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Playing with Earl Strickland & Johnny Archer

Photo:  Rick Schmitz
Earl Strickland       Peer Landa     Johnny Archer

Although I did quite well in school as a kid, I was never a good student, i.e., 'good' as in quietly accepting everything that the teachers served us.  This might also relate to my distaste I had for authorities at the time — whether it was my teachers, parents, police, or any "high-horse" person that tried to impose on me — I had a hard time conforming and taking orders.

Well, back then, my billiards/pool instructors also had a hard time making me do their exercises.  To me it felt too militant as they forced us kids to practice 3-cushion, snooker and straight pool. They also rented a gym every Friday night for the obligatory workout — the idea was to get us in shape for the long tournaments.  Their instructions were so fierce that many of us just lost that fun factor of playing, and gave up — including myself.  However, my buddy somehow stuck with it and later won the 2007 team nationals (so I guess our instructors knew what they were doing).

So, fast forward to present time, now living on a different continent and in very different times and circumstances.  I'm a bit older but not necessarily much wiser, so I've again picked up this silly sport... and again let it consume my life.  Hence, I would jump on any chance to improve my game, which, admittedly, hasn't improved too much since I was a kid.  So when a once-in-a-lifetime super master pool school was offered, instructed by none other than two world champions, Earl Strickland and Johnny Archer, there was NO WAY I would pass on it.

My concern wasn't as much about the cost of the class or how far I had to travel, but more about how much one-on-one time I would possibly get with Earl and Archer.  But when the organizer, Mark Cantrill, more or less assured me that there wouldn't be more than 5-10 students, I instantly packed my cues and hopped in the roadster to head towards Phoenix, Arizona.

The next day, at noon, after 12 hours of driving, I stepped into Kolby's Corner Pocket in Tempe.  Johnny Archer was already there, drinking beer (well, Root Beer).  As soon as Mark introduced me, a pregnant conversation emerged between Archer and I.  Right away I could feel that this day was gonna be a great experience — Archer being very friendly and down to earth.

Not long after, Mr. Larger Than Life — Earl Strickland — walks in, just like a rockstar.  Right away he attracts all attention from everyone inside the poolhall.  Earl didn't wait long before unpacking his funky cue (sporting tennis racket wrap), taping his fingers and starting to warmup/perform on the front table.  Unfortunately it didn't take long until someone made fun of him miscuing, and Earl blew up: "I did not fly across the country just to get heckled."  Great, just fucking great — even before the class had started, someone had to set Earl off in a tirade.  Luckily that person wasn't part of the school, as I first feared.

When the class started, the final tally of students was just 6.  Hence, I was thinking about all the pool-players in this area who must have heard about the event, but yet choose to stay home... were they all idiots..?!

Anyways, the six of us got divided into two classes, three in each.  My fellow pupils were Little John and Garrick.  The three of us started off with Earl as our instructor.  The other three had Archer.  Two tables for each group.

The first thing Earl did was to examine our "equipment", and sure enough he found my cue quite curious.  For some reason, I decided to bring my 10mm John Parris snooker cue.  Anyone who knows me also knows that I have no filter between my little brain and my big mouth.  This, combined with a spontaneous mindset, has put me in quite a few ignominious situations.  And this day was no different, as I rhetorically asked Earl why he hates us Europeans.  Well, I might be exaggerating a bit, but it felt like everyone around me suddenly shied away, anticipating Earl punching my teeth out.  But instead of taking aim at me, he said "I don't know how you folks can play with those toothpicks, so where in Europe are you from?"  As I was getting ready to duck, I told him that I'm a Norwegian.  Earl cracked a smile and then told a funny story (at the expense of us Norwegians of course) about when he once played in Oslo.  It was hilarious, and also a very good icebreaker.  From there on I could tell that he and I would get along perfectly.  Actually, the entire time, Earl was very helpful and patient.

After talking a bit about cues, including pitching his custom made cue, Earl wanted to see each of us shoot a rack so he could determine what speed we played at.  First up was Little John who ran that rack like a pro.  Next was Garrick who also played as a champ.  As I watched them run the balls with ease, knowing that I was up next, I couldn't help feeling like it was my first day in school as a kid — waiting for my turn to stand up and tell who I am — something that always gave me the shakes.  And sure enough, when my turn was up,   So, of course, I nervously played like a nearsighted penguin on a ski jump, (I've never been good with metaphors).

Among the shot exercises Earl showed us were a fairly straightforward cut & throw shot for position.  However, it was interesting to discover that you couldn't actually see where Earl's tip hit the cueball — as he always seems to aim dead center but at the very moment the shot is fired, he applies the english.  It baffled me to a point where he let me stick my head between his arm and body to watch it really close up.  Yet, after repeating several monster stun shots, even from this angle, it was impossible to figure out where the cue actually hit the cueball.  It didn't help much that Earl couldn't explain this either.

