Breakin’ Balls: WW intern learns from “The Pearl” and “The Scorpion”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

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

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.”