‘I Keep Pinching Myself’ – Interview with World 9-ball Champion Darren Appleton

Darren Appleton

(Doha, Qatar)–I first met Darren Appleton back in 2007 before anyone in the pool world had ever heard of the Brit. I was covering the qualifiers for the 2007 World 9-ball Championship at the Star Billiards Center in Manila, Philippines, writing a daily blog for Matchroom Sport, the promoters of the event. The five day qualifiers for pool’s most prestigious tournament was one of those hard core affairs that simply makes you shake your head in awe. The talent level on hand trying for the slimmest of chances to make it to pool’s biggest stage was amazing. Players had to win seven straight race-to-9 matches to qualify. It was a grind filled with constant pressure.

Amidst the cacophony of billiard balls flying about and drama from tight matches, I started to notice a western player who seemed to have the goods.  Day after day Darren Appleton tried his hand at one of the qualifiers, but he kept coming up just short, losing in the finals, or the semi’s by the slimmest of margins. After seven tries he failed to make it to the big show.  But it wasn’t just Appleton’s near misses that got my attention—there were lots of players who fit into that category—it was his style of play.
Besides prodigious cueing talent, you could tell that this guy had something extra. He was a battler and fighter of the first order, the kind of guy who looked like he could out-work you with his mind on any given day.  Appleton oozed hard core and you just knew that defeat wouldn’t keep him down.
I was so impressed with his style of play that I featured him in my blog despite the fact that he didn’t even win a qualifier.  Maybe I’m a good judge of talent. Or maybe Appleton’s ability was simply so obvious.
Darren Appleton in Manila in 2007It turns out “Dynamite,” as he was known, was just then learning the game of American pool. He had dominated the world of English 8-ball for years. Although he never won a world championship in the discipline, he sat atop the rankings for 7 years.
Fed up with the politics of the sport, he quit English 8-ball in disgust in 2006 and vowed to try his hand at American pool. The IPT was about to start up and the massive paydays the fledgling 8-ball tour promised seemed like a natural segue for Appleton.
But his real foundation for success in American pool didn’t come until after he crashed out of those 2007 qualifiers in Manila. Appleton decided to stay on in Manila and immerse himself in the local money game scene. For three straight months, night after night, for hours on end, Appleton played the best of Manila’s pool scene, taking his lumps, but always learning and absorbing the knowledge that is unique to Filipino pool players
A year later Appleton started to see results of what had amounted to a pool apprenticeship. He won the very first World 10-ball Championship with a brilliant 13-10 win over Taiwan’s Wu Chia Ching. From there his list of wins has produced a resume that is nothing short of astounding; 2009 World Pool Masters; 2010 US Open 9-ball, World Team Championship with the winning England side, member of the winning Mosconi Cup Europe side; 2011 US Open 9-ball, Challenge of Champions, Mosconi Cup; 2012 World 9-ball Championship, Challenge of Champions, Mosconi Cup; 2013 World Games Gold Medal.
Having won nearly every major the sport can offer, Appleton has, in just six years, not only established himself as one of the greats of this era, but very arguably of any era in pool history.  That he will one day be in the Hall of Fame is an absolute given.
This week in blazing hot Doha, World Number 1 Appleton will try to defend the championship he won last June, with a surreal 13-12 finals win over China’s Li Hewen. Up 11-3, then 12-6, Appleton was cruising to the world title, only to see Li stage one of the sport’s greatest ever comebacks. Appleton took the last rack and the world title by the tip of his cue stick.
Near the end of August I caught up with the defending World 9-ball Champion in Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA. Allentown is my hometown and I was there visiting family. By coincidence, Appleton’s fiancé is from Allentown and he lives there when not touring the world playing pool.
Over the course of our interview it was clear that the super friendly Appleton has every intention of not relinquishing his title this week in Doha. He is coming into this year’s Championship in very good stroke. He recently took second in the World Straight Pool in New York. Before that he won the World Games gold medal in Columbia.
Considering his past successes, and the massive effort he puts in every time out, you can certainly expect Appleton to be hanging around when the business end of the tournament gets going in Doha.  Whether he wins or not is, of course, something that is up to the pool Gods.  But this is a player who doesn’t like to lose, who knows how to handle massive pressure, and has all the tools to make sure he stays in the winner’s circle for the foreseeable future.
TL: The World 9-ball starts in a few days, you are defending your title, tell us how you’re playing and your mental state going into the world championship?
DA: Winning last year I kept going from where I left off really. Except for one month after I won last year I was mentally drained and couldn’t make a ball. But I got myself together and have been doing really well recently. I just won the gold medal at the World Games. That was massive. And it takes a lot of pressure off knowing that I’ve won a major tournament already this year.
