought off the rack at the local Goodwill store for the poor. (He changed his shirt three times on the day he played.) He played with something large tucked in his back pocket under his shirt which protruded out, which, somebody suggested, made him look like he had a tail.

But then came his late night match against Li He Wen of China on the TV table. A decent crowd stayed around and all were sure Earl was going down to defeat. Probably most stayed because they wanted to see a meltdown they were sure was coming. Earl didn’t disappoint. From the beginning he seemed to talk himself out of everything. At one point he didn’t like the layout of the balls and he swung his stick wildly, nearly hitting referee Nigel Reese in the head. A few racks later he did just that.

But then down 5-0, Earl found a gear. Using the soft break, he ran 9 straight racks, pocketing balls on the break, quickly potting the remaining balls and running out. He stopped the antics and just played. It was the Earl of old, showing all the fantastic and otherworldly skills that have put him in the hall of fame. He was absolutely fantastic. The crowd, which included several players, cheered him on, enthralled at witnessing a glimpse of the greatness he used to exhibit on a daily basis.

The win put Earl into the round of 64 and suddenly people were suggesting that if can hold his emotions in check, he could win this thing. Others who have known Earl for a long time said it wasn’t possible, that the demons would soon come calling, that he was a ticking time bomb, and it surely wouldn’t last through the week.

Earl did lose to Vietnam’s Luong Chi Dung in the round of 64. But those who saw his late-night victory over Li of China were witness to something special. A glimpse of the Earl Strickland of old. Yes he can still play. With Earl, though, you’ve got to enjoy it while you can.