To me, the highlight of Earl's session was his pattern play instructions, as this gave me some new ideas on how to run a table.  Having a world champion talking you through a rack as you shoot is certainly inspiring.

At one point Earl set up a very tight cut shot, carefully marked with chalk.  The purpose was to show that the only way to pocket a cut shot like this was to apply outside english.  After trying to make the shot, over and over again, Earl concluded that he must have set it up too tight.  Well, I started to argue that it would perhaps be easier (and more precise) to use no english but just focus on hitting it as thin as possible and very hard.  My fellow student Garrick agreed.  But when Earl insisted that there was no way to make this shot without outside english, to his dismay I stepped up and made the shot, with no english at all (and with my gnarly European snooker cue I may add).  Earl wasn't too happy.

This led to a discussion on what would be the safest way to pocket a long cut shot when no position play was required.  I would think a natural roll (e.g. center follow) would be the best shot.  Earl emphatically disagreed, telling us that we should always put outside english with some draw on all long cut shots.  Just as for the previous thin cut shot that he missed, I again argued that the more english you apply to a shot, the more factors are introduced that you somehow have to contend with.  Whether it's squirt, throw, or swerve, those factors will also be compounded by, for example, different table cloths, or from one set of balls to another, etc.  Earl, who actually complained quite a bit that the balls we used were too light, completely dismissed my reasoning and insisted that we should ALWAYS use english.

As an instructor, Earl wasn't very analytical but rather intuitive.  This was perhaps why I think the combination of Earl and Archer worked quite well, especially since Archer's approach was very systematic and precise — i.e, very different from Earl.  The only problem arose when there was some "de-learning" from one instructor to next.

The first thing Archer corrected was the high finger-tip bridge that Earl taught us.  He also adjusted the stance and shortened my bridge.

Archer is what I would call a good traditional instructor, being very perceptive to the different needs that each student has.  Archer was also more open to discussion and very responsive to my (often) inane questions — not only answering, but often rebutting me by setting up other scenarios related to my initial question.  Very helpful and comprehensive.  Besides, he's a funny fellow — very easy to get along with.  For instance, in the midst of watching me repeat some draw/position shots, he walked up and smacked my bridge hand with his cue.  Apparently, I forgot what he had earlier showed me — how important it is to keep my palm firmly planted on the table.

Another thing Archer helped me correct, was that I often looked around the table while I was getting ready to shoot.  This urged him to talk in length about how important it was to prepare your shot and make all decisions standing up.  Don't bend down until you are completely ready to shoot, and if any doubt arises, you should stand up again and rethink — never recalculate or adjust while in shooting position.  He also illustrated this by chalk-marking his bridge hand for a left-english shot, and then marking the same shot for right-english.  To no surprise, the discrepancy between the bridge-hand positions was staggering.

During the last portion of Archer's session, he had us pick any game of our choice and play one rack with him as he would tell us his thought-process while shooting.  Since the tables had quite wide pockets, I knew I could run an 8-ball rack on him, so I opted to lag for the break, that I won, which then set me up for a slow 2nd ball break shot.  So here I've been driving 1,600 miles to get lessons from the greatest of the greatest, and when I finally got to show off my 8-ball game, on the break I smacked the cueball straight off the rack into the corner pocket.  Yeah, nice going there, Peer.  So it was Archer who instead got to run the table — oh well — hell.  As soon as the ridicule had subsided, I instead persuaded Earl to make a video of us playing for his cue (as we had spoken about earlier that day).  At first he agreed, but as I was getting my camera ready, he chickened out.  He told me that I could still buy the cue and make a video of him signing it, but he didn't wanna risk a video of me beating him in a one-rack 8-ball game.  Well, no pacifiers were thrown... even if I beat him badly.

Although I could have written a short novel about this day, I still think I'll bag it here.  The omitted stuff we talked about during the class were mostly interwoven anecdotes from the Mosconi Cup, jump shots vs kick shots, Earl hand pressing his Elkmasters, etc, etc.  Even though some of the drills/instructions were less spectacular, I must emphasize that all-in-all it was a very inspiring event that I will most likely carry with me for the rest of my life — and hence, I was lucky that it was all captured by pro photographer Rick Schmitz. 

But most of all; many thanks to Earl Strickland and Johnny Archer for being so classy to do this, and special kudos to Mark Cantrill for arranging it all — I wouldn't mind a rinse and repeat. (By the way, hope your wife liked the wine.)  It was also fun meeting the notorious Jay Helfert. 

Other than that, here are a few things that I also learned from this trip:

1 - When my speedometer shows 148 mph, the GPS indicates that it's only 142 mph.

2 - An excessive amount of Starbucks ice-coffee can save me some motel overnighting.

3 - Sushi tastes best when shared with a hot Asian pool player.

— Peer Landa