Recently I came in second at the World Straight Pool, where I broke the world record in the semi-final with a 200 ball run. So I’m hitting the ball pretty good. I’m looking forward to Doha. Mentally I’m in good shape. But you know in pool you never know. There is no guarantee. I’ve just got to play my game, hope I get a little bit of luck at the right time. But I feel confident I can do it again.
TL: Take us back to last year to the World 9-ball Championship. In the lead up to the final, how were you playing?  Did you feel like this was your year that you could do it?
DA: I said to my girlfriend before I went to the World 9-ball that I felt that this was my year because I was playing really well before the world championship last year. And I was hitting the ball as good as I ever hit it. And my preparation was really good.
In the tournament itself I had a pretty nice route to the last 16. There was only one match where I was sort of really pushed. I was down 9-6(in a race to 11) in the last 32 to a guy from New Zealand(Matthew Edwards) and he had beat Shane Van Boening earlier but I came back and beat him 11-10. But I played really good in that match and even though the guy was an unknown player he played like a monster. From there I felt that I had a good chance of winning. In 9-ball you’re always going to have that one match where you are going to just scrape by.
In the quarterfinal I played Ko Pin Yi who was playing really good that year. I had a really good win against him. Going into the semis I felt really confident. I beat Naoki Oi from Japan, a really talented player. I played really solid against him. I beat him 11-6.
TL: Let’s talk about the final. You’re up 11-3(vs. China’s Li Hewen) in a race to 13. You’re playing the match of your life, the kind of match every pool player dreams of when they dream of playing in a final of the World Championship. You were playing just like that. You were cruising. People were writing on Facebook, “congratulations to Darren Appleton, the new World Champion.”  Did you ever imagine being up 11-3, that that match would go down to one rack  for the world title?
DA: No. Obviously the first half of the match I played so well to get to 11-3. Then it’s more of a case that I’m just waiting for the finish line. I sort of got anxious to get the match over and done with, I was so far in front and I was playing so good. I sort of lost my concentration a little bit. I made a couple of mistakes from 11-3 to 12-6. I could have won the match 13-4 really. At 12-6 I miss a great chance to win 13-6, I snookered myself with just four easy balls on the table. And then from 12-7, the momentum changed, the roll of the balls, Li started playing really well, and I couldn’t get a shot after the break and then all of a sudden, it’s 12-10 and I’m thinking ‘uh-oh, this isn’t going like the way it should be going.’
Then you get in a state of mind that you start to panic a little bit, you start to get a bit anxious to get the opportunity to win the game. Then obviously the pressure builds up and builds up and then all of a sudden it’s 12-11 and he breaks and runs to go 12-12 and now you’re like in a bit of a daze and I’m thinking, ‘right, I’ve just got to keep my emotions together for one more rack.’  Obviously you’ve got a lot of demons out there because you’re out there on your own. And if I would’ve lost that match it would’ve taken a lot to get over that.
TL: Describe the pressure at 12-10 and tell us exactly what you were feeling in that panic state of mind.
DA: It’s difficult to explain unless you are in that situation. It’s like someone trying to choke you, they’ve got their foot on your throat and it’s difficult to get out of. You’ve got all the demons going through your head. It’s like a bad pressure feeling. There’s a good pressure feeling where if you’re playing well and you’re not making mistakes and the match is really close you feel good about your chances if you get the opportunity. But in my situation in that final, probably from 12-6 I lost the momentum, and the pressure kept building and building and my opponent has like nothing to lose and he doesn’t have any pressure. His feeling is like a good feeling pressure, whereas my pressure is turmoil.
TL: Was that the most pressure you’ve ever felt in a pool tournament?
DA: Yes because you’re playing the world 9-ball championship, the biggest event in the world to win. I mean there’s other big events, but the world 9-ball is the most prestigious I think. You’re obviously desperate to win because you might not get the opportunity again. And that was the thing I was thinking in my chair at 12-11 that I might not get this opportunity again and it would take a lot to get over it. Life is short really and you don’t want to pass these opportunities up. So at 12-12 I sort of found the mental strength to get over the line. The game at 12-12 I’ve never shaken so much in my life. My legs were shaking and my whole body is shaking with fear. But I kept telling myself, ‘I can’t miss, I can’t miss, I can’t miss.’ Luckily it worked out for me but my arms were really heavy. It’s difficult to control your emotions when you’re in that sort of situation. The emotions were crazy. Then in the last game I made the best clearance of my life. I made a great jump shot. I made a really good shot from the three to the five. Then obviously I made a great shot on the 7-ball to the black ball. Then played a good shot on the 8 to get to the 9. When I got to the 9-ball I was really happy and happy that I managed to just get over the line.
TL: What was that feeling like? You went wild, you broke your stick, you jumped up on the table and pumped your fist and shouted.
DA: Relief really. You’ve got a hill-hill situation and there is so much at stake. Not just the money, it’s the title and everything that comes along with it. You’re putting your name in history. Yeah, the emotions just take over and it’s like you’re in somebody else’s body. Maybe half an hour afterwards you feel drained emotionally and say to yourself, what did I just do?
