On Easter, I abandoned my family to join the faithful inside the Quarterhorse, a downtown Spokane watering hole on West Second.
There were about 75 of us, mostly male pilgrims drawn to this cigarette smoke-shrouded sanctuary to watch an affable young Southerner shoot pool.
Pool with a capital “P” and that rhymes with “E” and that stands for Earl.
Earl “The Pearl” Strickland, to be precise.
You don’t have to play pool to admire such a man. He may not be a household name, but in terms of possessing otherworldly skills, Earl is as impressive as Michael Jordan.
The men are about the same age. Both grew up in North Carolina. The only meaningful difference I can think of - besides fame, disparate bank accounts and shoe contracts - is that poor Mike owns only three world titles.
Earl has five. He is arguably the greatest living pool player, with an additional eight Masters titles, three U.S. Opens and five Player of the Year awards. Last year, he pocketed the World Nine-Ball Championship.
At 33, Earl has eased off his competitive throttle a bit to conduct exhibitions. “I call these wing shots,” announced Earl, who stood in front of an 8-foot pool table backlighted by glowing beer signs.
He then began rolling balls, one after another, down the middle of the felt. Before each ball reached the far cushion, Earl would hit another ball that would cut the moving target into a corner pocket. The effect was like watching an expert trapshooter blast clay pigeons.
“I shoot some tough shots,” remarked Earl, a trim, athletic man with boyish good looks.
He sank four balls at once. Then five. Then six. Jump shots. Cut shots. Draw shots.
He drilled the cue ball into the far cushion. It popped back at him through the air. He caught it with one hand.
Earl has toured China and Europe. That Spokane can bring such a talent here, even on Easter, shows how popular pool has become.
Some sour souls still think this game with the 15 numbered balls is the devil’s tool. But that seedy, FastEddy-the-hustler image has changed, said John Wenglewski. Nearly 2,000 players are involved in the Spokane league that Wenglewski oversees for the American Poolplayers Association.
Pool was a golden parachute for Earl. A way to bail out of a drab existence in Roseboro, N.C. “I was just a dumb farm boy croppin’ tobacco,” he said.
Then one day, little Earl walked into Carson’s Pool Hall. “I was a natural,” he said. “I just started knocking balls into holes.”
His victims dubbed him “The Pearl” after basketball legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
I myself shot quite a bit of pool while skipping classes in college.
Being a gentleman, Earl “The Pearl” accepted Spokane Doug’s challenge to a game of nine-ball. “You’re the world champ,” I reasoned. “So if I win, I’m the world champ.”
Nine-ball is a game in which balls one through nine are sunk in order. Whoever drains the nine wins.
I lucked a ball in off the break and then a couple of others. Guess who held the stick when it was time for the nine?
Instead of killing me off easy, Earl pointed to a corner pocket. He said he would sink the ball there.
After it had banked off five cushions.
On a level of difficulty, this is like Babe Ruth predicting his famous home run.
Earl struck the cue ball. It cracked into the nine. I could have gone out for a sandwich by the time it had finished ricocheting.
Ker-plop! It glided into the pocket exactly as predicted.
Earl pumped my hand. He asked if I had enjoyed our moment together. I told him I sure had, that I had learned a valuable lesson:
Never ever play pool against a guy with a nickname.
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