The only thing that gets close to that with the emotions is the Mosconi Cup because you feed off the crowd, you feed off your teammates and both teams are desperate to win so it’s sort of like the same situation. Playing a hill-hill match in a major championship, the pressure doesn’t get any bigger. That’s what separates the great players from the really good players is that they are able to do it under pressure. Luckily my biggest strength is that I’m mentally strong. I can handle myself when the pressure is really on me. There’s a lot of great players out there that can’t handle that situation and they miss when they are under that sort of pressure. You can’t really teach that. You can’t teach someone how to make the balls when the pressure is really on. They have to really work on their mental side of the game.
TL: Does that come from practice, from repetition so you can rely on your strong fundamentals or is that something you are just born with?
DA: When the game was 12-12 I just kept saying to myself, ‘Keep your head still. Keep a really loose grip on my cue and they are the two most difficult things to do when you’re under pressure. You have to keep your fundamentals simple. A lot of people start panicking. They start playing too quick. So that’s the key. Just compose yourself a little bit more.
When you’re practicing it’s important to put in really good quality practicing, to put yourself under pressure in practice. When I was younger I used to just smash balls around the table. But when I got older I started putting more quality into my practice and not practicing as much. I used to practice 6 or 7 hours a day when I was younger, but now I only practice three hours a day but I make sure it’s good quality practice. So that’s what I try and tell kids when I’m coaching them to try and put quality in to the practice instead of just playing for the sake of it. And it’s important to try an train your mind for that pressure situation.
Obviously the experience of the battle scars is something. We all have battle scars where we lost by the odd game or we lose a tough match, or one that we never should have lost. And you’ve gotta live with it.
I think it’s very important to be true to yourself when you do lose and you do mistakes to lose and you admit the mistakes you made and you try and learn from that. There’s a lot of players when they lose matches, they come off and they say they played perfect. And I say, ‘yeah well I saw you miss like two or three balls.’ And they are saying they haven’t done anything wrong and they played perfect. And they are only lying to themselves. And you’re not going to learn things by not being true to yourself. That’s what a lot of players do wrong.
TL: You’re known as a hard core player. What makes you hardcore? Is that something that you developed through practice or you’ve always been like that as an individual.
DA: I hate losing. I’m probably one of the worst losers in the world. I’m not disrespectful to my opponent, I’m just very hard on myself. I just lost in the final of the World Straight Pool, for three days solid I’m thinking about what I could have done and what I should have done different. So when I’m in that situation again, I’ll make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes. So I think that’s my biggest strength. And also I come from a boxing background. I like the one-on-one situation. So when I’m up against an opponent, I like to have the mentality that I’m in a fight with them. Obviously not physically, but mentally. I think it’s important to try and beat your opponent mentally. It’s like in golf with Tiger Woods, he beats a lot of opponents mentally before they go out and play, especially in match play or the final round of a major. Players are fearful of him. If he’s hanging around the top of the leader board other players get weak.
It’s important to try and intimidate your opponent, in a nice way, but let him know who’s boss. Same with boxing, you want to try and get the mental edge, put some fear into your opponent, but of course being sporting about it.
TL: You’ve won just about everything except maybe the World Straight Pool. What do you hope to achieve in the next few years in pool.
DA: I’ve probably achieved my biggest goal of the year winning the world games. That was definitely on my number one list this year. I want to try and retain the World 9-ball Championship. To be able to go back to back would be really good. After that we have the World Cup of Pool in England and I’d like to do well in that. And as a country we haven’t really done well in the world cup of pool. This year I’m playing with Karl Boyes. He’s the guy I really want to play with the most so I think we have a good chance there. So after that the Mosconi Cup. I hope we can win the Mosconi Cup.
The two biggest things I’d like to win are, the World 8-ball Championship, and I’d like to finish the year number 1.
TL: You’ve won two US Opens, the World 10-ball, now the World 9-ball, you’ve been on several winning Mosconi Cups now. There are people talking about that you could perhaps be one of the greatest players of all time. What do you think? Do you think you could be considered to be one of the greatest players off all time?
DA: I sort of keep pinching myself. I didn’t start playing American pool until 2006 and I came from English 8-ball which is a completely different game. If you said to me in 2006 when I started playing American pool that seven years later I’d be sitting here now doing this interview with you looking back on all the things I’ve won, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’m sort of just going along with the ride and pinching myself and I look back it’s amazing what I’ve achieved. I don’t get into the side of it where I might be one of the greatest ever. I just keep playing and see what happens. If people want to say that, then that’s great. If one person says I’m the greatest ever, then that’s good enough for me. The way I look at it is that there are so many great players I don’t’ really look at myself that way. I just think that I can beat them. As long as I’m good enough to beat them then that’s the main thing for me.
To see the full video interview with Darren Appleton Please CLICK HERE